My son is doing the Scholarship history exam this year and the topic is something like “populism in history”. It got me interested and I’ve been reading various books and talking the issue over with my son trying to get straight in my own mind just what “populism” actually is.
It seems like one of those elusive terms where each user means something subtly different, usually – at least when it is quasi-academic usages – things/beliefs/actions the author themselves disagrees with, often almost viscerally. I’m still left unclear that it means anything much different than “things/views which are popular with a significant share of the population, perhaps even a majority, but where those views cut across or defy those held by the contemporary elites of the society in question”. Since there is no particular reason to suppose that contemporary “elite” opinion is any better or closer to being right, to the truth, than anyone else – especially where competing values are at stake – any use of the term derisively seems to mostly tell you more about the user than about the merits (or otherwise) of the particular cause/movement at that moment bearing the label populist. Is there any real difference between, say, Brexit and, say, the climate strikers, but one often bears the label “populist” and the other typically doesn’t – even though the latter often seem considerable more fevered, even messianic (“the end of the world is nigh”) than the former?
What prompted all that was the latest survey from the IGM panel of European economists which turned up in my in-box the other day. I find these surveys interesting, but the reason depends a bit on the question. Sometimes the answers genuinely tell you something about the balance of the literature and expert opinion on some relatively technical aspects of economics. At other times, the answers tell you more about the political preferences and inclinations of the (European) elite economics profession than anything else. The latest survey was about populism, undefined of course.
Here was the first question.
As a group they seem pretty confident of that answer. I’m a bit sceptical that one can be quite that confident (hardly anyone was even uncertain), but that question wasn’t the one I was mainly interested in.
Here is the second question.
Taking the right-hand panel (where answers are weighted by the relevant experts’ confidence in their answer), 62 per cent of this expert group believe that more government spending (or more tax and spending in combination) would be likely to “limit the rise of populism in Europe”. Only 5 per cent of respondents disagree.
And here is the third question
A similar proportion believe such fiscal measures should actually be taken. This time, a larger proportion (15 per cent) disagree, but (a) no one disagrees strongly, and (b) the net balance favouring more such measures is still huge: 65 per cent in favour, 15 per cent against.
I found these results pretty extraordinary. They are frustrating in a way because one can’t quiz the respondents on why they think government spending/tax can make such a difference, but perhaps they reflect that old line that the solution you propose is often influenced by the tool you happen to have, regardless of whether the tool and the problem are well aligned at all. Economists tend to think primarily in terms of economic instruments (tax/spending) and perhaps to economic diagnoses. I suspect the results also tell you something about just how centre-left oriented (a big place for smart government and clever interventions) economists as a group (whether in government or academe) have become.
Because it is not as if Europe doesn’t already have quite a lot of government spending. Here is the OECD measure of general government outlays as a share of GDP (in the Irish case, it is as a share of modified GNI – a measure the Irish authorities use to adjust for the international corporate tax distortions to reported Irish GDP).
There are a few small European countries down the left-hand end of the chart but every single one of the top 22 government spending OECD countries are European, and not one of the non-European countries has government spending in excess of 40 per cent of GDP. Where do people worry about European “populism”? Well, one reads stories about France (Le Pen), Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland and so on. A few years ago the concern was Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. And, of course, there is Brexit. Every single one of those countries is in that top-22 group of really rather large spenders.
Perhaps those big-spending Europeans are, in many cases, spending a bit less (share of GDP) than they were 25 years ago but it is hardly a climate where government spending is at minimalist-government levels (even Korea is now over 30 per cent of GDP). And yet these expert economists want even more taxes and spending? Perhaps doing so wouldn’t dash longer-term growth and productivity prospects – some of the countries with the highest average labour productivity are also among the group of largest spenders – but when your starting point is the highest rates of government spending anywhere, it is hard to believe that more spending, more tax, could be more than a very short-term palliative, buying off the symptoms of discontents for a few months or years with more bread and circuses, without actually dealing with the root causes (whatever they are) behind the various phenomena the economists had in mind when they use that “populist” label. Brexit sentiment will dissipate because a UK government chooses to spend more like a Continental? Seems improbable. The popular support for Viktor Orban will dissipate if Hungarian governments increase government spending from 10th highest in the OECD to, say, 5th? Again, it doesn’t seem to get to grips with what bothers voters, or Orban. (Or, outside Europe, Trump as a phenomenon of insufficient government spending? Really?)
In fairness, I guess the questions don’t invite the respondents to offer a menu of possible responses. Perhaps many of them think things other than more government spending are equally, or more, important. But the overwhelming support for more government spending/tax gives a pretty strong hint that they think simply spending more money, perhaps more smartly, is an important part of responding to those concerns they so much dislike. My own suspicion is that is more a case of “physician heal thyself” – that today’s “elites”, with no particular claim to legitimacy (can’t point to God, heredity, sustained military virtue or anything more traditional), might look in the mirror and reflect on themselves, their values, aspirations and behaviours. Perhaps they lay claim to having “technical expertise”, but it doesn’t (probably shouldn’t, other than as advisory input) count for much – even if sound – if conflicting values are at stake. Do today’s establishment leaders invite trust and confidence? It doesn’t look that way to me (in New Zealand either) and so it seems unlike that simply tossing more money at the situation is anything like a big part of “the answer”.
But Europe’s top economists, rightly or wrongly, see things differently.