Posts Tagged ‘economic representations’

CEO

While Amazon let it slip last week that its Prime program—the annual membership that offers discount pricing and free 2-day shipping—now tops 100 million members, there’s another number people might be curious about: the company’s average annual wage, which Amazon revealed in compliance with a new regulation that asks companies to show a comparison between an average worker’s wage and the salary of their CEO.

Amazon has reported an average compensation for its varied, mostly warehouse (and now, with Whole Foods, grocery store), workers at $28,446 a year. The federal government defines its poverty guideline for a family of four to be $25,100. So, Amazon’s average wage falls easily within 150 percent of the poverty line—and stands at about one-half of the median household income in the United States.

No wonder, then, that Amazon is owned and run by literally the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos. While he technically “made” only $1.7 million last year, he’s worth $127 billion.* So it means on paper, Bezos makes $59 for every dollar an average employee earns, which is actually a smaller ratio than the average of 271 to 1 for the largest 350 U.S. corporations (pdf).

While Amazon may not have been thrilled by being forced to reveal this not-so-flattering wage comparison, they do have one thing going for them: the only private employer bigger than the e-commerce giant is their retail competitor Walmart, whose workers average only $19,177 per year, putting them far under the federal poverty guidelines. Moreover, the ratio to average-worker pay of Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who took in $22.8 million last year, was an astounding 1,188 to 1.

And the extraordinary numbers continue, across the economy. Royal Caribbean Cruises: 728-1. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals: 215-1. Netflix: 133-1. Live Nation Entertainment: 2,893-1. Honeywell International: 333-1. Fidelity National Information Services: 654-1. UnitedHealth Group: 298-1. And on and on.

Each such ratio indicates the obscene level of inequality in the United States, based on the amount of surplus pumped out of workers and distributed to those who run American corporations on behalf of their boards of directors.

While the figures of CEO-to-average-worker-pay are being reported in the business press, they have not been widely discussed in the media or by the nation’s politicians. It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans underestimate—by a wide margin—the degree of inequality in the United States.

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In a 2014 study, Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton asked about 55,000 people around the globe, including 1,581 participants in the United States, how much money they thought corporate CEOs made compared with unskilled factory workers.** Then they asked how much more pay they thought CEOs should make. American respondents guessed that executives out-earned factory workers roughly 30-to-1—just about what that ratio was in the 1960s and exponentially lower than the actual estimate at the time of 354-to-1. They believed the ideal ratio should be about 7-to-1.

As it turns out, Americans didn’t answer the survey much differently from participants in other countries. Australians believed that roughly 8-to-1 would be a good ratio; the French settled on about 7-to-1; and the Germans settled on around 6-to-1. In every country, the CEO pay-gap ratio was far greater than people assumed. And though they didn’t concur on precisely what would be fair, both conservatives and liberals around the world also concurred that the pay gap should be smaller. People also agreed across income and education levels, as well as across age groups.

Why should this matter?

Because representations of the economy that minimize the existence of inequality or the problems associated with inequality are bound to reinforce the systematic misperceptions found by Norton and others.

That’s exactly what much mainstream economics accomplishes. It deflects attention from the existence of inequality (e.g., by focusing on growth, output, and the price level versus distribution) and from the economic and social problems created by inequality (by attributing the growing gap between the haves and have-nots to forces like globalization and technological change that are beyond our control or invoking more education as the only solution).

Mainstream economics therefore forms part of what others (such as Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman) refer to as “ideology,” “which may predispose people to ‘see’ the level of inequality that their beliefs and values convince them must exist.” And the strength of mainstream economics in the United States—in colleges and universities as well as in the media, think tanks, and in government—and around the world is one of the main reasons Americans, like people in other countries, tend not to see the existing degree of inequality.

On the other hand, the ideology of mainstream economics is never complete. That’s why Americans and citizens around the globe do see that the degree of inequality created by existing economic arrangements is fundamentally unfair.

It’s that sense of unfairness, which is only partially masked by mainstream economics, that can serve as the basis for a radical rethinking and reimagining of contemporary economic and social institutions.

 

*Bezos [ht: sm] received a hostile reception from workers when he arrived in Berlin to pick up an innovation award last Tuesday. As Frank Bsirske, the head of the Verdi trade union, explained: “We have a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world and take us back to the 19th century.” Meanwhile, back in the United States, Amazon reported that its profits more than doubled to $1.6 billion in the first quarter of 2018, sending shares of its stock soaring to an all-time high.

