Posts Tagged ‘capital’

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Mainstream economists and commentators, it seems, are worried that the global economy is going to come crashing down as a result of the COVID crisis. That’s why they’re willing now to consider the possibility that the current crisis is more than a normal recession, more serious even than the so-called Great Recession; in their view, it’s an economic depression.

That, at least, is the argument they present up front. But there’s something else going on, which haunts their analysis—that capitalism itself is now being called into question.

But before we get to that alarming specter, let’s take a look at the logic of their analysis about the current perils to the global economy—starting with the Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, who is basically taking his cues from a recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Carmen Reinhart and Vincent Reinhart.*

Their shared view is that the current slowdown is both more severe and more widespread than the crash of 2007-08, and the recovery will be much slower. Therefore, they argue, the COVID crisis represents the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This is a big deal: mainstream economists and commentators are uneasy about invoking the term “economic depression.” They certainly resisted it for the crisis that occurred just over a decade ago, eventually devising a Goldilocks nomenclature, dubbing it the Great Recession (not as hot as the Great Depression but not as cold as a normal recession). As regular readers know, I had no compunction about calling it the Second Great Depression. And, according to their own logic, neither Samuelson nor the Reinharts should have either.

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According to Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke, the financial crisis and recession had led to as big a downward shock to global industrial production in 2008 as the 1929 financial crisis, and had pounded stock market values and world trade volumes harder in 2008-09 than in 1929-30. Thus, from the perspective of the magnitude of the initial shock, the global economy was in at least as dire shape after the crash of 2008 as it had been after the crash of 1929.

Moreover, the downturn that began in 2007-08 was “largely a banking crisis” (as the Reinharts put it) only if they ignore the grotesque levels of inequality that preceded the crash (based on stagnant wages and rising profits)—which in turn fueled the need for credit on the part of workers and the growth of the finance sector that both recycled corporate profits to workers in the form of loans and led to even higher profits, creating in the process a veritable house of cards. At some point, it would all come crashing down. And, eventually, it did.

In any case, Samuelson and the Reinharts are now willing to take the next step and use the dreaded d-word to characterize current events. Here’s how the Reinharts see things:

In its most recent analysis, the World Bank predicted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently posted the worst monthly unemployment figures in the 72 years for which the agency has data on record. Most analyses project that the U.S. unemployment rate will remain near the double-digit mark through the middle of next year. And the Bank of England has warned that this year the United Kingdom will face its steepest decline in output since 1706. This situation is so dire that it deserves to be called a “depression”—a pandemic depression.

And Samuelson does them one better:

In one respect, the Reinharts have underestimated the parallels between the today’s depression and its 1930s predecessor. What was unnerving about the Great Depression is that its causes were not understood at the time. People feared what they could not explain. The consensus belief was that business downturns were self-correcting. Surplus inventories would be sold; inefficient firms would fail; wages would drop. The survivors of this brutal process would then be in a position to expand.

Something similar is occurring today.

Clearly, Samuelson and even more the Reinharts are worried that the global economy—their cherished vision of the free movement of capital (but not people) and expanding trade according to comparative advantage—is currently being imperiled and may not recover for years to come. The volume of world trade is down; the prices of many exports have fallen; corporate debt is climbing; and the reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers is massive and still growing. The prospects for a return to business as usual are indeed remote.

That’s pretty straightforward stuff, and anyone who’s looking at the numbers can’t but agree. What we’re witnessing is in fact a Pandemic—or, in my view, a Third Great—Depression.

But that’s when things start to get interesting. Because the Reinharts do understand (although I doubt Samuelson does, since he’s really only concerned about government deficits) that, when you resurrect the term depression and invoke the analogy of the 1930s, you also call forth widespread discontent, massive protest movements, and challenges to capitalism itself. Here’s how they see it:

The economic consequences are straightforward. As future income decreases, debt burdens become more onerous. The social consequences are harder to predict. A market economy involves a bargain among its citizens: resources will be put to their most efficient use to make the economic pie as large as possible and to increase the chance that it grows over time. When circumstances change as a result of technological advances or the opening of international trade routes, resources shift, creating winners and losers. As long as the pie is expanding rapidly, the losers can take comfort in the fact that the absolute size of their slice is still growing. For example, real GDP growth of four percent per year, the norm among advanced economies late last century, implies a doubling of output in 18 years. If growth is one percent, the level that prevailed in the shadow of the 2008–9 recession, the time it takes to double output stretches to 72 years. With the current costs evident and the benefits receding into a more distant horizon, people may begin to rethink the market bargain.

