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The American Populist Reckoning

The most likely outcome of Donald Trump's presidency will be slower growth, further increases in inequality, and erosion of public services. And America’s ability to out-innovate others, including China, will take another blow.

WASHINGTON, DC – Populism is an approach to government that relies on lavish promises that ultimately cannot be met. The most prominent historical cases since 1945 were, for a long while, mostly found in Latin America. There are always apologists who claim that a new source of economic miracle has been discovered. But the ending is always the same: some form of crisis and disaster. Populism today is again in the ascendancy, but now one of the most virulent forms is in the United States – and with the credibility of the central bank very much on the line.

Argentina under Juan Perón (1946-1955 and 1973-1974) and his successors is often held out as the canonical example of populist misrule. Each iteration of populism has its special features, but the general pattern is this: unsustainable wage increases, an overvalued exchange rate, and massive foreign borrowing (enabled by local recklessness and foreign short-sightedness). Critics are persecuted, experts disparaged, and ridicule piled onto anyone with any kind of reasonable concern. Central banks and other independent governmental bodies, such as courts, are always subverted through personnel changes and other pressures.

Then the reckoning comes, with some combination of inflation, significant exchange-rate devaluation, and a deep recession (or worse). All too often, the cycle then starts again with another round of promises that cannot possibly be met. The central bank’s credibility, once dismantled, does not easily return.

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