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How Will COVID-19 Change the World?
27 Sep 2020

How Will COVID-19 Change the World?

Renowned financial commentator and author of The World in 2020, Hamish McRae speculates on the economic future

By Courtney Suciu

Financial columnist and best-selling author Hamish McRae will address the impact of the global pandemic on world economies in the first-ever virtual Edmund Burke Annual Register Lecture on September 29 at 11:00 AM ET. The lecture is open to all by registering here.

We spoke with McRae to learn more about his career, his book The World in 2020 and what kinds of changes he is anticipating in the world after COVID-19.

“My job is not to say what will happen,” according to McRae, “but to give people an intellectual framework for understanding how things might happen and as things unroll, give them a template in which to fit their own ideas and analysis.”

The World in 2020

After studying both economics and journalism at Trinity College Dublin and managing business coverage for The Guardian and The Independent newspapers, McRae decided the next chapter of his career would be dedicated to explaining economics to everyday people.

As a financial columnist for The Independent and Sunday Mail, he attended an economic conference at Oxford where someone approached him and said “you’ve been talking about the way the world economy will develop. Can you recommend a good book on this?”

“I thought ‘no, not really…’ And I decided I better write one. So, that’s how I became interested in trying to explain what might happen to the future of the world economy rather than try to explain what was happening.”

This was the early ‘90s, McRae recalled. “This was pre-Goldman Sachs and BRICs report. And, as far as I know, no one had done much work on applying the Solow growth model to what the world might look like a generation hence. Without an economic model to back me up, I set out to describe the world as it was, define the forces for change, and look at how these forces for change would then interact with the world economy.”

The result, McRae’s 1992 book, The World in 2020: Power, Culture and Prosperity, struck “two bullseyes,” according to the author.

“First,” he explained, “was Brexit, which I didn’t predict in a hardline but I said it is quite probable, extraordinary though it may seem, that Britain will be out of the European Union in 2020 because the forces for that were already evident there in the early 1990s.”

“The other thing,” he continued, “was Trump. Not the man, because I didn’t know anything about him, but in the early ‘90s there was a populist movement welling in America.”

As more and more people were lashing out against what they called “the Hollywood elite” and “the liberal press,” McRae thought “it would take a while for the movement to gel but would gradually burst out.”

“I wasn’t very clever in seeing it,” he insisted. “And I don’t mean that in a self-depreciating way. This was all evident in the early 1990s that these forces were building.”

The impact of COVID-19

McRae spent the next 25 years “keeping up with my column but also travelling the world talking about the world economy” and this led to his next book, What Works, a collection of case studies that examines creative (and successful) economic models practiced by various organizations, businesses, cities and countries.

But now, he said, “I am very much thinking about what the world will look like a generation from now to what extent it’s changed by the forces that were already there before COVID-19 and then to what extent COVID-19 reinforces or delays those forces.”

“Of course, it is very difficult to know that because we are still in the middle of it all and the data isn’t yet coming through,” McRae admitted, but he noted political tensions have been clearly exacerbated by the global pandemic.

“Universally, political systems are under stress,” he said. “They were under stress before and they will remain under stress.”

According to McRae, there are two broad factors contributing to precarious political climates. The first is that, “for many people, our political systems don’t seem fair. When this has happened in the past there has been some kind of realignment and change in the system.”

For example, he noted the social welfare systems and trust-busting of monopolies that emerged as the result of political unrest at the end of the 19th century. “I think we will see different forms of political action in the West to counteract unfairness,” McRae said of the present time. “It’s a question of making sure there are good opportunities for everyone wherever they happen to be born.”

The second factor, according to McRae, is that “the inequalities of wealth that capitalism has currently thrown up are not sustainable in the long term – the question is how that will adjust.”

But when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 on the ways we work and relate with each other, McRae made the following predictions:

“Will the pandemic bust globalization? No, but it means we will probably travel less”.

“Will we still go to the office? I think we’ll have perhaps 80 or 90 percent of workers return to work in the office.”

“Will we increase efficiency of the service industry by continuing to use emerging technology? My answer is absolutely yes.”

McRae is also confident that we have much to gain in the post-pandemic world, “in human behavior as well as economics.”

“We will value friendships more,” he predicts, “after having to spend so much time apart. And we’ll also feel more comfortable developing relationships from afar, because the current crisis has forced most of us to adapt to using video and mobile technology [for communication].”

Register now to virtually attend the Edmund Burke Annual Register Lecture 2020, “The Future of the World Economy After the COVID Crisis” with Hamish McRae on Tuesday, September 29, 5:00 PM GMT + 02:00

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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu

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