[This is the full text of my interview with Vincent Bevins. An edited version was published in The New Republic.]
Let's start with the obvious question. Does the elephant graph
explain the victory of Brexit and Trump? Are globalization's losers rebelling
against the system that has been in place since the 1980s?
I think that it largely does explain Brexit and Trump. Why? Because it shows in
very stark terms that people in the
lower parts of rich countries’ income distributions have seen fewer benefits of
globalization compared both to the people in Asia (against whom they often
compete in global supply chains) and compared to the people in their own
countries’ tops of the distributions. You just cannot undo these two facts. The
first (the rise of Asia and China in particular) is plain to everyone; the
second is implicit in the rise of inequality in almost all OECD countries
between 1980 and up to the financial crisis. So I think the facts, displayed in
the “elephant chart”, are incontrovertible.
is a matter of discussion is whether the primary cause for these facts was
globalization or not. The other two “contestants” are technological change
(that helped more skilled workers to the detriment of the less skilled) and
economic polices like reduction of tax rates.
opinion is that all three factors played a role, but that both technological
change and economic polices responded to globalization. The nature of recent
technological progress would have been different if you could not employ labor
10,000 miles away from your home base. Economic polices too would have been
different if you had relatively closed economies of the 1960s and 1970s with
agree with Dani Rodrik when he sees globalization as fundamentally reducing the
field of feasible economic policies for each nation-state. This seems to me
obvious when you consider how much more similar economic polices across the
world are today than, say prior to the 1980s. Today, most countries have
abandoned capital controls, almost all currencies are convertible, tariff rates
are much lower, the role of foreign capital much greater, government subsidies
to industries negligible compared to what they used to be.
why? Because we have created an international economic architecture that takes
globalization not only as given but as a desirable objective in itself. And I
agree with that.
You agree how? You think globalization is a desirable
Yes, I agree with it as I
consider desirable any policy that is “inclusive” in the sense that it opens
the field of action to greater number of participants. This is not an
instrumental view of globalization. It does not say, globalization is better
because it raises incomes (which, I think, on balance, it does). It says
globalization is better because it reduces obstacles between people in the
world. I think that ideologically one you can be against globalization only on
two grounds: one is “localism” where one cares only about his or her narrow
community and does not want to interact with the rest of the world, another is
“nationalism” which more violently opposes “us” to “them”. An example of the former
would be religious communities, an example of the latter would be North Korea.
problems with globalization arise from the fact that gains from it are not (and
can never be) evenly distributed. There would be always those who gain less
than some others, or those who lose even in absolute terms. But to whom can
they “appeal” for redress? Only to their national governments because this is
how the world is politically organized. Thus national government have to engage
in “mop up” operations to fix the
negative effects of globalization. And this they have not done well, led as
they were by the belief that the trickle-down economics will take care of it.
We know it did not.
So rich world governments, in say the US and Western
Europe, failed to “mop up” globalization's mess, and then discontent with the
global system rose? What could they have done to clean up the mess?
Perhaps it is easy to say it with hindsight, but
they could have argued for trade pacts that would pay more attention to
workers’ standards rather than to the protection of intellectual property
rights and patents. The skewed nature of these treaties obviously reflected
domestic, and even global, power relationship between capital and labor. In
other words, we should have had more ILO and less MIGA and WTO. Rich countries,
and especially the US, could have paid more attention to the quality of
education and tried to not only equalize access to the best schools but make
public schools’ quality similar to the quality of private schools. You may say
that it is a generally desirable policy that has little to do with
globalization: I agree, but I also think that it would have reduced the number
of “losers” because it would have enabled larger swaths of the population to
successfully complete globally.
During the US election, a rather strange and heated debate took
place between liberals that insisted the rise of Trumpism could be blamed on
'economic anxiety' or on racial resentment, as if it had to be one of the two.
How would you theorize the relation between economic motivations for voter
rebellion and other perhaps complementary causes for the huge transformations
we saw in 2016? Do economic problems cause racism or nativism to emerge, for
example? Historically how has this usually worked when inequality gets out
really do not think that the causality runs one way only: either from economic
problems to racism, or from racism to economic problems. I think that the two
work together. But I think that it was always wrong to blame support that Trump
has received only on racism or misogyny. By doing this, one commits two
mistakes: first, writes off that portion of the population as “irredeemable”
since their racism or misogyny makes them impervious to any rational
argumentation; and second, entirely plays down economic factors and thus fails
to propose any change in economic policy.
The view that nativism alone was responsible for the rise of right-wing
populism in the US, or even more bizarrely the view held by some that the
“losers” in rich countries should not complain because they are better off than
workers in China, were just wrong answers to a very real problem.
