Transitioning to a Multi-polar World (#30)

Mike O'Sullivan on Structural Shifts podcast

Transitioning to a Multi-polar World, w/ Michael O'SULLIVAN

Your host, Ben Robinson, is joined by Michael O’Sullivan, author of ‘The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalization’ and former CIO of the International Wealth Management Division at Credit Suisse. Michael currently serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the New Economy. In this episode, Ben and Michael discuss what is the role central banks will play in the transition period to a post-globalization, multi-polar world; what international organizations should be completely reshaped to meet the needs of this new world, what new institutions should be created, and more.

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Michael recommends:

  1. One book: “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West” by Catherine Belton
  2. One influencer: Chris Watling of Longview Economics
  3. Best recent article: Work done by Lisa Sanders for the The New York Times
  4. Favourite brand: “La Femme sans Tête”, bières artisanales de Paris
  5. Productivity hack: be ready to say ‘no’, politely.

Globalization is ephemeral, it’s in the ether, in the sky, in the way that people tend to look at it. There’s no ministry for globalization. So, it’s quite hard to get a grasp on it.

[00:01:23.24] Ben: Michael, thank you so much for coming on the Structural Shifts podcast. I’ve been really looking forward to this because it has been delayed a couple of times, but we finally got to do the podcast.

Michael: Yes, thanks! It’s a great pleasure. I’m delighted to do it.

[00:01:36.27] Ben: I wanted to kick off by just testing a little bit the premise of your book, ‘The Levelling’. Is globalization really over? Or are we just in a period where it’s sort of temporarily in retreat?

Michael: No, I think it’s dead. I think it’s over. I think there are many people, I suppose, for good reason, whose fortunes are tied to globalization, who don’t want it to be over, who deny its passing. Maybe it’s been dwindling as a force — in the last two years, we have been storing up many of the side effects or the perceived side effects of globalization. And that, I think, it’s been dealt a fatal blow by COVID. And I should say, I’m in favor of globalization. I mean, it’s done so much good. Billions of people have risen out of poverty, it’s transformed cities like London, Dubai, etc, it has given us so many technologies. So, I’m in favor of globalization but my reading, as it were, of the situation is that it’s dead and going. We’re moving on to something else now.

[00:02:50.15] Ben: And how objectively can we show that it’s over? Because, again, might it not just be changing form because, if we look at financial flows or trade flows, sure, we can show that it’s in retreat, but what about things like the flow of data? Is it not just becoming more digital?

Michael: I think there’s maybe three things just to bear in mind. One is that globalization is ephemeral, it’s in the ether, in the sky, in the way that people tend to look at it. There’s no ministry for globalization. So, it’s quite hard to get a grasp on it. We do have the benefit of history that we’ve had a wave of globalization from 1870 to about 1912, which looks very like what we’ve seen in the last 30 years or so. And that wave of globalization came to a juddering halt with economic crises, nationalism, etc. So, all of the warning signs are there. And then, thirdly, if I debate globalization with people, what I try and do is bring that debate down to indicators — the movement of people, the flow of ideas, trade — and all of those have been coming to an end, they have been cut off in different ways. So one example I give is that globalization began with the fall of communism, the opening up of Eastern Europe — not just economically, but democratically as well — and now we have events like the shutting of democracy in Hong Kong, which is the bookend to what happened with the fall of communism. You mentioned digital globalization. I think that’s quite interesting because tech and digitization have played a really strong role in globalization but the channels of digitization are being funneled in different ways. So one example I give you is Google in the early 2000s had about, I think, a third of the search market in China. Now it has close to zero. So, what we’re actually seeing is we have more digital activity, but it is becoming more regional. You look at TikTok as another example — potentially global company now being shuttered in terms of how it can be used not just in the US, but also in China and other parts of the world.

One of the problems we have, there really is no Minister or Prime Minister for globalization. It is an interconnected, interdependent activity, and many of those interdependencies are breaking down. In our world, the role of the nation state is still very, very important —Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:05:18.01] Ben: Why do you think is over? Because as you yourself said, it’s had massive, massive positive effects. It’s a positive that raises economic activity and wealth for everybody. So why do you think it’s overall coming to an end?

Michael: I think that the prime concern I would have is that the economic engine of globalization has slowed. So, in many emerging countries, the rate of growth is slowing. In the developed world, productivity has been slowing — notably so in countries like the UK, where it’s at multi-decade lows. The financial side effects of globalization, the negative ones have been rising, so the world is becoming more and more indebted, which will slow future growth. And then, there’s a range of economic problems that people associate with globalization, such as inequality. To my view, it has really, nothing to do with globalization, but rather the way individual countries have harnessed it. So if you look at the most globalized economies in the world — Ireland, Netherlands, etc. — the income inequality in those countries is actually reasonably well managed, because they use tax to distribute the benefits of globalization. If you look at the US, where inequality is really egregious, they have not used their tax system to spread the benefits of globalization, and that creates discontent with globalization,

[00:06:52.07] Ben: Had globalization been better managed, then it wouldn’t be coming to an end?

Michael: I think that’s largely true. And I think one of the problems we have, there really is no Minister or Prime Minister for globalization. It is an interconnected, interdependent activity, and many of those interdependencies are breaking down. In our world, the role of the nation state is still very, very important. I think COVID is a great example of this: different countries have managed and digested globalization in very different ways with different consequences.

The post-globalized world order will be a multipolar one. What I mean by that is you’d have at least three big regions: China, Europe, the US — for the reason of their size will be dominant but also who will do things increasingly differently — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:07:35.16] Ben: You talk quite a lot about Brexit in the book. I suppose we should see Brexit as being part of something bigger, i.e. the end of globalization. But can we really draw that conclusion? I mean, could Brexit not just have been a political mistake, a referendum that should never have happened, a unique set of circumstances? You know, the refugee crisis, etc. Can we not just see Brexit in those terms? I mean, does it have to be read as part of this end of globalization?

