Time flies when you’re having fun, but generally not this fast. You hold in your hands the 100th quarterly print edition of the Milken Institute Review – that’s right, the last issue of the Review’s 25th year.
It’s always been a pretty lean operation, though most assuredly not a one-person show. The folks who’ve had my back over the years include two Institute CEOs (Mike Klowden and Rich Ditizio), two publishers (Conrad Kiechel and the late Joel Kurtzman), two designers (Joannah Ralston and Leslie Noyes), a managing editor (Larry Yu) and, of course, Mike Milken. My goal has been to produce a serious magazine about a serious subject, but one with a light enough touch to capture the attention of both policy wonks and fellow travelers who have lots of other things to do. If you’re really curious about where we’ve been, I suggest you browse the past 40 issues (along with zillions of shorter, straight-to-digital pieces) that are archived on www.MilkenReview.org. The first 60 issues have thus far eluded pixel immortality. But their time is coming: we have a crew of hundreds in a sub-basement somewhere working on the transfer.
Have we ever published a true dud, you have the bad taste to ask? I’ll leave that to the grinches in the room. Like the parents of Lake Wobegon, I’m sticking with the conclusion that all the Review’s children are above average. Meanwhile, I can’t resist a stroll down memory lane, highlighting a passel of articles I’m very proud of among the 700-plus we’ve printed – not to mention the 100-plus books we’ve excerpted. Some of them explained why stuff you just knew was true was, in fact, dead wrong. Some, why the world wasn’t going to hell in a handbasket nearly as fast you thought. Some (my faves, I’ll confess), how the occasional seemingly intractable problem has a relatively painless fix.
A Trip Around the World … In the very first issue (with Marc Chagall’s Fall of Icarus on the cover), Harvard economic iconoclast Larry Lindsey took dead aim at the nascent European Monetary Union and its backers’ dreams of wine and roses. He fretted a bit about the possibility that the euro would compete with the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and in the process drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. But he saved his biggest concern for the reality that it effectively left Germany, whose interests were not identical to those of the other EMU countries, in the driver’s seat.
“All currencies end badly,” wrote René Sédillot, the French financial historian. They are born out of political hope, then die when changing political priorities make their existence untenable.
The euro, of course, is not dead. But the single-currency system was from the outset problematic because it lulled private investors into a false sense of security in lending heavily to countries on the periphery (notably Greece, Portugal and Italy). And once the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Germany slowed these countries’ recoveries by favoring its own banks over the stability of the EMU. What’s more, the resulting tepid recovery not only prolonged the misery for tens of millions, it fed right-wing populism across the currency area, leaving centrist leaders from Spain to France to Italy struggling to keep Europe from fragmenting.
Long before Russia took by Crimea by blitzkrieg and subsequently failed to grab the rest of Ukraine, economists were debating why the post-Soviet economy looked (unflatteringly) like a Persian Gulf petro-kingdom with colder winters. Indeed, it’s widely believed that Russia’s seeming inability to produce much more than fossil fuels, military hardware and really good ballet explains Putin’s imperial ambitions. How better to distract the masses?
Back to the big question. Yes, it’s hard to run a successful modern economy with pervasive top-down corruption and without the rule of law. Yes, almost a century of commissars left Russians with fear of authority and without a sense that success could be earned through hard work, savings and initiative. Yes, the vaunted education system was never as good as the hype. Yes, many economies seem to stall at Russia’s state of development – enough so that there’s even a name for it: the middle-income trap. But writing in the Summer 2014 issue, Cliff Gaddy (Brookings) and Barry Ickes (Penn State) offered a very different perspective, one linked to a combination of geography and Stalinist planning.
Inefficiency is built-in, they argued, by virtue of the locational sprawl of Russian industry and sectoral interdependence reinforced by the legacy of more than a half-century of central planning. Industrial centers that must endure terrible winters and are thousands of miles apart must support each other at great cost. Of course, if it were left to the market, the economy would eventually sort itself out. But that’s a nonstarter from the perspective of the Kremlin. The dislocation, in terms of jobs, tax revenue and profits for the oligarchs, would dramatically weaken the government.
