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Does competition create or kill jobs?

Klaus Tilmes's picture

Greater competition is crucial for creating better jobs, although there may be short term tradeoffs.

Job creation on a massive scale is crucial for sustainably ending extreme poverty and building shared prosperity in every economy. And robust and competitive markets are crucial for creating jobs. Yet the question of whether competition boosts or destroys jobs is one that policymakers often shy away from.

It was thus valuable to have that question as a central point of discussion for competition authorities and policymakers from almost 100 countries – from both developed and developing economies – who recently gathered in Paris for the 14th OECD Global Forum on Competition (GFC).

According to World Bank Group estimates the global economy must create 600 million new jobs by the year 2027 – with 90 percent of those jobs being created in the private sector – just to hold employment rates constant, given current demographic trends.
Yet the need goes further than simply the creation of jobs: to promote shared prosperity, one of the urgent priorities – for economies large and small – is the creation of better jobs. This is where competition policy can play a critical role.
Competition helps drive labor toward more productive employment: first, by improving firm-level productivity, and second, by driving the allocation of labor to more productive firms within an industry.
Moreover: Making markets more open to foreign competition drives labor to sectors with higher productivity – or, at least, with higher productivity growth. Making jobs more productive, in turn, generally increases the wages they command.
That’s in addition to cross-country evidence on the impact of competition policy on the growth of Total Factor Productivity and GDP, and the fact that growth tends not to occur without creating jobs. Thus there’s compelling evidence that – far from being a job killer, as skeptics might fear – competition (over the long term) has the potential to create both more jobs and better jobs.

The key question then becomes whether such long-term benefits must be achieved at the expense of short-term negative shocks to employment – especially in sectors of the economy that may experience sudden increases in the level of competition.
Progress toward better jobs is driven partly by the disappearance of low-productivity jobs, as well as the creation of more productive jobs in the short run. Competition encourages that dynamic through firm entry and exit, along with a reduction in “labor hoarding” in firms that have previously enjoyed strong market power.

A good diagnosis for the city economy?

Dmitry Sivaev's picture

One walks into a doctor’s office knowing what hurts but with little knowledge of what should be done to fix it. Identifying proper treatment requires sophisticated tests, participation of experts and, often, second opinions.

Cities, arguably, are as complicated as human bodies. Our knowledge of diagnosing cities, however, is far less advanced than in human biology and medicine.  Most mayors know very clearly what they want for their cities – jobs, economic growth, high incomes and a good quality of life for the people. But it is very difficult to identify what prevents private-sector firms, the agents that create jobs and provide incomes, from growing and delivering these benefits to a city. And we have no X-ray machine to aid in the effort.
As a part of the World Bank Group's Competitive Cities project, we thought hard about ways to help cities identify the roots of their problems and design interventions to address them. We set out on a journey to put together methodologies and guidelines for cities that want to figure out what they can do to help firms thrive and create jobs.  We learned from our own experience of working with cities, and from other urban practitioners. We reviewed many methodological and appraisal materials, and we trial-tested our ideas.

So what have we achieved? We certainly didn’t invent an X-ray machine, but we have developed “Growth Pathways” – a methodology and a decision-support system to help guide cities and practitioners through diagnostic exercises.

Competitive Cities: Bucaramanga, Colombia – An Andean Achiever

Z. Joe Kulenovic's picture

Modern business facilities, tourist attractions, and an expanding skyline: Bucaramanga, Colombia. 

When the World Bank’s Competitive Cities team set out to analyze what some of the world’s most successful cities have done to spur economic growth and job creation, the first one we visited was Bucaramanga, capital of Colombia’s Santander Department. Nestled in the country’s rugged Eastern Cordillera, landlocked and without railroad links, this metropolitan area of just over 1 million people has consistently had one of Latin America’s best-performing economies. Bucaramanga, with Colombia’s lowest unemployment rate and with per capita income at 170 percent of the national average, is on the threshold of attaining high-income status as defined by the World Bank.  

