Economics and Optimism Around the World

According to research cited by the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of American adults felt their children would be worse off than they are, a sobering testament to the economic malaise and political dysfunction that have been entrenched (if not worsened) these past several years. Who could blame anyone for being so cynical?

But how do other nations compare? Which societies have been brought low by the global recession and the subsequent stagnation, and which ones have managed to remain optimistic? Earlier this month, eminent pollster Pew issued a report that explored these attitudes across dozens of rich and developing countries.

As an article in The Atlantic observed, the findings show a strong connection between economic development, attitudes towards certain economic concepts (like the free market), and thoughts about the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany, South Korea, and the United States are the advanced countries with the most robust support for the market economy. Among emerging markets, Jordan and Argentina are most opposed to the free market. And among developing economies, which are the poorest in Pew’s sample, the market economy is least popular in Uganda and El Salvador, while Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua (another country with a socialist government) report the strongest support.In general, the world is inclined to favor the free market (66 percent of all those surveyed by Pew do), but its greatest supporters are in the poorest countries (80 percent in Bangladesh, 75 percent in Ghana, and 74 percent in Kenya). Among emerging economies, 76 percent of Chinese respondents think people do better in a market economy, and that number remains high in India (72 percent), socialist Venezuela (67 percent), and Brazil (60 percent).

Here is a visual representation of the results:

For comparison, here is how respondents from these countries feel about the future of their countries.

Note the strong optimism among developing countries, especially those in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As The Atlantic notes:

Asia […] is the most optimistic region when it comes to how people view the economic prospects of their children. Europeans and Americans, meanwhile, are quite grim about the future. Pessimism abounds in France, where 86 percent of those surveyed believe that children will be worse off financially than their parents, and the numbers of those who worry about the outlook for younger generations is also high in Japan (79 percent) and Italy (67 percent). In contrast, the expectation that future generations will be better off is widespread in Vietnam (94 percent), China (85 percent), Chile (77 percent), and Bangladesh (71 percent).

Indeed, the following chart shows just much more optimistic Asians are than the rest of the world (although large minorities still remain pessimistic):

So not only does support for the free market correlate with greater optimism, but this pattern applies overwhelmingly to poorer countries. For all their positive views of this economic approach, the average rich-world resident remains skeptical about the future and perhaps doubtful that their vaunted free market is really in place as they would prefer.

I personally suspect that this may have something to do with the rise in inequality, which has been especially well publicized in the rich world, despite being an otherwise global phenomenon. With companies reaping record profits but wages and employment remaining stagnant, even the most enthusiastically pro-business societies like the U.S. cannot help but feel cynical, whatever their support for the principles of the free market.

Indeed, it appears that economic growth was more of a determinant than current economic conditions. Generally, poorer countries are growing faster than richer ones, so even if times are bad now, most residents in the developing world have much to look forward to, especially if they are rising from a much lower base.

So it makes sense why there appears to be a mismatch in optimism between developing and developed countries. Emerging economies probably feel that their support of the free market is being vindicated by growing prosperity, while richer but stagnant states are less optimistic even if they hold true to the ideal of the free market.

Of course, there is the issue of semantics: what exactly is the “free market” in the context of this survey? Like most academic concepts, it is difficult to neatly define, let alone implement in the real world. Moreover, different societies no doubt have different interpretations of it. I imagine Pew accounted for that to some degree, but I am not sure. Just a caveat to keep in mind.

And what about the issue of inequality that I mentioned before? Surely that has an impact on attitudes towards the both free market and the future? Well it does, albeit in an interesting and nuanced way. Citing Pew:

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs.

The top culprit for income inequality cited by publics around the world is their national government’s economic policies. A global median of 29% say their government’s policies are to blame for the gap between the rich and the poor, while the amount workers are paid is a close second at 23%. Globally, people place less blame on the educational system (11%), a lack of individual hard work (10%), trade between countries (8%) and the structure of the tax system (8%).

Advanced economies in particular lean toward the notion that their governments are to blame for inequality (median of 32%). The Greeks (54%), Spanish (52%) and South Koreans (46%) are government’s harshest critics. Significant percentages among advanced economies also fault workers’ wages for the gap between the rich and the poor, including 29% in Japan and 26% each in France and Germany. The Americans and British are two of the few publics to blame individuals’ lack of hard work (24%) about as much as they do their government’s policies (24% in U.S., 23% in UK).

Emerging markets are more divided. Pluralities in nine of the 25 countries surveyed blame their government for inequality in their country, including roughly four-in-ten or more in Ukraine (45%), India (45%), Lebanon (43%), China (43%), Tunisia (43%), Turkey (42%) and Nigeria (39%). Meanwhile, pluralities in another six countries say workers’ wages are the primary scapegoat. Latin American publics – such as Brazilians (44%), Chileans (39%) and Colombians (39%) – are particularly likely to blame inadequate take-home pay for the gap between the rich and poor.

