How the Great Recession Destroyed Our Faith in Economists

‘Suppose your loved one died on the operating table,’ I said to the audience, ‘and that afterwards the surgeon came out beaming to announce “Medical science triumphs again! The surgery we were taught in medical school would have saved your beloved’s life. If only I’d attended class that day.”‘

That’s sort of the point made by Paul Krugman in a recent article on the current state of macroeconomics. Satisfied that the world economy is back in good shape ten years after the greatest financial crash in history – a crash for which much of the general public held the economics profession at least partly responsible – he says the actual theories developed before the crisis worked fine; it’s just that economists weren’t paying attention to the data that would have warned them a crisis was coming. You know that saying ‘You had one job’?

I was speaking last night to a gathering of Marburg University’s Pluralist Economics Society. Ten years after the 2008 Crash and start of the Great Recession, a wave of reflection has begun as economists look back and consider how things have changed. The pluralist economic movement sprang up at the same time as the 2011 Occupy movement. Like Occupy, it was driven by young people – in this case, students who wanted to change the economics curriculum. Looking back, have they had the sort of revolutionary impact that young economists drawn to the new ideas of John Maynard Keynes did in the Great Depression?

The fact that economists missed the red flags in the data ten years agon wasn’t accidental. In my recent book, I argue that it was inherent in the way economics had evolved over the previous few decades. A half-century ago, under the influence of scholars like Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas, economics began moving away from applied work towards pure theory. Data-work ended up being a lot of cut-and-pasting in large spreadhseets by scholars who often had only a vague sense of what the data they were using actually meant, let alone how it was obtained. Nobody felt the need to change this approach because it seemed to work so well. As Robert Lucas declared in 2003, as the housing bom was underway, ‘macroeconomics has succeeded: the central problem of depression-prevention has been solved.’

Then along came the Great Crash. Previous economic crises – the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s – led to the emergence of new schools. This time around, though, the landscape of economics has remained surprisingly steady. Partly that’s because, as Krugman acknowledges in his article, this time around the crisis appeared to be less severe. Since economists had digested the lessons of the Great Depression, goes the reasoning, astute and timely action kept the economy from sinking too far. Instead of a Great Depression, we suffered a comparatively short-lived Great Recession.

Hearing economists claim credit for the management of the Great Crash reminds me of a workmate I once had who’d skive the day away before reappearing at just the moment the supervisor showed up to laud the team’s good work. For, as John Kay argued in a celebrated 2011 article, the policy decisions taken after the Crash, and that helped stave off a Depression, were largely pragmatic, owing little to theory.

Still, let’s take Krugman’s claim at face-value and assume, for the sake of argument, that economists were the heroes of the Great Crash. After all, Ben Bernanke is an economist, so even if he was winging it during his headship of the US Federal Reserve, his training proved vital. Even at that, though, Krugman’s claim only works if you define success as the absence of failure. Ten years after the Great Crash, our recovery has been so slow compared to that which followed the 1929 Crash, that we’ll end up relatively worse off in just a few more years. Moreover, the 1929 Crash was indiscriminate, and wiped out everyone from millionaires to farmers. The widely-shared pain that resulted helped forge a broadly-shared consensus for change, which ultimately yielded the New Deal.

In contrast, the bailouts and easy money that followed the 2008 Crash not only preserved the wealth of the super-rich, but made them even richer. Since then, the tepid recovery has depressed real wage gains for the majority. Far from a consensus for change, Western societies have become deeply divided. They got FDR, we got Trump. If that’s your idea of success, don’t be surprised that many people say you can have it.

We have to give credit where credit is due. As many economists protest, this is actually an exciting time in their field. There is a ferment of new ideas in the seminar rooms. The problem is, the public aren’t hearing it, and the defensiveness of some economists in the face of public criticism suggests they just don’t get the public anger. Before the Crash, economists were our gurus, men like Alan Greenspan lionised for their ‘shaman-like’ ability to move global markets. Economists then basked in this glory – and a few monetised it pretty effectively too.