Bucaramanga and its surrounding region are rife with contrasts. On the one hand, it has a relatively less export-intensive economy and higher rates of informal business establishments and workers than Colombia as a whole. Indeed, informality has often been cited as a key constraint to firms’ ability to access support programs and to scale up. On the other, Santander’s rates of poverty and income inequality, and its gender gap in labor-force participation, are all better than the national average, and it has consistently led the country on a number of measures of economic growth, including aggregate output, job creation and consumption.   
But the numbers tell only part of the story. A qualitative transformation of Bucaramanga’s economy is under way. Once dominated by lower-value-added industries like clothing, footwear and poultry production, the city is now home to knowledge-intensive activities such as precision manufacturing, logistics, biomedical, R&D labs and business process outsourcing, as well as an ascendant tourism sector. Meanwhile, Santander’s oil industry, long a major employer in the region, has been a catalyst for developing and commercializing innovative technologies, rather than just drilling for, refining and shipping petroleum.

All these achievements are neither random nor accidental: They are the result of local stakeholders successfully working together to respond to the challenges of globalization and external competitive pressures.

Making cities competitive – What will it take?

Megha Mukim's picture

Cities are the future. They are where people live and work. They are where growth happens and where innovation takes place. But they are also poles of poverty and, much too often, centers of unemployment.

How can we unleash the potential of cities? How do we make them more competitive? These are urgent questions. Questions, as it turns out, with complex answers – that could potentially have huge returns for job creation and poverty reduction.

Cities vary enormously when it comes to their economic performance. While 72 percent of cities grow faster than their countries, these benefits do not happen uniformly across all cities. The top 10 percent of cities increase GDP almost three times more than the remaining 90 percent. They create jobs four to five times faster. Their residents enjoy higher incomes and productivity, and they are magnets for external investment.
We’re not just talking about the “household names”among global cities: Competitive cities are often secondary cities, many of them exhibiting success amidst adversity – some landlocked and in lagging regions within their countries. For instance, Saltillo (Mexico), Meknes (Morocco), Coimbatore (India), Gaziantep (Turkey), Bucaramanga (Colombia), and Onitsha (Nigeria) are a few examples of cities that have been competitive in the last decade.
So how do cities become competitive? We define competitive cities as those that successfully help firms and industries create jobs, raise productivity and increase the incomes of citizens. A team at the World Bank Group spent the last 18 months investigating, creating and updating our knowledge base for the benefit of WBG’s clients. In our forthcoming report, “Competitive Cities for Jobs and Growth,”* we find that the recipe includes several basic ingredients.

In the long term, cities moving up the income ladder will transform their economies, changing from “market towns” to “production centers” to “financial and creative centers,” increasing efficiencies and productivity at each stage. But economic data clearly shows there are large gains to be had even without full-scale economic transformation: Cities can move from $2,500 to $20,000 in per capita income while still remaining a “production center.”  In such cases, cities become more competitive at what they already do, finding niche products and markets in tradable goods and services. Competitive cities are those that manage to attract new firms and investors, while still nurturing established businesses and longtime residents. 
What sort of policies do competitive cities use? We find that leading cities focus their energies on leveraging both economy-wide and sector-specific policies. In practice, we see how successful cities create a favorable business climate and target individual sectors for pro-active economic development initiatives. They use a combination of policies focused on cross-cutting issues such as land, capital markets and infrastructure, while not losing focus on the needs of different industries and firms. The crucial factor is consultation, collaboration and partnerships with the private sector. In fact, success also involves building coalitions for growth with neighbors and other tiers of government.

To meet the jobs challenge, maximize the impact of SMEs

Klaus Tilmes's picture

The urgent challenge of generating jobs and incomes – as the world’s working-age population is poised to soar – will require making the most of all the job-creating energies of the private sector and the strategy-setting skill of the public sector. Today in Ankara, Turkey, the World Bank Group renewed its commitment to strengthen the global economy’s most promising and inclusive source of job creation: small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

At a signing ceremony at the B20 conference of global business leaders – coinciding with the G20 forum of government leaders from the world’s largest economies – the Bank Group joined in a partnership with a new organization promoted by the B20: the World SME Forum (WSF), which is to become the global platform to coordinate practical assistance and policy support for SMEs.