Michael: That’s a very good question. To give context, we’ve had two big waves of globalization. The first of the early 20th century, which was led by Britain from London. The second was an American wave of globalization. So, both waves have been led by Anglo-Saxon countries. And the two main Anglo-Saxon countries — the US and the UK — are now in political crises. That much is clear. And those political crises are also crises of globalization. In the case of the UK, I think there is an argument that the calling of the referendum, or the way it was constructed, was accident-prone and could have been done better. I think, however, the way I tend to look at globalization, it’s like a big block of ice that’s begun to fragment and the first really big crack in the world order was Brexit — something that many people thought would be inconceivable happened — and that respected was the first shock, and I think the first really big event that’s taken us into the post-globalization age. And why I’m convinced that it’s linked with globalization is that many of the underlying problems in the end of globalization argument — low productivity, inequality, a country dominated by one city, one elite — you find all of those in the UK. And I think what I’m also drawn to is this whole idea of the rise and fall of nations and the fact that nations go through cycles and globalization is doing the same. The UK is now in a cycle where it’s in, I think and I hope, it’s sort of a bottoming out phase. And in the next few years, we’ll begin to see things improve and be reconstructed. So there is that logic to it, I think.

We would probably feel the end of globalization more severely if it weren’t for central banks, but the cure is arguably storing up worse down the line — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:10:09.09] Ben: How does a country like the UK fare in a world that’s deglobalizing? Because, you know, it’s detached itself from a very large trading bloc and so, now it’s seeking, I guess, new alliances, new trading partners in a world that has become less interested in trading. So, how does that play out, do you think?

Michael: Yeah, it has a lot of risks. And one of the risks, I think, is that the discourse in Westminster and in London is not really focused on what’s happening to the world order. It’s really very inward-focused — and this is a risk that things shift outside the UK, and it doesn’t adapt. So I think that there are several things. The most important, I think, is that the post-globalized world order will be a multipolar one. What I mean by that is you’d have at least three big regions: China, Europe, the US — for the reason of their size will be dominant but also who will do things increasingly differently. So, if you look at the way the EU is imposing itself on the tech world in terms of regulation, that’s a good example. So the UK needs to ask, “Okay, first of all, do we want to be outside this very powerful block?” — and that decision is already made. So, then it becomes a relative decision: “How do we position ourselves between these big blocks?” And in particular, two of them, the US and Europe are very, very close political and trade partners. And my hope would have been that they pay acts to arbitrage these regions. It’s a sort of third independent, but not neutral party, whose upholding of the rule of law makes it more where people feel very secure to do business. So, in that plate, the declaration in Parliament that the UK would break the rule of law is extremely worrying. And I think the international consequences of this have not been thought out at all.

Coming out of the global financial crisis, central banks were like doctors who gave financial morphine to the economic patient — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:12:17.07] Ben: What role do you think central banks are playing? I mean, do you think their role is helpful or not? In the sense that are they smoothing the transition period by cushioning economies from some of the worst economic effects of the transition? Or do you think they’re prolonging the transition and exacerbating some of the ills of the current age, such as wealth inequality?

Michael: Yes, this is a very good question — quite a complex area. We would probably feel the end of globalization more severely if it weren’t for central banks, but the cure is arguably storing up worse down the line. So the way I tend to phrase that is that coming out of the global financial crisis, central banks were like doctors who gave financial morphine to the economic patient. You know, a doctor, if you’re injured, he or she may give you morphine for a couple of days to take the pain away, but they won’t do it every day for 10 years. And that’s what we’ve had. And to that end, markets, investors, many other players have become dulled and stultified to the reality of economics and what’s happening. So, we’ve had no inflation, except in asset prices, valuation for government bonds for many equities, the technology equities are at all-time highs. What we have is we have bubbles in financial markets, which potentially rob future generations of the returns they will need for their pensions. And I think, at the same time, what the cover of central banks has done is to make it much less urgent for politicians to address underlying economic problems. So, if you look at Europe, there’s actually been relatively little reform on things like capital markets union, banking reform — all these things that were super urgent nine years ago, where we had promises from finance ministers that they would be addressed — pretty much nothing has been done.

[00:14:27.09] Ben: Yes, slowing down reform. And also, I guess, it’s also removing some of the market censoring that happens to politicians and to political actions, right? So, you know, you might argue — I’m sorry, I don’t want to get into counterfactuals, but you might argue that in the run-up to Brexit, there would have been harsher market movements, because the central bank was intervening.

Michael: That’s absolutely true. And I think it raises many legal questions, too, as to what end should central banks go in terms of trying to intervene in markets and economies? And you now have a situation where central banks are trying to mandate themselves or justify themselves on a whole range of criteria. The European Central Bank is now adopting the mantle of the green economy; in the US, the Congress has proposed that the Fed do everything it can to reduce racial inequality, which is a just cause, but it’s much, much better left to politicians and lawmakers than central banks. I don’t know how they would go about doing that. What we want in democracy is we want parliaments and governments to address these problems, not central banks to, if you like, swamp the whole political economy in terms of what they’re trying to do.

[00:15:57.16] Ben: If we break those things down, then, so first of all, how do we sort of de-politicize central banks? Because as you say, it’s absurd to think that the body in charge of monetary policy could affect racial inequality. So, how do we de-politicize central banks?

Michael: So, the world went through — from the ’70s onwards, many central banks were politicized in that their governors or presidents had, in some way, ties to the governments who appointed them. And then we went through a phase where central banks were trying to crush inflation, which was politically very unpopular — the best example was Paul Volcker in the US. And we’ve gone through an era of independent central banks who are run by technocrats, civil servants, independent from politics. And that is beginning to change, I think. There is a sense that, maybe in the States, that the heads in the central banks are somehow siding with the mandates of individual governments. It’s been the case certainly in Japan. And I think that there’s several things we can do. I think the appointment process for central bankers is important, and also the people who populate the committees of the central banks; stressing their mandates, and narrowing their mandates is also very important. And maybe, I think, in future what we need — we probably need another crisis to get over this — is a curbing of extraordinary powers, like quantitative easing. That, when it was introduced, was something that was considered off the charts and now it’s normal. So, there needs to be a debate about the extraordinary powers that central banks have.

