Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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Sorry. I just couldn’t resist this one from Barry Levinson, on the minimum wage according to the logic of Abbott and Costello:

Lou: I am below the poverty line, things are desperate.
Bud: Then you need a job… go to work, Lou.
Lou: I have a job!
Bud: Then all is well.
Lou: But I can’t afford to live and support my family.
Bud: I thought you said you had a job.
Lou: I do.
Bud: Then why’d you say you can’t support your family?
Lou: Because I can’t!
Bud: But you just said you had a job.
Lou: I know.
Bud: Do you have a job or are you living below the poverty line?
Lou: I’m living below the poverty line. A lot of us are.
Bud: Then you don’t have a job?
Lou: I do have a job. A minimum-wage job that I can’t even support my family on.
Bud: Are you working illegally?
Lou: It’s a legal job, Bud!
Bud: A legal job and you’re living below the poverty line?
Lou: Precisely.
Bud: Oh, I get it. You’re working part-time?
Lou: It’s full-time. Forty hours a week! They need to raise the minimum wage.
Bud: But if they raise the minimum wage, it will put people out of work.
Lou: Who?
Bud:The people who are living below the poverty line.
Lou: I’m living below the poverty line!
Bud: Exactly. Isn’t it better to be working and living below the poverty line, than not working and living below the poverty line? That way you have a sense of pride.
Lou: But I need more money to get by.
Bud: Do you want to put people out of work? Do you want to be responsible for them losing their jobs?
Lou: No.
Bud: That’s the spirit. You all share in getting less.
Lou: Why can’t we all share in getting more?
Bud: That’s socialism.
Lou: Then what’s sharing and getting less?
Bud: That’s capitalism!
Lou: Why is getting a little more socialism?
Bud: Because if you all get a little more, someone is going to get less.
Lou: Who?
Bud: The person who used to get more. The job makers.
Lou: Why can’t they make a little less?
Bud: Well, that’s un-American! This is the free market… Do you want to destroy
American capitalism?
Lou: Of course not.
Bud: Do you want to stifle the American economy. Suffocate ingenuity?
Lou: No.
Bud: That’s the spirit.
Lou: But I can’t support my family. Bud, I work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, no vacations, and I still can’t support my family.
Bud: Criticize. Criticize. Be thankful you have a minimum wage. There was a time you could have been paid less than minimum.
Lou: There was less than minimum?
Bud: Yes! Be thankful that these are the good times.

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Is there any academic economics book that has elicited as much interest in the past decade (and perhaps longer) than Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

All kinds of friends and colleagues have been asking me about it and sending me links. And, everywhere I turn, there seems to be a new review of the book.

To be honest, I just received my copy of the book. I haven’t read it yet and probably won’t be able to find the time to do so until the semester is over. (But, as I indicated, I will be teaching it in the fall.) So, while I’ll hold off on commenting on the content of the book itself until I’ve had a chance to carefully work my way through it, I do want to mention a couple of things.

First, my sense is the book is generating so much attention precisely because of a certain nervousness out there, the fact that capitalism is facing a legitimacy crisis right now. The capitalists’ project of becoming a universal class seems to have become derailed in the midst of the Second Great Depression, and Piketty’s discussion of the return of inherited wealth in the second Gilded Age speaks directly to that concern.

Second, many of the reviews I’ve read imply—and often explicitly state—that “our” views about capitalism are being challenged by the general rise in inequality and, in particular, by Piketty’s focus on the returns to capital. Paul Krugman’s essay in the New York Review of Books is a good example: “The result has been a revolution in our understanding of long-term trends in inequality.” “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics.” “We’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.” (Emphasis added in all cases.) And so on.

Excuse me but who is this “we” and “our”? I expect I’ll learn a lot from reading Piketty’s book (especially since it includes such evocative phrases as “the past tends to devour the future”) but, please, there are a lot of us who have been writing and teaching about capital and inequality for a very long time. They are central to how we’ve long understood and analyzed the changing dynamics of capitalist economies. I doubt, therefore, that Piketty’s book will contribute to a revolution in our understanding of long-term trends in inequality or in how we think about society and the way we do economics.

But clearly Piketty’s book may have that effect on how other people make sense of capital and inequality—economists who have spent their careers ignoring what their less-orthodox colleagues have been writing and teaching for many, many years.

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Once again, this coming fall, I’ll be teaching Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation in my Topics in Political Economy course.

It’s a course based entirely on books (plus a few political economy films, starting with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times). I teach four classic texts of political economy, starting with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and then moving on to different responses to Smith’s theory of capitalism: by Karl Marx (volume 1 of Capital), Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class), and finally Polanyi.

