Genre: Government Social Policy
Author: Niall Ferguson
Title: The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Buy the Book)
Table of Contents
In The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, Niall Ferguson seeks to explain how rich countries reach a state of stagnation and eventual decline. He argues that our institutions in representative government, free market, rule of law, and civil society are degenerating. This has led to slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, and antisocial behavior.
In 2013, the World Bank expected the European economy to contract and the U.S. economy to grow by two percent. This is only the second time in American history that combined public and private debt has exceeded 250 percent of GDP. We pay much more attention to the question of why poor nations stay poor, but we seldom ask the question of why rich nations revert to poverty.
The gap between the West and the rest of the world has narrowed dramatically in recent years. Western democracies have managed to accumulate huge debts that cannot be largely blamed on wars.
Public debt allows the current generation of voters to live at the expense of those too young to vote or yet unborn, leading to unparalleled breach of society’s partnership between generations.
Many claim that the common law system that evolved in the English-speaking world was superior in performing the twin roles of contract enforcement and coercion constraint compared with all other systems.
Common law offers greater protection for investors and creditors. The result is that people with money are more willing to invest in other people’s businesses, leading to higher rates of growth.
True citizenship is about participating in the wider community beyond our families, which is where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct: in short, to govern ourselves.
Most societies would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. We are living through a profound crisis of the institutions that were previously key to our success as a civilization.
Scientific knowledge, technological innovation and market integration have greatly reduced the significance of distance, weather and germs. Economic history shifts from poverty to prosperity so suddenly and in so many different cultural settings that it cannot be explained though the roles of religion, culture, or “national character.”
Countries arrive at the stationary state when their laws and institutions degenerate to the point that elite rent-seeking dominates the economic and political process.
Ferguson states it is easy to explain why excessively large and leveraged financial institutions caused the financial crisis, but much harder to explain why, after more than four years of debate and passage of legislation, the problem of “too big to fail” banks has not been solved. In fact, a mere ten highly diversified financial institutions are responsible for three-quarters of total financial assets under management in the United States.
The West is in a state of stagnation. In 2013, the World Bank expected the European economy to contract and the U.S. to grow by two percent. China grew four times faster and India three times faster. The popular explanation for this slowdown is “deleveraging,” the painful process of debt reduction.
This argument states that households and banks are struggling to reduce their debts, having gambled foolishly on ever-rising property prices. However, as people spend less and save more, aggregate demand decreases. Public sector deficits have helped mitigate the contraction, but they risk transforming a crisis of excess private debt into one of excess public debt.
This is only the second time in American history that combined public and private debt has exceeded 250 percent of GDP. However, unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, our “Slight Depression” is doing little to reduce the widening inequality in income distribution that has developed over the past decades.
The income share of the top one percent of households rose from nine percent in 1970 to 24 percent in 2007. We cannot blame this all on deleveraging. In the United States, globalization, technological change, education and fiscal policy also greatly impact the widening income gap.
In practice, inflation is primarily a political phenomenon.
It is a function of factors such as the content of elite education, competition in an economy, character of the legal system, levels of violence, and the political decision-making process. Over the past thirty years, many countries have created forms of debt that they cannot inflate away. As a result, the next generation will have the burden of liabilities incurred by their parents and grandparents.
The Stationary State
In The Wealth of Nations, Smith described what he called the “stationary state,” a formerly wealthy country that ceased to grow. Smith identified its socially regressive characteristics. First, wages for the majority of people are miserably low. Second, a corrupt and monopolistic elite class exploits the system of law and administration to its own advantage.
In Smith’s day, China was a once “opulent” but “long stationary” country that ceased to grow.
He blamed its defective “laws and institutions” for the stasis and recommended more free trade, smaller bureaucracy, a reduction in crony capitalism, and encouragement for small businesses to cure it. Such reforms stimulated the economy of the British Isles and its American colonies at the time.