People in developing economies are also split between blaming the government for income inequality in their country and faulting workers’ wages. Pluralities in Kenya (36%), Ghana (29%) and Tanzania (29%) say inequality is their government’s fault, while Salvadorans (32%) tend to blame the amount workers are paid. Nearly equal percentages in the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda say both the government and wages are the culprits. Nicaragua (31%) is the country with the highest percentage who say a lack of individual hard work is the problem.

And what do most respondents think is the solution? Well, given that government is perceived to be the problem, it stands to reason that the most popular solution would be to weaken the public sector in favor of strengthening the private one, as the results indeed show:

Pluralities or majorities in 22 of the 44 countries surveyed say to reduce inequality it is more effective to have low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth rather than high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund programs that help the poor. Publics in 13 countries prefer the high tax option.

Overall, advanced economies (median of 48%) are somewhat more supportive than either developing (40%) or emerging (31%) countries of using high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to address income inequality. The broadest support comes from Germany, where 61% favor using high taxes to fund poverty programs. Roughly half or more in Spain (54%), South Korea (53%), the UK (50%) and the U.S. (49%) agree. In Italy (68%), France (61%) and Greece (50%), opinion leans toward low taxes to encourage investment.In most advanced economies, people who say they are very concerned about inequality are particularly supportive of income redistribution to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

There is also a large ideological divide over taxes in Europe and the U.S. In general, individuals on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prefer high taxes on the wealthy and corporations. For example, 71% of those on the left in Spain support redistribution, compared with 45% of people on the right. In the U.S., 70% of liberals say high taxes are more effective to combat inequality while just 33% of conservatives agree.

The prevailing view in most emerging markets surveyed is that low taxes on the rich and businesses to stimulate growth are a better way to address inequality. Roughly six-in-ten or more express this opinion in Brazil (77%), Argentina (60%), Vietnam (60%) and the Philippines (59%). In just five of the 25 emerging countries do pluralities or majorities pick high taxes as the preferred means of reducing the gap between the rich and poor, including 57% in Jordan, 53% each in Egypt and Chile, 48% in Ukraine and 42% in China.

Developing economies also lean more toward low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment rather than high taxes for redistribution. At least half prefer low taxes in Uganda (64%), Ghana (57%), Kenya (52%) and Nicaragua (52%). El Salvador is the only developing economy where a majority (58%) chooses high taxes.

Again, this reflects greater faith on private sector forces — businesses, entrepreneurs, and civil society — as avenues of prosperity than public ones, namely the state and its policies. Given that corruption and inefficiency are endemic in most developing world governments, such pessimism towards public officialdom is perhaps expected, especially when those societies are otherwise more optimistic about the future and their own economic potential — and thus more wary of historically inept states getting in the way.

The conflicted solutions offered by respondents in richer countries may reflect the fact that both the public and business sectors have been disappointing, with trust in all institutions at a record low. There is plenty of blame to go around, but where does the answer life if both economic and political elites are culpable? That is a question deserving of its own blog altogether, so I will leave that to you all.

Anyway, Pew looked at attitudes to more than just the free market. There is also the universally important matter of how someone gets ahead in life. Participants were asked to rank the importance of several factors of success from zero (“not important”) to 10 (“very important”). The results were largely in favor of “getting a better education”, which 60 percent of respondents checked as maximally important. Here’s the Pew report again:

Among those surveyed in the most advanced economies, Spaniards place the greatest value on education as a factor of success, with 71 percent saying that it is very important. Not so in France, where the value of education was given its lowest marks among all surveyed countries with only 24 percent characterizing education as a critical factor. Ironically, by international standards the quality of education in France is higher than in countries where a much greater percentage felt a good education was a very important precursor to success (86 percent of Venezuelans, for example).

Half of the survey’s respondents believe that “hard work” is very important for success, while 37 percent say the same about “knowing the right people”, 33 percent about being “lucky”, and 20 percent about belonging “to a wealthy family”. Seventeen percent of those polled view being male as critical to success, and just 5 percent feel the same way about giving bribes. The countries where the greatest percentage of people believe that family money is very important for getting ahead in life are Tunisia (46 percent) and Nigeria (45 percent). These are also two of the countries where respondents ranked bribery among the most important determinants of success.

Here are how the results played out from country to country (again, the question was what is most important for getting ahead in life).

Another interesting result to point out: in 32 of the 44 countries surveyed, more men believed that being male was an advantage to success than women. With more women taking change of their economic and political future (as evidenced by higher rates of female employment and civic participation), they feel more hopeful and emboldened that the system can and does work in their favor. But that is just my own (optimistic) speculation.

Still, there does appear to be a consensus across all these different societies: economic prosperity is dependent largely on factors beyond one’s control, an attitude that even the most optimistic countries shared.

Pretty interesting stuff, and a lot to ruminate on. My time is short and my analysis is spotty, so I encourage you all to check out the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As always, I welcome feedback.


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