It’s a middle-income trap alright. But the causes are uniquely Russian. And the fix – well, who says there has to be a fix?
President Trump stumbled into it, and, somewhat surprisingly, President Biden seems to have bought in: America is in a Cold War with China. One question now – well, there are many questions – is how to counter Beijing’s use of trillions in infrastructure aid (aka the Belt and Road Initiative) to win foreign friends, or at least to buy their political neutrality. In the Summer 2019 issue, Staci Warden, CEO of the Algorand Foundation (and then the director of the Global Market Development Practice at the Institute) coolly assayed the BRI at a time when cool heads were in short supply.
The hardline version of the narrative on Chinese international engagement runs that China is practicing a form of “debt diplomacy,” wherein it foists massive sovereign indebtedness on countries in a Trojan Horse maneuver, enabling it to later seize important raw materials or other strategic assets (e.g., ports in Sri Lanka and Djibouti) in the form of collateral for nonpayment. But even discounting the idea that China is some kind of hyper-rational long-term actor bent on global domination, the United States fears that the BRI and related activities will create (or recreate) unsustainable debt dynamics that could potentially lead to a vicious circle of state fragility and economic and political dependence on China.
To the extent it’s true that state-backed Chinese lenders are willing to lose billions of dollars purely to achieve foreign policy objectives, U.S. firms will find it extremely difficult to compete with China on commercial terms. However, this administration should probably take a deep breath and believe its own rhetoric about the inherent superiority of a market-based approach. The U.S. government gives aid – and U.S. public and private actors extend credit – primarily to countries with good governance, and on a transparent basis, because it believes that these conditions help ensure that the money is spent wisely on behalf of investors and will more likely achieve its global welfare goals.
Throwing money at white elephants is throwing money away, and it is not sustainable even for the biggest balance sheets.
Democratically elected governments participating in the BRI, as it turns out, appear to be less likely than other participants to tolerate massive indebtedness to China. Recently, a number of countries have done a more sophisticated job of assessing their debt vulnerabilities and, as a result, have increasingly pushed back. Malaysia, Myanmar and Nepal are all recent examples of countries that have turned down Chinese debt or even cancelled projects for fear of over-indebtedness or Chinese “neo-colonialism.”
If the Chinese reputation is for rapid growth through state-led industrialization, the reputation of the United States is for democratic institutions of government, a strong civil society, and free, open and transparent markets. Not only are these central U.S. ideals, they are central to the United States’ own growth story. The United States can lead in these areas by continuing to foster democracy and promote good governance in the countries with which it engages.
The tale of global growth since World War II is one that economists love to tell because there have been so many winners. Set aside the rapid postwar recovery in most of the combatants, which was impressive for any number of reasons. What shines most is export-led growth in East Asia, in which literally billions of people have been drawn to the cities to work in high-productivity factory jobs. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia got rich. China, Vietnam and Indonesia are seemingly on their way, while India and Bangladesh have a fighting chance. And, of course, citizens of high-income countries got a big bonus in the form of a flood of low-price imported consumer goods.
But what about the places that were late to the game? In particular, what about sub-Saharan Africa, which has been held back by tribalism, bad governance, great-power proxy wars and echoes of colonialism in the form of natural resource exploitation? As Harvard’s Dani Rodrik explained in the Fall 2014 issue, things have been looking up since the new millennium. But – and this is a very important “but” – much of that economic success has come from (likely temporary) high global commodity prices and the harvesting of low-hanging fruit derived from digital communications.
For various reasons we do not fully understand, industrialization has become really hard for all countries of the world. The advanced countries are, of course, deindustrializing, which is not a big surprise and can be ascribed to both import competition and a shift in demand to services. But middle-income countries in Latin America are doing the same. And industrialization in low-income countries is running out of steam considerably earlier than was the case before.
The bottom line, Rodrik concluded: it’s almost certainly too late to recreate the jet-propelled export-led industrial growth that has done so much for so many.
If African countries do achieve growth rates substantially higher than I have suggested is likely, they will do so by pursuing a growth model that is different from earlier miracles, which were based on industrialization. Perhaps it will be agriculture-led growth. Perhaps it will be services. But it will look quite different than scenarios we have seen before.
