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Umair Haque : 'Egypt's Revolution: Coming to an Economy Near You'

(February 1st, 2011)

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It was a society in stagnation, if not decline. Despite ostensible stability, its people — especially its young people — faced a future bleaker than the dark side of Pluto. For decades, the richest grew even richer, as national debt mounted, middle-class people tried to make ends meet, and upward mobility fell. Government failed to address these problems, and the governed felt increasingly disenfranchised — and partisan. Mass unemployment metastasized from a temporary illness to a chronic condition. One of its major cities decided to erect a permanent tent city, for a permanently excluded, marginalized underclass.


This isn't Tunisia, or Egypt — but America. Yes, in many ways Egypt and America couldn't be more different. But the broad contours are just a little too similar for comfort. Consider a tweet that made the rounds this weekend. "Youth unemployment: #Yemen 49%, #Palestine 38%, #Morocco 35%, #Egypt 33%, #Tunisia 26%". It sounds staggering. But youth unemployment rates are 20-40% across Europe. And in the USA, estimates range from 20-50% depending on how you count, and when. Egypt's youth unemployment crisis — which many seemed to think on Twitter was merely an Arab problem (oh, those Arabs!) is, in point of fact, a global one.

What we're watching is a massive malfunctioning of the global economy. At the root of the problem: dumb growth. Dumb growth is, in many ways, bogus — rather than reflecting enduring wealth creation, it largely reflects the transfer of wealth: from the poor to the rich, the young to the old, tomorrow to today, and human beings to corporate "people." Dumb growth is growth without prosperity. And it's far from an Egyptian problem.

Lane Kenworthy has recently called America's version of it "the Great Decoupling." In the US, net worth, median income, job creation, happiness — all have been flat for a decade (plus). Other measures of prosperity, which I'd argue matter more, haven't just flatlined, they've cratered: polls show that trust, connection, stability, social mobility, are all down. The problem of dumb, empty "growth" is global.

And my hunch is that it's going to get worse, before it gets better. Consider the food, commodity, and energy price spikes likely to sweep the globe this year. Consider the costs of climate disruption. If it's bad for a family whose breadwinner is unemployed in the States, how bad is it for the more than three billion people — that's more than half the world, folks — living on less than $2 a day?

How do we fix it? In his new book, Tyler Cowen argues that the problem is that that we've eaten all the "low-hanging fruit," — that there's not a great enough quantity of innovation. That's a sharp insight, but I'd argue (in my own new book) that the problem's slightly different: not a high enough quality of innovation. The challenge now is leaping to a higher order of innovation: institutional innovation, because it's institutions that set the incentives that mold and shape human achievement in the first place.

And for far too many people, yesterday's economic institutions are literally not delivering the goods. Yes, the tools of capitalism have lifted entire nations out of poverty. But for decades, real prosperity has been flat. Now, at a macroeconomic level, our current economic institutions simply transfer prosperity upwards, to the richest 10% --> 1% --> 0.1% --> 0.01% and so on. This is what I call a global "ponziconomy" — a titanic, gleaming whirling, wealth transfer machine. And we can't fix it with the same tools we used to build it. That's why it's never been more vital for us — we, the people — to challenge the institutions of yesteryear.

All of which brings me back to Egypt as the canary in a very large coal mine. It's hard to overstate just how unexpected a transformation is occurring in Egypt. Death, taxes, and Hosni Mubarak — they were the three great certainties in modern Egyptian life.

But just underneath the surface, the tectonic pressure of dumb growth was steadily mounting. Bogus prosperity's like magma, filling the volcanic chamber of a society: you can bottle it up for only so long before it erupts, and spectacularly. Today, the world's gaze is fixed on the pyroclastic flow: never-ending demonstrations, protests, people self-organizing in a state that has shut down the internet, mobile networks, and public transport. But the fault lines underneath this explosion were laid down decades ago — and they might just run across the globe.

The lesson: You can't steal the future forever — and, in a hyperconnected world, you probably can't steal as much of it for as long.

Now, I don't think Americans will take to the streets to oust their government. The challenge of the democratic, developed world is a quieter rebellion: against a bankruptcy not just of the pocketbook, but of meaning. It's not to take a stand against a dictator, but to take a stand against an unenlightened, nihilistic, hyperconsumerist, soul-suckingly unfulfilling, lethally short-termist ethos that inflicts real and relentless damage on people, society, the natural world, and future generations.

If we want to deliver the goods — enduring, meaningful stuff that engenders real prosperity — we're probably going to have start with delivering them to one another. Our untrammeled path back to prosperity — should we choose to blaze it — is millions of personal revolutions made up of billions of tiny choices that reclaim our humanity from the heartless merchants of indifference, fear, anger, and vanity.

Some say it's impossible. Me? I believe that in a world of bogus prosperity, what's impossible is for the status quo to stand.

©Umair Haque


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