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Populism is Back! Why has this happened and why does it matter?

Populism and the Economics of Globalization

By Dani Rodrik (Harvard University)

Abstract: Populism may seem like it has come out of nowhere, but it has been on the rise for a while. I argue that economic history and economic theory both provide ample grounds for anticipating that advanced stages of economic globalization would produce a political backlash. While the backlash may have been predictable, the specific form it took was less so. I distinguish between left-wing and right-wing variants of populism, which differ with respect to the societal cleavages that populist politicians highlight. The first has been predominant in Latin America, and the second in Europe. I argue that these different reactions are related to the relative salience of different types of globalization shocks.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-07-09

Review by Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa (Bangor University)


Populism has been at the front of news headlines for a while now. Whether it was the controversial campaign for Brexit led by Nigel Farage from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Boris Johnson from the Conservative Party in Great Britain, or the equally controversial campaign and victory of Donald Trump in the recent United States elections, the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-European political parties in countries like France, Greece, and Spain, the so called “anti-imperial Castro-Chavist” movements and governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, or the opposition of the Democratic Center Party (a right-wing political agrupation led by ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez) to the peace treaty in Colombia, populism is back and very strong, and according to the author, it is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Dani Rodrik combines the use of economic history and economic theory to analyze the recent surge of these populist movements across Europe and America (see a blog-post version of the paper on VOX here). The main argument of the paper is that “advanced stages of globalization are prone to populist backlash” and the specific form populism takes will depend on the different societal cleavages that politicians can exploit to promote anti-establishment movements. There will be a tendency for left-wing populism when “globalization shocks take the form of trade, finance, and foreign investment”. The opposite will happen when “the globalization shock becomes salient in the form of immigration and refugees”.


Rodrik first presents a rather short summary of what economic history has to say about the appearance of populism during the first globalization era. He points out to the abolition of the Corn Laws in Britain in 1846 as the origin of a series of commercial treaties that, combined with the Gold Standard and free mobility of capital and people, made the world almost as globalized as it is today. Nonetheless, the decline of agricultural prices in the 1870s and 1880s motivated an increase in agricultural tariffs in almost all of Europe, and later on, the United States instituted a series of acts to reduce immigration from several countries. Moreover, Rodrik argues that the first self-consciously populist movement appeared in the US during the 1880s, with the farmers’ alliance against the Gold Standard, bankers and financiers.

The author moves on to analyze the effects of trade on redistribution. Based on the theorem developed by Stolper and Samuelson (1941), Rodrik argues that in most international economic models where trade does not lead to specialization, “there is always at least one factor of production that is rendered worse off by the liberalization of trade. In other words, trade generically produces losers”. Moreover, he argues that the net profits of trade openness decrease relatively to the redistribution costs, as the initial barriers to trade are lower. He backs this argument with empirical evidence from the literature on NAFTA and the US trade with China, and a model that looks at the effect of the size of the initial tariff being removed on the change in low-skill wages and the increase in real income of the economy.

Rodrik also argues that although there could be a form of compensation for the affected industries, this is usually very costly and not practical. Also, one of the reasons why populist movements in Europe have not been anti-trade might be the existence of safety nets that made unnecessary ex-post mechanisms of compensation. Very important as well is the general perception of the masses on the degree of fairness of the increase in inequality perceived after reducing trade tariffs. Namely, populism is more likely to appear when the losses derived from globalization and increases in inequality are deemed to be produced by a group taking unfair advantage of the new economic atmosphere.

The author also analyzes the perils of financial globalization, whereby looking at the current literature of the effects of capital mobility on inequality, he concludes that countries prefer when capital adopts the form of a long-term flow, like direct foreign investment, rather than short-term, volatile financial flows. Rodrik comments that the literature has found that financial globalization tends to increase the negative impact of low-quality domestic institutions. There is also a high correlation presented by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009) between capital mobility and the incidence of banking crises.

The article concludes with an analysis of the possible determinants of the specific type of populism that spreads in a given country. In a different paper (Mukand and Rodrik, 2017) Rodrik presented a model that could explain to some extent the reason why populist movements in Europe have traditionally been right winged, whereas in Latin America they have been usually left winged. The main determinants in the model were the presence of an ethno-national/cultural or an income/social cleavage. Rodrik also provides empirical evidence of this phenomenon with a newly constructed dataset.