The Great Crash shattered that faith. Hearing that everything is fine is hardly going to restore anyone’s faith – because for many people, things most definitely are not fine. As I and some colleagues argued in an open letter this week, the kind of complacency creeping back into the profession, and to which Krugman gives voice, is unwarranted. The public are still angry, and the revolt against the ‘experts’ won’t abate until the economics fraternity accepts the legitimacy of the public’s concern.

Image: Speaking to the Pluralist Society of Philipps Universität, Marburg

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Shitholes Are The Future

You know what the world’s fastest-growing economy was last year? Ethiopia. In fact, three of the top ten performing economies of 2017 were in Africa (the other seven were in Asia). Given that Africa accounts for barely a sixth of the planet’s population, it looks like the shithole-continent is punching above its weight.

And what about Norway, the model for a country with which Donald Trump reportedly would like to deepen relations? For all its many virtues, when it comes to economic growth, It didn’t even crack the top fifty. If there were a league table of the world’s economies according to their prospects, Norway would barely make the third division.

That may tell us less about Norway than it does about Mr. Trump’s business sense. The fact that he sees less-developed, less-stable, poorer countries as best avoided makes me wonder if the conspiracists are right. Perhaps the reason he won’t release his tax returns is because he is hiding a big secret: that his business acumen is mired in its own crapper.

Shitholes built America, after all. Whether the Germans and Irish who came in the nineteenth century or the Italians and Ukrainians in the twentieth, immigrants fled poverty and oppression, and in the process made America the country it is today. The United States was fortunate that the world kept exporting its workers voluntarily, since the end of the slave trade meant they could no force them to come.

And precisely because Norway is at the top of its game, you don’t want to buy it. Luring an immigrant from Norway, a rich country with excellent public services, would require you to pay top dollar. Lure the same doctor, let alone bus driver, from Nigeria or Rwanda, and you’ll get a much better return on your investment over the course of their career. It’s just basic economics. Trump apparently doesn’t get that. He reminds me of the sort of people who quit their jobs at the top of the Internet bubble to become day-traders, putting all their money into the shares of companies that were at the top of their game – and about to collapse.

That economic growth rates decline as economies grow rich is, in part, simple mathematics. As your denominator (GDP) grows, an unchanged numerator (increase in GDP) falls in percentage terms.  But there’s more than just that going on here. Since the turn of the century, the difference in growth rates between the developing and developed worlds has reached unprecedented levels. After widening into a chasm over several centuries of empire, the gap between rich and poor countries is now closing.

I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but the nub of it is that the West has reached the autumn of its imperial age. With productivity growth slowing, there’s big money to be made applying existing technology in new frontiers. The transformation is global in nature, but unfolds in individual lives. If you apply your skills in an environment where both the demand for human capital and the supply of labour (and thus of future consumption) are greatest, you stand to make big money. NBC News ran an interesting feature recently about American entrepreneurs who are doing just that in Africa.

Where Trump would rather not venture, others are boldly, and lucratively, doing so. China, for one, is eagerly expanding its footprint in Africa. Don’t think for a moment that it’s doing so because it has attained an enlightenment that has eluded Mr. Trump. China just knows an opportunity when it sees one.

Africa, and the developing world more generally, is not for the timid. But then neither were Britain or America in their boom days. You only have to read Charles Dickens or travellers’ journals of nineteenth-century Boston or Baltimore – or for that matter, watch an episode of Peaky Blinders – to know that lands of opportunity are magnets for opportunists, and the thievery, corruption and violence they bring. That, too, is basic economics: risks and returns vary in equal proportion. Go where others fear to tread, and you can have a market segment to yourself. Yes, if you wager everything on a high-risk bet, you can lose it all. But you can equally win it all. Ask Steve Jobs.

