Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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Mainstream economics lies in tatters. Certainly, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression called into question mainstream macroeconomics, which has failed to provide a convincing explanation of either the causes or consequences of the most severe crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But mainstream microeconomics, too, increasingly appears to be a fantasy—especially when it comes to issues of corporate power.

perfect_competition_long_run

Neoclassical microeconomics is based on a set of models that assume perfect competition. What that means, as my students learned the other day, is that, while in the short run firms may capture super-profits (because price is greater than average total cost, at P1 in the chart above), in the “long run,” with free entry and exit, all those extra-normal profits are competed away (since price is driven down to P2, equal to minimum average total cost). That’s why the long run is such an important concept in neoclassical economic theory. The idea is that, starting with perfect competition, neoclassical economists always end up with. . .perfect competition.*

Except, of course, in the real world, where exactly the opposite has been occurring for the past few decades. Thus, as the authors of the new report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have explained, there is a growing concern that

increasing market concentration in leading sectors of the global economy and the growing market and lobbying powers of dominant corporations are creating a new form of global rentier capitalism to the detriment of balanced and inclusive growth for the many.

And they’re not just talking about financial rentier incomes, which has been the focus of attention since the global meltdown provoked by Wall Street nine years ago. Their argument is that a defining feature of “hyperglobalization” is the proliferation of rent-seeking strategies, from technological innovations to mergers and acquisitions, within the non-financial corporate sector. The result is the growth of corporate rents or “surplus profits.”**

Fig6-1

As Figure 6.1 shows, the share of surplus profits in total profits grew significantly for all firms both before and after the global financial crisis—from 4 percent during the 1995-2000 period to 19 percent in 2001-2008 and even higher, to 23 percent, in 2009-2015. The top 100 firms (ranked by market capitalization) also saw the growth of their surplus profits, from 16 percent to 30 percent and then, most recently, to 40 percent.***

The analysis suggests both that surplus profits for all firms have grown over time and that there is an ongoing process of bipolarization, with a growing gap between a few high-performing firms and a growing number of low-performing firms.

Fig6-2

That conclusion is confirmed by their analysis of market concentration, which is presented in Figure 6.2 in terms of the market capitalization of the top 100 nonfinancial firms between 1995 and 2015. The red line shows the actual share of the top 100 firms relative to their hypothetical equal share, assuming that total market capitalization was distributed equally over all firms. The blue line shows the observed share of the top 100 firms relative to the observed share of the bottom 2,000 firms in the sample.

Both measures indicate that the market power of the top companies increased substantially over the 1995-2015 period. For example, the combined share of market capitalization of the top 100 firms was 23 times higher than the share these firms would have held had market capitalization been distributed equally across all firms. By 2015, this gap had increased nearly fourfold, to 84 times. This overall upward surge in concentration, measured by market capitalization since 1995, experienced brief interruptions in 2002−03 after the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and in 2009−2010 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and it stabilized at high levels thereafter.****

So, what is causing this growth in market concentration? One reason is because of the nature of the underlying technologies, which involve costs of production that do not rise proportionally to the quantities produced. Instead, after initial high sunk costs (e.g., in the form of expenditures on research and development), the variable costs of producing additional units of output are negligible.***** And then, of course, growing firms can use intellectual property rights and lobbying powers to protect themselves against actual or potential competitors.

Fig6-5

Giant firms can also use their super-profits to merge with and to acquire other firms, a process that has accelerated because—as both a consequence and cause—of the weakening of antitrust legislation and enforcement.

What we’re seeing, then, is a “vicious cycle of underregulation and regulatory capture, on the one hand, and further rampant growth of corporate market power on the other.”

The models of mainstream economics turn out to be a shield, hiding and protecting this strengthening of corporate rule.

What the rest of us, including the folks at UNCTAD, have been witnessing in the real world is the emergence and consolidation of global rentier capitalism.

 

*There’s another reason why the long run is so important for neoclassical economists. All incomes are presumed to be returns to “factors of production” (e.g., land, labor, and capital), equal to their “marginal products.” But short-run super-profits are a theoretical embarrassment. They represent a return not to any factor of production but to something else: serendipity or Fortuna. Oops! That’s another reason it’s important, within a neoclassical world, for short-run super-profits to be competed away in the long run—to eliminate the existence of returns to the decidedly non-productive factor of luck.

