COVID-19, Economic exceptionalism, Economics, Political economy

When it comes to COVID, our political leaders have been seduced by wishful thinking

When confronted by the very difficult decisions created by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, our political leaders have been seduced time and time again into a dangerous kind of wishful thinking. Instead of acting decisively to save lives, they have wavered and delayed—fiddling around with different colour-coded regional schemes, holding off on requiring masks, or reopening restaurants, bars and gyms in regions in regions where case counts were still rising.  

What is it that political leaders treat as so important that they are willing to run this kind of risk with people’s lives? It’s the economy, of course.

And yet, this concept of “the economy,” which we are told to make so many sacrifices for, is actually a fiction – based on a series of longstanding narratives that must be challenged if we are to tackle the current crisis.

Probably the most pernicious fiction is the idea that the economy is so important that it trumps politics as usual, allowing the suspension of liberal democratic norms in the name of its survival.

This is an assumption that I’ve described elsewhere as a form of economic exceptionalism. We saw it over and over again in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when all sorts of exceptional measures were justified in the name of the survival of the economy: first bailout packages and then austerity measures were rushed through legislatures, while unelected central banks took on huge new powers—all in the name of responding to the economic emergency.

Decisions about how to respond to a crisis don’t affect everyone equally. Yet it is easier to talk about saving “the economy” than to explain why a government should help some folks (like those who benefited from the bailouts) rather than others (the ones who were asked to do the belt-tightening later).

Yes, major crises like wars, economic crises and pandemics justify some exceptional measures. But we should be very wary when our political leaders tell us that we must suspend our norms and make sacrifices for the sake of “the economy.”

This logic of sacrifice depends on another powerful fiction: the idea that a “sound economy” is some sort of abstraction that can be separated out from the lives of the people who make up that economy.

This is an idea that has risen and fallen in popularity over the centuries. It dominated economic thinking in the laissez faire nineteenth century, when the Global North relied on the gold standard to ensure “sound money” and free trade. Yet even as these politicians did whatever they could to protect the integrity of their own economies, they were also ruthlessly extracting resources from the Global South through colonialism. The term “free trade imperialism” nicely captures this hypocrisy – a term used by the British to justify their use of gunboats to force China to continue the opium trade.

The idea of the economy as an abstract thing began to fall out of favour during the Great Depression, when it became all too clear that efforts to protect a sound economy by imposing austerity only made things worse. After living through that terrible experience, politicians and economists alike recognized there is no such a thing as a “sound economy” apart from the men and women trying to find work to support their families. Their creation of the welfare state and policies like unemployment insurance, public education and health care were all based on their recognition of the importance of treating economic health holistically. 

Yet, in the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher told us that “there is no such thing as society,” we began to forget many of those lessons, and to treat the economy as a separate entity with the principle of “sound money” once again trumping employment as the dominant objective.

The final fiction that we’ve heard in the last months is the ill-fated idea that it’s possible to take a “balanced approach” to the pandemic response, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenny and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have both argued. Mr. Ford outlined his government’s version of this approach in a recent statement, in which he noted, “the number one priority is health and safety, and right beside that is the economy.”

At the core of this strategy is a false opposition between “health and safety” and “the economy” – as if it were possible to balance so many dollars in an economy on one side of the equation, and so many illnesses (and needless deaths) on the other.

Of course, as even the Ford and Kenney governments have finally begun to recognize with their latest U-turns, there is no trade-off between health and safety and the economy – particularly in the medium to long term. It is only by giving up on economic wishful thinking and taking decisive action to restrain the spread of the virus that we can ensure that we have a healthy population capable of rebuilding the economy in the months and years to come.

The economy is not a separate thing. Nor is it a god that must be placated through our sacrifices. It is us. Only us. And we must be healthy, safe, and supported by a capable government if we are to continue to thrive together.

A shorter version of this blog appeared in The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2020.

COVID-19, Economic exceptionalism

We are entering another state of exception – but this time it’s economic too


     In the last few weeks, governments all over the world have been declaring states of emergency to deal with the coronavirus. Given the remarkable powers that governments at all levels have been acquiring through these measures, it’s not surprising then that both state leaders and commentators are talking about this moment being akin to a state of war.