In contrast, the West is in the stationary state today while China grows faster than any other economy in the world. What was true of China in Smith’s day is true to large parts of the Western world in our time. Ferguson argues that our laws and institutions are the problem today. He claims the Great Recession is merely a symptom of a more profound Great Degeneration.
The Four Black Boxes
To demonstrate that Western institutions have degenerated, Ferguson identifies the four key components of our civilization: democracy, capitalism, rule of law, and civil society. Inside these political, economic, legal and social areas are highly complex sets of interlocking institutions.
The way institutions of the democratic state and those of the market economy relate to one another varies greatly between countries.
They try to find the right balance between economic freedom and government regulation. Their perspective determines if governments play an active part in economic life, through subsidies, tariffs and other market-distorting devices, or through regulation.
A crucial institutional check on both political and economic actors is the rule of law, and we attempt to determine which system of law is the best. Finally, there is civil society, which is the realm of voluntary associations: institutions established by citizens with an objective other than private profit.
Why Institutions Fail
Our institutions in the economic sphere resemble the wildlife of the Serengeti. Some of us are wildebeests, grazing as we move in the herd. Others are predators, scavengers, and parasites. While part of our lives is spent in a Darwinian struggle, we also expect to have rules to constrain our rulers; rules to constrain the predators and parasites who prey on the herbivores.
We exist in a bewildering number of institutions as citizens, residents, taxpayers, shareholders, managers, employees, litigants, defendants, judges, jurors, club members, officials and trustees. A good set of institutions is hard to achieve. Bad institutions, by contrast, are easy to be stuck in.
The lack of efficient, effective institutions is why most countries have been poor for most of history, as well as illiterate, unhealthy and bloody. However, societies with bad institutions are progressing toward better ones all over the world. At the same time, societies with good institutions are gradually regressing.
We pay much more attention to the question of why poor nations stay poor, as opposed to the question of why rich nations revert to poverty. Ferguson’s concern is not with economic development but rather with the opposite process of institutional degeneration. He seeks to answer the question: What exactly has gone wrong in the Western world during our time?
THE HUMAN HIVE
Explaining the Great Divergence
From the 1500s until the late 1970s, global living standards diverged greatly as Westerners became far richer than the rest of the world and dominated science and popular culture. The average Chinese was still better off than the average North American 300 years ago.
By 1978, the average North American was at least twenty-two times richer than the average Chinese. Ferguson argues that institutions determine modern historical outcomes more than natural forces like the weather, geography or even disease.
Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order defines “the three components of a modern political order” as “a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens.”
Fukuyama states that the three components came together for the first time in Europe and not Asia because the idiosyncratic development of Western Christendom tended to undercut the importance of extended families or clans.
In Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson make a striking comparison between Egypt today and England in the late seventeenth century: “The reason that Britain is richer than Egypt today is because in 1688 … England … had a revolution that transformed the politics and thus the economies of the nation. People fought for and won more political rights and used them to expand their economic opportunities.”
They state that England was the first country to encourage the establishment of “inclusive,” or “pluralistic,” rather than ‘extractive’ political institutions. However, other European societies failed to do this.
The English exported inclusive institutions while the Spaniards were content superimposing their extractive ones on top of those they took over from the Aztecs and Incas.
Understanding Western success helps us frame some urgent questions about the recent past, the present and possible futures. The institutional argument seems to offer a good explanation for the failure of most non-Western countries until the later twentieth century to achieve sustained economic growth.
Acemoglu and Robinson illustrate the power of institutions relative to geography and culture with two great experiments during the Cold War. Essentially, two peoples were divided in two, the Koreans and the Germans.
South Koreans and West Germans pursued capitalist institutions while North Koreans and East Germans received communist ones. The divergence that occurred in the space of just a few decades was enormous.
Paul Collier, a development economist, established that, though their incomes are low, the poor of the world have a surprisingly large amount of property. The problem is that this property is not legally recognized as theirs because obtaining a legal title to a house or a workshop is nearly impossible.
