Globalisation's positive power

Nobel Prize winner and former Clinton economic advisor Joseph Stiglitz believes in the positive powe

Listen to the podcast In conversation with Joseph Stiglitz

Many Americans are counting down the hours until George W. Bush leaves the Oval Office. Joseph Stiglitz, though, has gone further than most. He keeps a special clock at home just so he can see precisely how long there is to go.

The Nobel Prize winner has never been afraid of controversy, but he's not exactly alone when he says in his view things can only get better the second the countdown reaches zero and Bush moves out of the White House.

With his lack of pretensions and easy-going style Stiglitz seems more like a favourite uncle than a world-renowned economist, academic, and former presidential advisor as he chats over a cup of coffee.

His ability to put complicated concepts into easy-to-digest nuggets has endeared him greatly to the media, but also explains why his books on globalisation and economics have a far greater reach than most economists could dream of.

As he whisks around the globe, stopping in Korea and London, before heading back to Columbia University, Stiglitz has plenty to say about what the US needs to do to improve its relationship with the rest of the world and where it has taken wrong turnings. "At the end Americans will look back at a failed presidency that turned its back on the international community."

But Stiglitz is interested in more than critiquing the Bush presidency; he is campaigning for a new type of globalisation, one that puts a more equal and fair global society at its heart, and for less pressure from the US-influenced global development institutions to impose a one-size-fits-all free market, pro-privatisation model.

“The US has pushed a particular model on the rest of the world. It might work for America, but is totally not acceptable in many other parts of the world where a sense of social solidarity is important or need to be important for those societies to function.”

Where developing powers India and China have resisted US-led pressure to move towards instant privatisation of state functions, and refused to swing open their doors to multi-nationals without qualification, they have created much stronger societies, Stiglitz argues.

“These countries managed globalisation: it was their ability to take advantage of globalisation, without being taken advantage of by globalisation, that accounts for much of their success."

More transparency, easier to access information, and stronger civil societies are wearing away some of the power in the relationship between the developing and developed countries, he argues.

"Using the internet … they can see what is going on in a way that we might not like," he says relating a story about the recent US-Korea bi-lateral talks where, after the US negotiators had finished a deal they told the Koreans was good and fair, the write-up on the US government website told a different story. "Basically it said: 'we managed to screw the Koreans'.” Korean access to that information is likely to have a powerful influence on future negotiations.

With the US presidential primaries in full swing, the timing may be right for this man with global stature, and the ear of influential Democrats, to be heard by policy makers back home.

Knowledge of foreign policy and the continuing role of the US in Iraq have both emerged as part of the cut and thrust of debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as they tussle for votes. And Stiglitz has a lot of knowledge and experience to offer. He acknowledges that he has regular conversations with the three Democratic front runners, and you can imagine he is likely to be snapped up as an advisor by the Democratic candidate next year.

A long-time critic of the IMF, even in his World Bank days, Stiglitz can help build a wide base of support. He can find common ground with anti-globalisation lobbyists who cluster around Naomi Klein when he speaks of the damage Bush and his acolytes have done to the UN and other multilateral institutions, but the Nobel Laureate has far more than journalistic railing and emotion in his armoury.

Klein would no doubt agree with Stiglitz that: “The damage that has been done by Bush has been huge… the damage to the World Bank is huge, the damage to the UN is huge.”

But Stiglitz is not an anti-globalisation campaigner; just someone who believes it can be done better and to the benefit of the many, not the few. He is busy spreading his message that globalisation is not yet benefiting the world's poorest and then setting out his prescription for how to make it work.

Narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest with a strong state at the core is the only way for globalisation to work in his view. The poorest suffer the most insecurity in a global economy, but if it is to work they too must benefit from opening trade doors and jobs to international competition. In the past, he says, “when people have talked about globalisation they have talked about the impact it has had on GDP but they don’t talk about the impact it has on disparities. The way globalisation has been managed has meant increasing disparities in many parts of the world, both in developed and developing countries.”

Not only does he argue for safety nets of various kinds – medical and educational among them – as essential in creating a more secure and stable society in developing countries, but he applies these principles to the US as well.

These principles – including a centralised national health care system – have always been considered surprisingly radical in the US, but he is not alone when he says the pendulum is swinging towards significant reform.

“All the candidates have been forced to address the questions of what are they going to do about the health care crisis in the US?”

Stiglitz believes that high levels of inequality in the US have started to change people’s views about the role of the state. Inequality has grown under Bush and has even started to undermine that greatest of national myths – the American dream.

He argues plausibly for greater emphasis on equality in development theory and practise. This, he believes, will help create greater stability and security internationally.

“The argument has always been that [if] the country is a whole lot better off…those that have gained could compensate the losers, but the problem is under Bush that hasn’t happened. Rather than trickledown it has been trickle up.”

Inequality, he argues, produces social unrest. “I believe that it is important for countries to focus on equity, on ensuring that the fruits of growth are widely shared,” he says.

"The people at the bottom keep paying the price. We could compensate them, we could help them share more the fruits…by improving education, and having more progressive taxation. Under Bush we have done just the opposite and I think that is part of the social tension in America.”

And who can find fault with his campaign to bring the same kind of democracy and transparency to international development organisations such as the World Bank and IMF? It seems only fair that these international organisations should have a clearer voting structure, and the public should know how they come to decisions, as they would with their own governments.

He argues idealistically for a fairer world built not on the single pillar of the market, but on three more — government, individuals and community. As someone who has worked in the highest levels of both academia and politics, he offers more than just analysis; he provides a set of potential policy solutions - and that is his advantage over other critics of US foreign policy and development theory.

It may be stating the obvious to say that free trade will not bring equal benefits while everyone has different levels of skills, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated and re-stated, until the time is right to hear it. And Stiglitz isn't giving up.

A version of this article was first published in the Fabian Review. Check out the society's website for details of the Fabian Society Change the World conference on 19 January in association with the New Statesman

title="Link to posting">In conversation with Joseph Stiglitz

Rachael Jolley talks to Bill Clinton’s ex-economic adviser about the positive power of globalisation and other issues ahead of the Fabian foreign affairs conference on 19 January in association with the New Statesman

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496