**UNCTAD defines surplus profits as the difference between the estimate of total typical profits and the total of actually observed profits of all firms in the sample in that year. Thus, they end up with a lower estimate of surplus or super-profits than if they’d used a strictly neoclassical definition, which would compare actual profits to a zero-rent (or long-run equilibrium) benchmark.

***The authors note that

these results need to be interpreted with caution. More important than the absolute size of surplus profits for firms in the database in any given sub-period, is their increase over time, in particular the surplus profits of the top 100 firms.

****The authors of the study focus particular attention on the so-called high-tech sector, in which they show “a growing predominance of ‘winner takes most’ superstar firms.”

*****Thus, as Piero Sraffa argued long ago, the standard neoclassical model of perfect competition, with U-shaped marginal and average cost curves (i.e., “diminishing returns”), is called into question by increasing returns, with declining marginal and average cost curves.

 

SAfr

The world joined most South Africans in cheering when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, the apartheid regime was largely dismantled, and multiracial elections were eventually held.

Then, of course, the really hard work of restorative justice began, under the aegis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To avoid victor’s justice, no side was exempt from appearing before the commission, which heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides. In the end, the commission granted only 849 amnesties out of the 7,112 applications.

The problem is, while the commission exposed human rights abuses, it never took up the issue of economic abuses. And, as is clear from the chart above, the high levels of inequality that characterized South African capitalism under apartheid have only gotten worse.

The share of income captured by the top 1 percent (the blue line in the chart) rose from 10.3 percent in 1993 to 19.2 percent in 2012, while the share captured by the top 10 percent (the red line) was 65 percent.*

It should come as no surprise that the distribution of wealth is even more unequal than the distribution of income. Anna Orthofer (pdf) has surveyed the available data and calculated that the top 1 percent own at least half of all wealth in the country and the 10 percent something like 90 to 95 percent.

That’s why Peter Goodman correctly observes that

In the history of civil rights, South Africa lays claim to a momentous achievement — the demolition of apartheid and the construction of a democracy. But for black South Africans, who account for three-fourths of this nation of roughly 55 million people, political liberation has yet to translate into broad material gains.

Apartheid has essentially persisted in economic form.

Thus far, the existing economic system has been granted a full amnesty.

The day awaits for a new Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be formed, to carry out the project of finding restorative justice with respect to the abuses of the economic system—both during and now after apartheid.

 

*For purposes of comparison, the top 1-percent share in the United States in 2012 was 20.3 percent and that of the top 10 percent was 47.6 percent.

 

Sometimes we just have to sit back and laugh. Or, we would, if the consequences were not so serious.

I’ve been reading and watching the presentations (and ensuing discussions) at the Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy conference recently organized by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Quite a spectacle it appears to have been, with an opening paper by famous mainstream macroeconomists Olivier Blanchard and Larry Summers and a closing session—a “fireside chat” without the fire—with the very same doyens of the field.

The basic question of the conference was: does contemporary macroeconomics, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, require a few reforms or does it need a wholesale revolution? Blanchard lined up in the reform camp, with Summers calling for a revolution—with the added spice of Adam Posen referring to himself as Trotsky to Summers’s Lenin.

Most people would think it’s about time. They know that mainstream macroeconomics failed spectacularly in recent years: It wasn’t able to predict the onset of the crash of 2007-08. It didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash occurring. And it certainly hasn’t been a reliable guide to getting out of the crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

So what are the problems according to Blanchard and Summers? In their view, “the events of the last ten years have put into question the presumption that economies are self stabilizing, have raised again the issue of whether temporary shocks can have permanent effects, and have shown the importance of non linearities.”

Only mainstream macroeconomists could possibly have thought that capitalism is self stabilizing. The rest of us—who have read Marx and Keynes as well as the work of Robert Clower, Hyman Minsky, and Axel Leijonhufvud—actually knew something about the roots of capitalist instability: the various ways a monetary commodity-producing economy might (but not necessarily) generate imbalances and instabilities based on the normal workings of the system.

Yes, of course, temporary shocks can have permanent effects. How could they not, when tens of millions of people are thrown out of work and, especially in the wake of the most recent crash, inequality has soared to new heights?