     Although this comparison is powerful—and in many ways correct—it only tells part of the story. Yes, governments are invoking emergency powers and imposing a state of exception of the kind that we usually see in wartime. Yet, if the goal is to save the lives of citizens against and attack, as it is during wartime, then why would government leaders like British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have delayed social distancing measures so long for fear of their economic consequences? And why does President Trump continue to flirt with the idea of opening the economy back quickly in some parts of the country in spite of the likely impact on the number of COVID-related deaths?

     The answer to this puzzle lies in the fact that the kind of exceptionalist policies that we are seeing being put into place are, for some leaders at least, as much about protecting the economy as it they are about ensuring the public’s security.

     Although we often forget it in calmer times (remember those?), liberal democratic governments do reserve for themselves the power impose a state of exception in times of crisis, such as a war. Such exceptionalist measures are designed to temporarily suspend normal liberal democratic rights and processes in order to respond to a supreme threat to the state and its people. The last time we saw this occurring on a broad basis was of course after 9/11, although many have also drawn parallels to the Second World War.

     In many ways, the current emergency declarations and measures do bear important resemblances to these wartime measures. Governments have acted with extraordinary speed, rushing legislation through or using executive powers to give themselves the flexibility to act to fight the virus’ spread. They have partly sealed off their borders, turning inwards and actively seeking to manage the supply of essential medical equipment. We are also beginning to see the adoption of subtler, more technocratic measures that are closer to those we saw after 9/11, like the use of data surveillance in South Korea and other countries to map, track and control populations deemed a danger.

     All of these exceptionalist measures suspend or constrain normal democratic processes and liberal civil rights in the same of the security of the state and its people.

     Yet there are also several key ways in which the exceptional measures being proposed and introduced today are different from these war-time emergency policies. This time around, governments are simultaneously seeking to secure their population’s health against attack while also protecting their economy from ruin.

     Governments have historically invoked states of exception not only to fight wars but also to tackle economic crises. Confronted by the ravages of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt famously argued in his inaugural address in 1933 that he was willing to use “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” During the 2008 global financial crisis, political and economic leaders again called for exceptionalist measures ranging from bailouts to stimulus measures in order to respond to what they described as an economic emergency.

     This time around, governments are facing two existential threats at the same time—a public health threat to their citizen’s lives which can only be treated through a series of measures that themselves pose an existential threat to the economy. The Second World War’s mobilization of a wartime economy helped to rescue western states from the prolonged crisis of the Great Depression. This time around, mobilizing against the health threat means partly suspending the economy, not energizing it. These two sets of emergency responses are necessarily in tension with one another.

     While political leaders’ willingness to sacrifice some individuals’ lives for the sake of the economy may strike us as a fresh horror, it actually has a long history. Over a decade ago, I wrote an article entitled “Why the Economy is Often the Exception to Politics as Usual,” in which I suggested that neoliberal international institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, had proven willing to suspend the political rights and freedoms of the citizens of poorer countries in the name of re-establishing a sound economy. In these countries, the supreme goal of economic stability, not political security, was treated as a sufficient ground for exceptionalist measures, even if the consequences were often extreme poverty and deprivation—and yes, very likely, death—or some.

     In the Global North, while we remain on average the lucky ones, these recent twin crises have revealed just how vulnerable we have made some of our population in our pursuit of a mythic “sound economy”— including those in the gig economy, without secure employment, and working in essential but unrecognized jobs. These crises have also shown just how willing some political leaders are to require the ultimate sacrifice of some of our citizens in the name of that same “sound economy.”

    Responding to these twin public health and economic crises, while also ensuring that we come out the end of this process in something that still resembles a democracy, will not be easy. What’s clear, however, is that those who insist that that the economy’s survival trumps the right of its people to life are mobilizing a particularly vicious form of economic exceptionalism—one that must be recognized and resisted.

This post was originally published on the SPERI blog on April 17, 2020.

Economic exceptionalism

Economic exceptionalism past and present: or whatever happened to normal?

Exceptionalist policies can play a critical role in changing norms and perceptions of what constitutes the status quo. What role does exceptionalism play within our society today?


Whatever happened to normal? You remember: a normal neoliberal political economy in which the democratic process sort of works and we have reasonable growth combined with some wage increases and interest rates around 4-5%. Of course, this “normal” economy excluded a huge number of people from its benefits, depended on lower and middle income earners maxing out their credit cards and lines of credit to keep afloat, relied on using carbon at an unprecedented scale, and produced a massive and unsustainable asset bubble. But it seemed normal (at least when compared with where we are today).