This kind of an interpretation has received strong
pushback in the United States since Trump's victory, with mainstream Democratic
supporters calling it either hopelessly leftist or tantamount to rationalizing
away racism. Others point to the fact that many rich people supported Trump (as
admittedly often supported other Republican candidates). What do you make of this
do not understand the pushback. Do they really believe that Trump, Brexit, Le
Pen, the rise of many right-wing populist parties in Europe etc. have nothing
to do with economics? That suddenly all these weird nationalists and nativists
got together thanks to the social media and decided to overthrow the
established order? People who believe this remind me of Saul Bellow’s statement that “a great deal of
intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is
Can you briefly explain those two types of forces that you say often
lead to reductions in inequality when the gap between rich and poor gets
especially large, the benign and the malign? What are they, and what is the
causal mechanism that leads the explosions in inequality to lead to one or
divide the forces that reduce inequality into malign and benign. The principal
malign force in the modern era was war. It reduced inequality not only through
destruction of physical assets but also through increase in taxation that was
necessary to maintain war effort and to raise mass armies. The role of war in
that respect is quite well known.
benign forces that reduced inequality in rich counties between either the New
Deal or the end of WW2, and the 1980s were mass education, trade unions,
socialist political parties, high taxes and social transfers, and technological
progress in the instances where it was pro-poor, that is where it helped
low-skilled labor more that high-skilled.
do not think that many of these forces will remain operative in the near
future. For example, trade unions have been decimated, not only by anti-labor
legislation but also by the movement
away from massive factories that brought large numbers of workers together in
one place (the so called “Fordism”) to much more skill-heterogeneous service
sectors with much smaller sizes of units.
education will not play the same role either: it was a force for equalization
when rich countries moved from 6 or 7 years of average education to 13 today,
but from 13 years of education, you are not going to move to 20. So this is
where quality of education rather than mass education becomes crucial.
I do not think that yet higher taxes and transfers are any longer accepted by
the majority of the electorate. This may be due to a much more skeptical view
that today’s generations have of government’s ability to use money effectively.
is for these reasons that I believe that the key benign forces to reduce
inequality in the future will consist in equalization of endowments. This means
first, better access to high quality education for all so that the returns to
education become more equal, and second, what I call “deconcentration” of
capital ownership. The latter implies tax incentives to promote wider ownership
of capital and includes also the schemes such as Employee Stock Ownership
wage gaps between workers become less, and distribution of income from capital
becomes more equal, then you can achieve relatively equal outcomes even without
greater government role in redistribution of current income. If this is not
done, the danger is that with the heavily skewed distribution of property that
exists today in literally all rich economies, any increase in the capital share
of national income translates directly into greater inequality in personal
incomes. Then you either let inequality get worse or you need to increase
redistribution of current income for which, as I said, there is no political
appetite any more. You will be thus left without instruments to offset
underlying increase in inequality,
A lot of people on the US left are now yelling, "Bernie would
have won!" and it seems that one way to read this phenomenon, using your
book, is that they're arguing that we had a chance to counter-act this
high-inequality moment with the 'benign forces' you describe, but that now with
Trump voters may have unleashed malign forces, through attempts to
de-globalize, or perhaps through trade wars or a real war. Does this
interpretation make sense to you?
the interpretation does make sense to me although neither I nor anybody else
can prove that Bernie would have won. But, as many people have written, this
election took place at the time when many voters wanted to see a candidate for change,
and Hillary Clinton was indeed a candidate for change in the fact that she is a
woman, but practically in nothing else. And it seems that for many people that
was not enough.
One of the more striking parts of your book is when you argue that
the world's last great period of globalization and inequality actually came to
an end because that inequality led to World War I, which itself destroyed
globalization, lives, and property, bringing inequality back down. But you use
the unexpected trio of Lenin, Hobson, and Ferguson and the 'imperialist
competition' theory to explain the relationship. But this theory isn't very
widespread, right? Why do you find it convincing?
are, of course, almost as many theories explaining the World War I as theories
explaining the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The imperialist theory was one
of the first since it was formulated in parts even before the war started, and
in parts during and just after the war. I find it persuasive because it puts
the economic forces ahead of the others, such as political or military, and thus
agrees both with I tend to believe in general (priority of economics) and more
importantly with what was the spirit of that time. That time, say from 1870 to
1914, was just like ours, the time of huge technological progress and massive
commercialization (or you may call it “commodification”) of labor, land etc.
combined with globalization. It was an “economics time” par excellence.
the barest possible terms, the Hobson-Lenin thesis is that high domestic
inequalities implied lack of domestic aggregate demand (because the marginal
propensity to consume of the rich is lower than that of the poor), and the excess
savings looked for investment opportunities which they found only in overseas
territories. Then, in other to protect their capital, whether directly invested
there or in the form of government bonds, the capitalists called upon their
countries’ military resources. We thus get the use of force to exact repayment
of the debts (the “gunboat diplomacy”)
in Tunisia, Egypt, Venezuela or, even better, to directly control territories,
that is to create colonies. As Hobson wrote at the turn of the 20th
century, “the tendency of investors is to work toward political annexation of
the countries which contain their investments”.
