Both Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong understand that capitalism can’t be let off the hook. Its failures—which take the form of obscene levels of inequality, growing economic insecurity, and so on—are responsible for what they refer to as the “populist backlash” in the United States and Europe.

But, instead of exploring alternatives to capitalism, both Rodrick and DeLong hold out hope that something can be done to mitigate those failures, dampen the backlash, and ultimately save capitalism.

Rodrick looks to moderate political elites who, in his view, have been unwilling to offer remedies for the failures of capitalism—in contrast to the 1930s.

The appeal of populists is that they give voice to the anger of the excluded. They offer a grand narrative as well as concrete, if misleading and often dangerous, solutions. Mainstream politicians will not regain lost ground until they, too, offer serious solutions that provide room for hope. They should no longer hide behind technology or unstoppable globalization, and they must be willing to be bold and entertain large-scale reforms in the way the domestic and global economy are run.

If one lesson of history is the danger of globalization running amok, another is the malleability of capitalism. It was the New Deal, the welfare state, and controlled globalization (under the Bretton Woods regime) that eventually gave market-oriented societies a new lease on life and produced the post-war boom. It was not tinkering and minor modification of existing policies that produced these achievements, but radical institutional engineering.

Moderate politicians, take note.

DeLong sides with Rodrick and then invokes Keynes and Karl Polanyi as still the best guides for political economy.

For both Keynes and Polanyi, social insurance in the form of progressive taxes, a universal basic income, and government provision of public goods plus private necessities would help, but that would not be enough to do the job. Also essential are: first, useful employment and the resulting honorable and dignified role in society; second, justice in the sense that playing by the rules of the economic game calls forth the expected rewards; and, third, communal stability in the sense that should people’s lives be transformed in place, community, and occupation it is by being pulled out of old ruts by brilliant opportunities locating in other places, living in other communities, and practicing other occupations–not being pushed out by regional or sectoral economic collapse, or perhaps by having one’s community transformed too rapidly around one.

Here’s the problem: both Rodrick and DeLong can come up with a list of policies and examples of “radical institutional engineering” that political elites might use to produce more employment and security for capitalism’s victims. But they don’t understand how and why economic elites, the same ones who (along with moderate politicians) promise dignity, justice, and so on, act, now as in the 1930s, have in the normal course of business undermined those lofty promises.

That’s the economic side of political economy Rodrick and DeLong ignore. The tiny group at the top that makes the key economic decisions (e.g., members of corporate boards of directors, owners, top executives, and so on) promise dignity but the only dignity they offer is for everyone else to work for them. They promise justice but the only justice they recognize is their own command over appropriating, distributing, and receiving the surplus.

And they promise freedom but it falls to Tom Morello, not Rodrick or DeLong, to understand that,

The problem is wage slavery. America touts itself as the land of the free, but the number one freedom that you and I have is the freedom to enter into a subservient role in the workplace. Once you exercise this freedom you’ve lost all control over what you do, what is produced, and how it is produced. And in the end, the product doesn’t belong to you. The only way you can avoid bosses and jobs is if you don’t care about making a living. Which leads to the second freedom: the freedom to starve.

As long as that economic elite is able to define dignity, justice, and freedom on their own terms—and as long as political elites and mainstream economists accept those definitions, even as they come up with policies and institutions to secure them—we can expect to see other politicians and economists step forward to give voice to the excluded and their rage against the machine.

  1. […] latest example is from Noah Smith, who, like other mainstream economists before him (e.g., Brad DeLong), asserts that “jobs give people dignity and a sense of […]

  2. […] full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiw to Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official […]

  3. […] full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiwto Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official […]

  4. […] employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiw to Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official […]

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