I would prefer a total reboot. I think some institutions have remained relevant, like the OECD, because they’ve had a good sense to attach themselves to a bigger framework in the shape of the G20. Others, I think should be completely reshaped — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:17:52.21] Ben: Yes, that was gonna be my second question, which is, how do we roll back the balance sheets? How do we de-leverage the central banks? Because I think in the book — you know, the book is already out for a year, so they’re even higher, particularly COVID — but you said they’re as high as they’ve ever been since the Napoleonic Wars. So how do we de-leverage central banks and get back to some sort of sensible level of leverage?

Michael: So the background picture to this is that world debt to GDP levels have been rising, they’re passing out the previous high of the Second World War, on course, as you said, to hit the highs of the period around the Napoleonic Wars. And that’s quite extraordinary if you think of the events associated with that. One of the reasons debt is rising is because interest rates are so low, governments, companies find it very, very easy to borrow and, in particular, government debt has been hoovered up by the central banks. Now, there’s a number of ways of walking back from this. One is the enlightened approach where policymakers decide, “Look, there’s just too much leverage in the world system. We need to pare it back.” And that’s done in a collaborative way across central banks. I don’t think that’s going to happen — that would be too ideal.

[00:19:20.20] Ben: This is what you refer to as the ‘New West Failure’, right?

Michael: It is. We need a reordering of finance in the world, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty of 1648. That’s a very grand example. But, you know, the size of central banks, the size of debt in the world, is the biggest in centuries. So, we do need a grand setting for this. I certainly think that we are storing up the ammunition for the next financial crisis which will be a crisis of debt and ‘debtness’ and it will probably come about by, you know, additional QE from central banks not working or not functioning, a loss of confidence, and then, for the first time in some time, people begin to look to get the money they’ve lent back, either from governments or countries, projects, companies — and it’s just not there. You get a deep recession. Maybe central banks will try more QE and that won’t work because often, in a credit crunch, monetary power can — in a deep credit crunch, monetary policy can lose its power. So that’s sort of a negative, nasty scenario, which I don’t like to paint, but in the absence of enlightened policy, that’s a potential route for the future.

[00:20:51.26] Ben: And I can’t resist asking you this — I know we’re gonna go slightly off-topic here — because you used to be a CIO, so it’s too tempting not to ask this. But how does one position a portfolio for a world where there’s a massive governmental debt crisis on the horizon?

Michael: Yeah. So, I think you do a number of things. The first thing, I suppose is to figure out what really is a safe asset. So what government debt will you feel really safe holding? I mean, that’s why German bonds, for example, continue to trade-off at a negative yield, because it’s one of the true safe assets — maybe Dutch debt as well. So, if I had a portfolio and there were private equity in it, for example, I would switch that into things like distressed debt funds, long/short credit funds. I think what you can begin to do, as well, is to look at tail-risk strategies — that’s quite a technical term, and what it means is that these are strategies that would form a small part of the portfolio, but if an extreme, negative event happened, they would pay off quite handsomely, they would tend to be kind of derivative-based or derivative-type strategies. And then also, I think, you know, in other parts of a portfolio, you want to aim to hold companies that have got a lot of cash and less debt. Ironically, some of the big tech companies fall in that category, even though they have somewhat stretched valuations.

[00:22:33.13] Ben: So, just coming back to the book and the end of globalization, how do we get back to sustained organic growth? Because some of the things that you talk about in the book have become, I guess, slightly passé or old fashioned, which is you advocate for things like education and rescaling and things that don’t seem to be at top of the political agenda right now. So, is that what we need? Do you think we need to get back to education and re-boosting productivity? Because that’s the only route back to sustained organic growth.

We can continue with globalization as it is, which I think is unlikely. We can have a lapse into chaos and disorder, like the 1910s and ’20s. Or I think what’s much more likely is we’ll have a multipolar world, which I think the way to look at it is that it’s not so much a world dominated by big regions, as to the fact that these big regions do things increasingly distinctly or differently — Michael O’SULLIVAN

Michael: I think someone said — maybe it was Paul Krugman — for developed countries, in the long run, productivity is everything. And I agree with that because it’s the main — unless you’ve got rapidly changing demographics — it’s the main and perhaps the only way to boost economic growth. And I think the first step is that there needs to be a debate and a movement amongst governments to focus on productivity and focus on what I would call ‘trend growth’. So, what’s your sort of trend level of growth? And the best way to improve that is through productivity. As you said, many of the things that drive productivity — you know, rescaling education, careful investment in technology in country strategy — they have been forgotten. If you look at what’s happened to education and educational attainment rates in the US, that’s quite alarming. And many of the other factors around that, things like human development, are regressing. So you’re right. I mean, they’re worse than passé. They’re just being degraded. And there’s really no other way for developed countries to grow in the long term. You can do trade wars, you can try and convince countries to reshore investment, but that’s all one-off kind of short-term stuff. The real driver of growth is through productivity. I think the problem many politicians have with this is that we are in short, political cycles. So, by the time you’ve invested in the factors that drive productivity, you only see the benefits of that maybe 5–10 years down the line.

[00:24:58.03] Ben: I wanted to ask you about the US elections in November because you make the point in the book, you sort of draw the parallel with the 1980s and you say, you know, people were fixated with the end of communism, and they felt as bought what was coming next, which is this period of rapid globalization and internationalization of trade and everything. And to some extent, you say the same thing here. Now, we’re obsessed with a little bit the political circus, and we’re missing this bigger shift. But to what extent is Donald Trump and this US election, a circus versus being really important in determining how we transition to this new world, whether it’s a smooth transition, an elongated transition, etc.?