Not long after the 2008 financial crisis blew this system up, there was a lot of talk about returning to normal. But once Trump was elected and the long slow Brexit train wreck began, we seem to have given up on normal altogether.

Scholars have found a number of ways of describing this disruption of “normal” politics and economics. Ian Bruff, Burak Tansel and others have pointed to the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism in many countries. We are also witnessing what Peter Adley, Ben Anderson and Stephen Graham have described as “the proliferation of emergency as a term” and an increasing effort to govern through emergencies.

My work has focused instead on the growing role of economic exceptionalism in recent years. During my time as a Leverhulme visiting professor at SPERI at the University of Sheffield, I examined how useful this concept is for understanding how “the normal” has been suspended or disrupted today—as well as in the past [Spoiler alert]. As it turns out, the usefulness of the term depends a lot on what time frame we are looking at—but more on that later.

I first became interested in understanding this kind of break from the “normal” in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. I became increasingly angry at the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, for repeatedly making claims along the lines of: “Normally, we wouldn’t be doing this (running a deficit, imposing austerity measures in a counter-productive attempt to reduce said deficit, denying airline workers the right to strike) …but because we are living in exceptional times, these measures are not only legitimate but necessary”. This language of exceptionalism was widespread at the time. In the UK, we saw politicians justifying bailouts, austerity measures and highly exceptional forms of monetary policy as necessary suspensions of normal politics in a time of crisis.

I have a number of colleagues and friends who work on critical security studies, and I kept thinking about their work on securitization and the logic of political exceptionalism in the post-9/11 era. They found that there has been an increased tendency of liberal governments to invoke states of exception in times of crisis. They achieve this by claiming that a given existential threat to the state has made the suspension of normal liberal rights necessary; in order to protect the public.

What if, I asked myself, this logic of exceptionalism is not only political but also economic? Without getting into the theoretical details of why this absolutely the case (which you can read in my Security Dialogue and International Political Sociology articles on the topic), a quick survey of history made it clear that yes, in fact, liberal states have often used emergency powers to address economic crises and have also justified them in exceptionalist terms. This has included the repeated use of martial law in the US and UK to put down strikes in the late 19th and early 20th century as well as President Franklin Roosevelt’s use of the “Trading with the Enemy” Act to put through some of the key measures of the New Deal in the 1930s.

One of the goals of this research project is to understand when and why these kinds of exceptionalist claims are used to justify particular  responses to economic crises. When I defined my initial hypotheses, I expected to find that the early New Right governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both relied heavily on exceptionalist claims in the early 1980s in arguing for the necessity of their radical and often very painful strategies for reducing inflation. But this is not what I discovered. In fact, I seriously considered titling this blog “A funny thing happened on my way to a conclusion,” because it is in many ways about what happens in research when we start out with one particular hypothesis and end up finding something quite unexpected.

Going back to the 1970s, when both American and British governments first began describing inflation as a major crisis, I found plenty of evidence of exceptionalist language. Nixon declared an emergency in order to address the postal workers’ strike in 1970 and again when he imposed wage and price controls in 1971. In the UK, the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath declared a national emergency and imposed a three-day work week in 1973 when striking miners threatened the national energy supply. All of these measures were framed as temporary exceptions to normal politics that were necessary because of the grave threat to the national economy.

In stark contrast, the Reagan and Thatcher governments avoided using exceptionalist language when they first came to power. In the US case, Reagan’s first Budget Director, David Stockman, had written an open letter calling on the government to declare an emergency in order to tackle “an economic Dunkirk,” but his arguments were rejected.

Two very different responses to national strikes, less than a decade apart makes it clear the difference in these two disruptions of normal politics. Nixon called in the National Guard in 1970 when postal workers went on strike but ultimately granted them their demands of a wage increase and a right to bargain over wages. In contrast, when Reagan faced the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, he not only declared the strike illegal but then fired all of the striking workers and banned them from public employment for life. If we look at Thatcher’s response to the miners’ strike in 1984-85, we find a similar pattern of using extraordinary measures not to address a temporary crisis, but to permanently reduce the power of the miners in particular, and labour unions more generally. These were extreme actions but they were not justified as temporary or exceptional. Instead, they sought to use emergency powers to establish a new normal.

What do these historical findings tell us the disruption of the “normal” today?