Now, it’s true, their stated fear is that “populist nationalism” will disrupt multilateralism, open economic borders, and the free flow of capital and goods and services across national boundaries. That’s as far as their stated thinking can go.

But the apparition that lurks in the background is that rethinking the “market bargain”—what elsewhere I have called the “pact with the devil,” that is, giving control of the surplus to the top 1 percent as long as they made decisions to create jobs, fund schools and healthcare, and be able to tackle problems like the novel coronavirus pandemic so that the majority of people could lead decent lives—will mean expanding criticisms of capitalism and the search for radical alternatives.

That’s the real specter that haunts the Pandemic Depression.

 

*Samuelson sees the wife-and-husband Reinharts as “heavy hitters” among economists:  “She is a Harvard professor, on leave and serving as the chief economist of the World Bank; he was a top official at the Federal Reserve and is now chief economist at BNY Mellon.”

unions

It’s clear, at least to many of us, that if the United States had a larger, stronger union movement things would be much better right now. There would be fewer cases and deaths from the novel coronavirus pandemic, since workers would be better paid and have more workplace protections. There would be fewer layoffs, since workers would have been able to bargain for a different way of handling the commercial shutdown. And there would be more equality between black and white workers, especially at the lower end of the wage scale.

But, in fact, the American union movement has been declining for decades now, especially in the private sector. Just since 1983, the overall unionization rate has fallen by almost half, from 20.1 percent to 10.3 percent. That’s mostly because the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has decreased dramatically, from 16.8 percent to 6.2 percent. And even public-sector unions have been weakened, declining from a high of 38.7 percent in 1994 to 33.6 percent last year.

The situation is so dire that even Harvard economist Larry Summers (along with his coauthor Anna Stansbury) has had to recognize that the “broad-based decline in worker power” is primarily responsible for “inequality, low pay and poor work conditions” in the United States.*

Summers is, of course, the extreme mainstream economist who has ignited controversy on many occasions over the years. The latest is when he was identified as one as one of Joe Biden’s economic advisers back in April. Is this an example, then, of a shift in the economic common sense I suggested might be occurring in the midst of the pandemic? Or is it just a case of belatedly identifying the positive role played by labor unions now that they’re weak and ineffective and it’s safe for to do so?

I’m not in a position to answer those questions. What I do know is that the theoretical framework that informs Summers’s work has mostly prevented him and the vast majority of other mainstream economists from seeing and analyzing issues of power, struggle, and class exploitation that haunt like dangerous specters this particular piece of research.

Let’s start with the story told by Summers and Stansbury. Their basic argument is that a “broad-based decline in worker power”—and not globalization, technological change, or rising monopoly power—is the best explanation for the increase in corporate profitability and the decline in the labor share of national income over the past forty years.

Worker power—arising from unionization or the threat of union organizing, firms being run partly in the interests of workers as stakeholders, and/or from efficiency wage effects—enables workers to increase their pay above the level that would prevail in the absence of such bargaining power.

So far, so good. American workers and labor unions have been under assault for decades now, and their ability to bargain over wages and working conditions has in fact been eroded. The result has been a dramatic redistribution of income from labor to capital.

labor share

Clearly, as readers can see in the chart above, using official statistics, the labor share of national income fell precipitously, by almost 10 percent, from 1983 to 2020.**

profit rate

Not surprisingly, again using official statistics, the profit rate has risen over time. The trendline (the black line in the chart above), across the ups and downs of business cycles, has a clear upward trajectory.***

Over the course of the last four decades is that, as workers and labor unions have been decimated, corporations have been able to pump out more surplus from their workers, thereby lowering the wage share and increasing the profit rate.

But that’s not how things look in the Summers-Stansbury world. In their view, worker power only gives workers an ability to receive a share of the rents generated by companies operating in imperfectly competitive product markets. So, theirs is still a story that relies on exceptions to perfect competition, the baseline model in the world of mainstream economic theory.

And that’s why, while their analysis seems at first glance to be pro-worker and pro-union, and therefore amenable to the concerns of dogmatic centrists, Summers and Stansbury hedge their bets by references to “countervailing power,” the risk of increasing unemployment, and “interferences with pure markets” that “may not enhance efficiency” if measures are taken to enhance worker power.