If there’s any doubt that globalization is over, four more years of Trump will entirely smash that — Michael O’Sullivan

Michael: He is very important. And I think what is important is that, you know, Donald Trump as an individual has a lot to be responsible for. But he has come at a time when that’s maybe apt in that it’s the end of an era and he is the human wrecking ball breaking down the old order. He is not going to be the person to build up the new order. And he has also been enabled by many people principally on the Republican side for whom it’s convenient to have him as President. I think it’s quite clear that, you know, four years of Donald Trump have broken many things. He’s broken America’s diplomacy with Europe, with parts of the Middle East, but not all; obviously, broken diplomatically with China, and sown general confusion. He’s also, I think, devalued many of the institutions in the US — the State Department, some of the financial institutions as well. And then, in that background, four more years of Donald Trump would make permanent all of these ruptures and it would cause the rest of the world to maybe ignore America. Europe in particular will tend to go its own way. I think countries like China will be more and more convinced that the US is in turmoil, and it is weakened, and Russia will probably have the same view. And they will act accordingly. And I think that will well and truly break globalization. If there’s any doubt that globalization is over, four more years of Trump will entirely smash that. Joe Biden, for his part, I think will not be a transformative president, but a restorative president in that he will restore the status quo, he will repair the State Department. His team, I think, is very strong on foreign policy, maybe less so on the economy. And he will, I think in particular, restore relations with Europe and try and rebuild the partnership with Europe, to the detriment, I think, of Russia, and maybe China as well.

[00:28:10.06] Ben: But I guess the point that many people would make is, as you said, he’s a wrecking ball. He’s gutting institutions domestically, globally. But, in a way, is that necessary? Do we need to break these institutions in order to remake them? You know, would a Biden presidency as you said, restore the institutions or, you know, other institutions still fit for purpose? So, I suppose the question is, do we need four more years of Donald Trump to hasten this transition to the new world? Or would it be a disaster and lead to a much, much more uncontrolled transition to the new world?

The level of denial amongst governments and companies that things can go on, as they were, I think, is still very, very high, and that denial needs to be broken — Michael O’SULLIVAN

Michael: I hesitate to recommend four more years of Donald Trump, but a lot of what you’re saying, which I accept, which is that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift, which is a very overused phrase — and you only get paradigm shifts for a number of decades, maybe centuries, and you only get the rebuilding when a lot of the old order is broken down, there is chaos, and then people come forward with new ideas and new initiatives. And the reason I think we need more breaking is the level of denial amongst governments and companies that things can go on, as they were, I think, is still very, very high, and that denial needs to be broken. So, if you take as an example the debate over the World Trade Organization, which is potentially a defunct and irrelevant organization in the context of a multipolar world, the debate now is to whether we just have a new leader and someone who’s not from Europe, or the States and everything would be fine. And you have similar debates about the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and not about, you know, should these institutions be radically changed or displaced? And what institutions of the future do we need to have?

[00:30:19.06] Ben: And do you have a view on some of that or not? So, you know, I don’t want to run through the list of all the international organizations like the IMF, and so on. But, are some of them still capable of doing the job we need them to do or do you think it’s a total reboot?

Michael: I would prefer a total reboot. I think some have remained relevant, like the OECD, because they’ve had a good sense to attach themselves to a bigger framework in the shape of the G20. They’re sort of the think tank of the G20 now. Others, I think should be completely reshaped. The World Bank, I think should be relocated physically to Africa, which is the one part of the world that really needs the help of the World Bank. And then, I think there needs to be a debate on what the institutions of the 21st century need to be. Do we need, for example, an institution on climate change that has got the power to fine governments and companies in a forceful way for climate damage? Do we need an institution to govern cyberspace and cyber warfare and cybercrime? We don’t have that. We don’t have an international police force for the internet. So, there’s all these things that are beginning to crop up as future problems, and have not yet been framed either in philosophy and law or by institutions.

[00:31:48.20] Ben: Moving to what comes after globalization. So you’ve used the term ‘paradigm shift’, and you’ve also used the term ‘multipolar world’. Is that what globalization gives way to? Does globalization become a multipolar world?

Michael: I think so. I mean, there are many scenarios. We can continue with globalization as it is, which I think is unlikely. We can have a lapse into chaos and disorder, like the 1910s and ’20s. Or I think what’s much more likely is you’ll have a multipolar world, which I think the way to look at it is that it’s not so much a world dominated by big regions, as to the fact that these big regions do things increasingly distinctly or differently. So, again, coming back to the internet — I mean, the US has got the big internet giants, and they are stockmarket monsters. China has cut off its internet, but it has a thriving e-commerce sector. And then Europe doesn’t have any of these big internet companies, but it is becoming the regulator of the internet, looking to protect people from the ills of the Internet.

We’re in a world where lots of issues are emerging and lots of well-placed frustrations are being vented. So, it is definitely a period of turmoil, where democracy and rights and liberties are being contested — Michael O’SULLIVAN

[00:33:12.23] Ben: For how long can it seek to regulate the internet without those platforms? Because, to use an analogy from a previous podcast, it’s sort of trying to control the seas without a Navy or an infrastructure, right?

Michael: Yeah. It can because of its size and the power of its economy, and the fact that Europe in particular is very, very sophisticated in terms of policy, and regulation. So, if Britain were to try and come up with its own set of rules for the internet or how British people consume the global Internet, it may well not be able to do so. But Europe is obviously much bigger. I think the way we’re going now is we’re going towards a values-based, multipolar world. So what I mean by that is that when it comes to economics and politics and climate change, each of the big regions has got very different values and approaches- and those values will inform how they build out their economy. So, Europe wants to protect its citizens and their data. It’s also very strong on the environment, and many of the new policy plans we hear about from Europe, are focused on the green economy. Much less so in the States where there’s just a very different balance between society and the economy. And then China has its own very distinct set of values, which I think we don’t spend enough time trying to understand, in the West. And I think it has its own risks and its own complexities which are maybe not readily apparent in newspaper headlines. And if you look at the Chinese Communist Party, which is a very big machine, inside it you have lots of different groups and rivalries that effectively mirror what you have in western politics just that they’re all under the same big disciplined umbrella. But I think in China, the secret is not just the vision, but also the implementation. They can implement policy for such a big country in a very, very speedy kind of way.

