Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center wrote an excellent piece analyzing the under-appreciated complementarity of a strong social safety net and free market policies. Separating labor market and business regulation from social spending, Hammond goes on to argue that there is a steady equilibrium correlation between how free a country’s economy is and how generous their social safety net is. While I applaud his line of thinking on how free market policies and social insurance can be mutually reinforcing, I am not as convinced that there is necessarily a strong equilibrium relationship between the two, nor that the US is in an unsteady state that could lead it down the road to further reactionary populism.

Why the Market Economy Benefits from a Strong Safety Net

As an economy grows and adapts to changing demands, Joseph Schumpeter observed, a process of “creative destruction” leaves newly obsolete industries and skills in the dust. The displaced workers from this process can be enticed by populist revolts that threaten to counteract the productive forces of a market economy. Hammond’s paper “argues that the countries that have eluded Schumpeter’s dreary prediction have done so by combining free-markets with robust systems of universal social insurance.” In other words, if any polity wants to enjoy the fruits of a well-functioning market economy, it needs to cushion the blow for those that are harmed by the inherent dynamism that allows it to prosper. With its relatively stingy cash benefits, the United States is at risk of sliding into a policy environment that removes its unique dynamism.

Hammond argues a more generous social safety net can complement, rather than work against, the power of markets by, among other things: 1) promoting entrepreneurial risk-taking by spreading out risk across society; 2) address the painful adjustment costs embedded in a dynamic globalized market economy; 3) replace policies that ostensibly increase economic security but inevitably decrease economic flexibility; 4) increase labor market flexibility by detaching “important social benefits…from any particular employer or market structure.”

The False Dichotomy of Economic Policy-making

Many tend to incorrectly see economic policy regimes as necessarily being a bundled package. One political party may favor stronger unionization, have a more interventionist approach to industry, a more progressive taxation scheme, and a more generous welfare state, while the other wants to decrease the power of unions, privatize more government functions, lower top marginal tax rates, and cut social spending. In reality, it’s not one bundle or the other. It’s possible to have a generous social insurance system as well as a lightly-regulated economy. Hammond makes a distinction between a Swedish “social insurance state” that has generous social insurance policies but a relatively unregulated marketplace, with a Venezuelan “interventionist state” that relies on nationalization and inflexible labor markets. Both can be referred to as “socialist” or “social democratic” in political discourse, but of course their policy combinations are far from identical. The ideal scheme, according to Hammond (and one I agree with), is one that combines the powers of the market economy with a generous welfare state.

[As a slight aside, this overall point is something I want to increasingly shout from the rooftops. Opponents of “capitalism” or market economies tend to associate pro-market reforms with skimpy welfare states, neoconservative foreign policy, and low environmental regulation. The Niskanen Center is great at producing work that combines ideal policies outside this false dichotomy.]

What Economic Freedom Should Really Mean

Often times, country rankings of “economic freedom” from the Heritage Foundation or Fraser Institute imply a necessary bundling of economic policy decisions. Both of these foundations, Hammond notes, value economic freedoms related to economic regulation, but they also value low government spending and skimpy social safety nets. To better get to an analysis showing the kind of government presence he’s talking about, he develops an index that separates social expenditures and pro-market institutions from “government size.” The economic freedom index thus values government transparency, rule of law, and regulatory efficiency while the social welfare index suggests higher income transfers. Economic freedom does not need to mean low taxation and social spending. We’re left with this graphic:

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The graphic suggests a correlation between his measure of economic freedom and income security. But instead of just saying this is a correlation, he believes the relationship is in fact an equilibrium, and countries that diverge from the path by becoming either economically less-free or decrease welfare spending are at risk of falling down the path to populism found in the bottom left quadrant. In theory, these countries are in disequilibrium, as I see it, because an economically less-free country with generous welfare spending would have low-growth that couldn’t support its welfare state. Meanwhile, an economically free country with skimpy benefits wouldn’t be able to cushion the blow from an ever-changing economy.

But is there a Steady-state Equilibrium?