And then there are those “non linearities,” the idea that financial crises are characterized by feedback effects such that shocks, even small ones, “are strongly amplified rather than damped as they propagate.” Bank runs are the quintessential example—whether customers demanding their deposits in the first Great Depression or the run on financial institutions (including insurance companies that issued credit default swaps) that occurred in the midst of the second Great Depression. But that’s not all: when corporations, facing a declining profit rate, choose to sell but not purchase, they make individually rational decisions that can have large-scale social ramifications—for workers, indebted households, and other corporations (on both Main Street and Wall Street).

So mainstream macroeconomists appear to be waking up from their slumber and seeing capitalism as it is—and as it has functioned for 150 years or so.

You’d think, then, with all the rhetoric of reform and revolution, they’d be in favor of questioning the entire edifice of their theories and models. What we get instead is a bit of tinkering, along the lines of the following: (a) monetary policy is limited because of low interest-rates (although it’s still expected to provide generous liquidity in the even of another shock); (b) more active financial regulation, which still may not be able to keep up with the quickly changing and complex structure of the financial sector and actually prevent financial risks; thus (c) fiscal policy should once again be important, both because of the limits on monetary policy and financial regulation and because, with low interest-rates, government debt is less significant.

No, you’re not mistaken, it sounds a lot like a mainstream version of Keynesian macroeconomic policy, which is consistent with the subtitle of the Blanchard and Summers paper: “Back to the Future.”

That’s it? That’s all we’ve learned in the last ten years? Not a word in their paper about the international dimensions of macroeconomics—nothing about international contagion (e.g., the fact that the crisis started in the United States and then engulfed the rest of the world) or cross-border capital flows. And, perhaps even more important, there’s no discussion of inequality and the role it played both in creating the conditions for the crisis or the way it has characterized the nature of the recovery.*

There’s no reform being proposed here, let alone a revolution. It’s just business as usual, which is exactly the way the recovery itself has been treated.

In the end, Blanchard, Summers, and the other participants in the conference are the macroeconomists who developed the current models and policies. Thus, for all they might venture some mild criticisms of the pre-crisis orthodoxy and call for some new ideas, they are so invested in the status quo, no one should expect a truly radical rethinking from them.

To expect otherwise is just laughable.

 

*Yes, there was one paper in the conference on inequality, by Jason Furman, but it was about growth, not macroeconomic policy. The theme of inequality was not taken up in the rest of the conference—and it was even ridiculed (e.g., in terms of the research currently being conducted in the IMF) by Summers in the final session.

 

Bloody hell!

Posted: 13 October 2017 in Uncategorized
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Over the years, I’ve written about many different dimensions of the relationship between health and economic inequality on this blog—from children’s brain development to car crashes.

But, as Kat Arney [ht: ja] explains, “Unpicking the biological connections between external socioeconomic forces and an individual’s health is no easy task.”

Now apparently, researchers in England are beginning to unpick those connections, by measuring biological markers in the bloodstream. And what they’ve discovered is fascinating—and disturbing.

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Apparently, measuring the levels of two molecules—an individual’s C-reactive protein and fibrinogen (as in the charts above)—and matching them against their socioeconomic position starts to reveal the hidden mechanisms connecting social inequality and health. And the missing link turns out to be stress.

“You have stressful life events such as bereavement or divorce, but we’re talking about understanding chronic long-term stresses,” Kumari says. “One of the things we think about is why is disadvantage stressful? For something like low income, it could be because you don’t have the same levels of control over your life. Maybe you can manage it for a little while, but over the long term it becomes a chronic stress. These things are hard to measure and capture.”

Bartley agrees more needs to be done to understand the financial causes of stress across society. “Debt is deadly for people – it’s the ultimate lack of control,” she says. “Housing is also a huge issue and it doesn’t get researched enough – living in poor situations is depressing, especially if you’re bringing up children. People in poverty can end up in social isolation, and that’s known to be associated with all kinds of unhealthy outcomes.”

From a policy perspective, if you know when health inequalities begin and when they peak, it becomes possible to target these age groups and allocate resources more effectively. A far more effective response, of course, would be to eradicate the grotesque inequalities that characterize contemporary society.

Toward this end, public health experts might suggest eliminating capitalism, which would decrease stress and improve people’s health.

socialism

Every public opinion survey I’ve seen in recent years shows a growing interest in socialism, especially among young people.*

Socialism is an obvious solution to the most pressing economic and social problems threatening the world today, from growing inequality to climate change. But, as I’ve written before, socialism has many different meanings—both what it is or might be, and what it is not.