The total value of the real estate held, but not legally owned, by the poor of developing countries amounts to $9.3 trillion. In the absence of legal titles and a working system of property law, this is considered ‘dead capital.’ It cannot be used efficiently to generate wealth. Only with a working system of property rights can a house become collateral, its value properly established by the market, and easily bought and sold.
The Inglorious Revolution
The West is experiencing a relative decline unlike anything we have seen in half a millennium. Having been more than twenty times richer than the average Chinese in 1978, the average American is now just five times richer.
In a whole range of dimensions, the gap between the West and the rest of the world has narrowed dramatically. In terms of life expectancy and educational attainment, some Asian countries are now ahead of most in the West.
Debt and the English
Mandeville’s poem, The Fable of the Bees, explains that societies with the right institutions can flourish even when the individuals who live in them misbehave. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the monarch subordinated to Parliament, which gained control and improved taxation, audited royal expenditures, protected private property rights and effectively prohibited debt default.
As a result, the English state borrowed money on a previously impossible scale. By accustoming the wealthy to investment in paper securities, it paved the way for a financial revolution that would channel English savings into everything from canals to railways and commerce to colonization.
Though the national debt grew enormously in the course of England’s many wars with France, this leverage earned a handsome return, building Britain’s global empire. The debt was successfully reduced through a combination of sustained growth and primary budget surpluses without default or inflation.
The Partnership between the Generations
Western democracies have managed to accumulate huge debts that cannot be largely blamed on wars. Public debt allows the current generation of voters to live at the expense of those too young to vote or yet unborn. At the same time, the statistics commonly cited as government debt are deeply misleading, for they encompass only the sums owed by governments in the form of bonds.
The official debts in the form of bonds do not include the often far larger unfunded liabilities of welfare schemes like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The best available estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues is $200 trillion, nearly thirteen times the debt as stated by the US Treasury.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke wrote that the real social contract is not Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contract between the sovereign and the people, but the ‘partnership’ between the generations. In his words: “Society is indeed a contract… the state… is…a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
In the inter-generational transfers implied by current fiscal policies, we see a shocking and perhaps unparalleled breach of that partnership. The biggest challenge facing mature democracies is how to restore the social contract between the generations.
It seems as if there are only two possible ways out of this situation. In the good but less likely scenario, the proponents of reform succeed, persuading the young and a significant proportion of the older generation to vote for a more responsible fiscal policy.
Ferguson claims that the present system is fraudulent since there are no regularly published and accurate official balance sheets.
They should be available so that the liabilities of governments can be compared with their assets. If we do not embark on a wholesale reform of government finance, we will end up with the bad, but more likely, second scenario.
Western democracies are going to continue with their current methods until they fall into the fiscal death spiral that begins with a loss of credibility, continues with a rise in borrowing costs, and ends as governments are forced to impose spending cuts and higher taxes at the worst possible moment.
This scenario involves a combination of default and inflation. There is also a third possibility, where debt continues to mount up but deflationary fears, central bank bond purchases and a “flight to safety” from the rest of the world keep government borrowing costs down at unprecedented lows. The problem with this scenario is that it also implies low to zero growth over decades: a new version of Adam Smith’s stationary state.
THE DARWINIAN ECOMONY
The Deregulation Illusion
According to a number of influential commentators, the origins of the financial crisis that began in 2007 lie in decisions dating back to the early 1980s that led to a substantial deregulation of financial markets. In the United States, the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 separated the activities of commercial and investment banks until its repeal in 1999.
According to Princeton economist Paul Krugman, the US enjoyed a long period of stability after World War II. This was “based on a combination of deposit insure, which eliminated the threat of bank runs, and strict regulations of bank balance sheets, including both limits of risky lending and limits on leverage, the extent to which banks were allowed to finance investments with borrowed funds.”
Krugman states that Reagan-era legislative changes essentially ended New Deal restrictions on mortgage lending.
This deregulation allowed the financial system to take on ‘too much risk with too little capital’. However, Ferguson argues that deregulation of commercial and investment banking did not cause the crisis. He points out that it is hard to think of a major event in the US crisis, beginning with the failures of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, that could not equally well have happened with Glass-Steagall still in force.