**This is the second high-profile paper in which Norton discovered that Americans have a notion of economic fairness that is strikingly more equal than the current reality, and more equal even than their own underestimate of the degree of inequality.

“Money Becomes King” is one of those “pithy, hard-headed songs” the late Tom Petty will be remembered for.

Back when I taught Principles of Economics, I started each class with a musical representation of economic ideas, with songs from a wide variety of musicians ranging from John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash to The Kinks and The Coup—and Petty.

If you reach back in your memory
A little bell might ring
About a time that once existed
When money wasn’t king
If you stretch your imagination
I’ll tell you all a tale
About a time when everything
Wasn’t up for sale

There was this cat named Johnny
Who loved to play and sing
When money wasn’t king.

We’d all get so excited
When John would give a show
We’d raise the cash between us
And down the road we’d go
To hear him play that music
It spoke right to my soul
Every verse a diamond
And every chorus gold

The sound was my salvation
It was only everything
Before money became king.

Well I ain’t sure how it happened
And I don’t know exactly when
But everything got bigger
And the rules began to bend
And the TV taught the people
How to get their hair to shine
And how sweet life can be
If you keep a tight behind

And they raised the cost of living
And how could we have known
They’d double the price of tickets
To go see Johnny’s show?

So we hocked all our possessions
And we sold a little dope
And went off to rock ‘n’ roll.

We arrived there early
In time to see rehearsal
And John came out and lip-synched
His new lite-beer commercial
And as the crowd arrived
As far as I could see
The faces were all different
There was no one there like me

They sat in golden circles
And waiters served them wine
And talked through all the music
And to John paid little mind
And way up in the nosebleeds
We watched upon the screen
They hung between the billboards
So cheaper seats could see

Johnny rocked that golden circle
And all those VIPs
And that music that had freed us
Became a tired routine
And I saw his face in close-up
Tryin’ to give it all he had
Sometimes his eyes betrayed him
You could see that he was sad

And I tried to rock on with him
But I slowly became bored
Could that man on stage with everything
Somehow need some more?

There was no use in pretending
No magic left to hear
All the music gave me
Was a craving for lite-beer
As I walked out of the arena
My ears began to ring
And money became king.

And here’s a performance, albeit unrelated to economic representations, that shouldn’t be missed or forgotten:

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Food production has been a problem throughout the history of American capitalism.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to portray the harsh working conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrializing cities.* However, it seems, many readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early-twentieth century. Thus, Sinclair quipped: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Richard Linklater directed the film Fast Food Nation, which was loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling 2001 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Sinclair, Linklater focused on the working conditions in the slaughterhouses, to which he added fast-food restaurants—and, like Sinclair, he exposed the role exploited immigrants played in lowering costs and increasing profits in the American food industry.

The farm-to-table movement was supposed to change all that—with happy animals, humane working conditions, and foods sourced from local farmers. However, as Andrea Reusing [ht: db] explains, the authenticity attributed to the preparation and serving of good that is local, organic, and sustainable has increasingly “slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing.” Thus

it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

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There are, in fact, over 7.5 million food-preparation workers in the United States, who earn less than $10.50 an hour—which comes to less than $21,000 a year. Many of those workers are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.**

Over the course of the past century, we’ve moved from the meatpacking industry to the food-service sector. But the problems identified by Sinclair and Linklater remain: exploited workers and immigrants that are subjected to inhumane treatment during the process of immigration and on the job.

As a chef herself, Reusing follows the lead of Sinclair and Linklater in suggesting that

As chefs, we need to talk more about the economic realities of our kitchens and dining rooms and allow eaters to begin to experience them as we do: imperfect places where abundance and hope exist beside scarcity and compromise. Places that are weakened by the same structural inequality that afflicts every aspect of American life.

 

*Sinclair’s novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason and published the next year as a book by Doubleday.

**Overall, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (pdf), the American food system employs over 21.5 million workers, making it the largest source of employment in the United States. Eleven million workers are in the food service sector, comprising more than half of the food chain.