John Quiggin [ht: ja] suggests that what we need today is not “soft neoliberalism” (what I have referred to as “left neoliberalism,” of the sort that came to be articulated in the trajectory of the U.S. Democratic Party defined by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and the Labor Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), much less the tribalist politics of Donald Trump’s Republicans and Teresa May’s Tories, but a radically new vision—what Quiggin refers to as “socialism with a spine.”

I couldn’t agree more. Moreover, Quiggin is right to point out that,

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”. It’s expressed in support for proposals that break with the cautious incrementalism of the past, and are in some cases frankly utopian: universal basic income, free post-school education, large increases in minimum wages, and so on.

That’s important, but a real alternative needs more than attitude and a grab-bag of policy ideas. After decades in which the focus has been on critiquing neoliberalism, the task of thinking about positive alternatives is urgent, but efforts in this direction are only just beginning.

But I’m not convinced by much of the rest of Quiggin’s argument, which is focused on looking backward to what he considers to be the “social democratic moment of the 50s and 60s” and forwards in terms of “a genuine sharing economy based on the internet and other technological advances.”

The backwards move uncritically celebrates the supposed successes of Keynesian macroeconomic management and, looking forward, narrowly focuses on the possibilities opened up by digital technologies.

While I’m all in favor of articulating a vision of a “genuine sharing economy”—because, if socialism is nothing else, it certainly means, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, “You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else”—I think we can do better than limiting ourselves to Keynesian full employment and the production of information.

We have to remember that the middle of the twentieth century, which turns out to have been a unique period of sustained economic growth and full employment in developed market economies, also meant long hours of drudgery in factories and offices to the benefit of employers, who retained both the interest and means to evade and ultimately overturn the regulations that had been implemented during the first Great Depression. Which of course they did, culminating in the crash of 2007-08. Why would we want to repeat the mistakes of that period?

And, looking forward, the emergence of new digital technologies, by themselves, doesn’t make socialism any more possible than the waves of innovation we’ve witnessed in the past. And focusing on the new technologies just puts the idea of socialism beyond anyone who is not already enamored of digital connectivity and social media—and therefore all but the youngest members of the working-class.

The task, it seems to me, is to articulate a vision of socialism that is predicated not on a nostalgia for the past or the role of a particular set of technologies, but on the persistent and growing gap that exists between the conditions of contemporary life and the possibilities created by existing forms of economic and social organization.

Thus, for example, instead of railing against Wall Street and increasingly concentrated industries, why not imagine the possibilities that capitalism itself has created both to eliminate the need for capitalists and to easily administer large parts of the economy to the benefit of everyone?

By the same token, why not build on the idea that, today, it is increasingly recognized that decent jobs, healthcare, education, and retirement are rights, not privileges, but that those in charge prevent those rights from being fulfilled?

Socialism is born out of that yawning crevasse between reality and promise—by articulating a set of changes in the existing reality that move us closer to that real promise.**

And here I think Quiggin and I may actually be in agreement:

Socialists have always seen short-term political struggles as part of a long-term project of transforming society for the better.

 

*For example, according to the 2016 Gallup Survey, 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism (itself a remarkably high figure, given the Cold War legacy in the United States), which rises to 55 percent for Americans age 18 to 29. And while only 13 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners have a positive view of socialism, 58 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners view socialism in a favorable light.

**To be clear, it’s not just a question of defining socialism; we also need to discuss the strategic issue, of where and how a reborn socialist movement can build a political and social base. As Bill Fletcher explains, with respect to “the growth in interest in socialism, broadly defined, among a large number of people, particularly younger people.”

That is fantastic!  But it is far from clear that they are wedded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that difference is fundamental. It’s not just an ideological question; it is also a strategic question.

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Lots of folks have been asking me about the significance of the so-called Nobel Prize in economics that was awarded yesterday to Richard Thaler.

They’re interested because they’ve read or heard about the large catalog of exceptions to the usual neoclassical rule of rational decision-making that has been compiled by Thaler and other behavioral economists.