If you want to win friends and influence folks where I live – and perhaps where you live, too – one simply must agree that climate change is real, that the AR-15 isn’t the weapon of choice for hunting geese and that genetically modified foods are bad for children and other living things. Now, the first two seem to be no-brainers. But the GMO gospel is another matter entirely.
In the Fall 2014 issue, Jayson Lusk, now head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue, offered a primer on the biology and economics of GMO foods. He explained that the differences between the selective breeding that makes all agriculture possible and the molecular manipulations that distinguish “frankenfoods” are differences without distinction. And that while there’s no harm (other than paying premium prices) in buying foods that proclaim they are GMO-free, the failure to use the full biological playbook to raise farm productivity could prove very costly, indeed, for billions of people who can’t afford to pay $5 a pound for tomatoes at their local farmers’ markets.
Biotechnology is not the answer to all of the world’s food problems. And proponents of genetically engineered food have, at times, been guilty of overpromising. But given the confluence of tightening water supplies, climate change, rising demand for meat in emerging market countries like India and China, and a growing world population, genetic engineering will be necessary if we are to feed future generations at reasonable cost.
In the Spring 2020 issue, Sebastian Edwards of UCLA dug deeply into the question of why Chile, a prosperous democracy on a continent where neither prosperity nor democracy can be taken for granted, almost came apart at the seams in the wake of street protests.
At least since the late 1990s, there has been a subterranean dissatisfaction among Chile’s population – a belief that the playing field is not even. … There is a growing sense that private firms can collude and abuse workers and consumers without being penalized, that the education system feeds a network of privileged graduates who get all the good jobs and that the health care system is profoundly unfair and segregated by social class. In short, for almost two decades, a period in which Chile placed first in almost every economic and social ranking in Latin America, a large fraction of the population believed that there was a very dark side to “modernization.”
Edwards’s analysis of political instability is worth a long, hard look because it resonates far beyond Chile. His identification of grievances only loosely tied to reality touches a chord relevant to almost every liberal democracy today. It fits the picture in countries ranging from France to Sweden to Poland to the United States, where the population is divided more by culture than by income, race or class.
It’s the Economy, Stupid … When most people – including most economists, I suspect – think about New Deal economics, they think of FDR fighting the Great Depression with Keynesian fiscal expansion. The New Deal did, in fact, stabilize the financial system and did a heck of a lot to save Americans from the Dickensian horrors of poverty. But FDR was no fiscal expansionist: in attempting to balance the budget in 1937 he actually put the economy into a scary nose-dive back toward the Hoover era.
The great irony is that FDR was no free-marketer, either. As Harold Cole (University of Pennsylvania) and Lee Ohanian (UCLA) explained in the Summer 2009 issue, the signature New Deal programs added up to a slow-motion disaster. “Every previous economic crisis in the history of the United States had been followed by a vigorous recovery. … So what went so badly wrong?”
Cole and Ohanian explained that the New Dealers followed the example of contemporary authoritarian Europe, cartelizing the economy in order to reduce output and stabilize deflating prices. But note a key difference: in Germany and Italy, cartelization was part of a massive effort to remilitarize in an economic pressure cooker. In Depression America, it just meant lower productivity and higher unemployment. FDR, by the way, did eventually reverse course, restoring antitrust to its rightful place as an aid to competition. And the American economy did bounce back from the 1937 scare – ironically, with help from war preparations. Better late than never.
Almost a century after the fact, well-informed people still disagree about the causes of the Great Depression, the effectiveness of FDR’s New Deal and the legacy of federal economic regulation ranging from farm subsidies to price controls in public transportation. What they don’t disagree about much is the Great Depression’s severity and extraordinary length.
Well, not until J. Bradford DeLong of UC Berkeley took direct aim at this conventional wisdom in the Fall 2018 issue. Delong didn’t make little of the trauma induced by the economic collapse in the 1930s. Nor did he deny that Washington has since been better prepared to deal with the misery of mass joblessness. But he did argue that the economic impact of the Great Recession, which began with the financial and real estate crashes in 2008, has been as deep or deeper.