Based in İstanbul, WSF has been founded through a partnership between the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), and ICC’s World Chambers Federation.

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim – in Ankara, Turkey, on September 4, 2015 – signs a Memorandum of Understanding to confirm the Bank Group's partnership with the World SME Forum. Also signing the document, along with President Kim, is Rifat Hisarciklioglu, the Chairman of B20 Turkey and the President of TOBB (the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey).

SMEs are a vital engine of innovation and entrepreneurship, and the success of the SME sector is central to every country’s prospects for job creation and economic growth. Providing support for SMEs is a fundamental priority for the World Bank Group, as we pursue our global goals of eradicating extreme poverty by the year 2030 and boosting shared prosperity.

SMEs are crucial to every economy: They provide as much as two-thirds of all employment, according to a recent survey of 104 countries – and, in the 85 countries that showed positive net job creation, the smallest-size enterprises accounted for more than half of total net new jobs.

Activist strategies to sharpen economies' competitive edge: When Bernanke & Company speaks, policymakers listen

Christopher Colford's picture

So much for the myth that Washington empties out during the month of August. A standing-room-only throng flocked to a Monday-morning Brookings Institution seminar this week featuring a relative newcomer to the think-tank communityBen S. Bernanke, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System. His wide-ranging and nuanced analysis – with all the gravitas that he once brought to his graduate economics seminars at Princeton – explored not just Brookings’ main topic of the day (“The Defense Economy and American Prosperity”) but also such subjects as macroeconomic management, the gradual recovery from the Great Recession, and lawmakers’ need to avoid hasty budget-cutting that would damage vital investment in long-term priorities. Offering some of the wit of his new blog for Brookings, Bernanke’s whirlwind analysis whetted Washingtonians’ appetite for the October 4 publication of his latest book, “The Courage To Act.”

The economic impact of U.S. military spending was the focus of Monday’s seminar, chaired by Brookings defense-policy scholar Michael O’Hanlon – but an additional, broader theme was unmistakable throughout the discussion. The competitiveness of every economy is shaped by its ability to make sustained investments in productivity-enhancing technologies – and, as the panelists explored within the context of the U.S. economy, R&D-intensive industries (whether military or civilian) have been on the leading edge of innovation, patenting, productivity growth and job creation.

Competitiveness is the holy grail of economic policymakers everywhere – and activist strategies can help every economy hone its competitive edge. For both theorists and practitioners in development, working with economies large or small, the Brookings panel’s focus on pursuing far-sighted and pro-active investment strategies holds implications for every country’s competitive positioning.

An investment ecosystem: Piecing together the interventions needed for a dynamic textile and apparel cluster in Kenya

