Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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If capitalism were a batter in a baseball game, it would be clear to all that it just struck out.

Let me explain. . .

The first strike was “just deserts.” Capitalism promises that everyone gets what they deserve. However, the rising level of economic (income and wealth) equality beginning in the mid-1970s demonstrated that not everyone was getting what they deserve. No matter how measured (e.g., in terms of CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio or the top 1 percent or top-90-to-bottom-10 ratio), the obscene levels of inequality we’ve seen over the course of the past decade are simply impossible to understand or justify as a form of “just deserts.”

The second strike was the worst economic crisis since the first Great Depression. The problem of capitalist instability, especially the exaggerated boom-and-bust cycle of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was supposed to have been solved. They even gave it a name: the Great Moderation. And then we were faced with—and forced to suffer the effects of—the crisis of 2007-08 and the onset of the second Great Depression. Neither conventional nor unconventional economic policies were able to stem the tide, and the negative consequences of both the severe crisis and the lopsided recovery will be felt by the majority of people for years (perhaps even decades) to come.

And now strike three: if capitalism doesn’t (and can’t) deliver “just deserts” and instability, at least it can produce economic growth and rising living standards. At least more stuff—an immense accumulation of commodities—will be produced. Or so the third claim goes. But now, according to the International Monetary Fund (in an advance chapter [pdf] from next week’s World Economic Outlook), the prospects for renewed economic growth are growing dimmer and dimmer. Already before the crisis, potential output growth in advanced economies was slowing (although it was rising in emerging market economies). Shortly after the crisis hit in September 2008, economic activity collapsed, and more than six years after the crisis, growth is still weaker than was expected before the crisis. Now, the IMF argues, potential growth has declined in both advanced and emerging market economies in the aftermath of the crisis and is expected to decline even further compared with pre-crisis rates.

Reduced prospects for potential growth in the medium term have important implications for policy. In advanced economies, lower potential growth makes it more difficult to reduce still-high public and private debt. It is also likely to be associated with low equilibrium real interest rates, meaning that monetary policy in advanced economies may again be confronted with the problem of the zero lower bound if adverse growth shocks materialize. In emerging market economies, lower potential growth makes it more challenging to rebuild fiscal buffers. For all economies, a total factor productivity growth rate that remains below precrisis rates will slow the rise in living standards relative to the precrisis years.

In a real baseball game, the umpire standing behind the plate would declare: “Strike three, you’re out!”

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Readers will remember that, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis developed a scathing critique of trickle-down economics and of the existing economy of inequality and exclusion.

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

But, in that exhortation, the pope didn’t really address the issue of alternatives to contemporary capitalism. Now, he has—in the form of cooperatives.

In a recent audience [ht: db] with members of the Confederazione Cooperative Italiane,* Francis offered a practical alternative to the “throw-away culture created by the powers that control the economic and financial policies of the globalized world”: to establish new cooperatives and to strengthen existing cooperatives.

he spoke of the economy and its relationship with social justice and human dignity. Speaking of the need to “globalize solidarity,” he urged the confederation to bring co-operatives to the “existential peripheries” and to continue to be “prophetic” by “inventing new forms of co-operation.”

The Pope spoke of “a certain liberalism,” which “believes it is first necessary to produce wealth—and it does not matter how—to then promote some state redistribution policy.”

Others think it is up to a company to “bestow the crumbs of accumulated wealth” to those in need to then, in turn, “absolve themselves” of “their so-called ‘social responsibility’,” the Pope said.

“You run the risk of deluding yourself that you are doing good while, unfortunately, you continue only to do marketing,” without ever escaping the “fatal loop” of egoism, “which has the god of money at the centre,” he said.

Instead, the co-operative creates a “new type of economy” that allows “people to grow in all their potential,” socially and professionally, as well as in responsibility, hope and co-operation, he said. The Pope clarified that while he was not saying income growth is not important, it certainly “is not enough.”

 

*The Confederation of Italian Cooperatives is one of three cooperative organizations in Italy (the other two being the Associazione Generale Cooperative Italiane and the Federazione Nazionale delle Cooperative). Catholic-inspired cooperatives were originally part of the Federazione, which was founded in 1886, but then then they left to form a separate organization in 1919. In the 1920s, the fascist government disposed of all cooperatives and unions and the various cooperative organizations at the time were disbanded. After World War II, the cooperative organizations were formed once again.

 

Apparently, there’s a new documentary film [ht: ja]—Boom Bust Boom, directed by Monty Python’s Terry Jones—whose aim is to to popularize the work of Hyman Minsky.

Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.

This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external.

This is the latest attempt, in a long sequence since the crisis of 2007-08, to rediscover and examine the implications of Minsky’s work (which I’ve discussed many times on this blog).

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While mainstream economists continue to discuss and debate their favorite topics—when to hike interest rates, the appropriate measure of capital, how to apply monetary rules, the outcome of debt negotiations in Europe, and much else—they never mention one obvious fact: capitalism kills. In particular, it kills babies and middle-aged people.

According to Alice Chen, Emily Oster, and Heidi Williams [pdf], capitalism kills babies. The United States, for example, ranks fifty-first in the world in infant mortality—comparable to Croatia, despite an almost three-fold difference in income per capita. But, as it turns out, it’s not differences at birth that explain the low ranking of the United States; it’s the high rate of postneonatal deaths. And that high rate (e.g., in comparison to Finland and Austria in the authors’ study) is “due entirely, or almost entirely, to high mortality among less advantaged groups. Well-off individuals in all three countries have similar infant mortality rates.” In other words, the high level of infant deaths in the United States are almost entirely a consequence of the grotesque levels of economic inequality that capitalism has created within the United States.

