By Daniel Altman
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $25
The global economy is changing more quickly than ever before in its history. The technologies that have made it more integrated—primarily those that have improved transportation and the exchange of information—continue to develop, and the number of interactions among people from all parts of the world is growing exponentially. These changes are having a profound effect on our lives. In the past two decades, we have seen hundreds of millions of people escape poverty, but we have also seen a severe deterioration in our natural environment and the bursting of huge financial bubbles.
Despite the refinement of economic policies designed to manage the business cycle, the volatility of commodity prices, trade flows, government budgets, and many other important indicators of the global economy continues to increase. As a result, it is easy to get caught up in the stream of numbers that spew out every second and to lose sight of the long term. That's a problem for our future. Personal fortunes may be gained and lost in a day, but national fortunes are gained and lost because of deeply ingrained economic factors that take years to develop and, if necessary, to change. Certainly, idiosyncratic events can push countries to one side or the other of their long-term economic paths. But over the course of decades, those paths tend to be determined by economic factors with very deep roots indeed.
These deep factors do not necessarily explain why stock markets rise and fall in the course of a single day, hour, or minute, but they do set limits on the material standards of living that an economy can achieve. If the pursuit of economic growth is a race, then these factors determine the location of the finish line. Because the finish line can often seem very far away, however, they do not receive very much attention in the daily pronouncements of pundits, politicians, and even people who know a little bit of economics.
This book aims to change that. It begins by explaining how, over long periods of time, countries with similar deep factors tend to reach similar limits of growth and prosperity. Those limits will start to bind, perhaps sooner rather than later, for the current darling of the global economy, China. China's rapid growth—and the notion that this growth will continue for decades to come—has attracted investment from around the world. Yet its long-term prospects are not as rosy as investors might hope. The European Union has also been a popular target for investors because of its political stability, its huge internal market, and the potential of its newer Eastern members. Its euro currency has given central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and other major investors a long-awaited alternative to the dollar. But all is not well in the Union, nor in the euro area, both of which are beginning to fall apart because the member countries are facing different limits to growth.
As countries strive to reach their limits and offer their citizens the highest possible living standards, they will come upon a series of obstacles. Their economies need resources—both natural and human—as well as a certain measure of stability. In the coming decades, many countries will face shortages of all three of these items, and those shortages will slow their headlong dash toward the finish line. Some countries will colonize others in a bid to secure the natural resources their economies need to grow: raw materials for manufacturing, crops to feed workers, fuel, and water. This time, the colonial conquests will be achieved through monetary rather than military means, but the results will likely be counterproductive for both the colonizers and the colonized. Rich countries, with their aging populations and low fertility rates, will change their immigration policies to draw in more workers from around the world. Even as poor countries develop, it will be harder for them to hold on to their most productive citizens. Meanwhile, many countries that have embraced left-leaning populist governments in recent years will first shift to the right, then continue to swing back and forth like political pendulums. The resulting regime changes will slow their economic growth—an unfortunate reality, since growing may be the only way to settle the pendulums down.
In the midst of these limits and obstacles, there will also be new opportunities. As the booms fueled by technology and cheap credit in the 1990s and 2000s fade into the background, Americans will be looking for new sources of jobs and income. They will find some of them in an unexpected place, drawing on a little-recognized but fundamental pillar of their nation's economic success: selling power. The restructuring of the global economy—ever more intertwined, ever more digital—will also allow workers to seize new opportunities by straddling two or more markets at a time and acting as gatekeepers of profit. Changes in how people work will lead them to change where they work as well; in the future, a growing class of mobile professionals will populate a new set of economic hubs founded on lifestyle choices rather than business imperatives. And the slow collapse of the World Trade Organization will actually allow countries to pursue freer trade, opening up new gains from doing business abroad.
Despite the opportunities it presents, the road to growth is not always smooth. Even if a country manages to avoid the obstacles along its particular path, there are still risks that affect everyone in the race. The recent financial crisis showed that negligence, malfeasance, and herd behavior in a couple of financial centers can stunt growth around the world, setting some countries back years in their pursuit of higher living standards. One result of the new regulatory framework facing the world of finance will be the blossoming of an enormous black market whose presence will bring new risks to the global economy. At the same time, climate change—often touted as an opportunity for new industries in rich and poor countries alike—will actually separate these countries even further, creating a threat of instability that could hamper growth in both. To solve these problems, countries will have to work together. Yet the political institutions that provide the framework for global problem-solving may not be up to the task.
Even generalists have their areas of strength and weakness, so this book does not take on every pressing economic issue. Other writers are better equipped to predict which fuel will power the transport of the future (indeed, some already have), which super- and semi-conductors will carry the global economy's data, and whether that mode of transport and those data will help humankind to develop the resources of the moon, other planets, or faraway galaxies. The task of prediction is difficult enough without venturing so far afield in so many different directions.