Aref Adamali's picture
For businesses and policymakers involved in Africa’s textile and apparel sector, 2001 is often seen as a watershed year, when new export opportunities opened up for African firms after the United States’ enactment of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). That new law gave African firms duty-free, quota-free access to the U.S. market.
An initial boom for Kenya – which experienced 44% growth per year up to 2005 – was followed by stagnation, exposing dangerous weaknesses in the sector’s pattern of growth. Too much of it was based on the largesse of U.S. policymakers, as opposed to the competitiveness of Kenya’s economy and the firms within it.
Competitiveness challenges
Where do some of the ruptures in Kenya’s textile and apparel competitive framework occur? Our survey of the sector revealed some interesting data on the challenges faced in both the investment climate and at the firm level: the two dimensions – the public/macro and private/micro – that together form the building blocks of sector competitiveness.
Power is clearly an issue across Sub-Saharan Africa – where investors quip that investing in Africa is a “bring your own infrastructure” invitation. Kenya is no exception to that pattern. The government is actively addressing this issue, and the cost of power is coming down from levels of about 22 cents per kilowatt hour. However, it will take a while to come down to the level that China new enjoys, of between 5 and 7 cents per kwh. This is a problem for both textile and apparel firms, but textile firms feel the impact most acutely: Power accounts for about 25 percent of their operating costs. Part of the issue is that some firms in the sector are running on machines that are as much as 38 years old, so they consume a great deal of electricity by comparison to more up-to-date equipment.
Wages are higher in Kenya than in many competing countries. The ratio of the minimum wage to value added per worker is .92 in Kenya, compared to .53 in Lesotho and .36 in Bangladesh.  “A race to the bottom” on wages is not a competition that Kenya wants to enter, yet the issue of productivity remains a major issue In a world where “fast fashion” buyers like Inditex of Spain, which has an army of more than 300 designers in its headquarters, are capable of delivering a new design to its thousands of stores in under two weeks, supplier productivity is all-important. Kenyan firms sometimes grapple with changeover times of just two weeks.
This all boils down to product-level cost competitiveness issues. Consider a pair of women’s jeans, comparing Kenya to Cambodia. The two countries have about the same cost for fabric – but, beyond that factor, Cambodia begins notching up cost advantages along each step of the production process: Its costs are 16 cents less on trim, 5 cents on cut and make, 15 cents on local transport, and so on. So by the time the two countries’ products arrive in the United States, the Kenyan pair of jeans is almost 50 cents more expensive than the Cambodian pair. It is only able to compete in the marketplace because of the $1.21 tariff on the Cambodian good.

Source: Kenya's National AGOA Strategy blog:

'Mission-oriented' strategies to invest in innovation: Competitiveness via an enterprising public sector

Christopher Colford's picture
Mariana Mazzucato on "The Entrepreneurial State"

“This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” That quip sprang readily to mind this week – it was coined in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, when he welcomed a group of Nobel laureates to the White House – at a paradigm-shifting, synapse-snapping seminar featuring Prof. Mariana Mazzucato and other leading economics scholars, who convened for a think-tank symposium on innovation policy and competitiveness strategy.

The ideal of innovative, inclusive, green and sustainable economic growth is achievable, Mazzucato explained to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation – if policymakers and private-sector firms recognize that a dynamic economy requires a “mission-oriented” approach to driving technological innovation. An acclaimed economist at the University of Sussex – and the author of, among other works,“The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths” – Mazzucato is inspiring an increasingly wide-ranging debate over how to create higher-quality jobs in higher-value industries by sharpening economies’ competitiveness.

An essential driver of creativity is “the innovative state,” as Mazzucato recently detailed in an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs – through disciplined, deliberate public-sector investment, not just in basic research, but in risk-taking ventures as a key stimulant to economy-wide growth. That requires a forthright embrace of the public sector’s ability – and responsibility – to “actively shape and create markets, not just fix market failures.”

With a frisson of what one panelist called “the goosebump factor” enlivening the ITIF seminar – which was moderated by another top scholar of innovation and competitiveness, ITIF’s Rob Atkinson – the think-tank crowd heard Mazzucato outline the need for public-sector agencies to be, not just an occasional partner of private-sector firms, but a persistent driver of investment in leading-edge industries.

Industrial policy is finally back on the agenda,” Mazzucato asserted at the start of her ITIF remarks. Yet her vision of a competitiveness-minded public sector promoting a modernized version of industrial policy goes far beyond the long-ago experiments in heavy-handed planning that many free-market fundamentalists – forever in thrall to Thatcherism – still enjoy deriding as doomed attempts to “pick winners and losers.” Political Washington’s stale bickering over such a frozen-in-time caricature of industrial policy has long since been eclipsed, among economics scholars and practitioners, by the imaginative approaches of Mazzucato and others to energizing “the entrepreneurial state.”

Focusing the debate on the many pro-active instruments that the public sector can assert to help channel investment into innovation, Mazzucato hurled the defeatist “picking winners and losers” accusation back at the laissez-faire fatalists: “The question is not whether we should ‘pick’ but how.”