During my training as an economist I was well aware of the distributional effects that trade has on the economies involved. Nonetheless, the argument I heard was always that trade is a positive-sum game and net profits from it could be redistributed among the losers, thus alleviating any negative effects. The usual argument to explain why trade openness was sometimes not so popular was that the potential losers from trade were better represented and had more lobbying power, thus preventing tariff reductions. As Rodrik argues in this paper, sometimes, especially at advanced stages of globalization, not only are there problems redistributing the potential net profits; it looks as the net effects of opening more the economy at this stage might be actually negative.

This paper comes out at a moment when academics, politicians, the media, and the general public are trying to understand the reasons why these movements have appeared somewhat all of a sudden. Rodrik’s argument is that these events were predictable. The implications of the development of a particular form of populism on economic welfare are still not clear yet: analyzing this could be one of the lines of future research opened by this paper. Very often populism is associated with demagoguery, and it will be very important to differentiate between the two in the future. It is not the same that an anti-corrupt-establishment movement aims to change the political structure of a country, than filling the public opinion with lies and false promises as it happened with Brexit in the UK and with the peace treaty referendum in Colombia. In the former, the Leave campaign promised to the general public that the resources spent on the EU could be directly transferred to funding the National Health Service, which turned out to be a false statement. In the latter, leaks of recordings from the campaign opposing the peace treaty clearly showed how different socio-economic groups were fed different false arguments to gain their sympathy.

Finally, the paper shows the relevance of economic history for the discussion of present problems. Rodrik uses economic history to acknowledge that populism has sprung in the past at advanced stages of globalization. Following his example, economic historians should contribute to the literature by further explaining the channels through which populism has developed, to help us understand which are the consequences of different types of populism on economic development and societal welfare.


Mukand, Sharun, and Dani Rodrik, 2017. The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy. Harvard Kennedy School.

Reinhart, C.M. and Rogoff, K.S., 2009. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton University Press.

Stolper, W. F. and Samuelson, P.A., 1941. “Protection and Real Wages.” Review of Economic Studies 9(1), pp. 58-73.

How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility?

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism

By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford (

Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses financial markets to transfer financial entitlement over time. Social democracy came up against the limits of public expenditure in the 1970s. The ‘market turn’ from social democracy to market liberalism was enabled by easy credit in the 1980s. Much of this was absorbed into homeownership, which attracted majorities of households (and voters) in the developed world. Early movers did well, but easy credit eventually drove house prices beyond the reach of younger cohorts. Debt service diminished effective demand, which instigated financial instability. Both social democracy and market liberalism are in crisis.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-01-29

Review by: Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa, Bangor University


This paper emerged from Avner Offer’s Tawney Lecture at the Economic History Society’s annual conference, Cambridge, 3 April 2016 (the video of which can be found here).

In this paper Offer discussed two macroeconomic innovations of the 20th century, which he calls “the market turn”. These are the changes in fiscal policy and financialisation that encompassed the shift  from social democracy to market liberalism from the 1970s onwards. Social democracy is understood as a fiscal innovation which resulted in the doubling of public expenditure (from aprox. 25 to 50 per cent of GDP between 1920 and 1980). Its aim was reducing wealth inequality. Market liberalism encompassed a monetary innovation, namely the deregulation of credit which allowed households to increase their indebtedness from around 50 to 150 per cent of personal disposable income, mainly for the purpose of home ownership. According to Offer the end result of market liberalism was increasing wealth inequality. See Offer’s depiction of this process in the graph below.

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration. (Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration.
(Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Offer considers that both social democracy and market liberalism are norms captured by the single concept of a “Just World Theory” (Offer & Söderberg, 2016).The ideals behind social democracy are said to be supported by ideas found in classical economics, while the ideals behind market liberalism are said to have emerged from a redefinition of the origins and nature of economic value found in neoclassical economics. Contrasting the ideas behind social democracy and market liberalism brings about  questions such as:

  • Where does value come from?,
  • Is it from production or is it from personal preferences and demand for the good/service?,
  • What is just and fair?,
  • What do we as individuals deserve as reward?, and
  • Is there really a trade-off between equality and efficiency?