Trump’s shithole comments were probably not about opportunity, though, but about race – about not wanting to dilute America’s whiteness or import terrorists from unstable countries. But even racists need to be pragmatic if they want to survive. The fact is that the bulk of the world’s future economic growth, and a large share of America’s future labour supply, will come from the developing world. If America puts off boarding that train, it may find the best places have been snapped up.

So I wouldn’t get too exercised that Trump’s white-nationalist supporters have scored another little win. Because while they loudly bay their nostalgia, shitholes are quietly making themselves great.

 

Image: Jacaranda season in Johannesburg

 

Michael Wolff Turns Donald Trump’s Weapon Back on Him

Facts don’t matter, the story does.

That’s been the key to Donald Trump’s success. Running for President against a candidate armed with legions of data-scientists, who pored through reams of information to micro-target prospective supporters, he eschewed conventional campaigning to address big rallies with a crude message concocted on the fly.

It worked. He entered the White House and his lying continued, so another army of data-scientists devoted themselves to fact-checking his utterances so as to reveal his disregard for the truth. His supporters stood by him. They cheered when he dismissed as ’fake news’ any damning information the fact-checkers turned up, and they cheered when he made up new facts to take their place.

That’s because the story he told, however fictitious, chimed with many of his listeners’ experiences. America may not, objectively speaking, be a scene of carnage. But it feels that way for a substantial minority, whose individual tales got lost in the data. Illustrating Stalin’s supposed adage that one death is a tragedy but a million a statistic, the Clinton campaign’s data-mining buried all these individual tales in a mountain of information. Donald Trump got that.

In reality, the ‘scientific’ approach trumpeted by the Clintonites is based on a false premise: that we acquire knowledge by testing claims against the evidence, rejecting those that don’t meet this positivist standard. That’s not how things work. We choose the stories by which to live not by their factual foundation, but by their functionality: do they work for us? That’s not a paean to ‘alternative facts.’ It’s an acknowledgment that facts are embedded in narratives.

Take the moon, for instance. I believe it’s a chunk of rock and not a piece of cheese or some kind of god, but I haven’t actually done much research on the topic, let alone travelled there to test the claim. It fits into my own narrative about my place in the universe. Moreover, since I never caught the authors of my primary-school textbooks in any bold-faced lies, I don’t have cause to doubt their expertise and honesty. The same goes for evolution or quantum mechanics. I accept what we call the science, but don’t ask me for a detailed expose about the current state of either debate. In truth, there isn’t much scientific about my reasons for believing in ‘the science,’ since I’m relying little less on faith than a flat-earther or creationist. It’s just that what we call science suits me.

But suppose it didn’t. Take something like globalisation, so contested by Donald Trump and his followers. Back in the 1990s, it was described as a ‘force of nature’ by folks like Bill Clinton. That was a bold-faced lie. Globalisation was in no small measure the result of political choices which Clinton happened to support. However, passing it off as science and thus irrefutable suited his Davos crowd, whose economic interests benefited from the expansion of global linkages (where would the Clinton Foundation be without its foreign donors?). By slipping dodgy claims about something like globalisation onto the scientific cart, they ultimately turned some people who suffered from it (as they were meant to do) against all science. The right-wing populists like Donald Trump are thus just the mirror image of the 1990s neoliberals: in place of the latters’ ‘facts,’ they offer alternative facts.

Which brings us to Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s best-selling book that has been criticised by both supporters and opponents of Trump for its reliability. Wolff can certainly be evasive about details. He spends long passages discussing characters’ thoughts without offering much in the way of quotation or illustration. Some of his claims are substantiated, many are not. Some are implausible, others are demonstrably false. If this were a university paper, he might get a C.

But it isn’t. It’s a story, a well-crafted one. Most importantly, the tale Wolff tells is one that rings true for millions of Americans, conveying a simple message: the Oval Office is occupied by a spoiled child. Make America eight again.

So Trump can wheel out all the praise-singers he wants to repeat the mantra that Fire and Fury is a work of fiction. So what? Much of what Trump said on the campaign trail was as well. But even when they knew he was lying, Trump’s followers loved the way he lied. Behind his false claims lay something which, for them, rang true.

