Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

Heinrich Kley, "Sabotage" (Betriebsstorung)

Heinrich Kley, “Sabotage” (Betriebsstorung)

I have long argued (e.g., here and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the top 1 percent in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and full employment.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of full employment appears to be falling prey to the prospect of secular stagnation.

That’s the worry expressed in a new ebook edited by Richard Baldwin and Coen Teulings published by Vox. While secular stagnation can be defined in different ways, the basic idea is that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global crises of 2007-08. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by great inequality and financial stability.

If it becomes a reality, secular stagnation represents the end of the pact with the devil. It’s going to be impossible to keep any of the promises—just deserts, economic stability, and full employment—that have maintained capitalism’s legitimacy.

I don’t know if the members of the 1 percent are aware of or concerned about the extent to which secular stagnation may be their undoing (because, in fact, they may hold out the hope that more austerity can successfully be imposed to keep pumping out the surplus). But, to judge from many of the contributions to the Vox volume, the prospect of secular stagnation certainly appears to be worrying mainstream macroeconomists.

Why? Because their own promise was to analyze the uneven and shifting patterns of the macroeconomy and to devise the appropriate set of monetary and fiscal policies to ensure the continuation of the pact with the devil. However, secular stagnation—including the idea that the real rate of interest would have to be negative to maintain an equilibrium of savings and investment—calls into question the efficacy of the kinds of macroeconomic policies that have long held sway among mainstream macroeconomists. Now, they’re not sure they’ll be able to maintain the promise of creating a just distribution of income, avoiding financial instability, and creating enough jobs to ensure every able-bodied person who wants a decent, well-paying job can have one.

Actually, as we’ve seen, they haven’t been able to fulfill that promise for the past 7 years. And now, the threat of secular stagnation means they won’t able to do it anytime in the near future.

There just may not be a happy Disney ending to this one. . .

 

[ht: tr]

 

Here is my friend and former fellow graduate student Antonio Callari in an interview on Marxism he did for a group that produces educational videos directed at students and teachers. He starts with Marx’s biography, discusses changes in Marx’s thought and politics during the nineteenth century, and concludes with a discussion of the ways Marxism has (and has not) worked over the course of the past century.

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What does it mean that Dollar Tree is buying rival discount store Family Dollar in a cash-and-stock deal valued at about $8.5 billion?

It means, at a first cut, that Family Dollar stockholders will receive $59.60 in cash and the equivalent of $14.90 in shares of Dollar Tree for each share they own—a transaction valued at $74.50 per share, which is an approximately 23 percent premium to Family Dollar’s Friday closing price of $60.66—and that Dollar Tree will now have more than 13,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada—nearly three times as many as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (although Wal-Mart’s square footage is still greater).

More generally, it means there’s a lot of profit to be made in selling discount commodities to the low-income and falling-income American families whose numbers have grown over the course of the past three decades, and especially in the midst of the Second Great Depression.

As Sriya Shrestha explains in her recently published study of dollar stores,

US consumers experience a kind of “thirdworldization,” that marks them not as exceptional but rather increasingly on par with rest of world as they become yet another population of consumers marked by their lack of income. Hence, multinational corporations’ and discount retailers’ techniques aimed at incorporating what are known in marketing literature as the “bottom of the pyramid” (poorest populations in poorest countries) overlap with methods used at US dollar stores. For example, brand- name goods at the dollar store are often sold in packages substantially smaller than the standard sizes found at Target or CVS. This technique also surfaces in places like India where companies like Unilever and Proctor & Gamble sell single-serving sachets of laundry detergent, fairness cream, and shampoo for around 2 rupees. These methods rely upon a particular model of frugality aimed at those with extremely limited incomes that actually costs the consumer more in the long-run. This contrasts with other recently popularized methods of shopping, like purchasing in bulk from warehouse retailers and couponing that actually save money. These latter shopping styles require more money upfront, time, storage space, and membership fees ensuring its association with normative American middle-class, feminine “home-making” and smart budgeting rather than poverty.

