Carrier capitalism

Posted: 7 December 2016 in Uncategorized
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President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to bribe Carrier into keeping 800 manufacturing jobs in Indiana, instead of moving them to one of its Mexican plants, has met with opposition from mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative.

Clearly, it’s not about the size of the deal (although $7 million in incentives to keep less than one thousand jobs is a big deal). Carrier corporate parent United Technologies is still planning to outsource production that will eliminate 1300 jobs in Indiana. And 900 jobs make up a minuscule portion (0.17 percent, to be exact) of the total number of manufacturing jobs in that Midwestern state.*

No, mainstream economists’ opposition rests on other grounds. Justin Wolfers, for example, uses the silly analogy of a parking garage to defend the process of “creative destruction” and the idea that a “fluid labor market. . .is the secret of American dynamism.”

Think of the American economy as a 10-level parking structure or garage, where each car represents an active firm, and the seats in the car are the jobs available. A well-managed business like this is usually pretty full. But it’s also in a state of constant flux, with new cars entering as some people arrive, and previously parked cars leaving as others head home. Every hour, around a tenth of the cars leave the lot, just as a tenth of existing business establishments close each year and leave the labor market.

The deal at Carrier is akin to Mr. Trump’s intercepting a driver on his way to his car, and trying to persuade him to stay parked a little longer — perhaps by pointing to the enticing Christmas specials at the nearby stores.

Tyler Cowen, for his part, is worried that under a Trump administration, a kind of “crony capitalism”—where companies that are good to a presidency are rewarded—will prevail.

But it’s the response by Larry Summers that interests me the most, since he sees the “the negotiation with Carrier is a small thing that is actually a very big thing—a change very much for the worse with regards to the operating assumptions of American capitalism.”

Central to Summers’s argument is the distinction between two kinds of capitalism. One is “rule and law based,” which he believes is how American capitalism operates now.

Courts enforce contracts and property rights in ways that are largely independent of just who it is who is before them. Taxes are calculable on the basis of an arithmetic algorithm. Companies and governments buy from the cheapest bidder. Regulation follows previously promulgated rules. In the economic arena, the state’s monopoly on the use of force is used to enforce contract and property rights and to enforce previously promulgated laws.

The other is “deals based,” which is the world of New York City under Tammany Hall, of Suharto’s Indonesia, and of Putin’s Russia—and, it seems, under Trump.

Economic actors assume that they have to protect their property and do their own contract enforcement.  Tax collectors use discretion in assessing taxes.  Companies and governments buy from their friends rather than seek low cost bids.  Regulators abuse their power. The state’s monopoly on the use of force is used to enrich and satisfy the desires of those who control the apparatus of the state.

So, what’s the difference? Clearly, Summers is referring to variations on a theme: both are forms of capitalism.

As I see it, the difference between “rule and law based” capitalism and “deals based” capitalism comes down to whether the capitalist class as a whole or individual capitalists are the beneficiaries of state policies. In the former, the rules and laws, backed with the state’s monopoly on the use of force, are such that the capitalist class as a whole—although not necessarily any individual capitalist—has the right to appropriate the surplus and decide privately how to distribute it. They, as a class, are the winners (even when some of the individual capitalists lose out in competitive battles with other capitalists). In the latter, when deals are made with the government, once again backed by the state’s monopoly on the use of force, individual capitalists are picked out to be winners (or, if they’re on the wrong side of the deals, losers). But it’s still the case, even when ad hoc decisions are made, that the capitalist class as a whole is allowed to capture and distribute the surplus.**

In the end, maybe Justin Wolfers’s parking-garage analogy is the appropriate one. Under “rule and law based” capitalism, garage owners compete with one another under a general set of rules and regulations—and some will win while others lose. Under a “deals based” system, individual owners find themselves negotiating concessions with the government, which can decide who the individual winners and losers will be.

So, there are differences. But in both cases, the rest of us are forced to have the freedom to park our cars in garages that we neither own nor have any say in operating.

 

*As it turns out, Indiana is the state with the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs, at 16.8 percent. But the share of those jobs has fallen dramatically since 1990, when it was 24 percent.

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**Another difference between the two systems is how the surplus is distributed and then spent. Under a “rule and law based” system, the state captures a portion of the surplus via taxes and then spends it to create the conditions under which the capitalism system as a whole is reproduced, while under a “deals based” system, individual capitalists can bribe the state with a portion of the surplus they appropriate from their workers and then receive concessions that pertain to them but not to other capitalists. In both cases, however, the surplus is used to protect capitalists’ property and enforce contracts—all the while backed by the state’s monopoly on the use of force.

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