After the 2008 global financial crisis, most political leaders were using a language of exceptionalism, telling us that we just had to suspend normal political and economic rights and processes temporarily to deal with the crisis. Yet, in many cases, that suspension has blurred into a new kind of normal, which has had all sorts of troubling consequences.

Today, it seems like the Trumps and the hard Brexiters of this world have given up even pretending that this is about a temporary suspension of the normal. It looks instead like they’re calling for a more radical disruption and a very different kind of normal. Both kinds of claims are troubling—but it’s the second kind that is truly worrying.

This is the final blog in a three-part series posted on the SPERI Blog, reflecting on the major research themes that I explored while a Leverhulme Visiting Professor there. You can also read Part 1 and Part 2 of the mini blog series.

Economic exceptionalism

Why nationalizing the Trans Mountain Pipeline is undemocratic

When Canadians woke up to learn that they were the proud owners of a run-down pipeline, many of them no doubt asked themselves, “Can the government just do that?” After all, nationalization hasn’t been a popular government pastime in Canada since the 1970s.

The answer is that of course the government can do that—and has done so in various ways over the past decades, through bailouts, subsidies, and all-out nationalizations when markets and firms run into serious trouble. Yet, the kind of emergency bailout that we are witnessing today should still raise alarm bells among those who believe that major economic decisions should be subject to genuine democratic debate.

Of course, the Liberal government has been quick to assure us that the nationalization is an entirely temporary measure, only necessary because of the current crisis, which requires a use of exceptional government powers to bail out a major economic sector that is vital to the Canadian economy.

If this language seems oddly familiar, it’s because it’s almost exactly the kind of exceptionalist rhetoric that we heard from the Harper Conservative government during the 2008 global financial crisis (as well as the Bush administration in the United States and the Labour and then Conservative governments in the United Kingdom, to name just a few).

Ten years ago, it was the major auto companies that received a government bailout of $13.7-billion in Canada, while in the US and the UK, auto companies, major banks, and financial institutions were the recipients of massive government injections, together with a few choice all-out nationalizations. The global insurance firm, AIG, alone received US$182-billion from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

While government intervention is a normal part of a market economy, not all such interventions are equally legitimate. When should a government break the normal rules of democratic deliberation and free-market economics and bail out big firms with taxpayer money?

A quick comparison with government responses to the 2008 global financial crisis helps to clarify what’s at issue here.

In both 2008 and today, the government’s actions were peremptorily announced and driven by the prime minister and cabinet without full democratic consultation. The justification then, as now, was that the needs of the market actors were too immediate to be subjected to the normal contentious processes of democratic politics.

Then, like now, we were told that these were temporary, exceptional government actions and were necessary because of the massive crisis that the economy faced.

Then, like now, we were also promised that the investment would be repaid, as the private sector regained its ground. (In fact, in the Canadian case, The Globe and Mail reported that the Harper government sold back its shares in the auto sector too quickly and the taxpayers took a $3.5-billion loss.)

Yet, that is where the parallels end.

In 2008, there was arguably a very legitimate concern about an imminent global financial meltdown. The US government had initially refused to take the bailout route and had let the financial firm, Lehman Brothers, fail. The firm’s failure produced a massive global market-wide panic, as banks wondered who would be next to go under and refused to lend to each other, nearly bringing the financial system to a halt. Although it is impossible to know what would have happened without massive government intervention in the United States, Canada, and around the world, there is a strong case to be made that the general public good was at serious risk as we faced the prospect of another Great Depression.

Where are the major risks to the public good today? Arguably, in this case, they are those identified by the people arguing against the pipeline: the very real risks of oil spills on the West Coast and the potentially catastrophic costs of climate change.

There is no massive economic crisis in the offing. Yes, there is significant uncertainty surrounding the pipeline, but any firm in this business should know by now that pipelines are immensely political, and build that into their business plan. Yes, Alberta’s economy would take a big hit from losing the pipeline deal – and it will face significant economic challenges in the future as the province and the country make the necessary shift toward a low-carbon economy. These are serious policy challenges that require genuine public debate and innovative public and private investment – not an imperious bailout.

A crisis needs to be serious, and the threat to the public good very clear, for a government to legitimately bypass normal democratic processes. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline nationalization clearly does not meet this threshold. As such, it represents a particularly undemocratic form of economic exceptionalism.

This article was originally published by the Globe and Mail on 7 June 2018.