Our guest is Martin Wolf, the Chief Economics commentator for the Financial Times newspaper and one of the world’s most acclaimed financial journalists. What I most like about Wolff is that he is able to explain incredibly complex things with breathtaking simplicity – such as the relationship between economic globalization and the rise of populism.
“Despair is a sin,” Martin Wolff tells us. And yet there’s a lot of pessimism is his analysis of democracy’s global health. “My worry is that, in some cases, democracy is just gone,” he tells us. Those cases include Hungary, Russia and China. These are places, he warns, that the autocrat has become so entrenched that democracy is over. I fear that Wolff is right when he warns that contemporary autocrats like Victor Orban in Hungary are un-seatable.
So what to do? As the child of Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis, Wolff is particularly passionate about saving democracy from the xenophobes. But rather than getting preoccupied with the rather hopeless task of resurrecting democracy in Russia or Hungary, Wolff is focused on strengthening western democracy. History rhymes, he quotes Mark Twain. And the situation today in the west, he warns, chillingly rhymes with the situation in the 1930s.
As an economist, what most interests Wolff is the intricate relationship between capitalism and democracy. While he argues that globalized trade has had a much less destructive impact on our economies than the populists claim, he nonetheless acknowledges that perceptions matter - particularly political perceptions about the global economy. So Wolff is right to insist that we must reform capitalism to make it appear more inclusive and less openly biased in favor of the new global elite. He even acknowledges his own failure to recognize the radically divisive consequences of globalization. If only other Davos Men were this self-critical.
But politics matters too, of course, he reminds us. And the major political crisis today is that of the legitimacy of both the institutions and the ideology of democracy. And his two major fixes for this are both intriguing: taking private money out of politics and making voting compulsory. What Wolff is trying to reclaim for democracy is a vibrant public sphere. He’s draining the swamp. And this can only be done by ensuring that it’s public, rather than private money, which finances political parties.
So where are we going to get the political leaders who will lead us out of the swamp? We need BOTH responsible and charismatic leadership, Wolff insists, who can compete with irresponsible populists like Trump and Corbyn. Barack Obama is his model – somebody who came from absolutely nowhere to capture the imagination of a majority of the electorate. But Wolff is too much of a realist to believe that there’s another Obama waiting in the wings. Today’s challenge is mixing social egalitarianism and pro market economics with political interventionism. But this won’t be easy. Today’s “biggest single question”, he says, is how to reinvent a moderately progressive ideology in the age of global capitalism. And that’s going to take a lot more than just another “Yes We Can” media savvy politician like Barack Obama.
Next week, we go to Estonia to learn how this tiny Baltic republic is reinventing democracy in the digital age. Guests include Estonia’s former CTO and the architect of the country’s unique e-residency program. I look forward to talking with you then.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode with Martin Wolf, you can find out more about him and his work as associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times here:
Find Martin’s Books here:
The Shifts And The Shocks - What We've Learned--and Have Still to Learn--from the Financial Crisis
Produced by Jason Sanderson -Podcast Tech