[00:35:38.00] Ben: The gravitational poles are US, China, Europe. Will countries that aren’t in those countries or in those regions have to choose between them? So, you know, will Africa have to align itself with the USA? Or will India — and it looks increasingly like India is already aligning itself with the US — is that what it will be? It’ll be a question of choosing between one of these poles for everybody else?

Michael: Yeah. So, I think there’s maybe a few things here. So, I think countries who fall between the poles — so, Japan in Asia, Australia, they are between America and China; the UK, Russia, in Europe — they’re on different sides of Europe, obviously — they will potentially find life more difficult because they’re not as big as the three poles and they’re sort of mid-sized powers and they have to come to terms with that and reshape their own identity. I mean, Russia has its own crisis in that it’s a military power, but not an economic or financial power. I think other parts of the world are in the stream. India, if you add it on to the area of the Emirates, is potentially in time, another pole, but it has a lot to travel in terms of its development in order to get there. And then I think for countries like, you know, Nigeria, Bangladesh, who are populous and growing, I mean, they have lots of choices. They can sort of say, “Well, let’s co-opt ourselves to China and the Chinese model, or do we still follow what the Americans have done? Or what the Swiss or the Irish have done?” Or they can kind of say, “Well, look, we just do it our own way.“ So, I actually think that these countries — there’s maybe 10 of them — you know, big, populous countries in Asia and Africa, who have not yet really globalized or developed, where they go in the future and how they do it, and what templates they use.

[00:37:35.14] Ben: And you see them as potentially in a strong, almost bargaining position or arbitrage position, do you think, between those poles?

Michael: Not yet. I think what they need to do — and this is where some of the new institutions of the world order would come in — is that these countries perhaps need to collaborate better in terms of building up their own cooperative institutions so that they collectively have more power vis-a-vis the US or China, as it were.

[00:38:05.16] Ben: You’re a big fan of small countries, right? Because you just used the example of Switzerland and Ireland — so, small countries that are very globalized in the sense that they’re magnets for certain kinds of information, trade flows. Are you still as bullish about those small countries in this sort of de-globalizing world?

Michael: I am, obviously, as an Irishman who’s lived in Switzerland, quite biased. And how I got involved in the whole globalization debate is I wrote a book years ago on Ireland and globalization — at the time, Ireland was the most globalized country in the world. I’m still bullish about them because I think this has been shown by the Coronavirus crisis, is these countries in general, they have a resilience, and they have a robustness. So, by virtue of being small and being open to world trade, they’re also very much aware of what’s going on in the world and what they need to do to correct against some of the imbalances that they will suffer. And the countries I have in mind are the likes of Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Singapore, etc. They’re all very different in terms of their culture and politics, but they have similar problems, but also similar ways of dealing with them. They tend to be the best countries who have this mix of strong rule of law, very good institutions, trust in experts, investment in education, etc. So, that model for me is still one that’s really relevant today.

[00:39:52.01] Ben: And how do you align that or reconcile that with also being a fan of supranational bodies like the… I mean, would it not be a good thing for power then to be devolved down increasingly to sort of nation states or even cities within nation states. Because if small is better, small is more agile, if small is more resilient, then is now an argument for fragmentation?

Michael: I mean, you can call it ‘fragmentation’, you can call it ‘devolution’ as well. I think what you may see is you may see countries like France become a bit more devolved to its regions in terms of taking some of the power that’s concentrated in Paris and devolving that to some of the regions. That doesn’t mean that France is going to break apart or that Europe is going to break apart — quite the opposite, because all of these countries are still happy to have the umbrella of the EU and to enjoy its laws on data protection, etc. I think, also, that globally, we do need to look at governance. So, climate change is my favorite example here, where many countries signed up to the Paris Accord, but it doesn’t really have teeth and it’s not, in my view, really contributed anything in terms of lessening climate damage. What you find is many of the big cities in the world, however, are much more progressive, and much more green than their individual governments. So, my suggestion would be that you have a sort of Paris Accord between big cities that it has teeth. They can, for example, tax their hinterlands, they’re better in control of pollution in their economic hinterland, they tend to be more advanced in terms of infrastructure and green policy, than individual countries. So that’s maybe one way to look at governance, I think.

we are beginning to see a fracturing of political systems where dominant parties are being pushed aside — Michael O’Sullivan

[00:41:56.07] Ben: Well, practically for other issues, because you still need a sort of supranational accord, that the cities sign up to. Would you need the same thing when it came to cybersecurity, or what else is coming down the road — you know, genomics, or digital currencies? How would you simultaneously have global accords in a de-globalized world with city states taking more responsibility?

Michael: Yeah, so I think cities are probably apt for climate change. I think something like cyber, you know, you need a cyber accord probably between at least five countries — and most of those will be on the UN Security Council. They are the cyber powers of the world plus a bunch of others because they are the ones who are either initiating or defending many of the cyber attacks and cyberwars. You know, this is an area of activity where there are no rules. So there’s no template or rule that says, “If Russia hacks me, I’m allowed to fire back a missile, because hacking me or hacking my hospitals is a declaration of war. It’s an aggressive act.” So, I think you need increasingly to match the institutions to the locus of the problem, the locus of the issue.

[00:43:24.06] Ben: Who are The Levellers? And why do they matter? And one of the related terms is ‘The Agreements of the People’ — what are the agreements of the people?

Michael: Okay, so the Leveller is a somewhat obscure story, but probably one of the most important in British history. And I’m guessing many people haven’t heard of them.

Ben: I used to live in Putney, and I’d never heard of them.