“The ‘entrepreneurial’ state, to me, means the state being willing and able to take on risk, to take on real fundamental uncertainty,” Mazzucato recently told The Financial Times. An enterprising public sector has often proven far more venturesome than short-term-focused private-sector firms, which often shy away from higher-risk, higher-reward investments that might diminish their next quarter's profits.   

“Venture capitalists themselves often enter [the innovation process] late in the game. In biotechnology, they actually came in after the state had made some of the most radical, revolutionary investments – which, after all, will often fail,” said Mazzucato. “And this is a very important point. Innovation is uncertain. It will often fail. So you need to make sure that the government budget can also fund some of the failures, cover the losses, as well as reap the return from some of the successes to fund the next round” of investments in innovation.

In his enthusiastic review of Mazzucato’s book, economics sage Martin Wolf of the Financial Times noted that energetic public-sector investment in innovation – and the abdication by private-sector firms of their oft-bragged-about, seldom-fulfilled role as bold risk-takers – has led to a “free-rider” problem that distorts incentives.

“Government has increasingly accepted that it funds the risks, while the private sector reaps the rewards,” wrote Wolf. “What is emerging, then, is not a truly symbiotic ecosystem of innovation, but a parasitic one, in which the most loss-making elements are socialised, while the profitmaking ones are largely privatised.” Neoclassical purists' continued scorn for the positive role of innovation-minded public-sector investment, Wolf reasoned, may be “the greatest threat to rising prosperity” in austerity-pinched Western economies.

Mazzucato’s analysis at ITIF reminded economy-watchers of how far the innovation-policy discussion has advanced, even as laissez-faire dogmatists belabor their weary bromides about the supposed taboo against “picking winners and losers.” Propelling a more nuanced vision of competitiveness strategy, as an improvement on earlier approaches to industrial policy, this week’s ITIF seminar advanced an enterprising agenda that Washington should weigh more often – analyzing not whether, but how, the public sector and the private sector can share the responsibility of crafting pro-growth policies and pro-jobs initiatives sans frontières. Meeting that challenge will require a paradigm-changing determination to champion an entrepreneurial public sector as a positive catalyst for creativity.

Mazzucato: "Value Creation" -- Dynamic Role for Government


Piggybanks for plunder: Corrupt cash flows to Global Cities, requiring transparency and complete disclosure of assets

Christopher Colford's picture

Corrupt cash from secretive international sources – deliberately funneled through ‘shell companies’ to conceal the money’s illicit origins – is often used to buy ‘Towers of Secrecy’ in leading global cities like New York, as documented by a recent New York Times investigation.

Cities exert a magnetism that’s irresistible – attracting not just the most ambitious who seek economic opportunity and the most creative who revel in cultural richness, but also lawbreakers and looters: notably nowadays, the corrupt kleptocrats and tax-avoiding oligarchs whose hot money increasingly flows into the safe haven of prime real estate in the world’s leading cities.

At least part of the trend toward soaring center-city property prices, according to many anticorruption monitors, is due to the impact of illicit financial flows. It’s not just the plutocratic One Percenters who are steadily bidding up real-estate valuesPlunderers and profiteers – often concealing their identities, with the aim of shielding their wealth from tax authorities and international asset-trackers – use prestigious parcels of center-city property as a piggybank to shelter their tainted lucre.

The most vibrant and most competitive of Global Cities – notably London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore – have long been magnets for money, luring the world’s most enterprising entrepreneurs as well as its most desperate refugees. As their global vocation and vitality have lured the ambitious and the avaricious, however, the “priced out of Paris” syndrome has often taken over: Gentrification has morphed into “plutocratization,” notes Simon Kuper of The Financial Times, with “global cities turning into vast gated communities where the One Percent reproduces itself.”

Meanwhile, “the middle classes and small companies [are] falling victim to class-cleansing," Kuper asserts. "Global cities are becoming patrician ghettos” – with the middle class and the poor being driven ever-further out from the center-city in search of affordable housing, doomed to interminable commutes to sterile suburbs or brooding banlieues.

