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All eyes right now are on the U.S. presidential campaign (especially the narrowing gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump).

What that means is Americans’ attention is diverted away from other politics and policies, such as the House GOP’s tax plan—the so-called “Better Way”—which would overwhelmingly benefit the richest 1 percent. It would allow the tiny group at the top to keep, via tax cuts, more of the surplus they manage to capture.

The plan would reduce the top individual income tax rate to 33 percent, reduce the corporate rate to 20 percent, and cap at 25 percent the rate on profits of pass-through businesses (such as sole proprietorships and partnerships) that are taxed under the individual income tax. Individuals could deduct half of their capital gains, dividends, and interest, reducing the top rate on such income to 16.5 percent.

According to the Tax Policy Center,

Overall, the plan would cut the average tax bill in 2017 by $1,810, increasing after-tax income by 2.5 percent. Three-quarters of the tax cuts would benefit the top 1 percent of taxpayers and the highest-income taxpayers (0.1 percent of the population, or those with incomes over $3.7 million in 2015 dollars) would experience an average tax cut of about $1.3 million, 16.9 percent of after-tax income. Households in the middle fifth of the income distribution would receive an average tax cut of almost $260, or 0.5 percent of after-tax income, while the poorest fifth of households would see their taxes go down an average of about $50, or 0.4 percent of their after-tax income. In 2025, the top 1 percent of households would receive nearly 100 percent of the total tax reduction. Households in some upper-middle income groups would have tax increases on average, and households at other income levels would have smaller average cuts, relative to after-tax income, than in 2017.

And, since the plan would reduce total federal revenues (by $3.1 trillion over the first decade of implementation and by an additional $2.2 trillion in the second decade), it implies massive cuts to federal programs, many of which benefit working-class households, thus making the plan even more regressive.

The better way, it turns out, is just another version of conservative trickledown economics.

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Has the policy consensus on economics fundamentally changed in recent years?

To read Mike Konczal it has. I can’t say I’m convinced. While some of the details may have changed, I still think we’re talking about different—liberal and conservative—versions of the same old trickledown economics.

But first Konczal’s argument. He begins with a pretty good summary of the policy consensus before the crash of 2007-08:

Before the crash, complacent Democrats, whatever their disagreements with their Republican peers, tended to agree with them that the economy was largely self-correcting. The Federal Reserve possessed the tools to nudge the economy to full employment, they thought. What’s more, government programs, while sometimes a necessary evil, were likely to be an inefficient drag compared with the private market. Inequality was something to worry about, sure, but hardly a crisis, and policies were correspondingly timid and market-focused.

And it’s true: the debate about the conditions and consequences of the crash—after Occupy Wall Street, in the midst of the Second Great Depression—challenged that consensus, by focusing much more attention on inequality and disrupting the idea that the growing gap between rich and poor is somehow natural and necessary and by calling into question the idea that capitalist markets are self-stabilizing and full employment can be guaranteed by relying on markets.

In all honesty, that’s the least that can be expected, especially on the liberal side of mainstream political and economic thinking in the United States.

But then, when Konczal outlines the policies that make up what he calls the “new liberal economics,” embodied in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the current Democratic Party, the evidence is very thin. In terms of specific policies—like following the dual mandate for the Fed of stabilizing prices and maximizing employment and supporting paid family and medical leave—the new liberal economics looks a lot like the old liberal economics of the Great Society programs (and, for that matter, of the Nixon administration). And while the policies Democrats support are certainly different from those of current Republicans (which Konczal summarizes as a “mix of Kempism, austerity, and favorable taxes and regulations for businesses that characterizes Paul Ryan’s ideas” and “Trump’s agenda of mercantilism and a chauvinistic welfare state”), they aren’t evidence the existing policy consensus represents a radical change.

That’s because the consensus before the crash, and now seven years into the recovery, has been based on trickledown economics. On both sides of the political and economic aisle.

The overarching idea, shared by liberals and conservatives, is that the existing economic system—with the surplus being appropriated by a small group at the top, who then decide what to do with it—will eventually deliver benefits to everyone, including those at the bottom (through, e.g., more jobs and higher incomes).

There are differences, of course. While the conservative view of trickledown economics emphasizes individual decisions and private markets, the liberal view is based on the idea that individual decisions are constrained by larger institutions and structures and and government programs are necessary to achieve desirable social outcomes. But, in both cases, the benefits created by existing economic arrangements are supposed to start at the top and trickle down to the bottom.

The consensus before the crash was that the liberal and conservative approaches to trickledown economics represented the limits of the relevant debate about economic policy. And now, seven years into the recovery from the crash, the debate that takes place between those limits remains the policy consensus.*

So, to my mind, there’s nothing new about the “new liberal economics.” It’s just a different mix of policies that together make up the latest version of liberal trickledown economics.

 

*If the existing policy consensus has been disrupted, it’s only because Donald Trump has highlighted the fact that trickledown economics, in both its versions, represents an unfair hustle.