Michael: So my starting point is that we’re in a world where lots of issues are emerging and lots of well-placed frustrations are being vented — you know, from gender inequality, you’ve got black lives matter, and you’ve got then democracy-based struggles in Belarus — and you can go on for quite a long time. So, it is definitely a period of turmoil, where democracy and rights and liberties are being contested. In some respects, I’m not a fan of a lot of this political debate on Twitter, and I wish a lot of it were more constructive and that they were more constructive channels. I look at a lot of these protests movements, and you ask yourself, you know, can we go beyond protesting? And how would you take a movement forward and make it concrete and begin to embed it in changes and in laws?

Michael: I recall reading a couple of books some time ago on the Putney Debates, which happened in the middle of the 17th century in Britain. So the king was captured by Cromwell’s New Model Army and with the king being captured people had an inkling of what a parliamentary democracy might look like and they began to debate this down in Putney — it was called ‘the Putney Debate’. And it was primarily a debate within the army, the soldiers, and the officers. And one very important cohort was a group called ‘The Levellers’, who effectively were kind of the social democrats of the day. And they and their leaders came up with a template called ‘The Agreement of the People’. Quite a short template, but it’s really, in tangible form, what the people wanted from government and from parliament. And I think that’s missing today. And that needs to be reconceived.

Michael: For lots of somewhat bizarre and interesting reasons, these agreements of the people were written down, but then not fully transcribed or rediscovered for another 200 years. So, it’s an example for a while lost to history, but it was the first popular expression of what a constitutional democracy would look like, at a time in Europe when Europe was just beginning to throw out some huge innovations in politics and nation states. So, a very important time. And I actually think that if people today could look at these agreements of the people and use them as a rough template for what they want — because they were very practical. You know, they talked about people being treated equally by the debt courts, they advocated limited political terms to reduce corruption — so, foreshadowing many of the things we have today. And I think the use of a template would be taking many dissatisfactions with politics and many movements and making them concrete and also constructive, which I think is largely missing.

[00:46:59.27] Ben: I really like your idea of getting off Twitter, because, first of all, you know, Twitter tends not to lead to anything that’s particularly concrete. But also Twitter tends to lead to massive bifurcation which is, it’s very difficult to hold the center ground on Twitter, because it’s the extremes that gain traction on a platform like Twitter. But I suppose the question is, how is this so different from electing representatives with well-defined mandates in the first place? Are you just saying that we, as constituents, would put forward our ideas, and then almost the political parties would be formed to then put those into statute and into place? Would that be the difference then? So, rather than the political class coming up with the manifestos that we then vote on, it becomes much more bottom-up?

Michael: I guess it should ideally be more bottom-up. I think there’s a sense also that many political parties are somewhat jaded in terms of what they represent. And maybe one question, which I think we haven’t seen yet, is whether we get new political parties, new political entrepreneurs coming through. And I think there is dissatisfaction — you know, what we are seeing as well, we are beginning to see a fracturing of political systems where dominant parties are being pushed aside. You’ve seen that in France, the two dominant parties pushed aside. It’s interesting, we haven’t seen it in the UK or the US yet; the two-party systems remain dominant. But I think there needs to be channels constructed for taking, you know, what I think are well-founded grievances, and getting those into law. For example, there’s a lot of work now being done in social media, such as petitions for parliament in the UK — a lot of work being done there, in social media to get people’s petitions into parliament. So there are changes beginning to come through, but certainly not as fast as I thought would happen.

[00:49:10.03] Ben: I like that idea, too, because I think there’s sort of contrast between Twitter — again, to use that analogy — and the way we do politics it has now become enormous. And the politics hasn’t kind of responded yet. Because, you know, I think what Twitter is doing is giving us the sense that we know as much as the political class. I think we really saw that during COVID, which is everybody thought they knew as much about how to cope with this crisis, as the political class did, because it gives that impression of the narrowing of, or this sort of information asymmetry disappearing, which is an illusion. But I think what would be good would be to sort of reboot politics to be more like social media, in the sense that, as you say, we could treat it like a platform, which is, you know, we could contribute all of our ideas, and then you could build new political parties on top of a platform, which would then be much more networked and responsive to changing ideas. Is that what you had in mind, then, that it will become more networked and responsive?

Michael: In a way it is. And again, one lesson I remark on in the book with The Levellers is that they were idealistic. And parties are a result of that. I mean, they were very good at things like pamphleteering. So they were the social media geniuses of their time, but they were totally outmaneuvered by the incumbents. So I think there is a cynicism required as to how the political system works, which needs to be matched with idealism and a desire to change things. You know, I use the example of Emmanuel Macron, who is seen as being a revolutionary political figure. But I think what he figured out was that the best way to do a so-called ‘revolution’ is to take the system from the inside, not the outside. Now, he had the help of many parts of the system and the institutions in doing so. But it seems to me that that’s sort of a speedier way to changing politics than trying to do it from the outside.

[00:51:18.15] Ben: I can’t resist asking the question, which is, how satisfied are you with Emmanuel Macron? Somebody living in France? How much do you think he’s really changed politics? Because he seems to be a bit like Obama or a bit like Donald Trump. He used digital means to campaign in a completely different way. But the governing has been almost very traditional. Do you accept that?

Michael: It has been traditional in that he — I mean, he has replaced one elite with another younger one, for sure. And pretty much all the people around him reflect the fact that France is still very much elitist in terms of politics, in that they all have the same formation, the men and women have the same views, education. I mean, it’s more stark than, say, the UK is. So he and the people around him are still very much a product of the French system, the French elite. They’ve just, I think, made a lot more fresh. I mean, I think there are areas where he stands out. I don’t think in any way he’s corrupt. I think he’s absolutely sincere in what he wants to do and he’s very, very driven, in that sense, in terms of implementing his vision. I think what he has changed, in my view, compared to the two previous presidents — Sarkozy, and Hollande — I think, with both of those, there was a sense that they were kind of filling a gap and that they might not be around for the next four or five years after. Whereas Macron, I think people have a sense that perhaps he will be here for another term, and that we will have a Macron era that he has the time to implement changes. And he, I think, before [00:53:08.12] he had already implemented quite impressive labor market changes. France needs more of those. I think also, one area that’s clearly open to him is Europe and European politics. And certainly, the energy for European politics and political initiatives in Europe is very much in Paris. It’s not in Germany. We will soon have the post-Merkel era, politics will be a lot more fractured, which will leave France as the dominant country driving policy in Europe.

