Toxic politics and a missing philosophy

HONG KONG • Last month, I depicted human society as a three-legged stool and its stability founded on each leg - economics being the income and wealth-generation part; politics framed the bargaining between different groups; and the social or philosophical leg relating to individual identity, beliefs and values that hold society together.

These three subjects are exactly those offered by Oxford University's degree course in philosophy, politics and economics - which has prepared many civil servants, politicians and leaders for leadership and management of the world in a more complex interrelated frame.

Policymakers who are trained in specialist disciplines or locked in departmental silos tend to have tunnel visions on how to address social problems. A carpenter trained to use a hammer sees every problem as a nail.

The United States presidential debates show how the world is in an existential crisis. We do not know who to believe, who to trust and what information is reliable or completely false.

Can we trust Mrs Hillary Clinton - she who can talk about human rights in the same breath as "we came, we saw, he (former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi) died"?

Who gave her the right to judge who should live or die? Gaddafi may have been a tyrant but after he was deposed, Libya has plunged into a terrible mess.

Brexit supporters forming a counter demonstration against pro-Europe demonstrators during a protest against the Brexit vote result in London last month. The writer says what the world lacks most is not more economics or politics, but a philosophy about individual and community identity in a world in the grip of radical change. PHOTO: REUTERS

Can we trust also Mr Donald Trump, who seems to think that everything is a business deal or everyone can be groped?

Everywhere, politics has become toxic, with bitter infighting and even armed conflict.

The mood at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings in Washington last week was strange, to say the least. The US economy seems to be recovering, with restaurants and hotels full, but everywhere, the buzz was all about the coming presidential elections.

It used to be said that if America sneezes, the rest of the world catches pneumonia.

Currently, the US is the only advanced economy that seems to be on the road to recovery, but there is some panic that Mr Trump will actually become president.

Europe is still in the throes of anguish over immigration, while Germany worries whether Deutsche Bank will actually suffer a US$14 billion (S$19.4 billion) fine by US financial regulators that is roughly the value of the bank's market cap.

The Europeans are so angry about this US sanction that it is no coincidence that the European tax authorities are imposing a US$14 billion tax bill on Apple.

Furthermore, it seems bizarre that the Irish government, which stands to benefit from the tax claim on Apple, is actually appealing to the EU against imposing the fine, presumably on the basis that Apple's presence in Ireland is more beneficial than its departure.

The one good news about the IMF annual meetings was the inclusion of the yuan in the special drawing right (SDR) basket of currencies. Consequently, the five global reserve currencies will be the US dollar, euro, yen, sterling and yuan, with weights of 41.7 per cent, 30.9 per cent, 8.3 per cent, 8.1 per cent and 10.9 per cent respectively.

This means that the yuan weight in the SDR is higher than either the yen or sterling.

Sterling suffered a 6 per cent flash crash depreciation on Oct 7, as British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a "hard" Brexit, meaning a faster submission of the formal declaration of exit from the EU by March next year.

Mrs May seems to have reversed many of the policies of former British prime minister David Cameron and former chancellor George Osborne. With Britain running fairly large current- account deficits in the balance of payments and fiscal deficits, she has little room for policy errors.

The Japanese, who have large investments in the car industry in Britain, have already threatened that they may pull out if Britain is not part of the larger European single market.

There was, therefore, a sigh of relief that the Chinese economy appears to have found good support at the current levels of growth, although many Western observers worry about the fast growth in debt.

The fact of life is that across the world, there is little support for global public goods as individual insecurity tends to blame foreigners for all the problems.

I asked an influential economist in Washington why US experts tend to dump on everyone else for their failings except their own.

After all, it was the failure of the dominant free market ideology and its highly interventionist monetary policies that led to the current stagnation.

The answer was the US economic profession were totally frustrated about their domestic toxic politics, and how their reductionist free market ideology missed the complexities of institutions, income inequality and climate change. They were blind to their own blindness.

Many policymakers inside the Washington Beltway cared only about how global policies served US interests and whether these could be approved by a paralysed Congress. In reality, the polarisation of politics has meant that globalisation is receding mainly because Americans are beginning to look inward, alienating both allies and foes alike.

Outside opinions are least of the inside-Beltway priorities.

Many pundits lament that in this state of confusion, there is a leadership deficit.

The leadership deficit occurs because there is little trust in any of the politicians, exemplified by how the presidential candidates are both billionaires - one from real estate and the other from full-time politics with fat speaking fees.

It is not surprising that the non-millionaires (99 per cent) are angry, disillusioned and supporting populist candidates.

Post-Brexit illustrated brutally how each candidate for the British premiership stabbed each other in the back in the scramble for power.

What the world lacks most is not more economics or politics, but a philosophy about individual and community identity in a world in the grip of radical change.

We are all insecure because our present values are challenged by these rapid changes, from terrorism, fanaticism and massive migration to disruptive technology, dysfunctional politics and corruption in morality.

From America to Zimbabwe, we need a new narrative to find our sense of balance. We simply do not have a philosophy for the 21st century.


  • The writer, a Distinguished Fellow of Hong Kong-based think-tank Fung Global Institute, writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The Straits Times is a founding member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Toxic politics and a missing philosophy'. Print Edition | Subscribe