Every powerful country in the
19th or early 20th century did that: not only England and
France, but also Germany, Russia and the United States. Austria-Hungary did the
same except it did it in Europe. It is this competition for the conquest of
territories (resources and cheap labor) across the world, or to paraphrase AJP
Taylor, “for the mastery of the world”, which led to the War.
important part of the theory is that it shows how international conflict can be
caused by purely domestic forces. This is why I discuss it in the context of
the Kuznets waves, for it is, I argue, indeed high inequality that (indirectly)
unleashed the malign forces of war which ultimately curbed its further
increase. This will be, I hope, the lesson useful to remember now and in the
future. It is not some kind of blind “blood and soil” imperialism that is often
at the origin of the conflict, but imperialism which is responding to the well-defined
interests of certain classes. Classes which in turn use the state power to
further these interests.
In the book you
say that, “Rising inequality indeed sets in motion forces, often of a
destructive nature, that ultimately lead to its decrease but in the process
destroy much else, including millions of human lives and huge amounts of
wealth.” This is true outside of just World War I, correct?
think World War I in the previous answer is probably the best example. But the role of economic
interests in provoking conflict is endless, from military conquests in the
ancient and medieval worlds that were motivated by the desire to get cheap
labor through enslavement to, for example, US sugar manufacturers that, angry
at Cuba’s nationalization, provoked the political estrangement of the two
countries for more than half a century. So, the argument that economic
interests often stand behind foreign policy moves is not, I believe, hard to
make: we can read about it practically daily in the discussions of what Trump
and people around him might or might not do in function of their pure economic
interests. And then going from these economic interests to showing that often
they become more acute under conditions of high inequality, simply because the
stakes are greater, seems to me to be but an additional step.
So could we be entering another phase of history in which we
experience chaos unleashed indirectly by inequality?
would be too simplistic to say that income or wealth inequality alone unleashes
the chaos. As argued in my book, inequality is one of key enabling factors, it
is the background against which the economics and politics work. Inequality
makes conflicts, both domestic and international, sharper and one should not
forget that creation of a foreign conflict to better mask domestic conflict is
a well-proven and much used tactic.
Right, the classic strategy of using outsiders or
division to distract from domestic problems, arguably the classic tool in the
demagogue's toolbox. Re-reading
your book after Trump and Brexit, I remembered your short essay, “For whom the
wall fell,” in which you showed that only 10% of post-communist countries
successfully transitioned to capitalism and more democracy. Among liberal
cosmopolitans in the US now, there seems to be the belief that a third major
threat to their way of life – in addition to Brexit and Trump – is the rise of
Putin and right-wing populism or neofascism in Eastern Europe. Is it
perhaps unsurprising that this would appear in these regions? Maybe these are
other losers of the age of globalization rebelling against the dominant order,
or do you disagree?
the rise of the right-wing populism (although I would not go as far as to call
it neo-fascism) in Eastern Europe, and
especially in Russia, is a matter of concern. I must admit that I am not
altogether surprised since I always thought that the revolutions of 1989 were
nationalist revolutions first and democratic revolutions second. They were
revolutions of national emancipation: for the “independent” countries against
the Soviet Union which imposed on them the puppet governments, and for the
then-republics of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, against what
each of them saw as an unfair deal or domination by the others. Russia under
Yeltsin for example (when Russia was still part of the USSR) followed an
entirely secessionist policy.
top of that, you had in Russia, broadly speaking a failure of new capitalism to
increase incomes and to create a broader middle class. Nationalism plus
economic failure and exceedingly unequal distribution of wealth plus the
feeling of humiliation after the end of
the Cold War provide an almost ideal breeding ground for the growth of
aggressive and authoritarian nationalism. This is what we now have in Russia.
this does not explain Poland which is, by far, the most successful country in
transition to capitalism. You can explain Poland (and Hungary, and Slovakia)
only if you realize that the 1989 revolutions had a large nationalist and
So it would make sense, from a very narrow economic
perspective, to understand why Russia and other postcommunist countries would
be less happy about the current order? Is the opposite true, that people in
places like London, and New York, and California, may not know how well they've
had it? You wrote in your book that a full half of the increase in US personal
income inequality can be explained by New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and
Washington State. Historically, are the winners usually aware of their
privilege sitting at the top of the pyramid, or is myopia common?
I think that myopia is
very common, especially when you believe that what you have is fully deserved
and that you are not only richer but morally superior. It was Hayek of all
people who many years ago noticed that one of possibly fatal weaknesses of capitalism
as actually practiced is that it tends to ascribe moral virtue to economic
success. Let me quote him: “it bodes ill
for the future of the market order that [identifying success with virtue] seems
to have become the only defense of it which is understood by the general
public.” If you believe this then you cannot understand anyone who questions
the existing order; he must appear to you either as a brute or a villain.