Culture, it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of HonorĂ© de Balzac and Jane Austen because they dramatized the immobility of a nineteenth-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality (which, of course, is where we’re heading again). Robert J. Shiller, past president of the American Economic Association, focused on “Narrative Economics” in his address at the January 2017 Allied Social Association meetings in Chicago. His basic argument was that popular narratives, “the stories and models people are talking about,” play an important role in economic fluctuations. And just the other day, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro—professor of the arts and humanities and professor of economics and president of Northwestern University, respectively—economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus and practiced “humanonomics.”

Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m all in favor of opening up economics to the humanities and the various artifacts of culture, from popular music to novels. In fact, I’ve been involved in various projects along these lines, including the New Economic Criticism, the postmodern moments of modern economics, and economic representations in both academic and everyday arenas.

And, to their credit, the authors I cite above do attempt to go beyond most of their mainstream colleagues in economics, who treat culture either as a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or as a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

But in their attempt to invoke culture—as illustrative of economic ideas, a factor in determining economic events, or as a way of humanizing economic discourse—they forget one of the key lessons of Raymond Williams: that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

In fact, that’s the approach I took in my 2014 talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in MontrĂ©al.

As I explained,

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

I then went on to discuss a series of cultural artifacts—in music, film, short stories, art, and so on—which give us the sense of how things might be different, of how alternative economic theories and institutions might be imagined and created.

Importantly, economic representations in culture are much wider than the realist fiction to which some mainstream economists have turned. One of the best examples, based on the work of Mark Osteen, concerns the relationship between noncapitalist gift economies and jazz improvisation.* According to Osteen, both jazz and gifts involve their participants in risk; both require elasticity; both are social rituals in which the parties express and recreate identities; both are temporally contingent and dynamic. Each of them invokes reciprocal relations, yet transcends mere balance: each, that is, partakes of excess and surplus. Osteen suggests that jazz—such as John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”—may serve as both an example of gift practices and a model for another economy, based on an ethos of improvisation, communalism, and excess.

I wonder if economists such as Piketty, Shiller, Morson, and Schapiro, who suggest we include culture in our economic theorizing, are willing to identify and examine aspects of historical and contemporary culture that point us beyond capitalism.

 

*Mark Osteen, “Jazzing the Gift: Improvisation, Reciprocity, Excess,” Rethinking Marxism 22 (October 2010): 569-80.

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Last year, as I reported the other day, I published over 800 new posts.

I’ve never done this before. However, I decided to look back over the year and choose one post for each month of 2016:

January—Liberal ideology

February—Who are the capitalists?

March—Yea, they’re angry!

April—Life among the liberal econ

May—Letting capitalism off the hook

June—Globalization, inequality, and imperialism

July—Trump and the Prosperity Gospel

August—The Mandibles and dystopian finance fiction

September—What about the white working-class?

October—Nobel economics—or why does capital hire labor?

November—Condition of the working-class in the United States

December—China syndrome

Enjoy!

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“Why does it always have to represent something?”

Special mention

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Mainstream economists, such as Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, celebrate international trade (including outsourcing, which they argue is just another form of international trade) at every opportunity. But right now, voters—especially in the United States and the United Kingdom—aren’t buying what mainstream economists are selling. They are (as I’ve argued here, here, and here) ignoring the so-called experts.

That rejection clearly disturbs Mankiw, who just adds fuel to the fire by arguing that the more education people acquire the more they will eventually come around to his view. The implication, of course, is that being against free trade is a sign of ignorance.

We all know that Mankiw and his mainstream colleagues have spent an enormous amount of time and effort—in abstract modeling and lending their support to trade agreements, in the classroom, research, and the public arena—extolling the benefits of more international trade.

trade

But it’s clear, not only from the Brexit vote and the rhetoric on both sides of the current U.S. presidential campaigns, but also from a survey earlier this year by Bloomberg, that many people remain opposed to free international trade: 65 percent favor restrictions on imported goods to protect American jobs, 44 percent think NAFTA has been bad for the U.S. economy, and 82 percent are willing to pay more for U.S.-made goods.

Clearly, mainstream economists’ campaign hasn’t worked. So, Mankiw turns to the research of two political scientists, Edward Mansfield and Diana Mutz (pdf and pdf) to find what he wants: anti-trade sentiments are positively correlated with isolationism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism and negatively with level of education. So, in his view,

there is reason for optimism. As society slowly becomes more educated from generation to generation, the general public’s attitudes toward globalization should move toward the experts’.