Most of the property price spiral in world-leading cities is surely attributable to the allure of cosmopolitan life in an age when urbanization is accelerating worldwide. But as two members of the World Bank Group’s unit on Financial Market Integrity (FMI) and the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative recently wrote in a StAR blog post, the melt-up of prime property prices often involves corrupt money and evasive property-registration practices.

Citing a recent New York Times investigative series that meticulously documented suspicious practices within Manhattan real-estate trends, FMI specialists Ivana Rossi and Laura Pop noted that the property-buyers “took several steps to hide their identity as the real owners of the properties. Some of these steps involved buying condos through trusts, limited liability companies or other entities that shielded their names. Such tactics made it very hard to identify the 'beneficial owner': to figure out who owned what, or who was the ultimate controller of a company (or other legal entities) since the names were not shown in the company records.”

Vast sums are flowing unchecked around the world as never before – whether motivated by corruption, tax avoidance or investment strategy, and enabled by an ever-more-borderless economy and a proliferation of ways to move and hide assets,” said the painstaking New York Times investigation, "Towers of Secrecy," by Louise Story and Stephanie Saul.

Probing “the workings of an opaque economy for global wealth,” the reporters excavated the substrata of this enduring scandal. “Lacking incentive or legal obligation to identify the sources of money, an entire chain of people involved in high-end real-estate sales – lawyers, accountants, title brokers, escrow agents, real-estate agents, condo boards and building workers – often operate with blinders on.”

In a moment of inadvertent self-revelation, a Manhattan real-estate broker confessed her look-the-other-way negligence “when vetting buyers: ‘They have to have the money. Other than that, that’s it. That’s all we need.’ ” A former executive of a property-development firm was equally blunt: “You pretty much go by financial capacity. Can they afford it? They sign the contract, they put their money down with no contingency, and they close. They have to show the money, and that is it. I don’t think you will find a single new developer where it’s different.”

No wonder that the upper reaches of the U.S. real-estate market are “more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous,” the Times analysis found. “For all the concerns of law-enforcement officials that ‘shell companies’ can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.”      

The Times’ discoveries, asserted Rossi and Pop, thus underscore the important issues involved in asset disclosure and "beneficial ownership” rules. Many nations require that public officials fully disclose their financial holdings. Such transparency is one important safeguard against the plundering of public wealth by kleptocrats, corrupt clans or well-connected cronies in countries that are vulnerable to chronic larceny.

Yet some dishonest public officials exploit legal loopholes – or flout the law entirely: “As the StAR publication ‘Puppet Masters’ demonstrated, those that do engage in corrupt activities are likely to use entities such as companies, foundations and trusts to hide their ill-gotten wealth,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “These conclusions are also confirmed by a recent Transparency International UK report. It showed that 75 percent of UK properties in the UK, under criminal investigation since 2004 – as the suspected proceeds of corruption – made use of offshore corporate secrecy to hide the owner’s identities.”

Drawing on a new World Bank Group report (which they co-authored with Francesco Clementucci and Lina Sawaqed), “Using Asset Disclosure for Identifying Politically Exposed Persons,” Rossi and Pop argued that accurate and complete financial disclosure by officials in positions of public trust (known in the financial-integrity world as “Politically Exposed Persons”) are an essential safeguard against the diversion of assets. Such disclosures, by themselves, don’t provide a “magic bullet” solution to prevent corruption, yet they are a vital mechanism in building transparency and trust.

“Once there is an ongoing investigation, the information declared can be very helpful as evidence, both in what has been included as well as omitted,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “In many countries, intentionally leaving out information on a house or a bank account carries serious penalties. Furthermore, financial disclosures can help catch a dishonest public official whose lavish lifestyle – including real estate in a prized location – could not be supported by the resources, such as a public-sector salary, indicated in the declaration.” The key factor in ensuring integrity and combating corruption is thus the full disclosure of “beneficial ownership.”