Both were pure investment banks that could just as easily have been mismanaged to death before 1999. This indicates that there were probably a few other factors at work in the changing productivity growth of the past seventy years: changes in technology, education and globalization are among those that spring to mind.
A Regulated Crisis
The financial crisis that began in 2007 had its origins precisely in over-complex regulation. First, the executives of large publicly owned banks were strongly incentivized to ‘maximize shareholder value’ since their own wealth and income came to consist in large measure of shares and share options in their own institutions.
The easiest way they could do this was to maximize the size of their banks’ activities relative to their capital. Banks were allowed to hold very large quantities of assets relative to their capital, provided that these assets were classified as low risk. Second, beginning in 1996, firms could effectively set their own capital requirements based on their internal risk estimates.
In practice, risk weightings came to be based on the ratings given to securities and structured financial products by the private rating agencies. Third, central banks, led by the Federal Reserve, evolved a peculiarly lopsided doctrine of monetary policy. The Fed was supposed to care only about consumer-price inflation, not about house-price inflation.
It would intervene to prop up the U.S. equity market, but would not intervene to deflate an asset bubble. Fourth, the US Congress passed legislation designed to increase the percentage of lower- income families that owned their homes.
As a result, the mortgage market was highly distorted by the ‘government-sponsored entities’ Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which essentially encouraged low-income households to place large and leveraged bets on the U.S. housing market.
Finally, the Chinese government spent trillions of dollars’ worth of its own currency to prevent it from appreciating relative to the dollar. This kept Chinese manufacturing exports ultra- competitive in Western markets and provided the United States with a vast credit line. The economic partnership between China and America helped further inflate an already bubbling property market.
There are many resemblances between a financial market and the natural world as Darwin came to understand it. Like the wild animals of the Serengeti, individuals and firms are in a constant struggle for existence, a contest over finite resources.
Natural selection operates in that any innovation will flourish or die depending on how well it suits the environment. Sometimes, as in the natural world, the financial evolutionary process has been subject to big disruptions in the form of geopolitical shocks and financial crises.
While evolution in biology takes place in a pitiless natural environment, evolution in finance occurs within a regulatory framework where ‘intelligent design’ plays a part. However, this aspect makes our fragile system even more fragile. When property-backed assets fell in price, insolvency threatened the banks.
When short-term funding dried up, illiquidity threatened them. The authorities found that they had to choose between a Great Depression scenario of massive bank failures or bail the banks out, so they chose the latter.
In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb states that regulation should be designed to become stronger when subjected to perturbation. However, the complex and often contradictory regulation we contemplate today does the exact opposite.
How to Encourage Bankers
Ferguson argues that the central bank should be strengthened as the ultimate authority in both the monetary and supervisory systems. Second, those in charge at the central banks should be both apprehensive and experienced, so that they act when they see excessive credit growth and asset- price inflation.
Third, they should have considerable latitude in their use of the principal central banking tools of reserve requirements, interest rate changes and open-market securities purchases and sales. Fourth, they need to know their financial history.
Finally, those who fall foul of the regulatory authority must pay dearly for their transgressions. A complex financial world can only become less fragile by simplicity of regulation and strength of enforcement.
THE LANDSCAPE OF LAW
The English Way of Law
In The Rule of Law, Tom Bingham specified seven criteria by which we should assess a legal system:
- The law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear, and predictable
- Questions of legal right should be resolved by application of the law, not by discretion
- The laws of the land should apply equally to all
- Public officers at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith
- The law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights
- Means must be provided for resolving bona fide civil disputes
- Adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair
Law and Economics – and History
Many claim that the common law system that evolved in the English-speaking world was superior in performing the twin roles of contract enforcement and coercion constraint to all other systems. Common law systems offer greater protection for investors and creditors.
