W(h)ither Democracy; Latin American progress; China’s tobacco problem and poor world cancer; climate change progress: a Developmentista’s Guide to this week’s Economist

March 5, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Should I be worried about how much I enjoy The Economist? I get some stick from colleagues, who reckons it is surreptitiously Economist coverdripping neoliberal poison into my formerly socialist soul. But it’s just so good! On a good week, there are half a dozen must-read articles on development-related issues, which I try to tweet.

But based on last week’s issue, that may not be enough. So do you think I should run the occasional developmentista’s guide to the Economist, with summaries and links?

Here’s what I have in mind, based on the 1-7 March issue:

What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy? A beautifully crafted 6 page essay by someone or other (it’s very annoying that the magazine hardly ever credits authors). It starts with the big sweep of history:

‘By 1941 there were only 11 democracies left, and Franklin Roosevelt worried that it might not be possible to shield “the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism”.’

Now, after the democratic surges of decolonisation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is in trouble again. Putin’s Russia; the Iraq war; collapse of the Arab Spring; South Africa’s disillusion with the ANC; backsliding in Turkey, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia. Why? The global financial crisis and the rise of China (‘85% of Chinese are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, compared with 31% of Americans’).

This has led to disillusion in democratic heartlands such as Western Europe, and much less pulling power elsewhere.

True to The Economist’s liberal democratic values, the essay then tries to argue that it’s not all bad, pointing out lots of experimentation (eg direct democracy, shifts to long term oversight), which is reversing the decline in places like California and Finland. And anyway:

‘China’s stunning advances conceal deeper problems. The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress.’

But I have to say the description of the downside was a lot more persuasive than the reasons to be cheerful.

I find the best way to read the Economist is to see it as a clever, but rather right wing, participant in a seminar. Learn from them, but then try and spot any ideological sleight of hand (in this case slipping in the argument that a smaller state is the best way to defend democracy) and try to identify what is missing (I couldn’t see much, in this case – do tell me what I’ve missed).

So much for the cover story, but it’s often the bits and pieces in the back half of the magazine that are particularly useful for a development wonk. This week’s selection includes:

Lat Am poverty statsSustaining social progress in Latin America: The region’s recent ability to combine growth, poverty reduction and falling income inequality seems to be running out of steam. It was driven by expansion in education, rising wages and cash transfers. Now the challenge is to improve quality of education, progressive tax reform and (this is the Economist, after all) structural reforms e.g. to the labour market. ‘Keeping the fall in poverty and inequality going may require a squeeze on the rich—but done cleverly, so as not to deter growth-enhancing investments.’

Big Tobacco, Chinese Style: More than half of Chinese men smoke (but only 2% of women). Smoking is on course to kill 100m Chinese people this century. Will the government’s new anti-smoking policies curb it? Probably not – consumption taxes are too low to make a difference, and the China National Tobacco Corporation has huge influence (and wants to expand into other countries).

Cancer in the Developing World: ‘Low- and middle-income countries accounted for 57% of the 14m people diagnosed with cancer worldwide in 2012—but 65% of the deaths. Cancer kills more people in poor countries than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.’

A surge in climate change legislation at national level: Backsliding in Australia, Japan and Canada gets all the headlines, but overall ‘in 66 countries, accounting for 88% of carbon emissions, almost half of parliaments passed climate-change or energy-efficiency acts in 2013…. the world’s stock of climate laws has risen steeply, from fewer than 50 in 2000 to almost 500 in 2013.’

And finally, Inequality v Growth – a summary of the much-tweeted new IMF paper that argues that in most countries a bit more redistribution is actually good for growth (but thinks Europe may have already gone too far).

So was that useful? Do you want a regular summary? I’d do a poll but can’t work out how to do it in the new format, and all the techies have gone off on holiday, sorry.

I guess if you still hate The Economist, you could always claim this will undermine sales……