Thus, the sense of loss of an American consumer identity and American dream emerges through the sense of a compromised American exceptionalism as people in the US find themselves unemployed, underemployed, facing compromised conditions of labor and consumption. Chinese Tide detergent and Indian Colgate toothpaste make their way to US dollar stores because major US and European multinationals are now targeting growth markets among the middle classes and poor in the former peripheries of the global economy as the centers have slowly begun to crumble.

Clearly, poor and working-class families are being forced to have the freedom to pinch their pennies, which turns out to be a profitable opportunity for the likes of dollar stores that feed at the bottom of American capitalism.

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Special mention

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Clearly, U.S. capitalism continues to face a serious legitimation crisis.

According to new Pew survey [ht: db], 62 percent of Americans now think the existing economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies. The only group that thinks otherwise—on the Right or the Left—are “business conservatives.”

Here’s the breakdown according to the political categories devised by Pew:

fairness

Most Americans, then, believe current economic arrangements are unfair.

That should invite a robust discussion—in the academy, in the public sphere—of alternative ways of organizing the economy. We can and should be debating how to create more economic fairness and how to change the way corporations are organized so that, instead of wielding excessive power over the rest of the economy, their power might be democratically exercised by their employees and the communities in which they operate.

But we’re not there yet. Capitalism’s legitimacy continues to be called into question but alternatives to capitalism are still, for many people, hard to imagine. As Antonio Gramsci wrote during the last Great Depression, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

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Special mention

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Off today to give a talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, to be held at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

I plan to start my multimedia presentation on how “culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life” with the original 1928 version of Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

capitalism kills by Metro Centri

Another study, published by the British Journal of Psychiatry [paywall], has confirmed that “there has been a substantial rise in ‘economic suicides’ in the Great Recessions afflicting Europe and North America.”*

What the authors found is that, suicide rates either increased (for most countries in Europe, where suicide rates had been falling, and Canada, where rates had been stable) or accelerated (for the United States and Poland, where suicide rates had already been rising) after the onset of the latest economic crisis. Their conclusion is that “there have been at least 10 000 more economic suicides than would have been expected in the European Union, Canada and the USA since the Great Recession began in 2007.”

Since “economic suicides” are preventable, the authors offer three options that “may increase mental health resilience during economic shocks”: access to secondary prevention, active labor market programs, and greater gender equality in the workplace. Their view is that “Recessions will continue to hurt, but need not cause self-harm.”

In my view, we can go one step further, by recognizing that the economic conditions that lead to “economic suicides” are themselves preventable. So, in addition to what the authors suggest, we need to consider creating alternative economic institutions—ways of organizing the economic system that make sure people are not forced to pay (because of unemployment, indebtedness, and so on) the ultimate price of severe downturns in economic activity and that undo the causes (including the way corporations are organized and macroeconomic policy formulated) of recessions and depressions in the first place.

 

*I discuss an earlier study, published by Lancet, here.

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According to Jia Lynn Yang, Eric Cantor was defeated by Tea Party challenger David Brat because of his support for “crony capitalism.”

“If you’re in big business, Eric’s been very good to you, and he gets a lot of donations because of that, right?” Brat said at a local meeting of Republicans in Virginia, according to Politico. “Very powerful. Very good at fundraising because he favors big business. But when you’re favoring artificially big business, someone’s paying the tab for that. Someone’s paying the price for that, and guess who that is? You.”

While everyone is focused on Brat’s critique of Cantor’s immigration stance, that attack came in the broader context of the increasingly potent “crony capitalism” theme. Brat went after Cantor specifically for his support of strengthening the H1B visa program, a policy especially favored by tech companies such as Facebook since it allows them to hire more engineers from overseas. Critics have said that the program allows firms to seek cheaper labor to maximize profits and puts foreign workers ahead of Americans.