This is where I’m skeptical. The United States is a significant outlier here. An atypical amount of our government spending goes towards military ventures, but I don’t think that collapsing military spending would result in a more generous welfare state. I’m drawn to this Glaser et al paper suggesting that skimpier US welfare state spending comes from historical and cultural realities that are hard to undo by overnight Federal policymaking. Specifically, the paper suggests that “racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution” across countries, and America’s cultural/racial heterogeneity could lead to an unwillingness to provide strong social welfare benefits that is difficult to overcome. The United States is atypical in many regards to other OECD countries, and a big difference is this diversity. Scandinavian countries with relatively homogenous populations could be seen as more willing to provide a social safety net because people perceive their tax dollars as going to people just like them. Countries like Italy or Spain, with relatively less national unity than Denmark or Norway, have administratively weaker welfare states.

Although Nordic countries have recently experienced a surge in “otherness” migration – and with significant frictions politically as they try to protect their natives and welfare states – it’s not clear to me that the dust will settle with these countries having their generous welfare states remain in place. I don’t mean to argue against diversity or say it can’t coexist with strong social spending; instead, I want to assert the common tension between the two and point out that America’s atypical cultural heterogeneity could be an endogenous force working against political willingness to increase social spending. Further, as Hammond notes, Sweden was in an equilibrium in the 70s and 80s more in line with the bottom left quadrant of his graphic than the top right. A particularly bad recession in the early 90s shocked the country and resulted in liberalization of markets but preserved strong social insurance programs. But if Sweden can suddenly switch quadrants, what makes Hammond so sure it can’t just as easily switch back?

A further argument against the inevitability of this equilibrium is in the United States’s long history. Sure, countries in the Anglo world are today on a more authoritarian path with Trump/Brexit than many other OECD countries, likely stemming from an inability to protect citizens who were displaced by globalization. But the United States has never had a particularly strong welfare state? The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is a part of what is deemed American exceptionalism. The United States transitioned from an agricultural country to industrial without falling out of this bottom right quadrant. The transition didn’t come without side effects – agricultural subsidies today can be seen as a historical concession towards farmers harmed by the change – but the United States still never left its unique quadrant. Now, maybe I’m oversimplifying United States economic history here, or not involving the nuances of European economic history either. But if I really am misunderstanding history, it begs the question of whether Hammond can show that his graphic is robust enough throughout time in order to prove that this is indeed an equilibrium.

To say that a more robust welfare state counteracts the forces that led to Trump and Brexit also seems like a stretch to me. Specifically, Hammond believes that a well designed welfare state could alleviate “search and adjustment costs…with a system of subsidized employment for the long-term unemployed, combined with job search and relocation supports for geographically locked workers.” I’m skeptical the proverbial rust-belt Trump voter that used to thrive in a coal-fueled world or manufacturing-based American economy will be helped much by this. These workers have a strong connection to the identity their job provides them. I don’t just mean the purpose or community employment gives them. A coal miner isn’t suddenly going to become a male nurse just because that’s where the economy is producing jobs, no matter how much assistance the government gives them. The assembly line worker in West Virginia isn’t going to start to learn Python and move to Silicon Valley. The fact of the matter, as I see it, is that the economic displacement from globalization and automation interacts with a stubbornness of human nature that leaves many workers potentially unable or unwilling to participate in the new economy, regardless of government support. [I’d note that this job-identity relationship extends to professional-class workers who probably refused to work retail jobs during the Great Recession. Our employment opportunities are tied to how we see ourselves, and I think government spending can only do so much here.]

Hammond writes that “unregulated open economies are vulnerable to reactionary populist backlashes when the forces of creative destruction leave large swaths of society behind.” But take a look at his graphic showing OECD countries and their level of “cash minimum-income benefits.”

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Greece paints a picture of an unstable populist backlash, but what about other countries on the left-side of this distribution? Is Canada unstable? South Korea? Hong Kong and Singapore are atypical city-states, but I don’t see them as being at risk of going in a more authoritarian direction, either. Perhaps it’s possible for countries to exist as free-market states without having pressures to increase its social welfare spending. History, culture, demographics, or even size/government setup – something particularly unique about the United States – could lead countries to a steady-state outside the correlation Hammond’s graphic suggests. And if there is no equilibrium, can we really think of these as being necessarily reinforcing rather than just a correlation?