The Great Recession has cast a very large shadow on America’s future prosperity. We are now haunted by it in a sense that our predecessors were not haunted by the Great Depression. Looking forward, it appears that we will be haunted for who knows how long. No unbiased observer projects anything other than slow growth, much slower than the years during and after World War II. Nobody is forecasting that the haunting will cease – that the shadow left from the Great Recession will lift.
Fifty years from now, historians will write that President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress and the Federal Reserve laid the foundations for rapid recovery and for a sustained period of high growth (and even declining inequality). By contrast, they will write that the responses of President Barack Obama, Congress and the Federal Reserve did not come up to the standard of the mid-1930s policymakers, who were working without the insights gained from the successes and failures of postwar macro policy. They will write that Washington failed to lay the foundations for rapid recovery or equitable long-run economic growth.
Ask just about any policy wonk in the year 2000 whether population growth was a global problem, and you’d get an answer that was some variation on “Well, duh!” Malthusianism, the 19th-century conviction that exponential growth in population would inevitably outpace the economy’s capacity to feed it – or, for that matter, to sustain it above poverty – was back with a vengeance. Anyone who’d seen the future in the polluted, gridlocked urban sprawls ranging from Delhi to Cairo to São Paulo needed no convincing that the end was nigh.
But those who asked Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, as we did in the Winter issue of 2000, were in for a shock. Yes, the world population had exploded in the 20th century as a combination of economic growth and public health measures sharply reduced infant mortality and increased adult life expectancy. But just as the United Nations, among others, was sounding the alarm about an overpopulated future, one key factor – female fertility – was turning around on a dime.
Take Thailand. In 1965-70, the average woman could be expected to birth 6.1 kids. By 1995-2000, that figure was down to 1.7 – well below the rate needed to hold the population steady in the long run.
Eberstadt was neither a pessimist nor an optimist. He wrote:
Long-term population decline under conditions of steady health improvement is not a disastrous demographic phenomenon – any more than were the 20th-century dual explosions of population and health. But an orderly global depopulation would require strange new adjustments – some of them wrenching.
P.S. Eberstadt is back at it again in this issue (with co-author Ashton Verdery of Penn State) offering a striking look at the tangled demographic web that Chinese policymakers wove in their efforts to curb population growth.
Economists enjoy a good argument as much as others, and some of them never seem to end. The big difference about the one I have in mind is that it finally led to some breakthrough thinking about economic policy. And we were delighted to publish a definitive analysis by Princeton’s Alan Krueger (a sure thing for a Nobel if he hadn’t died in his prime two years later) in the Spring 2017 issue.
Back up for a minute. At the heart of most centrist models about how the economy works is that markets are more or less competitive – and most economists tend to lose sight of how often they fail that test. Take the hoary debate about minimum wages. With competitive labor markets, any minimum with a bite will reduce employment. So there was no free lunch in trying to raise the incomes of low-wage workers by raising the minimum. But two decades ago, Krueger (along with David Card of UC Berkeley) showed pretty definitively that, in the case of fast-food workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a higher minimum actually raised employment. And the only plausible explanation was that the labor market wasn’t actually competitive. Now fast forward to 2017. Writing in the Review, Krueger surveyed the American labor market more broadly, offering very convincing evidence that a whole range of strategies, some legal and some illegal, were being deployed to undermine labor market competition and in the process suppress wages.
An important first step in rethinking how labor markets work – and how they could be made to work more efficiently and fairly – is to change the default assumption from the perfectly competitive model we all learned in Econ 101 to one in which employers have some discretion to set pay. This discretion can come about because, as Adam Smith predicted, it is the “natural state of things” for employers to collude, or because of frictions in the job market.
Krueger’s policy prescription: a serious reset of antitrust policy to cover labor markets, an end to non-compete agreements to inhibit worker mobility, and the liberal use of minimum wage increases to override the impact of wage-suppressing market power.
PS. For an update of initiatives at both the state and federal levels to sharply limit the use of non-compete agreements, check out Najah Farley’s article in the Summer 2023 issue of the Review.