Still, within the severe constraints imposed by mainstream economic theory, moments of insight do in fact emerge. Summers and Stansbury do admit that the wage-profit conflict that is at the center of their story does explain the grotesque levels of inequality that have come to characterize U.S. capitalism in recent decades—since “some of the lost labor rents for the majority of workers may have been redistributed to high-earning executives (as well as capital owners).” Therefore, in their view, “the decline in labor rents could account for a large fraction of the increase in the income share of the top 1% over recent decades.”

The real test of their approach would be what happens to workers’ wages and capitalists’ profits in the absence of imperfect competition. According to Summers and Stansbury, workers would receive the full value of their marginal productivity, and there would be no need for labor unions. In other words, no power, no struggle, and no class exploitation.

That’s certainly not what the world of capitalism looks like outside the confines of mainstream economic extremism. It’s always been an economic and social landscape of unequal power, intense struggle, and ongoing class exploitation.

The only difference in recent decades is that capital has become much stronger and labor weaker, at least in part because of the theories and policies produced and disseminated by mainstream economists like Summers and Stansbury. Now, as they stand at the gates of hell, it may just be too late for their extreme views and the economic and social system they have so long celebrated.

*The link in the text is to the column by Summers and Stansbury published in the Washington Post. That essay is based on their research paper, published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

**We need to remember that the labor share as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes incomes (such as the salaries of corporate executives) that should be excluded, since they represent distributions of corporate profits.

***I’ve calculated the profit as the sum of the net operating surpluses of the nonfinancial and domestic financial sectors divided by the net value added of the nonfinancial sector. The idea is that the profits of both sectors originate in the nonfinancial sector, a portion of which is distributed to and realized by financial enterprises. The trendline is a second-degree polynomial.

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It’s hard to imagine any kind of utopian project in Puerto Rico—especially after a decade of mounting economic crisis and a savage series of austerity measures, and then of course the widespread devastation of and notably slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.

But that’s exactly what’s taking place on the island, according to a recent report by Naomi Klein in The Intercept.

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In fact, in the midst of the disaster, two radically different utopian visions are taking shape: one is a libertarian project of privatization and gated communities for newly minted cryptocurrency millionaires and billionaires; the other aims to create a decentralized form of sovereignty—of energy, food, and much else—for ordinary Puerto Ricans.

Neither vision is new; aspects of both were being articulated before the hurricane reduced much of the island to rubble. But they’ve taken on new urgency, in the midst of the collapse of the old model and the series of shocks—both economic and environmental—that have made contemporary Puerto Rico such a disaster zone.

In many ways, it’s a familiar story. We’ve seen this kind of battle of utopian visions in many cases of “disaster capitalism”: from Chile in the 1970s through post-Katrina New Orleans to the largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit. Each created the possibility of criticizing the existing model and then radically remaking the economic and social landscape.

Puerto Rico is the latest site of this battle of fundamentally different utopian visions.

One such vision is sponsored by the administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, backed by the Financial Oversight and Management Board (which consists of seven members appointed by the President of the United States and one ex-officio member designated by the Governor of Puerto Rico, created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016). Even before Hurricane Maria hit the island, the goal was to cut back on and eventually privatize government services, especially the power grid and public school system, and attract wealthy individuals and create corporate tax havens with massive tax breaks to an island that is functionally bankrupt. The latest step in this plan was announced at Blockchain Unbound, a three-day “immersive” pitch earlier this month at San Juan’s ornate Condado Vanderbilt Hotel for blockchain and cryptocurrencies with a special focus on why Puerto Rico will “be the epicenter of this multitrillion-dollar market.”

Department of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera

used the conference to announce the creation of a new advisory council to attract blockchain businesses to the island. And he extolled the lifestyle bonuses that awaited attendees if they followed the self-described “Puertopians” who have already taken the plunge. As Laboy told The Intercept, for the 500 to 1,000 high-net-worth individuals who relocated since the tax holidays were introduced five years ago — many of them opting for gated communities with their own private schools — it’s all about “living in a tropical island, with great people, with great weather, with great piña coladas.” And why not? “You’re gonna be, like, in this endless vacation in a tropical place, where you’re actually working. That combination, I think, is very powerful.”

The various elements of the other, opposing utopian vision also preceded Maria. Casa Pueblo, a decades-old community and ecology center with deep roots in the Cordillera Central, is one source.

Already a community hub before the storm, the pink house rapidly transformed into a nerve center for self-organized relief efforts. It would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any other agency would arrive with significant aid, so people flocked to Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws — and draw on its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics. Most critically, Casa Pueblo became a kind of makeshift field hospital, its airy rooms crowded with elderly people who needed to plug in oxygen machines.