The result is that people with money are more willing to invest in, or lend to, other people’s businesses, leading to higher rates of growth. Scholars have demonstrated that common law countries:
- Have stronger investor protections
- Make it easier for new firms to enter the market
- Have better protection of outside investors
- Have more efficient courts, have lower unemployment
- Have more extensive mandatory disclosure requirements
- Have more efficient procedures in cases of insolvency
There is greater flexibility of judicial decision-making under common law, because common law courts use broad standards rather than specific rules. Of the many reasons that make European nations rich and strong, the most important one is the guarantee of having impartial justice.
The Rule of Law’s Enemies
Ferguson identifies four distinct threats to the rule of law in the West today. The first is how far our civil liberties have been eroded by the national security state. A second threat is the intrusion of European law, with its civil law character, into the English legal system.
A third threat is the growing complexity of statute law. A fourth threat is the mounting cost of the law, which amounts to an estimated $1.75 trillion a year in the U.S.
In a 2011 survey, Michael Porter identified companies that decide to offshore operations favored foreign locations because the U.S. falls behind in the following areas: effectiveness of the political system, the complexity of the tax code, regulation, efficiency of the legal framework, and flexibility in hiring and firing.
Legal Reform around the World
“The fundamental question the Chinese government must face is lawlessness. China does not lack laws, but the rule of law” – Chen Guangcheng
All over the developing world, countries are seizing the opportunity to improve their chances of attracting foreign and domestic investment and raising the growth rate by reforming their legal and administrative systems. The World Bank tracks the progress of such reforms by ranking countries in terms of:
- The quality of public administration
- The business regulatory environment
- Property rights and rule-based governance
- Public sector management and institutions
- Transparency, accountability and corruption in the public sector
Development economists like Paul Collier see the establishment of the rule of law in a poor country as occurring in four distinct stages.
These include reducing violence, protecting property rights, imposing institutions, implementing institutional checks on government, and preventing corruption in the public sector.
In contrast, the People’s Republic of China has achieved astonishing growth without effective legal institutions and without much improvement in them. However, many scholars argue that if China does not now transition to the rule of law, there will be a low institutional ceiling which limits its future growth.
CIVIL AND UNCIVIL SOCIETIES
“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life… In the United States they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion”
“Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone” – Alexis de Tocqueville
The Rise and Fall of Social Capital
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray argues that the breakdown of both religious and secular associational life in working-class communities is one of the key drivers of social immobility and widening inequality in the United States today. The US and the UK experienced a golden age of associational life in the nineteenth century.
People were involved in trade unions, cooperative societies, leagues, boards, commissions, and committees for every purpose of philanthropy and culture. The decline of ‘social capital’ has manifestly accelerated. Not only has membership of political parties and trade unions plummeted, long-established charities have seen a ‘marked drop in numbers’.
Although the average donation has increased, the percentage of households giving to charity has fallen since 1978 and more than a third of donations now come from the over-sixty-fives. Some declare that technology is primarily responsible for the decline in associational life in America, but Ferguson argues that the state, with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ is the real enemy of civil society.
In Ferguson’s opinion, the best institutions in the British Isles today are the independent schools. He would like to see an educational policy adopted throughout the United Kingdom aimed to significantly increase the number of private educational institutions and establish a program of vouchers, subsidies and scholarships to allow a substantial number of children from lower- income families to attend them.
For about a hundred years, the expansion of public education was a great thing.
The American states led the way in setting up local taxes to fund universal and compulsory schooling after 1852. Countries all over the world adopted similar systems, obtaining high returns of education, since literate and numerate people are much more productive workers.
The problem is that public monopoly providers of education suffer from the same problems that afflict monopoly providers of anything. Quality declines because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested ‘producer’ interests.
Ferguson is not arguing for private schools against state schools.
He argues for a mix of both with meaningful competition to favor excellence. Sweden and Denmark have been pioneers of such educational reform. Thanks to a bold scheme of decentralization and vouchers, the number of independent schools has soared in Sweden.
