社會面對新挑戰 須3方面調整

香港地不少年輕人煩惱着買樓,但樓價卻節節上升,生活費用亦比工資漲得快,因而感受到很大的壓力。

學童讀書要面對緊張的家長和老師,服務業的朋友要面對不滿的老闆和客人,就連金融界的朋友也日夜擔憂將來如何競爭,大家都覺得生活變得乾燥無味。

面對內地衝擊 港困局猶如美國

回想13年前我出國留學之時,正值沙士年代,當年香港人的心態跟現在的差別很大。雖然當時經濟蕭條,但普遍市民還是覺得香港是一塊福地,認為中國的改革開放帶給了香港很多商機。可是香港經濟增長緩慢,再加上香港多次進入政治低壓帶,很多香港人對未來失去信心,甚至對我城不再感到自豪。看電視節目時,聽見藝員黃秋生說香港精神在於樂觀、能幹,感到有點詫異。13年前沙士時代的香港情懷是驚慌、恐懼,如今的情懷可能更是悲哀、憤怒。香港人哪裏樂觀?

我在美國專研經濟學,發現香港社會的狀況跟美國其實存在很多共同點。美國跟香港一樣,工資追不上時代,貧富懸殊日益嚴重,一般市民看不到向上流動的機會。兩地的社會亦分化和撕裂,泛起本土民粹思潮。而兩地的政經難題其中的一個重要因素,正是中國經濟急速現代化與全球化。身在香港和美國等已發展經濟體系的人民,突然要面對13億人口邁進現代國際勞工市場所帶來的競爭和文化衝突,並不是件簡單的事。

時移勢易 新生代拓視野創機遇

社會面對新挑戰,需要作出3方面的調整。第一,是個人心理上的調整,特別是對於自己人生預期的調整;我們要明白時勢的變遷並不是我們所能控制。驚慌、悲憤的情緒對大家都無補於事,我們必須要學會順水推舟。第二,是個人行動上的調整;世界潮流改變、科技發展一日千里,我們必須放眼世界,努力學習和改變自己。第三,是社會集體的調整:始終一個人的能力是有限,社會各界互相合作才能發揮出最大的效力。

先談談個人的調整吧。其實我覺得不少中產階層的香港人跟美國人十分相似,習慣了安逸穩定的生活,便喪失改變的慾望。現今世界的經濟形勢有所改變,內地的13億人口突然成了我們的競爭對手,同時更成了我們工作的服務對象。一份稱心如意的工作不再唾手可得,樓價高企亦令置業難於登天,以前所嚮往的理想生活忽然間好像變得望塵莫及,因而感到不快、甚至不忿,造就本土主義也不難理解。

香港人雖說是勤力務實,卻在新的大環境裏這麼苦惱,其中一個重要原因是廣及文化意識並沒有充分地為青年人在新經濟環境裏生活作出準備。我跟在國際和內地企業工作的朋友談話,往往說起企業需要具有國際語言能力和文化知識、適應力高、分析力強、能創新的員工,但在香港招聘時卻不見得順利,認為本地學生始終缺乏創新能力和國際視野世界知識,聘用的反而愈來愈多是內地大學的畢業生。時移勢易,若港人故步自封,思想及認知追不上市場需求,向上流動的機會恐怕只會愈來愈少。

與各地人交流 鞏國際都會地位

世界的科技發展和中國的日益強大都是改變不了的現實。年輕人要積極尋找工作機會和生活空間,眼光不能只放在香港這片彈丸之地,要懂得放下自己的恐懼、擔憂和偏見,敢於離開熟悉的環境去學習、去尋夢。家長為了孩子的未來,也要放心給孩子去闖一闖。這幾年來,小弟的童年朋友均到去了外地學習、工作,甚至創業,包括內地、東南亞地區、西方國家、印度、非洲等地。身處異鄉,他們的確遇上了許多考驗,尤其在文化衝擊及語言溝通上的挑戰特別大,但他們樂觀積極,勤於學習,把困難一一克服。經過幾年的磨練,他們的視野變得廣闊,累積的經驗也相對豐富,就業機會也隨之增加。

不跑到外地,留在香港,也可以多接觸在香港居住的外地人。最近跟本地大學生談話,發現香港學生一般都不跟內地留學生交往,對內地發展缺乏興趣,對於這現象我感到非常可惜。認識外地的文化及語言,跟外地的朋友交往,甚至到外地學習和實習,不是意味着被同化,也不代表離棄家鄉,而是從認識別人的觀點而加深自己的見解,建立跨文化互信與認知,創造跨邊界的合作機會。這不僅是個人事業的投資,更是貢獻香港社會、強化本地文化的重要事務。假如香港的年輕人對世界文化潮流一無所知,香港國際都會的地位能得以維持嗎?香港能繁榮地發展下去嗎?