Thanks also to those solar panels, Casa Pueblo’s radio station was able to continue broadcasting, making it the community’s sole source of in- formation when downed power lines and cell towers had knocked out everything else. Twenty years after those panels were first installed, rooftop solar power didn’t look frivolous at all — in fact, it looked like the best hope for survival in a future sure to bring more Maria-sized weather shocks.

But there’s also the Segunda Unidad Botijas 1 farm school in Orocovis (where students learn and practice (“agro-ecological” farming), Organización Boricuá (a network of farmers who use traditional Puerto Rican methods), the Citizens Front for the Audit of the Debt (which in the year before Hurricane Maria called for an audit of the island’s debt), and now JunteGente (the People Together, which has begun drafting a people’s platform, one that will unite their various causes into a common vision for a radically transformed Puerto Rico).

So, Puerto Rico is now the home of two radically different utopian visions—one that promises a playground for the super-rich, the other a new model of self-management for the majority of the island’s population.

But there are two problems confronting the second, more popular vision. First, it requires a level of political participation of the population “that has a lot of other things on its plate right now.” Thinking big and scrambling just to survive in the midst of disaster are often difficult to articulate and sustain simultaneously.

The other problem is time—the difference between “the speed of movements and the speed of capital.” As Klein explains,

Capital is fast. Unencumbered by democratic norms, the governor and the fiscal control board can whip up their plan to radically downsize and auction off the territory in a matter of weeks — even faster, in fact, because their plans were fully developed during the debt crisis. All they had to do was dust them off and repackage them as hurricane relief, then release their fiats. Hedge fund managers and crypto-traders can similarly decide to relocate and build their “Puertopia” on a whim, with no one to consult but their accountants and lawyers.

Clearly, the libertarian utopian project clearly has time—and the power of capital and government, in Puerto Rico and on the mainland—on its side. But that doesn’t mean it will win. It can be imposed by decree but it still requires popular consent.

Arguably, the power of that consent is more closely aligned with the

dream of a society with far deeper commitments and engagement — with each other, within communities, and with the natural systems whose health is a prerequisite for any kind of safe future.

The future of Puertopia will be the outcome of the battle between two radically different visions of utopia for the island and its people.

profit shares

wage shares

Economic journalists, like Neil Irwin, are falling all over themselves celebrating the strength of the current economic recovery.

According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 313 thousand new jobs were added in February. The official unemployment rate remained at a relatively low 4.1 percent. Hourly wages grew at an annual rate of 2.6 percent. And so on.

Here’s Irwin:

This is not the kind of data you expect in an expansion that is nine years old, or out of a labor market that is already at full employment. . .

the February numbers are a delicious sweet spot for the economy. Many more people are working, including people who hadn’t even been in the labor force. If that trend continues — and it’s worth adding the usual caveat that each month’s jobs numbers are subject to revision and statistical error — there’s no reason to think this expansion is reaching its natural end.

What Irwin and his colleagues fail to mention is this is an economic recovery that, as in previous years, continues to be spectacularly one-sided. It’s all on capital’s terms.

Let’s look at some other numbers, as illustrated in the charts at the top of the post. The profit share (the blue line in the top chart) has in fact rebounded nicely since the depths of the Great Recession—from a low of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 11.9 percent in the third quarter of 2017 (the latest period for which data are available). And that’s true across the board—in both major sectors, nonfinancial (the red line) and financial (the green line). Profits quickly recovered from the crash and, as a result of government economic policy and capital’s own decisions, they’ve stayed at or near the peak of the pre-crash period.

Meanwhile, workers are still waiting for their recovery. The wage share (in the second chart), while currently higher than its nadir (52.1 percent in the third quarter of 2014), is still (at 53 percent) only equal to its previous low (in 2006)—and therefore much lower than it was in the midst of the Great Recession and, on average, for much of the postwar period. Even with lots of new jobs and low unemployment, workers are still getting the short end of the stick.

So, Irwin is right about one thing: the current numbers are a “delicious sweet spot”—for capital, not labor. Capital is getting all the workers it wants, to make even more profits. And workers continue to be forced to have the freedom to find jobs and then to labor in return for a historically low share of what they produce.

No, there is no natural end to this one-sided expansion. Only a fundamental transformation in economic institutions, not pie-in-the-sky promises, will actually benefit American workers.

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