I match each classic text with a contemporary one: for example, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues with Smith, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff’s Knowledge and Class with Marx, and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality with Veblen. Next time, I’m planning to teach Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as the follow-up to Polanyi.

The discussion, of course, gets pretty complicated—since, during the semester, the students learn that the various authors are not only responding to Smith (whose text, they also figure out, has been poorly rendered in their other economics classes), but also to each other. Polanyi with Marx, for example. And changes in the world are making those intellectual exchanges even more interesting, as Robert Kuttner understands:

Looking backward from 1944 to the 18th century, Polanyi saw the catastrophe of the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of laissez-faire taken to an extreme. “The origins of the cataclysm,” he wrote, “lay in the Utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system.” Others, such as John Maynard Keynes, had linked the policy mistakes of the interwar period to fascism and a second war. No one had connected the dots all the way back to the industrial revolution.

The more famous critic of capitalism is of course Karl Marx, who predicted its collapse from internal contradictions. But a century after Marx wrote, at the apex of the post–World War II boom in both Europe and the United States, a contented bourgeoisie was huge and growing. The proletariat enjoyed steady income gains. The political energy of aroused workers that Marx had imagined as revolutionary instead went to support progressive parliamentary parties that built a welfare state, to housebreak but not supplant capitalism. Nations that celebrated Marx, meanwhile, were economic failures that repressed their working classes.

Half a century later, the world looks more Marxian. The middle class is beleaguered. A global reserve army of the unemployed batters wages and marginalizes labor’s political power. Even elite professions are becoming proletarianized. Ideologically, the view that markets are good and states are bad is close to hegemonic. With finance still supreme despite the 2008 collapse, it is no longer risible to use “capital” as a collective noun. The two leading treasury secretaries during the run-up to the 2008 financial crash, Democrat Robert Rubin and Republican Henry Paulson, were both former CEOs of Goldman Sachs. If the state is not quite the executive committee of the ruling class, it is doing a pretty fair imitation.

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Clearly (after reading James Kwak’s review), I’m going to have to include a discussion of Helaine Olen’s book, Pound Foolish, in my ongoing project on the Prosperity Gospel movement.

The underlying problem with financial advice—besides the fact that most of it is wrong, conflicted (in the conflict of interest sense), or covert marketing—is that, even in the best case, it rarely works. The underlying financial problem that most Americans have isn’t that they buy too many lattes or pick the wrong stocks. It’s that they don’t make enough money to begin with, at a time when many necessities like health care and education are getting more expensive. . .

But the big question is why this stuff is so popular. As Olen points out, we haven’t always had a personal finance advice industry, and it’s only recently that financial education has been embraced as the solution to all our problems. One reason, she suggests, is that we live in an age of stagnant real wages and rising inequality. Add that to a culture that fetishizes individualism and rejects government support programs, and you have a market that is ripe for self-proclaimed gurus or self-interested advertising campaigns that claim that you can get ahead by (insert your choice) drinking less coffee, or going into more real estate debt, or buying a variable annuity, or picking the right stocks. The governments (state and federal) that promote financial education are like Marie-Antoinette advising people to eat cake; if they could eat cake in the first place, they wouldn’t need financial education.

Many of the people Olen talked to were too embarrassed by their financial plight to let her use their names in the book. Somehow we ended up blaming ourselves for the fact that we don’t have a decent minimum wage, real national health insurance, subsidized child care that made it easier to hold a job, or long-term unemployment insurance (other than in special circumstances). If we saw individuals’ financial struggles as a political issue—or a class issue—things might be different.

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Let’s leave aside for a moment whether the participants were the right ones to call on (I would have turned to plenty of better commentators, who have read both Marx and contemporary scholarship on Marxist theory, to offer their opinions) or even whether they get Marx right (very little, as it turns out).

What’s perhaps most interesting is that the New York Times felt the need at this point in time to host a debate on the question “was Marx right?” and, then, that most of the participants admit that Marx did in fact get a great deal right.

The problem is, of course, that at this point in time mainstream economics (in either its neoclassical or Keynesian varieties) is not a particularly good guide for analyzing or proposing solutions to the key economic problems of soaring inequality, massive unemployment, and generalized insecurity of a broad mass of the population in the United States and in other high-income countries. So, I suppose it’s not surprising people continue to turn to Marx for ideas about how to make sense of the economic contradictions that caused the Second Great Depression and the new contradictions that right now are preventing a full recovery of capitalism.

In the end, what is key to Marx is not this or that prediction (of which, as it turns out, there is very little in the texts, although there certainly are lots of tendencies that critics are hard put to ignore or effectively counter) but, instead, the idea of critique. Because what Marx set out to do over the course of the three published volumes of Capital was provide the cornerstones for a far-reaching critique of political economy. And the method of that critique—a two-fold critique, of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism as a system—is what endures, precisely as a challenge to what passes for serious economic analysis today.