政商攜手協力 創社會上流機會

培育人才不單是學校和家長的重任,各界精英亦責無旁貸。當美國經歷選舉風波以後,JPMorgan總裁Jamie Dimon跟股東發信,在討論美國社會問題時說:「面對今天社會的困局,商界和政府應攜手協力,推動人民能共享的經濟增長。這不能單靠政府或單靠企業來做。我們都必須共同努力,放棄我們『一切照舊』的做法。經濟機會短缺是社會道德危機,所有人都會受影響的。」

教育事務上,Dimon主張商界跟教育界合作,讓學校了解市場的需要,協助制定適當的課程及培訓教師,並作好準備僱用和栽培其學生。同時政府應推出良策,提高人口素質,推動經濟增長,創造向上流動的機會。適用於香港的政策,包括盡快解決房屋供應問題、廉價出售公屋扶貧、有效地培訓香港人才、促進香港與內地以及世界各地文化交流活動、大力吸收國內外的頂尖人才和積極提高各行各業的創新與競爭能力。

香港最重要的資本是人才。戰後的香港之所以能夠蓬勃發展,正是因為各地人才來港後,在這一個擁有開放的市場的社會裏找到發揮的機會。因此黃秋生將香港精神定義為樂觀、能幹,我其實非常認同。樂觀的人才會把握機會,勇敢嘗試、創新;能幹的人才會把生意、事業搞得好。沒有樂觀和能幹的人才,經濟活動就流走到別處去了。

摒棄舊思維冒險 投資人力資本

香港未來發展的關鍵因素依然是人才,特別是擁有中國、亞洲、甚至全球文化知識、賦有創新思維的人才。如果香港人敢於冒險,能作出恰當的人力資本投資,相信香港前途是無量的。但如果我們只眷戀過去的輝煌,用過時和狹窄的眼光看世界,不敢擺脫往日的行業和生活方式,就看不見未來輝煌的可能性,也作不出為未來發展所需的統籌。

面對逆境,我們這一代香港人,究竟會害怕和悲憤地往後看,還是會鼓起勇氣,重拾樂觀、能幹的香港精神,不怕艱難、無懼挫折地向前衝?

二零一七年九月十三號刊登於經濟日報

Understanding US politics circa 2017

Donald Trump's election last year was shocking and appalling to many people, me included. For the past year I have been reading up on American history in an attempt to understand what the hell happened. I now believe that 1) things are not as bad as they once seemed, and that 2) the next few years will be really interesting to watch. Here's why.

Let’s start with some history. In the study of American politics, there is a popular framework used to think about the various periods of US political history called “realignment theory.” My favorite version of this theory is Stephen Skowronek’s awesome analysis of presidential politics. In his analysis, there is in any given historical period a dominant orthodoxy. A reconstructive US president (think: Lincoln) articulates an orthodoxy and puts together a legislative coalition to enact a corresponding agenda. This orthodoxy dominates over the next decades and the corresponding coalition continues to legislate elaborations to this agenda. However, the orthodoxy eventually weakens in the face of escalating crises to which it has no response. When this happens, another enterprising reconstructive politician with an understanding of the demands of various political factions can articulate a new orthodoxy and build a new legislative coalition under that banner. Such a realignment inaugurates a new period of US political history.

In 1860, Lincoln rallied abolitionists, Whigs, and Northern laborers in opposition to the expansion of slavery, creating a governing industrialist coalition which lasted for 70 years. This industrialist coalition lost credibility in the face of the Great Depression. Amid this crisis, FDR assembled the New Deal coalition, consisting of unions, workers, minorities, farmers, white Southerners, and intellectuals, dedicated to expanding the provision of government assistance to the needy. This coalition was dominant until LBJ’s Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War together sowed the seeds for the coalition’s dissolution. Then for almost forty years until today, the Reagan coalition, made up primarily of business interests and conservative middle/working class whites, rallied around lowered taxes and reducing the wastage of the welfare state.

