THANKS to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, 2016 is widely viewed as a political turning-point. But it may also come to be seen as an economic turning-point, marking the third big change of direction since the second world war.

The post-war period from 1945 to 1973 was the era of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and capital controls. It was a time of rapid economic growth in the rich world as countries rebuilt themselves after the war and as the technological innovations of the first half of the 20th century—cars, televisions, and so on—came into widespread use. High taxes reduced inequality; fiscal policy was used to control the economic cycle. It all came crashing down in the early 1970s as the fixed-currency system collapsed, and an oil embargo imposed by Arab producers ushered in stagflation (ie, high unemployment combined with inflation).

By the early 1980s, a new system had emerged. Currencies floated, capital controls were abolished, the financial sector was liberalised, industry was privatised and tax rates on higher incomes were cut. In this system inequality widened again (although…Continue reading