One of my favorites is the “ultimatum game,” in which a player proposes an allocation of an endowment (say $5) and the second player can accept or reject the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, both players get paid according to the proposal; if the proposal is rejected, both players get nothing. What Thaler and his coauthors found is that most of the second players would reject proposals that would give them less than 25 percent of the endowment—even though, rationally, they’d be better off with even one penny in the initial offer. In other words, many individuals are willing to pay a cost (i.e., get nothing) in order to punish individuals who make an “unfair” proposal to them. Such a notion of fairness is anathema to the kind of self-interested, rational decision-making that is central to neoclassical economic theory.

Other exceptions include the “endowment effect” (for the tendency of individuals to value items more just because they own them), the theory of “mental accounting” (according to which individuals can overcome cognitive limitations by simplifying the economic environment in systematic ways, such as using separate funds for different household expenditures), the planner-doer model (in which individuals are both myopic doers for short-term decisions and farsighted planners for decisions that have long-run implications), and so on—all of which have implications for a wide variety of economic behavior and institutions, from consumption to financial markets.

So, what is the significance of Thaler’s approach economics?

As I see it, there are three stories that can be told about behavioral economics. The first one is the official story, as told by the Nobel committee, which starts from the proposition that “economics involves understanding human behaviour in economic decision-making situations and in markets.” But, since “people are complicated beings,” and even though the neoclassical model “provided solutions to important and complicated economic problems,” Thaler’s work (alone and with his coauthors) has contributed to expanding and refining economic analysis by considering psychological traits that systematically influence economic decisions—thus creating a “a flourishing area of research” and providing “economists with a richer set of analytical and experimental tools for understanding and predicting human behavior.”

A second story is provided by Yahya Madra (in Contending Economic Theories, with Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick): behavioral economics forms part of what he calls “late neoclassical theory” that both poses critical questions about neoclassical homo economicus and threatens to overrun the limits of neoclassical theory by offering “a completely new vision of how to specify the economic behavior of individuals.” Thus,

Based on its psychological explorations, behavioral economics confronts a choice: will it remain a research field that merely catalogs various shortcomings of the traditional neoclassical model and account of human behavior or will it break from neoclassical theory to formulate a new theory of human behavior?

A third story stems from a recognition that behavioral economics challenges some aspects of neoclassical economics—by pointing out many of the ways individuals are guided by forms of decisionmaking that violate the rule of self-interested rationality presumed by traditional neoclassical economists—and yet remains within the strictures of neoclassical economics—by focusing on individual behavior and using rational decision-making as the goal.

Thus, Thaler’s work and the work of most behavioral economists focuses on the limits to individual rationality and not on the perverse incentives and structures that plague contemporary capitalism. There’s no mention of the ways wealthy individuals and large corporations, precisely because of their high incomes and profits, are able to make individually rational decisions that—as in the crash of 2007-08—have negative social ramifications for everyone else. Nor is there a discussion of the different kinds of rationalities that are implicit in different ways of organizing the economy. As I wrote back in 2011, “is there a difference between how capitalists (who appropriate the surplus for doing nothing) and workers (who actually produce the surplus) might decide to distribute the surplus to others?”

Moreover, while behavioral economics have compiled a long list of exceptions to neoclassical rationality, they still use the neoclassical ideal as the horizon of their work. This can be seen in what is probably the best known of Thaler’s writings (with coauthor Cass Sunstein), the idea of “libertarian paternalism.” According to this view, “beneficial changes in behavior can be achieved by minimally invasive policies that nudge people to make the right decisions for themselves.” Thus, for example, Thaler proposed changing the default option in defined-contribution pension plans from having to actively sign up for the plan (which leads to suboptimal outcomes) to automatically joining the plan at some default savings rate and in some default investment strategy (which approximates rational decision-making).

The problem is, there’s no discussion of the idea that workers would benefit from an alternative to defined-contribution plans—whether defined-benefit plans or the expansion of Social Security. It’s all about taking the institutional structure as given and “nudging” individuals, via the appropriate design of mechanisms, to make the kinds of rational decisions that are presumed within neoclassical economics.

Paraphrasing that nineteenth-century critic of political economy, we can say that economic decision-making appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. We might credit Thaler and other behavioral economists, then, for having taken a first step in challenging the traditional neoclassical account of rational decision-making. But they stop far short of examining the perverse incentives that are built into the current economic system or the alternative rationalities that could serve as the basis for a different way of organizing economic and social life. And, in terms of economic theory, they appear not to be able to imagine another way of thinking about the economy, as a process without an individual subject.

However, taking any of those steps would never be recognized with a Nobel Prize in economics.