Industry Exposé … Remember when Big Tobacco got its just deserts – when a whole bunch of state attorneys general and killer trial bar lawyers forced the tobacco companies to pay tens of billions in damages to the states footing a part of the medical bill left in the industry’s wake? Well, you’re excused if you swallowed the David and Goliath story. But Jeremy Bulow, an economist at Stanford who was peripherally involved in the case, wrote about it for the Fall 2006 Review. And to paraphrase Bulow, if you believe that Big Tobacco got trounced, he’s got a bridge he very much would like to sell you.
Bulow explained that smokers – not tobacco companies – paid for the settlement (including over $10 billion to the trial lawyers) in the form of both higher taxes on cigarettes and higher prices on the cancer sticks. Oh, you mean, smokers were finally forced to cover their own medical costs? Actually, they already were in a grisly sort of way because, on average, they saved the taxpayers more by collecting less Social Security than they added to government-funded medical costs.
Well, at least tobacco company future profits were threatened? Well, no. The intricate settlement effectively barred new sellers of tobacco from entering the market, cementing a cartel in place and giving incumbent tobacco companies free rein to raise prices.
Does this whole wretched story make you slightly nauseous? Us, too. But we’re proud the Review helped expose the story of what really happened.
Consequences of the Climate Crisis … To borrow from the Bard, we’ve just lived through the summer of our discontent, with horrific heat and climate-related disturbances on every continent. In Shakespeare, however, the hard season was expected to be followed by a better one. In 2023, there’s no reason to believe that the climate will give us a break soon – or, for that matter, ever.
There is a fix of sorts possible that is short of abandoning fossil fuels overnight, and it is not even a very expensive one. The idea is to block a portion of the sunlight penetrating the “greenhouse” (aka Earth’s atmosphere) by artificially increasing cloud cover or by mimicking volcanoes by blowing microscopic sulfur oxide particles into the ionosphere. The catch … well, there are many catches, including the potential to screw up the ecology of the ocean.
Truth is, most environmentalists make the sign of the cross when you mention the subject because they fear it will lead governments to abandon the hard work of the energy transition. But somebody ought to be thinking about Plan B. And we’re proud to have published an article about solar radiation management or “geoengineering” in the Summer 2010 issue – 13 years before the White House reluctantly acknowledged the logic of thinking about the unthinkable. Lee Lane, then at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the road to creating an effective climate engineering initiative is bound to be bumpy. To manage such engineering some structure would have to limit control to a few of the most powerful states. What’s more, such engineering would open the door to environmental harm that cannot be properly assayed without years of research and testing. … But climate engineering is beginning to look like the last, best hope.
Climate change is a very big deal, and seemingly getting bigger by the month. Every scenario of future doleful consequences grows more doleful. Today we grapple with drought, famine, wildfires and Category 5 hurricanes. Tomorrow with ice-sheet collapse, coastal flooding, leakage of trapped methane and mass, weather-induced migration.
Oddly, though, one of the more dramatic – and now certain – impacts of climate change still seems to stretch our imaginations too much to acknowledge: the coming rapid transformation of the Arctic to open water. In Winter 2020, we commissioned Rachael Gosnell, an officer in the U.S. Navy pursuing a PhD in International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland, to lay out the issues.
[The new availability of] natural resources – oil and gas, and rare earth minerals – tops the list. The retreat of the permanent ice will also reveal bountiful fisheries even as old ones in warmer water to the south are depleted. Last, but hardly least, it will open the door to drastically shorter maritime shipping routes. And given the economic potential of the region, there is reason to believe that the adage “High North, low tension” is in danger of becoming obsolete.
Russia has taken an aggressive approach to Arctic security, with a new Arctic command, 14 new airfields and 16 deep-water ports in the region. It has invested heavily in infrastructure and has more than 40 icebreakers – nearly a dozen of which are nuclear powered and thus able to operate longer without refueling and to clear ice that is far thicker. The era of largely benign neglect of the Arctic is ending. No one really knows what’s coming next.
You’ve surely heard of rare earth minerals by now – how they’re needed in nearly every nook and cranny of the high-tech and cleantech economy, and how the Chinese currently have a near-monopoly on the mining and refining of most of them. (If not, catch up with our explainer in the Summer 2021 issue.) It’s less likely, though, that you’ve run across the term “critical materials,” the latest natural resource obsession of strategic planners in a global economy that seems to be de-integrating as rapidly as it was integrating as recently as a decade ago. Jordy Lee, of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, filled us in with an analysis in the Fall 2022 issue.