[00:53:46.04] Ben: If Brexit was the first sign of the end of globalization, is TikTok, the first sign of the post-globalized world?

Michael: Actually, it’s an important sign because it shows how a service that should, I suppose in many respects, be harmless and that should be global, and that people in many countries can use it, but has been used for political ends, can become carved up in the manner of this multipolar world. So, you know, in the US and China, there are clear barriers around the use and the ownership of different parts of TikTok, which begin to, at the same time, sketch out the map of this multipolar world that’s coming.

[00:54:47.12] Ben: Last question. COVID: do you think that this is, again, laying bare the fact that we have reached the end of globalization? Or do you think it’s a reason to be optimistic because it’s a crisis that all countries face and really should galvanize us to work together?

Michael: It’s certainly been a test — a dramatic test. And I think what individual healthcare companies, universities have worked together. The absence of collaboration between countries and regions, for me, has been the litmus test — a litmus test that shows that we are at the end of globalization and heading into a more singular, maybe more selfish, multipolar world. In previous crises, you’ve seen countries and governments collaborate — global financial crisis being an example. And we just had an absence of that this time. They’ve squabbled over vaccines and masks, etc. So that’s the lesson that needs to be borne in mind.

[00:55:57.08] Ben: You would just argue, then, that COVID — again, exemplifying what the new world would look like — at the same time is probably bringing it forward faster?

Michael: I think so. I think it accelerated this whole thesis, for sure.

Ben: Michael, thank you very much indeed for coming on the podcast.


Michael: It was good!

The Internetworked Nation

The Internetworked Nation

The Internetworked Nation

by Ben Robinson | May 23, 2019 | 9 minutes read

In one the most notorious scenes from cinema history, Harry Lime, a racketeer played by Orson Welles in the The Third Man, compares the cultural achievements of Italy and Switzerland. He says,

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Still image from Carol Reed’s The Third Man
Still image from Carol Reed’s The Third Man

It’s probably unfair to suggest that this stereotype of Switzerland as safe and sterile originates directly from the film, but it has certainly helped to perpetuate it. According to its purveyors, the stereotype holds that Switzerland is too rich to take risks, too boring to be creative, and officiously obsessed with petty rules governing everything from rubbish collection to toilet flushing — in short, the antithesis of innovation.

However, not only is this stereotype misplaced — Switzerland invented the internet, not the cuckoo clock— but Switzerland’s networked, outward-looking economic model sets it apart from other nations and provides a blueprint for how to succeed in the digital economy.

While it is high time to debunk some myths about Switzerland, Switzerland’s success should still be seen on its own terms. If we look at the start-up scene, for example, it bears little resemblance to Silicon Valley. Tech companies here tend to ramp up slowly. According to startupticker, Swiss tech start-ups take about 10 years to reach scale and grow almost twice as fast in their second decade as in their first. Without a large domestic (consumer) market to sell into, they look to sell to corporations and they seek to internationalize early, with the majority exporting within the first three years of their life. And, they tend to take comparatively little external capital with most businesses becoming stable, moderately growing SMEs rather than blow-out exits or IPOs.

Still image from Carol Reed’s The Third Man

Looked at on these terms, we could cast Switzerland as small-scale and parochial. It is a long way from blitzscaling and moving fast and breaking things. Instead, it is very much the slow and steady model of measuring twice and cutting once that leads to fewer unicorns and billionaire celebrity founders, but which also produces fewer negative externalities and inequality.

Should Switzerland be aiming to become the Silicon Alps?

The fact is that drawing a comparison with the US tech scene is wrong and Switzerland should resist portraying itself as “Silicon Alps” or the “Silicon Valley of [insert term here]”. Like Operation Libero, the Swiss political movement that punctured the rise of the far-right Swiss People’s Party by reframing the political debate, Switzerland should not define its credentials in terms set by others. Instead, it should present the uniqueness of its model: a complex, adaptive system that combines lasting quality with cutting edge innovation and that marries economic growth with inclusiveness.

Flavia Kleiner, of Operation Libero, on the importance of narratives

A complex adaptive system is one made up of a network of interdependent actors that collectively adapt quickly to changing environmental factors. For Switzerland, this system is made of a series of layers – from government to brand – each resilient and adaptive, which, as a whole, both reinforce the strength of the overall system and leave it well positioned to capitalize on the future.

Switzerland is a complex adaptive system
Switzerland is a complex adaptive system

A distributed political system. In Switzerland, political power is distributed between the federal, cantonal and communal governments. This allows for a high degree of adaptiveness by keeping government nimble and localized enough to respond to diverse needs. In addition, it encourages competition between the different cantons and communes that promotes good governance and which, in practice, results in policies which are both pro-business, such as low tax and low employment regulations, and pro-citizen, such as a strong safety net, and which overall create the conditions for entrepreneurial risk-taking and shared prosperity.

An inclusive culture. It is testament to its inclusiveness that Switzerland is able to seamlessly accommodate four different language groups and a population with 25% foreign-born residents. But, it is in its ability to meld the high-tech and the rural, the modern and the traditional into a coherent, confident whole that it really excels. In much of the world, digitization is leaving behind rural areas, but not so in Switzerland.

Switzerland Rural Modernist
Switzerland Rural Modernist

A robust industrial set-up. Switzerland has a unique ecosystem, spread across multiple cities as opposed to one single dominant center. In place of unicorns it has lions, top-of-the-food-chain organizations that act as key nodes in the network. These include multinationals (Switzerland has more per capita than any other nation), top class universities (one in the top 10, two in the top 25), NGOs (including the UN) and scientific research hubs, such as CERN.