We won’t fight right-wing populism with facts, which are moving targets anyhow. We’ll fight it with narratives. And if we do believe in the virtues of the scientific worldview, we’ll approach the writing of those narratives with both relentless honesty, and without the selfishness of the neoliberal crowd, who filtered their science to suit their interests. As it is, Michael Wolff has beaten Trump at his own game. As enjoyable as that spectacle might be, though, we needn’t treat his work as serious journalism. We can, instead, celebrate his craft while dismissing it as sloppy.

That won’t help the Trumpists. In the messaging wars, they just got suckered.

The Christmas Story in a Jaded Time

I’m not really a believer. I was, once, having grown up in a Catholic family, but you know how it goes. Life happens, questions result, doubts multiply, you lapse.

And yet, the Christmas story has remained as compelling as ever for me. The arc of the narrative that begins with it and ends with Easter contains all the elements of great story-telling: an inauspicious start, triumphal overcoming of limitations, a tragic fall followed by a surprise plot-twist that results in a happy ending. No wonder it has served as source and metaphor for many a worldly tale since.

I now spend my Christmases in a homeless shelter in south London. In a city where the most common reply I get when asking people ‘How was your Christmas’ is, ‘I’m glad it’s over,’ I yearn for celebration. And if you like a festive season, you can do worse that volunteer for Crisis at Christmas.

I reckon just about every faith group in London is represented among the volunteers in the network of day centres Crisis sets up during Christmas week. Christians of all varieties, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, atheists – name them and they’re likely there. And while they are gathering to minister to others on the occasion of a Christian festival, what unites them is the underlying message of the season: that living for others offers a path to contentment.

In conversations with volunteers over the course of the week, I’d ask what drew them to Crisis. While the anecdotes varied, the basic plot recurred. They’d found an emptiness in the season, and decided to fill it with meaning. For some, it was religious. But for many, maybe most, it was a desire to feel part of a community in a city where anonymity is a way of life. It’s amazing how restorative a Christmas among the homeless can be. Because they, more than anyone, appreciate how vital social connection is to our existence.

One evening, I was on a transport team when we were asked to take a young man and woman to one of the night shelters. A lovely couple who’d simply fallen on hard times, they’d come to London in hopes of finding work, only to be repeatedly disappointed. That’s not an unusual story here. However, when most of us go through hard times we turn to family or friends, who give us a couch to sleep on, or pass us a few quid until better times return. But remove what most of us take for granted, that safety net, and everything changes. This couple, through no fault of their own, had no support network to fall back on, and had thus been reduced to sleeping in their car.

Generous-hearted, unfailingly polite, determined to succeed in spite of their setbacks, they were struggling to maintain their dignity in a society which doesn’t readily forgive stumbles. When we arrived at the night shelter, I followed habit and stepped out to open the door for the young woman. I thought nothing of it, yet to her, it made her day. Deeply moved, she thanked me, and left for her night in the shelter with a renewed glow on her face, reminded by a small gesture that she still mattered.

We’re constantly told to look for love. Some economists have even modelled it mathematically, arguing that in searching for a partner we’re out to maximise our utility. Dating agencies rake in the dosh by building apps and algorithms to help us find that special someone. But it may be that we don’t become fully human in being loved, but in loving. For with that simple act on a cold rainy night, of opening a door to a young woman having a bad day, I was reminded that I had the power to make a difference. That I too mattered.

It’s a subversive message. Our economy is increasingly built on telling us to shop our way to a better future, when in fact our better future might come from simply giving it away. Tech companies talk of disruptive change, but this would be the most disruptive of all. For, tempted as we are to blame the homeless for their failure so as to sustain this narrative that we all succeed by chasing success, the real failure is that a society this rich should have any homeless at all.

So whether or not there’s any Christ left in Christmas, as some Christians lament, the message is alive and well. If you want to feel its power, the next time you pass a beggar on the street, even if you can’t or don’t want to give them change, just make eye contact, smile, or say good morning. In reminding them they matter, you’ll discover how much you yourself do.

