After the many traumas that was the Great Recession, considerable uncertainty remains over how to interpret current (political, social, and economic) events. There is clear evidence of an uptick in the US’ economy (and to some degree, in the UK, too). The euro zone was still undecided where it was headed even without the negative impulse from a newly meddlesome Russia. China was always going to find it increasingly difficult reaching for higher economic gears. But did it have to take most emerging markets with it?
Not surprisingly, the discourse underlying all of these concedes to the much-altered realities that we confront, and are likely to face, going forward. Much of the new economic conversation, to take just one example, is focused on rising inequality across the world. If the findings of academic economists are to be believed, not just is the cause of the new imbalances in the respective returns to capital and labour a lot different from what they were in the past. Even the natures of today’s inequalities are different.
It would seem that the one unintended effect of computers (and the automation made possible by, and associated with the fancy algorithms that they run on) and the revolution in information and communications technologies is the hollowing out of work ecosystems. Any activity (especially manufacturing-type, but also increasingly including conscious mental work) that is repetitive enough to be captured by bits and bytes, would soon find a geek who would write a computer programme that allows such work to be done by machines — faster, cheaper, and with less spoilage.
Accordingly, thinkers on these subjects and policy makers alike, fear that the resulting hollowing out of the middle ranks of the labour force — the emergence of which was so crucial to the political, economic, and social stability that the world has enjoyed over the last two centuries — may be the cause of new instabilities across economies. Alas, this process is not native to any set of economies.
How much does this explain the ease, for instance, with which we appear to have made the transition from an agricultural economy to a service one — a process characterised by Dani Rodrik as “premature deindustrialisation”? While admitting that “the economic, social, and political consequences of premature deindustrialisation have yet to be analysed in full”, the threat that this process might pose lies in Rodrik’s admission that “deindustrialisation impedes growth and delays convergence.”
There is strong evidence that while the jobs in the domestic service economy (house-helps, taxi drivers, janitors, guards, and checkout cashiers at our new shopping malls) may have dented unemployment numbers, they are too low paying to have addressed questions around higher productivity numbers and rising inequality.
If all of this is true, we ought to be worried. The threat from a new underclass, dispossessed by technology is not just of the rise of new luddites. It is largely from new social narratives (including perhaps of a religious extremist nature) that in keeping with Karl Popper’s concern with such historicist narratives, threaten our open societies.
What does this matter, one might ask? Nigeria does yet qualify as an “open society”, after all. We may be on our way there; but we are still leagues away. Over the last couple of weeks, several developments in our space have drawn attention to this fact. Arguably the more notorious of these developments was (and still is) the central and provincial governments’ response to the collapse of a building (and the resultant deaths) in one of the country’s most important church locations.
Once government seemed to approach this crisis differently from how it would have proceeded against the man on main street (forfeiture of the said property is the default option), it may have helped the notion that there are two laws in this space — one of “us”, and a more liberal one for “them”. This is by far the biggest source of inequality that we confront as we move towards an open society. It is, in this sense, a more present and real danger than the fear in the global economic community from the so-called “labour force polarisation”.
Put properly, it is the threat that the absence of law-governed responses poses to democracy and political inclusion. Rule-based conduct is as much about predictability in public affairs, as it is about transparency in the conduct of government business, and higher standards of public morality. None of this is helped by arbitrariness, as in the unfortunate instance where a serving law-enforcement officer unilaterally finds a journalist guilty of traducing him in public, and then proceeds to sentence the unfortunate to a term in gaol.
These errant conducts appeal to power. To power whose provenance is unknown to most of us. And to that extent, they threaten our nascent democracy.
Mr. Uddin, an economic historian, finance expert, and Premium Times editorial board member, writes a Monday column from Lagos.