April 2, 2018
Andrew Sheng reflects on the state of the world in time for the holidays.
Easter weekend is a time for remembrance of life and death. Millions of Christians around the world remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his revival from the dead as an act of personal sacrifice that contributed towards peace and salvation for all. Similarly, very soon it will be the Chinese Qingming Festival, another time to remember ancestors in which Chinese sweep the graves of their ancestors, not to worship them, but to be grateful for their sacrifices, without which there would be no present generation.
This week, I lost my Dutch friend, a soulmate to whom I could share our ups and downs, who could laugh at the world, be modest how much he contributed to building global hotels and just lived life to the fullest. His passing reminded me that the baby-boomer generation to which we belong, born at or after the end of the Second World War, is beginning to fade. The baby boomers created the greatest technological and business model break-throughs in history, helping to create globalization and in the process, making billionaires richer than ever. For those who can afford it, we are living longer, healthier and richer than any generation in history, under the longest peace-time the world has enjoyed in centuries.
At the same, this generation is bequeathing to the next generation severe environmental deterioration and pollution, massive human inequality and the largest debt overhang in history. One such babyboomer has his finger on the nuclear bomb, threatening trade wars and Armageddon on friends and foes alike.
And like the Rodgers and Hart song, billions today are “bewitched, bothered and bewildered” by what is going on.
The fortnight leading up to Easter has been remarkable for stunning events that dazzled even the most hardened political analysts. In Washington, Trump fired his National Security Adviser and declared trade war, whereas Russian President Putin got re-elected and the Two Sessions of China’s legislature and top political advisory body confirmed a new team under President Xi. The biggest surprise was North Korean leader Kim Jong Ungn showing up in Beijing, even as he has agreed to meet Trump in May. In the meantime, the Italian election created its 66th government since 1946, each lasting an average term of 13 months.
Will all these confusion end in tears?
The current angst in the West is largely about the rise of populism, as the masses show their anger with the established order, lashing out at globalization, foreigners, immigration, Islamic states, China, Russia and anyone that can be blamed. The liberals, including the mainstream media, are mesmerized by Trump, but they forget that the more they attack him, the more they make Trump powerful in the eyes of his supporters. He is not in the business of change, but in the business of optical change. Declaring trade war actually satisfies his supporters. Whether it works or not is tomorrow’s concern.
The current sound and fury of global politics disguises the important signal that the elites have been attacking the wrong enemy. They should look closely at the mirror and ponder whether they are their own worst enemy.
True, Pax Americana with its liberal ideals created global peace, free trade and investments for the last 70 years. But despite the rhetoric of rules-based, human rights and free markets, the dark sides of financial capitalism, massive social inequality, crime, terrorism and failed US military interventions can no longer be ignored.
The narrative of Bretton Woods is broken. Its free market, auto-stabilizing message cannot deal with the complex de-stabilizing political, demographic and technological drivers of globalization. We need a longer historical, philosophical and value-based narrative on how to deal realistically with forces that we cannot understand as well as primal anger that the system has only been serving the elite few.
The reason is simple demography. With vast improvements in healthcare and technology, global population exploded with the Green Revolution in the 1970s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 brought a “labour shock”, adding several billions workers from China, Russia, Central Europe, India and the Rest. The concurrent rise of the Internet distributed information at speeds no one anticipated. Communications and WTO tariff reductions then truly created global trade, travel and investments. As the rich countries aged, they gained from “consumer surplus”, but worried about “labour deficit” – the job losses from immigration and technology.
The advanced countries papered over these issues by massive financialization, the printing of money to fund growing debt at zero interest rates. In essence, the rest of the world financed the rich countries, but are now blamed for “unfair trade”.
The rich country liberals never saw the consequences of massive financialization on the political divide. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe puts it best: the elite refused to see what they don’t want to see. Because the elite could afford best education, health and felt they were above the law, they completely ignored the true condition of the non-elites.
Populism therefore is the revenge of the non-elite, sometimes called the Precariat – the working class that is precariously on the brink of sinking into poverty, homelessness and unemployment, despite working harder than ever.
Life is therefore a cycle of birth, growth, failure, age and then death. But there is always a new generation to inherit and deal with all the failures of the current generation.
When we sit down and account for our successes and failures at Easter, Qingming or whatever period of peace and quiet, we have to be bare our souls on our errors of omission or commission. Words are less important than deeds. And change, as another Nigerian academic wittily put it, should be “more than motion in a barber’s chair.: a lot of motion but very little movement or progress.”
Which is why I, as a member of the baby boomer generation, would ask for a lot of forgiveness and repentance for our sins.
(This article was written for ANN by Andrew Sheng)