The Bitcoin Mania

Four years ago, I gave a talk to a London salon series on the future of money. Set in the basement of a bar in the Shoreditch district, I was in the heart of ‘Silicon Roundabout,’ addressing an audience filled with thirty-something tech entrepreneurs. I told them to keep an eye on Bitcoin.

I was too broke then to take my own advice, but I wish I could have. The relatively new invention was then selling on the Internet at $100. If I’d put money into it, my investment would have now paid me a hundred times over. But with Bitcoin now surging at rates one normally associates with a speculative fever, there’s talk of it soon crashing. What’s going on?

Amid the Great Recession that followed the 2008 Crash, there was a wave of experimentation with bold new forms of economic organisation. Unemployed young people, unable to afford rent or transportation or even groceries, began creating community gardens and found ways to stretch resources by sharing houses, cars and even clothes. Some launched new blogs or e-zines chronicling life in this new era, with Lena Dunham writing from her parents’ basement and radical publications like Jacobin and New Inquiry seeing the light of day. It was an exciting time of imagining a new future.

Amid all this experimentation, a mysterious hacker, or group of hackers, going under the name of Satoshi Nakamoto, created a digital currency called Bitcoin. Angered by the way the bankers who had caused the Great Crash walked away scot-free and cash-laden, they wanted to create a currency that would enable people to transact business without banks.

As Western governments rushed to save the banks by pumping money into the financial system, they managed to stave off the sort of crisis and revolution the young radicals had been hoping for. Some kept the dream alive, like the magazines still publishing. Others marched off to join the establishment, the inventors of Uber and AirBnB finding ways to turn the sharing-economy into a motherlode for venture capitalists, while Lena Dunham traded her parents’ basement for the Hamptons circuit.

And then there’s Bitcoin. The crypto-currency has gone from being the dream of visionaries to the darling of speculators, as everyone and his dog rushes in to take advantage of its meteoric rise – a tenfold increase this year alone. Along the way, it has gone from being the topic of basement salons, to fronting the headlines of the world’s business press. And the question on everyone’s lips is, is Bitcoin a bubble about to burst?

They were saying back in 2013, when I gave my talk. Nevertheless, the fact that Bitcoin has risen a hundredfold since then does not prove that it isn’t a bubble. But so what? The reason I told my audience to buy Bitcoin then was not that it was going to transform the global financial landscape and become the currency of the future. It may – and if it does, if Bitcoin begins getting used not merely as a store of value but as a means of transacting business, then it is probably undervalued even at these levels.

Yet even as a store of value, I could see Bitcoin was likely to rise well above $100. That’s because the way Western governments prevented the Great Recession from becoming another Depression was by debasing their currencies. By pumping trillions of dollars into the banking system, they flooded the market with money. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you increase the supply of money faster than the supply of goods and services, the prices of the latter will get bid up. With a supply fixed by its creators, Bitcoin had the possibility of becoming a more reliable store of value than the increasingly devalued currencies of the Western world. It would have to fall awfully far before anyone who bought it in 2013 felt otherwise.

So to call Bitcoin a bubble misses the point. The Western economies have become bubble economies, and governments and central banks are juicing growth with short term injections of cash, as I detail in my new book. Since the financial crisis, the total value of shares traded on the world’s stock exchanges has more than tripled, from under $30 trillion to just shy of $100 trillion today. But the total output of the world economy has grown by only a quarter. In other words, governments didn’t stimulate new investment and production, they inflated asset values by devaluing their currencies. The resulting ‘wealth effect’ led to an increase in consumption by asset-holders – enriching the asset-holders (i.e. the rich) at the expense of everyone else.

Bitcoin was a clever invention that took advantage of this. In effect, its creators engaged in a clever bit of subversion: they hacked into the global financial system to reveal the dirty little secret of the neoliberal age – namely, that this economy is increasingly built on illusions and conjuring tricks.