How to Improve American Social Insurance

Outside any theoretical equilibrium, I would like to see the policies Hammond argues for. While I may not be convinced the United States must do this in order to avoid becoming more of an authoritative populist country, I still believe a stronger safety net can complement the wonders of the market economy discusses previously. So how can the United States transition into more a top-right quadrant country? Hammond argues that social insurance schemes can be more politically viable and successful if they are designed to be “neutral” and “universal.” It’s important to be neutral – in the sense that as little as possible is left up to the discretion of policymakers that will likely pander to special interests – to avoid favoritism and cronyism. It’s important to be “universal” because programs perceived to be designated only for the poor are typically poorly-run and underfunded. Making social insurance schemes something that everyone benefits from and pays into will ensure more forces that lead to beauracratic quality and efficiency. Federalism and American attitudes could make this a relatively difficult process, but still one worth pursuing.

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I’ve got a new post over at Novel Stance about putting the “economic anxiety” of the Western working class in the greater context of global income trends. A couple excerpts:

Whatever legitimate economic anxiety Brexiteers and Trumpkins have from the last few decades of increasing globalization, it is dwarfed by the historic rise in living standards nearly everywhere else in the world.

In a sense, we can think of the “Western working-class” being pushed aside by an “Emerging Market working-class.” Emerging market economies like China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are building their own middle classes, simultaneously lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and displacing the Westerners that used to do that work.

Based on a referendum from last Thursday, voters in the United Kingdom have chosen to leave the European Union. The referendum campaign got the portmanteau of “Brexit” as a combination of the words “Britain” and “Exit.” Now that we have got those basic facts out of the way, let’s move on to the sexier details like what is going to happen and why I think it’s a bad idea.

What Brexit means

No one really knows at this point. The referendum asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” and the “Leave” vote won. This does not mean Brits will not be able to travel or work in the European Union – America and Canada are not in the EU but their citizens are able to – it just means it’s much more likely they’ll face difficulty. The UK will still be more integrated into the happenings of Europe than a country like Australia or Indonesia by virtue of its history and geographical proximity. But it will now make separate laws regarding regulation, trade, immigration, and other hot-button issues. The European divorce could be gradual, and it’s not clear what politicians on both the UK side and European side will negotiate in the future. The end result could be a very isolated Britain or it could be a very still-integrated Britain. People on both sides have made promises about what each result will entail, but the fact is that there is still a lot of uncertainty. In a larger symbolic sense, this vote reverses a consistent post-WW2 momentum of more European integration. The fact that there was even a referendum goes against a main ethos of the EU: This was meant to be a permanent thing!

Why did it happen

Just like any polity that has to live with a supranational power, a chunk of British people felt membership in the European Union was not working out so well. Popular reasons ranged from its immigration policies, its arguably undemocratic nature, or expensive costs that don’t seem to produce many benefits. In the last national election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron feared that his party was losing too many voters to the UK Independence Party. In an effort to woo UKIP voters to vote Conservative, he promised more autonomy and an eventual referendum on EU membership. The Conservatives won their first outright parliamentary majority since 1992, but Cameron had to follow through on his promise.

Why Brexit will be bad economically

When barriers to trade and migration are removed, efficiency goes up and economies grow. Creating a common market in Europe to remove frictions and allow flexibility in the overall labor market was one of the great successes of Project Europe. The integration of these countries provided substantial economic benefits overall, though gains and losses were experienced heterogeneously across the population. More on this later. Removing itself from this common market, at least formally, will have some costs to the UK, though it remains to be seen what the magnitude will be.

There are two major costs to Brexit economically, and both could cause a deep deep recession in the near future. The first is a loss of trade of goods and people. Half of British exports are to the European Union. If barriers go up and trade is made more difficult for these exporters, they will have less of a demand to buy their goods and Brits will be poorer. Like most European countries, the UK has a social welfare system built at a time where workers vastly outnumbered retirees/dependents. As birth rates went down and people got older, these pension systems found it difficult to finance themselves. But immigrants come in with money to spend and wanting to work (despite xenophobic conventional wisdom). In many ways, low-wage immigrants from elsewhere in the EU have been a lifeline to Britain’s public fiscus that are inevitably under-appreciated. With less European integration, labor mobility in the UK will decrease and these benefits from migration will shrink. The corollaries aren’t perfect, but look at a country like Japan where a rapidly aging population combined with a hard-line stance on immigration has caused their economy to stall for nearly three decades.