We also have to admit that capitalism kills middle-aged people. In a study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Katherine A. Hempstead and Julie A. Phillips found that suicide rates among middle-aged men and women in the United States have been increasing since 1999, with a sharp escalation since 2007. Their conclusion is that

Relative to other age groups, a larger and increasing proportion of middle-aged suicides have circumstances associated with job, financial, or legal distress and are completed using suffocation. The sharpest increase in external circumstances appears to be temporally related to the worst years of the Great Recession, consistent with other work showing a link between deteriorating economic conditions and suicide.

What’s the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Well, in this case, preventing neonatal deaths and middle-aged suicides should start with eliminating capitalism.

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I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey nor have I seen the film. But at some point I may have to, given what others are writing about this particular phenomenon in popular culture.

According to Heather Havrilesky,

the story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey isn’t really about dominance or bondage or even sex or love, despite all the Harlequin Romance–worthy character names. No, what Fifty Shades of Grey offers is an extreme vision of late-capitalist deliverance, the American (wet) dream on performance-enhancing drugs. Just as magazines such asPenthouse, Playboy, Chic, and Oui (speaking of aspirational names) have effectively equated the moment of erotic indulgence with the ultimate consumer release, a totem of the final elevation into amoral privilege, James’s trilogy represents the latest installment in the commodified sex genre. The money shot is just that: the moment when our heroine realizes she’s been ushered into the hallowed realm of the 1 percent, once and for all.

Lynn Stuart Parramore offers a similar interpretation:

Author E.L. James has often insisted that Fifty Shades of Grey is wildly popular not because of its titillating trappings of transgression, but because it tells a simple love story for the ages. But this is a romance for a particular kind of age — a time of growing inequality. The social order is breaking up and leaving massive human wreckage in its wake. Dreams of love turn into fantasies of power – who has it and what they can do to those who don’t have it. . .

The film is the dispiriting denouement of this late stage of capitalism, where cruel conditions are accepted and you learn to suffer the whims of the rich — and pretend to like it.

Havrilesky and Parramore have succeeded in doing something I hadn’t expected: they’ve made me rethink my initial ignoring of Fifty Shades. . .

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During last night’s discussion of capitalism verusus Catholicism, I made the point that everyone—rich and poor—is negatively affected by capitalist inequality.

My argument was that poor people are put at a distinct disadvantage within an “economy of exclusion,” because they are denied the basic material conditions necessary to sustain not only their individual lives, but also their participation in the wider society. But, I went on, rich people are also hurt by inequality, in the sense that are forced to act in selfish and unethical ways in order to maintain their positions of privilege.

I then referred to the psychological literature on the behavioral effects of inequality, about which I’ve written before (here and here). The latest contribution to this literature was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Social Class, Power, and Selfishness: When and Why Upper and Lower Class Individuals Behave Unethically,” by David Dubois, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky. The authors set out to disentangle the differences between unethical and self-serving behavior in relation to social class. Here’s what they found:

Both higher and lower social class individuals can engage in unethical behavior, but the target of that behavior might often differ: The unethical behavior of upper class individuals is more likely to be self-beneficial, whereas the unethical behavior of lower class individuals is more likely to be other-beneficial. This parsimonious account complements and qualifies recent work on social class and unethical behavior (Piff et al., 2012) by advancing the argument that the link between upper social class and unethical behavior occurs primarily for self-beneficial reasons.

As I’ve argued before, the point is not that rich people per se display behavioral pathologies—or, for that matter, that poor people are noble. It is fascinating that there are systematic differences in the target of their unethical behavior. But I’m more interested in the idea that both groups, within a highly unequal society, are forced to behave in ways many of us would consider unethical, whether self-serving or altruistic.

What I had in mind when I made my remarks was, of course, Marx’s statement “that the capitalist is just as enslaved by the relationships of capitalism as is his opposite pole, the worker, albeit in a quite different manner.”

But after the fact, as I was driving home from the discussion, I had another thought: what if that is the true content of the preferential option for the poor? We often think of the preferential option as a kind of basic moral test, in the sense of judging the adequacy of current economic arrangements in terms of how the most vulnerable members of society are faring. But what if there is a somewhat different interpretation—that changing society to eliminate poverty will benefit not only the formerly poor but also everyone else? In other words, creating institutions that eliminate the kinds of grotesque inequalities that characterize contemporary capitalism will benefit even those who are not poor, since they will no longer be forced to lose or undermine or otherwise forsake their humanity by engaging in unethical self-serving behaviors. Thus, eliminating capitalist inequality can be seeing as restoring humanity to everyone, both poor and rich.

In that sense, the poor and vulnerable represent a universal class—not because of some kind of inherent nobility, but because eliminating the conditions of poverty and vulnerability will benefit not only themselves, but all others in a capitalist society.

That—and not pity or charity or individual instances of social mobility—may be the truly radical content of the preferential option for the poor.

Capitalism VP Poster FINAL

A debate tomorrow at Notre Dame, which will be broadcast on Vantage Point Radio.