The Rolex building at The École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne

These organizations support a much larger network of SMEs, which form the backbone of the economy and middle-class employment, and attract key flows of capital and information. This last point is critically important since globalization is entering a new phase, one centered on virtual not physical flows. In practice, this means that big is not necessarily best, that the future probably doesn’t look like our popular imaginings and that small countries, like Switzerland, can have outsized impacts.

Switzerland, a landlocked country, is the second biggest shipping power in the world
Switzerland, a landlocked country, is the second biggest shipping power in the world

Cutting-edge technology. Switzerland didn’t invent the cuckoo clock, but it did invent acid. In a whole range of fields, from micromechanics and hardware to life sciences and pharma, Switzerland is world-leading. Its high-tech economy is supported at a foundational/high-risk level by strong government spending on R&D (as a % of GDP it is behind only Korea and Israel, the latter a big military spender) and then a combination of top universities, research centres and high-spending corporations take it from there: Switzerland tops the Global Innovation Index.

Climeworks, an ETH spin-off, commercialized the world’s first carbon capture technology

International connections. Its outward focus is symbolized through its international organizations as well as the annual Davos gathering, but it is supported bottom up through over 40 free trade agreements. International trade accounts for over 120% of GDP and the 2019 Freedom Index ranks Switzerland the fourth most open economy in the world, the most open in Europe. But its internationalism is also down to geography: if you draw a circle around Zurich into neighboring southern Germany and northern Italy, you realize it stands as the pinnacle of the global center for high-end, family-run design and manufacturing — everything from machine tools to Ferraris.

Which other country in the could attract all of the world’s leaders to a small mountain village

A world-renowned brand. Switzerland wraps this adaptive system with a timeless, global reputation for quality epitomized by precision engineering and intricate design; more Zenith watch than cuckoo clock.

Swiss Innovation
On the left, the precise mechanics of a Zenith luxury watch; on the right, Solar Impluse, a solar-powered plane attempting to circumvent the globe

One paradox of Switzerland is that it’s in the heart of Europe, yet not in Europe (the European Union, that is). But a greater paradox is that, though not in the EU, it represents the best model of how the EU should work.

Just as Switzerland should not compare itself to the US, nor should Europe. North America embodies a libertarian model where winners take all and corporations rule supreme.

Similarly, the Chinese model is not the European model, either. The Chinese model is one of planned economic activity. It can deliver fast growth, but at the expense of individual freedoms. Here corporate surveillance gives way to state surveillance, but the surveillance persists.

Technology makes it possible to design complex societies following series of recipes, not inorganic blueprints
Technology makes it possible to design complex societies following series of recipes, not inorganic blueprints

Europe seeks to forge a different path. A Goldilocks model of balanced freedoms and inclusive growth. The challenge is that Europe hasn’t yet found the recipe to make this happen. However, that recipe might well be the Swiss one: business friendly to promote growth, but with the welfare state to lift all boats; a federal model to allow for self-government and pooled sovereignty; a focus on science and lasting value that creates a prosperous middle class; and, an open model attracting the flows on which the next phase of globalization will be built.

While objectively a global success story, there could still be room to improve. A recent report from McKinsey highlighted, for example, that Switzerland is losing attractiveness as a home for MNCs, a key constituent of the ecosystem. Here are three measures that could help.

Unleash the capital. As should be clear, we would not advocate turning Switzerland into some sort plastic replica of Silicon Valley. However, that does not mean that more risk capital wouldn’t be helpful.

Last year, Swiss companies raised over USD1bn in venture financing, a 32% annual growth and the highest amount ever. Moreover, the money went to fund more companies in a more diverse range of sectors than ever before. But USD1bn is low relative to most other developed countries and very low relative to, say, over USD1 trillion that sits in the national Swiss pension pot.

Analog Flows vs Digital Flows
From “Swiss Made” to “Swiss Designed” | Pictured left — daily commuters from France to Geneva (c. 85,000 per day) | Pictured right — next level of globalisation is about digital flows

Furthermore, not only does venture capital have significant economic multiplier effect, but it is also filling the vacuum left by traditional lending which is not adapting to the increasingly intangible nature of modern economies. As such, it would highly beneficial to get dormant Swiss capital moving. This might come naturally from tokenizing illiquid assets like real estate, but it might also require the hand of the state by, for example, creating the conditions for a new financing vehicle to emerge —one that promotes long-term, sustainable investments.

Foster the holding company model. Our view is that this networked organization of the future looks a lot like Ant Financial or Amazon, operating what we call the “holding company model” . This model allows group companies to remain small enough to cater to specific customer demographics and agile enough to respond to market changes. But, the holding company structure leverages growing financial muscle, shares supply side economies of scale, like IT infrastructure, and shares data network effects via APIs. Given the structure of the Swiss economy — as the world capital par excellence of holding companies — as well as the importance of holding companies to attracting data flows, it is vital that Switzerland makes this model as viable as possible before Singapore and others usurp it. Part of this relates regulations on data, but at least as important are rules on tax, especially around how capital flows between entities get treated.

The future is invisible
Which view of the future looks more likely?

Scale the brand. The future is small and invisible. It won’t be the future of flying cars and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And for Switzerland, nor could it be. A country of 8 million people, its future always had to be true to brand: high-end and high-quality. But there is a way to make this brand do more and we believe it is by pivoting from “Swiss Made” to “Swiss Designed”, accepting its increasingly intangible asset future, placing manufacturing closer to consumers and scaling its addressable market in the process.

When you transit between terminals at Zurich airport, you are presented with a hologram of Heidi set against a mountain backdrop and accompanied by sounds of nature, yodeling and the Swiss horn. This is the manifestation of a society at ease with itself, the confident projection of a multi-faceted nation that can be at once modern and traditional, high-tech and rural.

The nature of our economies is changing. Our future will be increasingly networked. Switzerland as a complex adaptive system looks set to re-calibrate for this new phase of globalization.

While it might not have invented the cuckoo clock, it’s probably in for another five hundred years of peace and sisterly love.

An immersive image of Heidi in-between train stops at Zurich terminal