Britain’s Slow Suicide Sort of Makes Sense

The numbers are in and they aren’t pretty. Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered his annual budget last week with a barrage of jokes aimed at sweetening a bitter pill. Britain is slowly strangling itself. The Chancellor himself estimated that reductions in future growth rates will knock several percentage points off the country’s cumulative growth, limiting the resources he has available to play with. In its own budget analysis, the Institute of Fiscal Studies calculated that once Brexit is done and dusted, Britain’s economy will be more than three percent smaller than it otherwise would have been, average earnings will be £1,400 lower, and public services, already badly strained, will be further cut back.

All of this can be laid squarely at the feet of Brexit – not necessarily Brexit itself, but the chaotic way it’s being done. Britain’s productivity has barely recovered from its pre-2008 levels. A key driver of labour productivity is investment, both in new technology and infrastructure, and in the human capital that operates it. But amid political instability, businesses are holding off investment plans. Why wouldn’t they? It makes little sense to plough money into new machines or staff-training if your business is going to lose access to its key markets in a couple years’ time. Until managers get some clarity about the future, such as what sort of relationship Britain will have with Europe or what other new trade deals will materialise post-Brexit, businesses will stand pat. That won’t change soon.

If productivity isn’t rising, then the only other way to raise economic growth is to increase labour supply. That requires immigration, the very thing the Brexit vote was designed to limit. So Britain finds itself in a bind, one of the Brexiteers’ making. In principle, this could all be resolved with a clear and decisive stance as to where the United Kingdom is heading. Good luck with that. From morning to evening, ministers in the government contradict one another, and there is enough plotting going on in backrooms to fill a spy novel. Theresa May is trying to hold her ship together, but it’s sprung so many leaks she spends most of her time just trying to keep it afloat.

On the face of it, you’d think this would all be turning the slender majority of Britons who voted to leave the European Union in last year’s referendum against Brexit. Certainly, the obstacles against Brexit are rising in parliament, and the possibility of it now being reversed are greater than they were just a few months ago. But even if the Brexiteers lied through their teeth to get people’s votes – didn’t Boris Johnson say we’d have another £350 million each week to put into the National Health Service, when in fact we’ve been cutting public services? – there is as yet little evidence of Bregret.

That’s probably because while Britain is self-harming, Brexit isn’t harming everyone equally. Those who, say, make their home in London but work in the global economy can see only bad news in the crazy course on which the country has embarked. But for the ‘left-behind’ people in small towns decimated by globalisation, bad news is merely being distributed more equally now, rather than being loaded all onto them. Besides, with immigration falling, wages are starting to tick upwards. Long-term, that will damage the economy, as rising wages amid stagnant productivity will weaken British competitiveness. But ask them how their lives have changed since the referendum, and many Britons can reasonably say they’ve experienced a modest improvement.

Moreover, the government has so far sheltered some of Brexit’s strongest supporters from its harsh consequences. Pensioners, for example, were far more likely to opt for Brexit than first-time voters. With their pensions ‘triple-locked,’ the’ve been sheltered from the flat wages and rising inflation now besetting the country. Instead, the government has shifted the burden of economic adjustment onto the shoulders of constituencies that traditionally prefer other parties, or don’t vote – in particular, young people.

That may not be sustainable, though. Economically, with austerity set to worsen, the government may eventually have no choice but to break the triple-lock and dip into its pension-kitty. Politically, the Tories know they face a bleak future if they don’t make some show of winning the hearts and minds of young people. The Chancellor tried a bit of that in his budget, something which won plaudits in his party. But if the enthusiasm doesn’t transfer to the electorate, he may have to find ways to do more – which would mean having to redistribute austerity.

Should that happen, the electoral calculus behind Brexit might well change. But even then, the Remain camp still needs to craft an inclusive narrative which makes those hurt by neoliberal globalisation feel there will be a place for them in a renewed Europe. Unless they can convince these people that what they offer is not a return to the status quo ante, they will probably find support for Brexit pretty stubborn.

