eyes on the U.S.

How The 2016 Campaign Has Rewritten Debate On Economics

At a Bernie Sanders rally in NYC in January
At a Bernie Sanders rally in NYC in January
Alain Frachon


PARIS â€" It all adds up to a major mea culpa. For the most prominent economists, the U.S. presidential campaign feels like an act of contrition. Yes, we were wrong about the virtues of global free trade. No, French philosopher Montesquieu’s beloved doux commerce ("gentle commerce") thesis wasn’t necessarily a win-win recipe for all.

There are failures. There has been significant collateral damage. Nowadays, even newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, or the British Financial Times and The Economist â€" true bastions of free market liberalism â€" admit it. That, in itself, is quite a new development. The way we perceive free trade, or globalization, will never be the same as it was before this presidential campaign. Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ pointed criticisms of the system resonated with voters, whether Republican or Democrat.

Their criticisms go far beyond economics. They’re part of a broader protest movement against globalization and increasingly porous national borders, with the resulting migration flows, trade competition and uncontrolled capital flows. Dismissing these stances as "populist" is pointless. It would be better to question the root causes of the angry chorus that is being heard from both sides of the Atlantic. What is it all about, then? It is likely a reaction to an ever-growing sense of vulnerability stemming from the combined impact of the technological revolution and globalization. Some of the effects are well known: an increase in inequalities, and a stagnation of middle-class incomes.

North/South equality

Let’s briefly pay homage to those non-conformists who dared express doubts about the absolute value of free trade, which was trumpeted incessantly over the last 25 years. Their warnings were prescient, and today, they’re part of mainstream analysis. Even The Economist, the temple of free trade dogma, admits it: Economists are having mixed feelings about the potential universal benefits of an ever-freer world trade system.

In an editorial published on April 2, The New York Times acknowledges that "American policy has allowed the winners to keep most of the spoils of trade and has given the losers crumbs …, as Mr. Sanders has correctly pointed out."

"Free trade has always created losers, but now they seem to outnumber the winners," writes Philip Stephens in the Financial Times. He adds, "There is nothing populist about noticing that globalization has seen the top one percent grab an ever-larger share of national wealth."

"Has the protectionist moment finally arrived?" asks Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

And his answer is a resounding "no." If there exists a consensus among the world’s English-speaking economists ­â€" be they liberals or social democrats â€" it could be summed up in a few sentences.

First, the globalization of the post-1945 economy, resulting from the dismantling of national borders, benefited everyone by creating incredible wealth. As a result, equality improved between developed and developing countries.

Second, re-establishing trade barriers, as Trump advocates, will not stop the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. All basic manufactured goods are now produced in transnational systems. And there will be no return. Developed countries will never benefit from massive industrial resettlement.

Third, globalization will not stop â€" it will last. Supported by technological innovation, globalization is driving the growth of developing economies, and developed countries need these developing markets, but they will have access to them only if they keep their doors open.

Creating a new welfare state

But while free trade is here to stay, it is in need of a new legitimacy in developed countries. The success of the various protest movements that have emerged both in Europe and the U.S. proves this point and forces hardline economists to face the facts: namely, that globalization, technological innovation and China’s economic rise serious damaged Western countries, contributing to unemployment, greater income inequalities and a lower average wage. The European and American public will no longer swallow the nonsense they were fed twenty years ago, when they were assured that those who lost their manufacturing jobs would find equally well-paid opportunities in the service sector. That was a enormous lie.

The most oft-cited reference work on the subject was published by three famous economists: David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson. They studied the impact of Chinese imports on the domestic U.S. market, and the results were unambiguous â€" immediate job loss. The promised "adjustment," whereby manufacturing skills were supposed to lead to success in the service sector, did not happen. Over a decade, perhaps longer, jobs were lost, new opportunities got harder to come by and the unemployment rate peaked.

There is a risk, now, of lapsing into protectionism. That would be detrimental to both the European and U.S. economies: It would prevent the implementation of new trade agreements that would mandate a minimal social safety net, as well as environmental constraints. The solution does not lie in policies that would "protect" national frontiers, but with those that help the people hurt by globalization. A new welfare state needs to be built, adapted to the social issues created by the irreversible economic integration â€" and the Left should be in charge of establishing it.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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