Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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There is perhaps no more cherished an idea within mainstream economics than that everyone benefits from free trade and, more generally, globalization. They represent the solution to the problem of scarcity for the world as a whole, much as free markets are celebrated as the best way of allocating scarce resources within nations. And any exceptions to free markets, whether national or international, need to be criticized and opposed at every turn.

That celebration of capitalist globalization, as Nikil Saval explains, has been the common sense that mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, have adhered to and disseminated, in their research, teaching, and policy advice, for many decades.

Today, of course, that common sense has been challenged—during the Second Great Depression, in the Brexit vote, during the course of the electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—and economic elites, establishment politicians, and mainstream economists have been quick to issue dire warnings about the perils of disrupting the forces of globalization.

I have my own criticisms of Saval’s discussion of the rise and fall of the idea of globalization, especially his complete overlooking of the long tradition of globalization critics, especially on the Left, who have emphasized the dirty, violent, unequalizing underside of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.*

However, as a survey of the role of globalization within mainstream economics, Saval’s essay is well worth a careful read.

In particular, Saval points out that, in the heyday of the globalization consensus, Dani Rodrick was one of the few mainstream economists who had the temerity to question its merits in public.

And who was one of the leading defenders of the idea that globalization had to be celebrated and it critics treated with derision? None other than Paul Krugman.

Paul Krugman, who would win the Nobel prize in 2008 for his earlier work in trade theory and economic geography, privately warned Rodrik that his work would give “ammunition to the barbarians”.

It was a tacit acknowledgment that pro-globalisation economists, journalists and politicians had come under growing pressure from a new movement on the left, who were raising concerns very similar to Rodrik’s. Over the course of the 1990s, an unwieldy international coalition had begun to contest the notion that globalisation was good. Called “anti-globalisation” by the media, and the “alter-globalisation” or “global justice” movement by its participants, it tried to draw attention to the devastating effect that free trade policies were having, especially in the developing world, where globalisation was supposed to be having its most beneficial effect. This was a time when figures such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had given the topic a glitzy prominence by documenting his time among what he gratingly called “globalutionaries”: chatting amiably with the CEO of Monsanto one day, gawking at lingerie manufacturers in Sri Lanka the next. Activists were intent on showing a much darker picture, revealing how the record of globalisation consisted mostly of farmers pushed off their land and the rampant proliferation of sweatshops. They also implicated the highest world bodies in their critique: the G7, World Bank and IMF. In 1999, the movement reached a high point when a unique coalition of trade unions and environmentalists managed to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

In a state of panic, economists responded with a flood of columns and books that defended the necessity of a more open global market economy, in tones ranging from grandiose to sarcastic. In January 2000, Krugman used his first piece as a New York Times columnist to denounce the “trashing” of the WTO, calling it “a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of – yes! – denying opportunity to third-world workers”.

The irony is that Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of his research and publications that called into question the neoclassical idea that countries engaged in and benefited from international trade based on given—exogenous—resource endowments and technologies. Instead, Krugman argued, those endowments and technologies were created historically and could be changed by government policies, including histories and policies that run counter to free trade and globalization.

Krugman was thus the one who gave theoretical “ammunition to the barbarians.” But that was the key: he considered the critics of globalization—the alter-globalization activists, heterodox economists, and many others—”barbarians.” For Krugman, they were and should remain outside the gates because, in his view, they were not trained in or respectful of the protocols of mainstream economics. The “barbarians” could not be trusted to understand or adhere to the ways mainstream economists like Krugman analyzed the exceptions to the common sense of globalization. They might get out of control and develop other arguments and economic institutions.

But then the winds began to shift.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the cracks began to show in the consensus on globalisation, to the point that, today, there may no longer be a consensus. Economists who were once ardent proponents of globalisation have become some of its most prominent critics. Erstwhile supporters now concede, at least in part, that it has produced inequality, unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Nuances and criticisms that economists only used to raise in private seminars are finally coming out in the open.

A few months before the financial crisis hit, Krugman was already confessing to a “guilty conscience”. In the 1990s, he had been very influential in arguing that global trade with poor countries had only a small effect on workers’ wages in rich countries. By 2008, he was having doubts: the data seemed to suggest that the effect was much larger than he had suspected.

And yet, as Saval points out, mainstream economists’ recognition of the unequalizing effects of capitalist globalization has come too late: “much of the damage done by globalisation—economic and political—is irreversible.”

The damage is, of course, only irreversible within the existing economic institutions. Imagining and enacting a radically different way of organizing the economy would undo that damage and benefit those who have been forced to have the freedom to submit to the forces of capitalist globalization.

But Rodrik and Krugman—and mainstream economists generally—don’t seem to be interested in participating in that project, which would give the “barbarians” a say in creating a different kind of globalization, beyond capitalism.