Property prices in Global Cities are already being propelled upward by the gusher of money that is flooding, through fully legal channels, into the world’s most desirable and stable locations – thus threatening to put affordable housing, in many major cities, beyond the reach of all but the fortunate few. The last thing that already-unaffordable cities need is an unchecked flood of illicit billions and furtive real-estate transactions, which will only intensify the pressure that now threatens to create a renewed boom-and-bust cycle of unstable housing prices.

Urban advocates who are working to promote inclusive, sustainable, resilient and competitive cities will applaud the continued vigilance of asset-trackers and corruption-hunters – like the FMI and StAR units, through their work sans frontières
on the disclosure of beneficial ownership – whose efforts to halt illicit financial flows will provide an additional instrument to help ensure that cities will be as inclusive as possible in a relentlessly urbanizing age.


#TakeOn Corruption

The Specter Haunting Davos – Piketty as ‘Banquo’s Ghost’: Reforming 'the Mercenary Society' via an Energetic Agenda

Christopher Colford's picture

Metaphor of the month, via a deft dispatch from Davos: Thomas “Piketty was not in attendance this year – which was like putting on ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince” of Denmark, quipped Larry Elliott, the economics editor of The Guardian, as he needled ostentatious Davos-goers for only half-heartedly living up to the Davos dictum  of being “ ‘committed to improving the state of the world,’ provided nothing much changes.” 

Let’s shift the Shakespearean citation slightly, from “Hamlet” to “Macbeth”: Like Banquo’s ghost, the specter of Piketty’s analysis of inequality and injustice seemed to haunt many private-sector leaders at Davos this year – and thus the scholar from the Paris School of Economics didn’t need to be present in order to have a powerful impact at this year’s World Economic Forum.

Amid last week's self-exculpatory denialism from the unrepentant-oligarch wing of the Davos Man culture, one could almost hear the apologists for plutocracy and the free-market fatalists joining the conscience-stricken Macbeth in shrieking to Banquo's implacable apparition: “Thou canst not say I did it! Never shake thy gory locks at me!

The Davos 2015 parade of plutocrats may have been worth all the time and trouble, after all – despite its customary spectacles of self-indulgence – if the pageantry helped pique the conscience of some of the One Percenters and their courtiers, at least momentarily. “Most of the conversations between chief executives here are about Piketty-type issues. They talk about things [at Davos that] they wouldn’t be talking about back in the boardroom,” one eminent corporate leader told Elliott of The Guardian. Piketty-inspired concerns about inequality – along with fears of chronic economic stagnation and an irretrievably despoiled planetseem likely to inform this year’s top-level global policy forums, from Addis Ababa in July to the United Nations in September to Paris in December.
Signaling that many private-sector leaders have been awoken by, and are responding to, Piketty's landmark analysis of the intensifying concentration of capital in ever-fewer hands – which is provoking a more rigid stratification of society along hardening lines of social class – the World Economic Forum itself set the stage for Davos 2015 by publishing a 14-point agenda for promoting more inclusive growth. That analysis, searching for constructive solutions, is certainly a welcome contribution to the debate. Yet Piketty’s analysis of the widening gaps between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else – with Davos as perhaps an inadvertent self-parody of the cocooned Uber One Percent – suggests that there’s scant hope for mending a torn society unless policymakers enact policy changes on a vast scale: by (among other priorities) adopting greater progressivity in tax rates and enforcing a crackdown on cross-border tax evasion.

(An aside, regarding those who quibble with a point of Piketty-era terminology – and those who have attempted, and have conspicuously failed, to refute Piketty’s logic. Using a chicken-and-egg argument, some theorists lament the Piketty-inspired focus on the term “inequality,” insisting that inequality may be the outgrowth of, rather than the cause of, economic stagnation and social stratification. Fair enough. Yet such casuistry dwells on a distinction without a practical difference. Enacting pro-growth programs to avoid “secular stagnation” would surely be wise policymaking. Yet no serious plan would envision going back to a pre-2008-style “GDP growth at any cost” approach. The global financial crisis of 2008 revealed the recklessness of simplistic gun-the-engine, GDP-uber-alles policies that produce merely unsustainable, low-quality growthToday’s pragmatists, instead, champion a more inclusive economy that eases social divisions and sustains broader opportunity – promoting what the World Bank Group calls “shared prosperity.”)