Today the Reagan orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. In 2008, after the fiasco of the Iraq War and the Financial Crisis, Obama assembled a broad coalition which propelled him to the White House and gave him a supermajority in the Senate. It seemed as if the Republican Party was already in tatters and a new era of US political history was dawning. By 2010, however, Obama’s agenda was already held up by Republicans who had overwhelmingly retaken Congress, a sign that the Reagan coalition and orthodoxy still held considerable support. This Republican Congress opposed Obama’s agenda and sought to preserve Reagan’s orthodoxy, but had little ambition to enact any particular new legislative program. This resulted in the legislative gridlock of the past six years.

The lack of new ideas from conventional Republicans addressing the present and growing needs of voters gave Donald Trump an opening to hijack the Republican party nomination in the primary process by introducing ideas antithetical to Reaganite orthodoxy. The surprise return of Reagan coalition to power in 2016, now led by a non-Reaganite, is evidence both of the orthodoxy’s sustaining power as well as its now obvious internal tensions.

Now the belabored question must be belabored again: So why did Trump win?  Much ado has been made about the impact of fake news on the 2016 election outcome, which I think is a distraction. The Comey letters might have had an impact, but only because the media way overplayed its significance. Fundamentally, I think there are two related reasons Trump won: 1) Blue collar workers are really upset. 2) These Americans still believe in Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics.

To the first reason first. The 2016 election, like many other US elections, can be understood from the viewpoint of good old demographics. In the preceding eight years, Obama’s administration had major legislative accomplishments for the poor (e.g. Obamacare) and for minorities (e.g. same sex marriage), but it also pursued policies such as immigration reform and free trade agreements that the working class disliked. These voters have experience two decades of misfortune — by which I mean the dramatic disappearance of manufacturing jobs due to the double whammy of China’s WTO ascension and the Great Recession (think: unemployment, broken families, opioids — see work by Autor et al.) , and no doubt felt left behind. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised to remake America and bring back working class jobs. His rhetoric targeted this segment of White working poor voters who ready to be mobilized. This strategy paid off. Trump rode the excitement of these voters to capture the Republican nomination in the primary and then flipped key swing states in the industrial Mid-West during the general, giving him the presidency. This demographic story should be familiar if you’ve been reading the news for the past year. For example, the New York Times has some very helpful analysis of the election exit polls.

 Source: NYTimes

Source: NYTimes

Now to the second (and more interesting, I think) way to understand the 2016 election. Consider the stark difference in style between the Obama/Clinton team and Trump campaign — really, the difference between the idea of the executive as a rational manager and the idea of transformative politics in the form of “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp.” These two competing visions represents a fundamental tension embedded in the current design of the federal government.

My favorite political scientist Stephen Skowronek had this to say:

Look, the 20th-century Progressives really screwed up the presidency in the sense that they envisioned every president as a transformative leader. So they instituted primary elections, which gave us these idiosyncratic presidential parties not beholden to any collective. Instead, they are personal organizations which feed this idea of transformational leadership. But at the same time, the Progressives rebuilt the government to create this enormous management apparatus we call the executive office of the president. So now we also expect the president to be a rational coordinator of institutions and actions throughout this massive federal government.

The problem is that those two functions don’t necessarily go together very well. How can you promise to shake the system up, to extricate the special interests and transform politics, while also being a responsible manager of the state? In the 2016 election, we saw a choice between candidates who were essentially caricatures of those two views. Hillary Clinton was all about competence and management and rational decision-making, while Trump was all about popular mobilization and disruption. We already know this doesn’t work. I don’t think we can take that rhetoric at face value. We need to look at what presidents mean by transformation. The closer you look at what Obama was proposing in 2008, we see that he meant was forgetting about transformation in the Jackson/Reagan mode and replacing it with a rational, problem-solving government.

Americans themselves hold these two conflicting expectations: they expect presidents to be transformative figures who shake things up, who redeem American values, and they expect their presidents at the same time to be responsible stewards of their affairs. Presidents need to be both, but you can’t do both well. This problem is not going to solve itself. Tensions between responsible management and transformation are getting more acute, not less so. Our desire to have both is tearing the country apart.