Most governments maintain their own lists of the minerals they categorize as “critical,” which are usually put together by committees of scientists and engineers. Among the best known: the European Union’s list of Critical Raw Materials and the U.S. Geological Survey’s List of Critical Minerals. However, what started out as compilations to inform policy and sustain economic efficiency has in recent years morphed into lists that are central to geopolitical strategy. For one thing, some of these minerals are as tightly bound to energy technologies in the 21st century as fossil fuels were in the 20th century. [The most prominent: platinum, molybdenum, nickel, graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium and the aforementioned rare earths.]
This alone wouldn’t be such a problem if the demand for many of them wasn’t expected to grow ten-fold in the foreseeable future. Or if the United States (and other governments) hadn’t spent decades inadvertently crippling their own ability to mine and refine these minerals. Indeed, over the next few years, the world is facing shortages that will at best undermine productivity growth and at worst exacerbate the tensions of a new type of Cold War.
By any plausible reckoning, the U.S. remains lightyears away from its goals [of insuring adequate supplies in good times and bad]. There is no way that U.S. critical minerals producers can be competitive with foreign companies that can turn a blind eye to worker health, that need not deal directly with environmentalists and that know they will be bailed out by the government if they stumble.
I don’t know what it would take to turn this ship around – perhaps a crisis in which China uses a critical minerals embargo to directly threaten the United States. Or perhaps enough shortages to make the average citizen directly feel the effects. But I do know that the failure to regenerate America’s critical minerals industries would make a dangerous world even more perilous.
Remember when America’s top nuclear energy regulator looked forward to the day electricity would be “too cheap to meter”? No, of course, you don’t. The phrase was supposed to have been uttered by Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss in 1954, when I would guess that the Review’s oldest readers were far more interested in Superman and Archie than the wishful thinking of nuclear power planners. But actually, there’s another problem: Strauss probably never said it.
You get the idea. For decades, nuclear power was sold as the future, until it wasn’t – something to do with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, I believe – not to mention construction cost overruns that made nuclear power way too expensive to meter. But maybe it’s a good idea to never say never.
Nukes currently generate 10 percent of the electricity in the world (nearly double that percentage in the advanced industrial countries), and without the ones already in operation, the rapid transition to net-zero carbon – let alone freedom from Vladimir Putin’s oil blackmail – will be quite a challenge. Besides, after decades of being wrong, nuclear power advocates may finally be right. In the Summer 2022 issue, Alex Gilbert, an executive at the nuclear startup Zeno Power Systems, made the case for a new generation of smaller, cheaper and much safer nukes.
The new reactor designs coming down the pike do share some characteristics of large lightwater reactors. They “burn” uranium to produce heat, which is converted to electricity. But the angels are in the details. And in reviewing new designs in depth, a technology primer attempting the common touch from the Nuclear Innovation Alliance described advanced reactors as “as different from one another as gouda and gorgonzola, as Beethoven from Bon Jovi.”
New designs do not rely upon “active safety” systems – typically electrically powered pumps along with highly skilled personnel to manage events during the crisis. Instead, they lean on “inherent safety,” designed from the get-go to avoid risks of accidents, minimize the need for operator intervention and reduce the impact of accidents if they do occur.
Advanced reactor developers are pursuing multiple strategies to be cost-competitive with renewables. Smaller, simpler designs should open sales to small cities, large industrial plants and even remote towns for the first time. Smaller projects would also mean shorter construction timeframes – and less interest to pay before the plant begins to generate electricity and revenue. Today’s reactors are bespoke behemoths, purpose-built to fit individual sites and circumstances. By centralizing production in factories, vendors hope to achieve manufacturing economies of scale never before available to the industry.
I could go on, but you get the idea. We have always aimed to make the Milken Institute Review a Whitman’s Sampler of sorts for public policy, a potpourri of what’s current and what should be current plus some fun in the mix. And we don’t intend to change anytime soon.
Happy perusing. — Peter Passell