What I find interesting in Mansfield and Mutz’s research is actually something quite different: people’s attitudes toward international trade (including outsourcing) are not determined by narrow self-interest (such as their job skills or the industry within which they work) but, rather, by the “collective impact that trade policy has on the nation” (what they refer to as a “sociotropic influence,” because of the tendency to rely on collective-level information rather than personal experience).

That result is important because it suggests both mainstream economists and the general public, who may be and often are using very different representations of the economy, have an equally global view of the impact of international trade. Both groups are referring to and forming their judgements based on the nation as a whole. However, while mainstream economists tend to celebrate international trade based on the idea that the nation as a whole benefits (because of the efficient allocation of resources, cheaper imports, and so on), everyday economists may be emphasizing the fact that their nation is internally divided. Thus, in their view, many of their fellow citizens have been negatively affected by international trade and the only real beneficiaries are their employers. So, they continue to be critical of free trade and international trade agreements (such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

As I see it, more education won’t eliminate that critical view—as long as trade agreements are enacted within a profoundly unequal society and workers have no say in designing the policies that govern international trade.

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Peggy M. Hart, The Magic of Coal (1945)

As I have argued many times on this blog, representations of the economy are produced and disseminated in many different spaces (in addition to academic economics departments) and through many different media (in addition to the usual, mostly mainstream economics textbooks).

One example of this proliferation of economic representations is children’s literature. Children are the targets of educators and writers, most of whom (at least these days) are determined to make sure children get the “correct” understanding of key concepts and institutions. And, for the most part, they mirror the kinds of knowledges produced by mainstream economists, albeit with language and illustrations appropriate for children.

Scholastic offers such a list (which features Homer Price by Robert McClosky, through which students learn the “law of demand”). So does Choice Literacy (which includes Tomie dePaola’s Charlie Needs a Cloak, “good for discussing the four factors of production”). And then there’s the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, which groups books by concept (such as Markets and Competition, Opportunity Cost, and so on).

Motoko Rich’s view is that “By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center” (and that may be true of books that teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving) but, at least for the books on the lists provided by economics educators these days, the tendency is much more mainstream, if not purely neoclassical.

That was not always the case, as Kimberley Reynolds [ht: ja] explains, in the Soviet Union but also during the interwar period in the United Kingdom.

The fact that children’s books can have a strongly formative influence upon the young has often attracted the attention of new leaders and regimes. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his followers harnessed the power of children’s books to shape culture. Some of the artistically vibrant work that resulted from co-opting leading writers and artists is currently on exhibit at London’s House of Illustration with the title, A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. In interwar Britain too, a group of socially and aesthetically radical children’s books underpinned the work of making Britain a progressive, egalitarian, and modern society. But unlike their Soviet counterparts, these books have since remained a largely hidden secret, with most scholars of the period overlooking them altogether.

A good example is Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal, which was published as a Puffin picturebook in 1945. It was the British equivalent of the Soviet “production books.”

Production books detailed the production process of economically essential resources such as coal or steel. Emphasis was placed on the difference between the capitalist and communist machinery used to create these resources; where capitalist machinery was shown to feed greed and overproduction, communist machinery provided a helping hand in creating a prosperous future everyone could enjoy. Thus production books clearly directed the child reader’s attention to a wider political narrative beyond the specificities of the text.

Production books were aesthetically modernist, combining ideas from abstract painting with typography to create a visual language strikingly different from what had gone before. Pictures held a machine-like appearance, using straight lines and elementary forms. By championing newness, it was conveyed to the child reader that they had the potential to be aesthetically innovative. Rather than simply encouraging them to learn to copy what was already seen as beautiful, aesthetic modernism puts more at stake for the child; if whatever they create has the potential to be considered beautiful, there is more incentive for them to attempt to create. Similarly, if a transformed communist society is shown to be a plausible alternative to today’s society, there is a greater incentive for the child to become an activist to help bring this society about.

Apparently, the Magic of Coal contained all the features of a production book:

Reference is made to, ‘our gas works’ and ‘our community, implying collective ownership, and all images are aesthetically modernist. Thus it is an example of the attempts of a popular front of left-wing publishers to bring the production book genre and its associated radicalism to Britain in the interwar period.”

As such, it was quite different from what passes today for children’s economics literature:

Taking the child on a journey, it tells not only of the production of coal but also elevates the miner as an important and  respectable member of society. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards a political goal.

The text focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism.