Denmark’s ‘free’ schools are independently run and receive a government grant per pupil, but are able to charge fees and raise funds in other ways if they show results. Today in the United States, there are more than 2,000 charter schools, publicly funded but independently run, bringing choice in education to around two million families in some of the country’s poorest urban areas.
The education revolution of the twentieth century was that basic education became available to most people in democracies. The education revolution of the twenty-first century will be that good education will become available to an increasing proportion of children.
A Bigger Society
Ferguson argues that over the past 50 years, governments have encroached too far into the realm of civil society. He believes that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens.
For true citizenship is not just about voting, earning and staying on the right side of the law. It is also about participating in the wider group beyond our families, which is where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct: in short, to govern ourselves. To educate our children. To care for the helpless. To fight crime.
To keep the streets clean. Most societies would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. We are living through a profound crisis of the institutions that were the keys to our previous success – not only as economic, but also as political and cultural – as a civilization.
Ferguson seeks to explain why some countries are much richer than others. Some emphasize the role of geography, climate, disease or natural resources. However, these explanations seem less convincing now than they were in the eighteenth century. Scientific knowledge, technological innovation and market integration have greatly reduced the significance of distance, weather and germs, while mineral wealth has been revealed to be as much a curse as a blessing.
Economic history shifts from poverty to prosperity so suddenly and in so many different cultural settings that it cannot be explained though the roles of religion, culture, or ‘national character.’ In some cases, the differences in economic welfare within countries are just as big as the differences between them. In 2007, the average income of the American top one percent in terms of income was 30 times that of the average income of Americans in the remaining 99 percent.
Ferguson states that economic explanations that focus on the impact of financial forces, international integration, information technology or fiscal policy do not offer sufficient explanations. He argues that we need to delve into the history of institutions to understand the complex dynamics of convergence and divergence that characterize today’s world.
The democratic deficits, regulatory fragility, rule of lawyers, and uncivil society offer better explanations of why the West is now delivering lower growth and greater inequality than in the past. They help us understand why the West finds itself in Adam Smith’s stationary state.
The Urban Future
Some things are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future: the bell-curve distribution of intelligence in any population, the cognitive bases of the human mind, and our evolved biological behavior. We can also assume that the global population will continue to rise towards nine billion, with nearly all of the increase concentrated in Africa and South Asia, and that in the rest of the world the age structure will tilt further in the direction of the elderly.
At the same time, key commodities will remain in finite supply. However, the pace of global technological diffusion seems likely to remain high and this will encourage the continued migration of people from the country to the cities. The developing world’s new ‘megacities’ – metropolises with populations of more than ten million – will play a defining role in the twenty-first century.
The physicist Geoffrey West has shown that there are both economies of scale in infrastructure and increasing returns to scale in human creativity from the process of urbanization. He sees them as centers of wealth creation, creativity, innovation, and invention.
Shooters and Diggers
Similarly, in the post-crisis economic order there are two kinds of economies: those with vast accumulations of assets and the economies with huge public debts. In such a world, it pays to have underground resources, but these are not distributed fairly. 60 percent of the estimated value of the world’s proven subsoil mineral reserves is owned by just ten countries.
However, we do not know how much resource discoveries and technological advances will increase the supply of natural resources in the years to come. The real risks in the non-Western world today are revolutions and wars. A combination of food-price spikes, a youthful population, a rising middle class, a disruptive ideology, a corrupt regime and a weakening international order cause revolutions.
All of these conditions are present in the Middle East today, which caused the “Arab Spring.” The event to worry about is the war that nearly always follows a revolution of such magnitude.
You Didn’t Build That
Countries arrive at the stationary state, as Adam Smith argued, when their laws and institutions degenerate to the point that elite rent-seeking dominates the economic and political process. Public debt has become a way for the older generation to live at the expense of the young and the unborn.
Regulation has become dysfunctional to the point of increasing the fragility of the system. Lawyers, who can be revolutionaries in a dynamic society, become parasites in a stationary one. Finally, civil society withers into a no man’s land between corporate interests and big government. Taken together, these are the things Ferguson calls the Great Degeneration.
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