Answering any of these question is not simple and heated debates abound around them. Offer, however, rescues the idea of life-cycle dependency, where the situation of the most vulnerable individuals is alleviated through collective risk pooling rather than financial markets. According to Offer,  life-cycle dependency was the dominant approach to reducing poverty in most developed countries until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Then collapse of the Bretton Woods accord that followed, led to the liberalization of credit by removing previous constraints. This in turn resulted in the “market turn”.

Avner Offer

Professor Avner Offer (1944). MA, DPhil, FBA. Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford since 2011.

Offer then turns to analyse the events after the collapse of Bretton Woods that led to the increase of household indebtedness while focusing on the UK. The 1970s was a very volatile decade for Britain.  For instance, oil price increases and the secondary banking crises of 1973 resulted in the highest annual increase of the inflation rate on record. Offer argues, while citing John Fforde (Executive Director of the Bank of England at that time), that the Competition and Credit Control Act 1971 was as a leap of faith in the pursuit of greater efficiency in financial markets. This Act was accompanied by a new monetary policy where changes in interest rates (the price of money) by the central bank was to bring about the control of the quantity of money. Perhaps unexpectedly and probably due to a lack of a better understanding of the origins of money, that was not the case. Previously lifted credit restrictions had to be reinstated.

Credit controls were again lifted in the 1980s. This time policy innovations went further by allowing clearing (ie commercial) banks to re-enter the personal mortgage market. The Building Societies Act 1986  allowed building societies to offer personal loans and current accounts as well as opened a pathway for them to become commercial banks (which many did after 1989 and all those societies that converted  either collapsed or were taken over by clearing banks or both). Initially and up to the crash of house prices in September, 1992, personal mortgage credit grew continuously and to levels never seen before in the UK. According to Offer, during this period both political parties supported the idea of homeownership and incentivised it through programs like “Help to Buy”. However, the rise in the demand for housing combined with the stagnation in the supply of dwellings pushed up house prices, making it more difficult for first-time buyers to become homeowners. Additionally, according to Offer, the wave of easy credit of the 1980s brought with it an increase in wealth inequality and an increase in the fragility of the financial system. As debt repayments grew as proportion of income, consumption was driven down, with subsequent effects on production and services. On this Offer opined:

“In the quest for economic security, the best personal strategy is to be rich.” (p. 17)

The paper ends with possible and desirable futures for public policy initiatives to deal with today’s challenges around wealth inequality and mounting personal credit. He argues that personal debt should be reduced through rising inflation,  a policy driven write-off or a combination of both. He also argues to reinstate a regime where credit is rationed. He states that financial institutions should not have the ability to create money and therefore the housing market funding should return to the old model of building societies. He has a clear preference for social democracy over market liberalism and as such argues that austerity should end, since it is having the exact opposite effects to what was intended.

Brief Comment

Offer’s thought provoking ideas comes at a time when several political and economic events are taking place (e.g. Brexit, Trump’s attack on Dodd-Frank, etc.) which, together, could be of the magnitude as “the market turn”. Once again economic historians could help better inform the debate. Citing R. H. Tawney, Offer opened the lecture (rather than the paper) by stating that:

“to be an effective advocate in the present, you need a correct and impartial understanding of the past.”

Offer clearly fulfils the latter, even though some orthodox economists might disagree with his inflationary and credit control proposals. As per usual his idea are a great contribution to the debate around market efficiency in a time when the world seems to be in constant distress. Perhaps we ought to generate more and better research to understand the mechanisms through which market liberalism generated the current levels of wealth inequality and financial instability that Offer describes. More importantly though, is analysing if social democracy can bring inequality down as it did in the past. In my view, however, in a world where productivity seems to be stagnated, real wages are decreasing, and debt keeps growing, it is highly unlikely that the public sector can produce the recipe that will set us in the path of economic prosperity for all.

Additional References

Offer, A., & Söderberg, G. (2016). The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn. Princeton University Press.
(Read an excellent review of this book here)