Zimbabwe – The Jacaranda Revolution

Even in the worst of times, of which Zimbabwe has had its fair share of late, it’s hard not to feel hopeful during jacaranda season. As the warming sun of the southern spring draws the brilliant flaming colours into the leaves, just walking along tree-lined boulevards amid ineffable beauty can leave you feeling that a better world is still possible.

So despite all the suspicions that Zimbabwe’s ‘second independence’ won’t change a thing, spare a moment for the joy of the people. Last night, Harare looked like the country had just won the World Cup, a prospect that until last week most Zimbabweans would have probably considered only slightly more remote than their president’s peaceful departure. In a country with shortages of everything, somehow the city’s residents found enough fuel to put all its cars on the road, flashing lights, blowing horns, and bringing the city to a standstill as people danced in the streets alongside policemen and soldiers.

I know, we’re all swallowing deeply to break the bad news: these things usually end badly. And it’s true, we’ve had plenty cause for cynicism at revolutions in recent years. The Arab Spring saw generals replace generals and chaos erupt. Then, the Occupy movement it helped inspire back in the West, which arose to protest the bank bailouts and to call for a new dawn, was crushed by the police as bankers cashed their bonus cheques.

And we all know the generals and politicians behind the Zimbawean coup were not selfless crusaders. Take the hero of the moment, Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as the Crocodile. Under a heavy cloud of suspicion for having both blood on his hands and his hands in the till, he would hardly seem the type on which to hang any hopes of change.

Yet for all that, there are still reasons for cautious optimism that Zimbabwe’s uprising may do more than just swap one tyrant for another. First, things have got so bad, that just a little change will make a big difference. Get goods back into the shops, provide a currency that is stable, make foreign exchange available: measures like these are in the range of possibility, and would improve people’s lives noticeably.

Second, this was an extraordinary coup by any standard, one which gives Zimbabwe unusually favourable odds. Ponder the scenario. For years, Zimbabweans had been steeling themselves for the worst, anticipating a bloodbath, even civil war, once Robert Mugabe died – and his dying was the only way they could imagine their president ever leaving office. But instead, in the space of a few days, we’ve had an all-but-bloodless coup, the preservation of a constitution, and a formal transition. It could have easily gone off the rails and turned ugly, especially once Mugabe decided not to resign at the last moment on Sunday evening. Yet even then, everyone else stuck to the script, the generals going so far as to salute the President even as they prepared to impeach him since he was, even if only for a few more hours, still their President.

Third, assuming that Emmerson Mnangagwa does take the reins of power, the change at the top may amount to more than what football managers call a like-for-like substitution. Some Zimbabweans note that whatever his faults, as a political organiser and government minister, Mnangagwa got things done. History will reveal the extent to which this coup was his doing, and how much he merely got swept up in events. But it seems to have his fingerprints all over it, which says something, because this coup revealed exceptionally good planning and near-flawless execution. If he can run a country the way he runs a forceful transition of power, he could yet make a positive difference.

Fourth, and perhaps decisively, it is just possible that over the last few days, the country’s balance of power shifted in a meaningful way. For all Robert Mugabe’s despotism, Zimbabwe managed to preserve a surprisingly resilient civil society and opposition movement. In fact, the coup probably would have failed had it not been that the people arose to back the generals. The ruling party would have needed opposition support in parliament to impeach Mugabe. Moreover, Mugabe would have quite likely felt emboldened to hang on if he could have persuaded himself he could go over the generals’ heads. Once the streets of the country’s cities filled with protesters demanding he go, however, his position became untenable. All in all, this movement united the barracks to the street. Any future President will know the critical importance of retaining the street, because once Mugabe lost it, his fate was sealed.

In jaracanda season, Zimbabweans can feel about the future the way people in cold climates do in their spring: after a long hard winter, life is returning once more. So regardless of how realistic or not their expectations might be, let them have this celebration. Lord knows they’ve earned it.