Thatcherism Revised

Is Thatcher/Reaganism: (a) mutating; (b) still spreading worldwide; (c) being stolen by its opponents; (d) being diluted to suit different cultures?

Pick all of the above.

Evidence of each abounds this week. Consider the following:

* Britain is nearing what continues to look like a change from a neo-Thatcherite Tory government to a neo-Thatcherite New Labor government.

* French President Chirac - criticizing a left he said wants "always more state, always more spending, always more taxes" - made a snap call for new elections a year early in order to gain an extra four years for cutting the size of government.

* India's fractured ruling coalition recoalesced and named a new leader, I.K. Gujral, who pledged to get on with economic market reforms. (An unrelated plus: Gujral is genuinely committed to mending India's decades-old rift with Pakistan.)

* Republican inheritors of Reagan's mantle in the US Congress and Reagan-mantle-appropriating President Clinton moved closer to compromises on a balanced budget. Clinton's flexibility worried Democratic liberals. Republican leaders' flexibility worried the GOP far right.

* South Korea's government continued to moderate its big-capitalist heritage with concessions to labor unions - despite the more than ever available excuse of war danger from North Korea.

* Boris Yeltsin's young market reformers continued their efforts to harness the robber baron capitalists now ruling Russia's big mineral-resource monopolies. Yeltsin himself drew strength by meeting his friend, German Chancellor Kohl, and lobbying for a solid contract between an expanding NATO and Moscow.

* Bulgaria overwhelmingly elected a new leader pledged to a market economy.

But enough evidence of spreading, mutating, diluting, and stolen Thatcher/Reaganism. What does it all mean?

As with so many other trends in history, will more spread and more expropriation by erstwhile opponents simply mean dilution to the point of political bland porridge?

The World Bank, showing the hand of its no-nonsense Australian president, Jim Wolfensohn, published a blunt answer April 22 in its biannual World Economic Outlook report. The bank said that the world's economic well-being is dependent on continued reform of labor, trade, and capital markets.

Note the inclusion of labor alongside the habitually mentioned trade and capital flows, which have done so much to increase - and spread - prosperity in the post-world-war and post-cold-war years.

That's why it's of more than passing interest that South Korea continues to adjust its labor-capital balance of influence, even as it confronts the giant question of whether it is nearing reunification or another war with its sibling to the north. That's why it's interesting to watch Israel's battle over casting off its labor/kibbutzim past for a Reaganite, smaller government market economy. (That trend is not aided by having as its salesman shaken Prime Minister Netanyahu.)

The World Bank's call for reforming labor markets may sound abstract. But it refers to one of the biggest global problems: disparities of wages that may become greater as the poorer nations produce hundreds of millions of young workers (or jobless would-be workers). And as the graying, increasingly automated richer nations face labor unrest over the choice of (1) admitting immigrants who may threaten jobholders, or (2) continued farming out of more work abroad.

In the long run, this problem tends to create its own solution as Japan, then the Asian Tigers, China, India, and Latin America gradually raise their standard of living, their pay levels, and their purchases from factories and service providers in the richer world. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and regional banks have recently tried to add Africa to this process by forgiving overburdening debts in order to help Africans convert to market economies.

None of the very real concern about child labor and low-wage competition should allow us to overlook the problems still to be ironed out in the richer world. Take one example: President Chirac's call for early elections. It is obviously meant to give him a mandate to cut the welfare state in a nation already troubled by 13 percent unemployment. America and Britain have shown the way for France (and Germany, et al). By making painful cuts in government they have routed investment toward creating millions of jobs in the private sector. Compare a US jobless rate that may drop below 5 percent to that 13 percent French rate. Compare the Asian Tigers' generally continuing boom to North Korea's tragic stagnation and starvation.

That's why New Democrats and New Labor have arisen. The world seems to be searching for something that might be called Thatcher/Reaganism with a more human face.

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