Marx, then, was surely right about one thing:

if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

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Once again, the work of Hyman Minsky has been discovered—this time, by the BBC.

Minsky’s main idea is so simple that it could fit on a T-shirt, with just three words: “Stability is destabilising.”

Most macroeconomists work with what they call “equilibrium models” – the idea is that a modern market economy is fundamentally stable. That is not to say nothing ever changes but it grows in a steady way.

To generate an economic crisis or a sudden boom some sort of external shock has to occur – whether that be a rise in oil prices, a war or the invention of the internet.

Minsky disagreed. He thought that the system itself could generate shocks through its own internal dynamics. He believed that during periods of economic stability, banks, firms and other economic agents become complacent.

They assume that the good times will keep on going and begin to take ever greater risks in pursuit of profit. So the seeds of the next crisis are sown in the good time.

Much the same can be said about Marx’s work. In both theories, crises are endogenously produced within the capitalist system itself.

The approaches differ, of course: while Minsky focused on rising debt and complacency, Marx emphasized class exploitation and capitalist competition. But it doesn’t take much work to combine the insights of the two thinkers to identify what we might call the “Minsky-Marx moment”—the moment when, as a result of rising debt and competition over the surplus, the whole house of cards falls down.

But you won’t find either in modern macroeconomics. In fact, if you search inside one of the leading texts—Robert Barro’s Macroeconomics: A Modern Approach—you won’t find even a single mention of Minsky or Marx.

It’s no wonder modern mainstream macroeconomists and their students had so little to offer in terms of understanding how and why the latest crisis occurred or what to do once the house of cards did in fact come tumbling down.

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The discussion these days seems to be all about foxes and hedgehogs.

Those are the terms Nate Silver borrows from a phrase originally attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus to define his new journalistic project—the fox who knows many things as against the the hedgehog who knows one big thing. (But see my critique here.)

The pair of animal also turns up in James Surowiecki’s review of Fortune Tellers: The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters by Walter A. Friedman.

Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology and management at Penn who conducted a 20-year study asking almost 300 experts to forecast political events, has shown that while experts in the political realm are not especially good at forecasting the future, those who did best were, in the terminology he borrowed from Isaiah Berlin, foxes as opposed to hedgehogs—that is, the best forecasters were those who knew lots of little things rather than one big thing. Yet forecasters are more likely to be hedgehogs, if only because it’s easier to get famous when you’re preaching a simple gospel. And hedgehogs are not good, in general, at adapting to changed conditions—think of those bearish commentators who correctly predicted the bursting of the housing bubble but then failed to see that the stock market was going to make a healthy recovery.

The fact is, the two periods that led to more sources of information for economic forecasting preceded the two greatest crises of capitalism we’ve witnessed during the past 100 years—after which new ideas and movements erupted that provided concrete alternatives to capitalism. It’s not that they had more information. They honestly used the data at hand about what was fundamentally wrong with existing economic arrangements and, instead of sticking with tired formulas and failed policies, dared to imagine a world beyond capitalism.

Someday, then, we too will be able to exclaim, “Well burrowed, old mole!”

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I won’t attempt to take on Greg Mankiw’s latest defense of the 1 percent. Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have raised most of the relevant issues.

But, in his defense of his defense, Mankiw does make a curious admission: capitalism is fatally flawed.

The admission actually occurs in his textbook [pdf], where Mankiw sends us to read his explanation of who bears responsibility for the most recent financial crisis (hint: it’s half the fault of government, and half Wall Street). Then, he admits that financial crises “do occur from time to time.”

Finally, keep in mind that this financial crisis was not the first one in history. Such events, though fortunately rare, do occur from time to time. Rather than looking for a culprit to blame for this singular event, perhaps we should view speculative excess and its ramifications as an inherent feature of market economies. Policymakers can respond to financial crises as they happen, and they can take steps to reduce the likelihood and severity of such crises, but preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.

Yes, indeed, “speculative excess and its ramifications” are in fact “an inherent feature” of capitalist economies.* But then, Mankiw adds, “preventing them entirely may be too much to ask given our current knowledge.”

What Mankiw sees as a problem of knowledge is what the rest of us see as a problem of economic institutions. It’s precisely because the economic system is arranged so that a tiny minority at the top is able to continue to capture the surplus that financial crises occur on a regular basis.

What the rest of us know is that defending the 1 percent is precisely what will guarantee more financial crises in the future.

 

*And, for Mankiw, they’re something we simply have to put up with because “for human welfare, growth swamps fluctuations.”