 

*Back in 2000—and in a series of articles, book chapters, and blog posts since then—I have attempted to rethink the relationship between capitalist globalization and imperialism. Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik has also made the case for the continuing relevance of imperialism as an analytical construct for understanding and challenging effectively the logic and dynamics of contemporary capitalism.

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It’s about time someone pointed out the obvious: “Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.”

We generally don’t talk that way, of course. However, as Elizabeth Anderson [ht: ja] explains, contemporary workplaces are like private governments, in which employers have dictatorial powers over their workers—and workers have almost no say in how they are governed.

Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.

Dictatorship in the workplace—after workers are forced to freely sell their ability to work in the labor market—seems obvious to me and many other heterodox economists. But it’s certainly not obvious to mainstream economists, who like their classical predecessors continue to celebrate the freedom and mutual benefit of wage contracts and the efficiency of firms that are ruled by the representatives of the property owners.*

What is even more interesting, at least to me, is the way Anderson mentions the issue of time and then seems to let it slide.

Here’s how she begins her essay:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

But then Anderson, after mentioning “time theft,” moves on to the various ways employers exercise dictatorial control over their workers and forgets about time. But isn’t time what the employer-worker relationship is all about—the reason that employers act like dictators and workers are forced to surrender almost all their rights while they are working?

What is mostly absent from Anderson’s analysis is time, especially the distinction between necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time. During part of the workday, employees—whether at Walmart, GM, or Google—work for themselves, and thus receive a wage equal to the value of their ability to work. But they continue working and during those extra hours they aren’t working for themselves, but for their employers. That’s time that’s stolen from the workers, which forms the basis of their employers’ profits.

So, the real “time theft” is not what workers do to their employers, exactly the opposite, what employers do to their workers—when, after necessary labor-time is completed, workers are forced to have the freedom to engage in surplus labor-time.

Thus, when Amazon workers exchange casual remarks while on duty, they’re cutting into the surplus labor-time due to their employers. The half-hour Apple workers wait in line to be searched, for which they are not paid, is a way of making sure that particular activity doesn’t cut into the surplus-time due to their employers. By the same token, when Tyson prevents its’ poultry workers from using the bathroom, who are then forced to urinate on themselves, less time is being spent engaged working for themselves and more for their employers.

In other words, under conditions of workplace dictatorship, time is stolen from workers to  benefit their employers.

Furthermore, because employers, and not workers, are the ones who appropriate the benefits of surplus labor-time, it puts workers in the position of continuing to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and to submit to the dictates of their employers.

Thus, “time theft” is both a condition and consequence of the private dictatorship of employers in the workplace.

A whole book could in fact be written about this idea of “time theft,” inside and outside the workplace.

For example, inside the workplace, new technologies have the effect both of allowing time to slip out of employers’ grasp—as, for example, when workers appear to be working at their desks but, in fact, are surfing the internet or catching up with friends and family members on Facebook—and allowing employers to tighten their grip—especially when it permits control over the pace of work and new forms of surveillance. Technology seems to cut both ways when it comes to “time theft” in the workplace.

But “time theft” is also important outside the workplace. Consider, for example, the standardization of time—which robs many of us of local traditions of time—as well as the fact that there is a large and growing gap in life expectancy between those at the top and bottom of the economic scale—which means time is being stolen from the poor and distributed to the rich.

I could go on. The important point is “time theft” is an ongoing problem of contemporary capitalism, both within the dictatorship of the workplace and in the seeming democracy of our lives outside of work.

It’s time someone wrote that book.

 

*In fact, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics for “proving” that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.

 

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Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

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Sometimes you just have to sit back and admire capitalism’s ingenuity.

It’s able to make profits twice over. First, capitalists know that, when they keep workers’ wages down—even when there’s “full employment”—they can make spectacular profits. And, second, they can make additional profits by loaning money to those same workers, who are desperate to purchase goods and services and send their children to college, thereby financing the demand for the goods and services industrial capitalists need to sell to realize their profits.

Thus, as we can see in the chart at the top of the post, the amount of consumer credit is once again soaring to record highs. In relation to personal income, consumer credit fell after the Great Recession (to just under 20 percent in December 2012)—as households “deleveraged”—and then it began to rise once again, reaching 23.3 percent four years later.

Is there any wonder bank stocks are expected to show profit growth of 6 percent when the sector kicks off second-quarter earnings season later this week?

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Total consumer credit outstanding (which excludes loans secured by real estate, such as mortgages) can be divided into two categories: revolving and nonrevolving credit. Revolving credit (the blue parts of the bars in the chart above) consists of credit card credit and balances outstanding on unsecured revolving lines of credit, while nonrevolving credit (the red portion) comprises secured and unsecured credit for automobiles, durable goods, and higher education.

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Clearly, as workers’ wages have stagnated, both loans on cars and trucks (the dashed line in the chart) and student loans (the dotted line) have been rising dramatically, which have in turn fueled new vehicle sales and increases in tuition at colleges and universities.

As I say, capitalism is an ingenious system—until, of course, the house of cards comes tumbling down.

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