The second is a massive shock of financial outflows. Britain’s current account is a huge deficit. What this means is that they are consuming a lot more than they are producing. By virtue of an accounting identity, this means money from outside the country is coming in to make up for that shortfall. London has become a major financial hub for a variety of reasons, but it has almost certainty retained this position under the assumption that investors – from inside and outside the EU – can move this money seamlessly around Europe. If Continental Europe has different rules and shifting financial assets from the UK to Europe involves burdensome regulation, London is no longer an attractive place to invest. For many years, the UK was being supported by investors in commodity-producing countries. When commodity prices crashed in the middle of 2014, a lot of this money dried up, hurting Brits. With Brexit, even more money will move out of London…and quickly. Major banks have already announced future shifts of main headquarters to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Paris. If London can no longer get the financial resources to make up for Britain’s current account deficit, it will come at the expense of consuming less. In everyday people’s terms, this means that Britons will have much less disposable income, also known as a recession.

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Why Brexit will be bad geopolitically

After thousands of years of fighting wars and hating each other, Europe in the last century has been moving generally in a more integrated and peaceful direction. Project Europe as it stood before Brexit was already in a very delicate equilibrium. Countries that weren’t really friends suddenly had to share laws and sometimes the same currency, and allow people to freely cross borders. It took the United States 240 years to get where we are in terms of integration – and we fought a Civil War, have a common language, and our cultural differences are not nearly as vast as those between European countries. Whatever progress America has made to make all areas more “American” took a long time. In many ways, Europe has tried to do this process in half a century.

In this delicate equilibrium, there are only two steady states. One was more Europe – countries would have to sacrifice national sovereignty to make the union stronger. The other is less Europe – more power goes to individual countries at the expense of integration.  Brexit is a step in the direction of Less Europe. Brits have effectively voted to “take care of their own” rather than try to work through difficulties of multiculturalism and foreign economic competition.

To me, this is the greatest fear. A wave of populism has swept the higher-income world and people are turning inward. The world was becoming more peaceful, more integrated, and more multicultural. This new world order had its imperfections, so understandably there was pushback and the time has come for opposing forces to become more powerful. People are blaming outsiders of all dimensions (immigrants, the Chinese, The Rich, bankers, etc) and this is a recipe for decreased prosperity, increased nationalism, and less peace.

People are speaking of Brexit as a signal of what is to come in the Western world. Other countries are calling referenda, xenophobia is running rampant, and Do I Really Need to Mention the Republican Nominee? It’s hard to tell if these warnings are overstated. But I don’t want the world to have to take the risk.

Why Brexit will be bad for Brits’ autonomy

Economics isn’t everything and the liberal global order is not everyone’s cup of tea. A lot of the slacktivism being expressed by non-Britons since the referendum never seems to consider Britons’ desire to rule themselves and determine their own future. The European Union is in many ways a clunky bureaucracy with disproportionate power given to certain countries. Its inherent undemocratic nature also bothers some people (ummm, are they also complaining about the House of Lords?). If you felt a supranational institution was unfairly dictating rules for you, wouldn’t you be pissed off? Nonetheless, the belief that Britain leaving the European Union will lead to more autonomy for Brits is incorrect.

Although it remains to be seen what direction new leadership will take Britain in the context of Europe, many Brexit politicians and activists have suggested they’ll move to be integrated into Europe’s common market without formally being in the European Union. Switzerland and Norway do it, why can’t we? This is getting the goodies with no strings attached, in theory. This is unrealistic not only because I find it overly optimistic about how Continental Europeans will treat Britain in negotiations after this messy divorce. If Britain were to commit to political and economic arrangements made by the EU, they’d be doing so without a democratic voice in the process. This reminds me of Scottish independence supporters paradoxically thinking that they could be simultaneously more independent economically and use the pound as their currency (thus be subjected to a monetary policy over which they have no control as an independent country).

Rather than being a powerful voice in the first/second/third largest economy – the EU, depending on how you measure it – Britain will on its own be barely a top 10 economy. This means that it will have even less of a voice in international negotiations and thus likely less self-rule. I admit there’s a degree of uncertainty here: Leave activists argued that Britain can now make unilateral agreements with other countries and this isn’t impossible. But my best prediction is that overall Britain will now have less of a voice in world affairs than it did before. The most powerful countries that are still in the EU are not going to treat the UK nice to try to lessen the harm to Brexit…they are more likely to punish them to give a message to other countries that they shouldn’t even consider it.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to say on this topic – and I know native Brits have a lot more to say from a lifetime of experience compared to my ivory tower reading into it and four short years of living in a Scottish bubble. But I truly hope this isn’t the beginning of a global populist wave. And I weep for my British friends who woke up to see their country no longer a part of Europe.