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Hold the champagne

Posted: 20 September 2016 in Uncategorized
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Last week, to judge by the commentary on the latest Census Bureau report, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015 (pdf), you’d think the fountain of broadly shared economic prosperity had just been discovered.

Binyamin Appelbaum is a good example:

Americans last year reaped the largest economic gains in nearly a generation as poverty fell, health insurance coverage spread and incomes rose sharply for households on every rung of the economic ladder, ending years of stagnation.

The median household’s income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent from the previous year — the largest single-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967, the Census Bureau said on Tuesday. The share of Americans living in poverty also posted the sharpest decline in decades.

The gains were an important milestone for the economic expansion that began in 2009. For the first time in recent years, the benefits of renewed prosperity are spreading broadly.

And while the 5.2-percent increase is nothing to sneeze at (certainly not for the average American whose income, even now, remains below that of 2007 and even 1999), we need to keep things in perspective.

First, as is clear from the chart above, the gap between the average incomes of the top 1 percent and median income continues to grow. The ratio between the two has dramatically increased over time—from 8 in 1984 to 15.7 in 1999 and 19 in 2007—and remained very high (at 18.6) in 2015.

That’s not a story of broadly shared prosperity.

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Second, while the 2015 increase in median household income was dramatic, it followed a year when median income actually fell (by 1.5 percent), after a previous increase (of 3.5 percent in 2013) and years of negative growth (from 2008 to 2012).

I hate to spoil the party. But, me, I’d keep the champagne on ice until we actually see sustained, broadly shared prosperity in the United States. And, to judge by recent years and indeed decades, that may be a very long wait.

Update

Good question, Bruce. I actually started by comparing the change in median income and real earnings—finding that there was a correlation during some periods but not in others.

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What I found particularly interesting is that in 2008 and 2009 the change in real earnings was positive while median income fell. And then, in 2013, real earnings fell while median income rose. The interpretation? I think a lot has to do with unemployment—or, if you prefer, the Reserve Army. Real earnings rose in 2008 and 2009 for those workers who were employed (because of low inflation/deflation) but, of course, many workers were thrown out of work. The result? Median household income fell. Exactly the opposite in 2013: real earnings barely changed but the increase in employment raised median household income. Make sense?

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source (pdf)

On one hand, Dave Elder-Vass is absolutely right: “we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of ‘many distinct but interconnected practices’.”*

As I have explained before, that view of the “iceberg economy”—which has been highlighted in the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham—represents a fundamental challenge to neoclassical economists, for whom

the entire economy is visible and consists of capitalist markets—or unwarranted constraints on capitalist markets, which should be eliminated. According to iceberg economists, capitalist markets are only the tip of the iceberg, and there’s a proliferation of noncapitalist economies below the waterline.

But Elder-Vass also uses it against Marxists who, in his view, see “one central mechanism in the economy: the extraction of surplus from wage labour by capitalists” and leave out ethical issues.

The problem is, while Elder-Vass credits J. K. Gibson-Graham, especially their book The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It), with the idea that unified, totalizing metaphors of the economy (like a “capitalist market system”) can make it difficult to think outside the box and imagine alternatives, he forgets that Gibson-Graham themselves used the categories of the Marxian tradition—including the idea of class defined in terms of surplus labor—to decenter the economy.**

He also overlooks the fact that Gibson-Graham (as well as others who have worked with and alongside them in the larger Rethinking Marxism tradition) have insisted on the ethical dimensions of the Marxian critique of political economy—which includes, but of course is not limited to, a critique of the social theft associated with capitalist and all other forms of exploitation (that is, areas of the economy—whether capitalist, slave, feudal, and so on—in which those who perform surplus labor are excluded from appropriating their surplus labor).

In fact, according to two of Gibson-Graham’s close associates, Jack Amariglio and Yahya Madra, ethics are central to Marx’s critique of capitalism and mainstream economics.*** But Marx’s commitment to communism is not governed by an actual model or a fixed morality. Rather, they argue,

The ethical is embodied in Marx’s enduring faithfulness to sustaining a critical position toward the existing state of affairs, not in his particular and changing dismissals of capitalism or in his obscure, partial formulations of the shape communism might take. The lesson of Marx is that, facing the abyss of an unknown communism, the ethical is the will to risk a different social organization of surplus.

To put it in terms of the iceberg economy, the ethical is the will both to recognize the noncapitalist forms of economy below the waterline and to risk a different social organization in which capitalist exploitation ceases to be the exclusive or even predominant mode of appropriating and distributing the surplus.

Contrary to Elder-Vass, then, seeing the economy “not simply as a capitalist market system” is consistent with the Marxian critique of political economy, including the ethical stance that is informed by and embodied in that critique.

 

*I will try to be careful here because I have not yet had a chance to read Elder-Vass’s book,  Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. I am relying, instead, on Daniel Little’s review of the book and Elder-Vass’s response.

**Gibson-Graham also borrowed from other traditions, such as feminism, queer theory, and poststructuralism to create their iceberg economy.

***See their entry on “Karl Marx” in the Handbook of Economics and Ethics, ed. J. Peil and I. van Staveren, 325-32 (Edward Elgar, 2009).