To sum up: In the 2016 election, the economic woes of those without college degrees played a pivotal role. That Trump rose to power with many anti-Reaganite policy proposals (e.g. protectionism, infrastructure investments, and even universal healthcare) also illustrates how Reaganite orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. However, Trump's victory also signals that many Americans still want Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics and not Obama/Clinton pragmatic rationalism. Elements of Reaganite orthodoxy remains powerful in the imaginations of voters.

Now the bureaucracy rebels against Trump. It has now been more than five months since inauguration and Trump has no legislative accomplishments to show. Yes, Trump’s administration is slowly eroding the ability of various bureaucracy to function through budget cuts and vacant leadership position. However, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations have also been seriously checked by the bureaucracy through leaks and insubordination. Think of Sally Yates. Think of the Jim Comey saga, which culminated in a full week of bad press and the associated fall in Trump’s popular support, as well as the appointment of a special prosecutor investigating Trump and his campaign. This is a relief. There was rampant fear after the election, especially in liberal/progressive circles, that Trump will bring banana republic authoritarian politics to the United States and severely damage democratic institutions through power grabs. This looks less likely in the wake of the Jim Comey saga.

That Trump and the “deep state” are battling goes back to Skowronek’s point about the difficulty of redemptive politics as Trump sold to the public. The administrative state that is the US federal government is enormous and entrenched. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but in fact is too politically isolated to push forward any of his own agenda through either the bureaucracy or the legislature. He is letting the bureaucracy decay and shrink through budget cuts and unfilled positions, but can this last without something serious breaking? Meanwhile, Republicans, still stuck in their 1980s orthodoxy but increasingly subject to disparate demands among their constituents, are as yet unable to agree on any significant tax or reform legislation of their own. Will this coalition be further discredited by a continued inability to accomplish anything despite controlling all three branches of the government? Will there be additional mismanagement crises due to Trump? While I'm sympathetic to the view that the US government could use some slimming down and that the influence of special interest should be reduced, I also think poor management will also generate a whole host of problems. If the administration creates more problems, 2016 may be the last time the Reagan coalition will win power in a significant way. The most important legacy of Trump’s presidency may then be to precipitate the next period of US history.

What’s next? Currently the US legislature is gridlocked and dysfunctional. I view realignment is a necessary step to political renewal. While Reagan orthodoxy is slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror, it is unclear what new orthodoxy will replace Reaganism and how soon it will emerge. I see a fairly broad consensus in both parties that a combination of tax and regulatory reform incentivizing capital, infrastructure, and education investments will be good for the country. I suspect (and hope) such pragmatic and centrist ideas will prevail. There are a few interesting trends to watch as the Trump administration wears on.

Trump support holds steady? Trump's core support seems hardly damaged despite the obvious train-wreck that is the Trump administration since he took office. This is at once remarkable given historic norms, and unsurprising given why Trump won the presidency. While historically low among presidents this early in their terms, popular support for Trump remains substantial at 35-40%, and this is the key factor in determining whether Trump survives four years. I suspect the most likely scenario is that Trump's core support will not boil away quickly. His support will perhaps drop slowly in a series of escalating crises, including perhaps a mismanaged recession or foreign policy crisis, as well as the Mueller investigation. 

Democrats squabble. The 2016 election laid bare internal fissures not only the Republican Party, but also in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism gained a lot of steam during that time, and the Left wing of the Democrats continue to fight with the Establishment wing today. The power struggle can be seen most notably in the recent DNC chair race, which was viciously fought even though differences were papered over ex post. There are those who cheer on the rise of the Left, but I think old-school left liberalism is unlikely to gain enough support to become a dominant orthodoxy.

Hyper-partisanship. Another open question is the consequence of increasing partisan sentiments in the population. While politicians squabble and vie for power within parties, there has been an increasingly high level of party loyalty among voters in the past 20 years or so. Voters increasingly distrust members of the opposing parties and both parties have become more ideologically uniform. (See, e.g. Gentzkow 2016.)

These patterns almost certainly have to do with the growth of partisan radio and cable news which prey on partisan identity and ideological biases. Hypothetically, the current climate of hyper-partisanship could be an impediment to coalition realignment: If both citizens and legislators voted purely out of partisan loyalty, then realignment won’t happen and institutions will continue to decay and fossilize. The election of 2016, however, suggests that populist anger may have finally grown sufficiently loud to overcome blind loyalty induced by hyper-partisanship. Time will tell.