Judging by Piketty’s esteem among Davos 2015 participants, most leaders of the private sector – all but a recalcitrant few, some of whom dwell on the free-market fundamentalist fringe – have evidently gotten the message (at last): Chronic inequality and stifled social mobility have reached a socially intolerable and perhaps politically destabilizing intensity. Yet if all but an eccentric remnant in the private sector “get it,” do public-sector policymakers – many of whom seem ever-eager to do the bidding of the most self-aggrandizing monied interests? The Davos-style ideal of “capitalism for the long term” is motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” yet many boardrooms – and those politicians who are forever at their beck and call – apparently need still more enlightenment and less self-interest.

Charting the next steps beyond Piketty's “Capital in the Twenty-First Century" – advancing from academic analysis to social action – will be the next order of business in 2015, a year with parliamentary elections in several pivotal countries. Just in time for the post-Davos and pre-election season, a newly published book seems poised to pick up where Piketty left off: emphasizing that society needs a healthier balance between private-sector dynamism and public-sector activism, undergirded by a humane sense that an economy with truly shared prosperity should prioritize social fairness.

With their appetites whetted by early excerpts published this week in The Observer, many admirers of Piketty will be eager to read “How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country” by Will Hutton, the principal of Hertford College, Oxford. Hutton – for all his gloom about the injustices inflicted on his native United Kingdom over the past 35 years – advances an optimistic agenda that might show the way toward correcting decades’ worth of policy errors.

“Inequality has become a challenge to us as moral beings,” declares Hutton, reinforcing Piketty’s view of a society starkly stratified by social class. A callousness toward social divisions has spilled over from the economic realm into political decision-making, resulting in an “amoral deficit of integrity” – and Hutton is not shy about pointing to a specific turning point, or about naming a specific name.

“Ever since [Margaret] Thatcher’s election in 1979, Britain’s elites have relegated concerns about inequality below the existential question of how to restore our capitalist economy to economic health, a matter deemed to transcend all other considerations,” writes Hutton. “The language of the socioeconomic landscape has been commanded by words like efficiency, productivity, wealth generation, aspiration, entrepreneur, pro-business and incentives. To the extent they are significant at all, preoccupations with inequality have been seen as of second-order importance.”

The “raw trends” of the weakened power of wage-earners and the strengthened dominance of capital-owners – the outgrowth of Piketty’s iconic formula, r>g – “are then exacerbated by the reduction of taxation on capital, companies and higher earners in the name of promoting incentives and 'wealth generation.' " No wonder, Hutton asserts, that the United Kingdom has suffered “a stunning increase in inequality, the fastest in the OECD.”

Readers who were drawn to Piketty’s logic – yet who were left by "Capital" with a despairing feeling of “where do we go from here?” – are likely to warm to Hutton’s work, which extends the logic of his influential 1995 analysis, “The State We’re In.”

“Indifference to the growing gap between rich and poor, in all its multiple dimensions, is the first-order-category mistake of our times," warns Hutton. "No lasting solution to the socioeconomic crisis through which we are living is possible without addressing it.”

Recalling his years of energetic columns in The Guardian and The Observer, Hutton’s activist economic prescription in “How Good We Can Be” seems likely to include a better-focused approach to industrial policy; targeted investment in innovation capacity; pro-entrepreneurship mechanisms to sharpen competitiveness; and pro-active tax policies that ease rather than intensify the wealth divide.

Many of those who missed this year’s Davos triumph of Piketty-style reasoning are now awaiting the arrival of Hutton’s new book on this side of the Atlantic. Piketty scored the scholarly sensation of 2014 with the publication of “Capital.” My early hunch is that Hutton, with “How Good We Can Be,” just might achieve a similar agenda-setting success in 2015.

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