The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ before or after work, challenging class boundaries as it suggests that before he enters the mine, a working-class man looks like, and therefore is like, any other man going about any other business. The text also tells us of the miner’s life outside of work, mentioning societies, theatre visits and higher education, indicating that the miners are not only important members of coal-fueled, modern society, but also respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture.

I don’t know if children’s economics books of this sort—whether about coal mining or Wall Street—are being written and produced today. If they’re not, they need to be. If they are, then they need to be included in the lists that promote the economics education of children.

There is—and there needs to be—a lot more than mainstream economic ideas in representations of the economy, both inside and outside the official discipline of economics.

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Hans Haacke, “The Invisible Hand of the Market” (2009)

Mainstream economists have attempted to model and disseminate the idea of the invisible hand, especially in their textbooks.*

And, not surprisingly, many others—from heterodox economists to artists—have challenged the whole notion of the invisible hand.

But one of the best critiques of the invisible hand I have encountered can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s story, “Mutt and Jeff Push the Button” (which appears in Fredric Jameson’s recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army).

Here’s a longish extract:

“So, we live in a money economy where everything is grossly underpriced, except for rich people’s compensation, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is we’ve agreed to let the market set prices.”

“The invisible hand.”

“Right. Sellers offer goods and services, buyers buy them, and in the flux of supply and demand the price gets determined. That’s the cumulative equilibrium, and its prices change as supply and demand change. It’s crowdsourced, it’s democratic, it’s the market.”

“The only way.”

“Right. But it’s always, always wrong. Its prices are always too low, and so the world is fucked. We’re in a mass extinction event, the climate is cooked, there’s a food panic, everything you’re not reading in the news.”

“All because of the market.”

“Exactly. It’s not just there are market failures. It’s the market is a failure.”

“How so, what do you mean?”

“I mean the cumulative equilibrium underprices everything. Things and services are sold for less than it costs to make them.”

“That sounds like the road to bankruptcy.”

“It is, and lots of businesses do go bankrupt. But the ones that don’t haven’t actually made a profit, they’ve just gotten away with selling their thing for less than it cost to make it. They do that by hiding or ignoring some of the costs of making it. That’s what everyone does, because they’re under the huge pressure of market competition. They can’t be undersold or they’ll go out of business, because every buyer buys the cheapest version of whatever. So the sellers have to shove some of their production costs off their books. They can pay their labor less, of course. They’ve done that, so labor is one cost they don’t pay. That’s why we’re broke. Then raw materials, they hide the costs of obtaining them, also the costs of turning them into stuff. Then they don’t pay for the infrastructure they use to get their stuff to market, and they don’t pay for the wastes they dump in the air and water and ground. Finally they put a price on their good or service that’s about 10 percent of what it really cost to make, and buyers buy it at that price. The seller shows a profit, shareholder value goes up, the executives take their bonuses and leave to do it again somewhere else, or retire to their mansion island. Meanwhile the biosphere and the workers who made the stuff, also all the generations to come, they take the hidden costs right in the teeth.”

 

*As I have discussed before, the invisible hand is a powerful metaphor “for which neoclassical economists have worked very hard to invent a tradition beginning with Adam Smith.” Smith himself only used the term twice in his published writings—once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in The Wealth of Nations—and never to refer to a self-equilibrating market system, which is the way the term is used by mainstream economists today.

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I cited Andrew O’Heir’s critical review of Boom Bust Boom, Terry Jones and Theo Kocken’s Monty Pythonesque documentary about the crash of 2007-08 back in March but I hadn’t seen the film itself until last night.

In many ways, I wish I hadn’t.

Oh, sure, there are a couple of good moments. Introducing the work of Hyman Minsky to a larger audience. A cameo by John Cusack, who suggests that economics students should pelt their professors with vegetables and rotten fruit if they continue to parrot the party line. “Maybe urinate on them. That’s what I would do.” And some well-deserved attention to the students in the Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester.

But otherwise, the film is just not very good. For starters, consider the fact that, after the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression, only once is capitalism itself even mentioned!

Then, as O’Heir wrote, there’s not a single mention of John Maynard Keynes (who published his General Theory in 1936, in the midst of the earlier depression), let alone Karl Marx (who, along with Friedrich Engels, was writing about capitalism’s crisis tendencies in the middle of the nineteenth century). Since Jones and Kocken decided to make forgetting a central part of their story—especially failing to remember and draw lessons from previous financial crises—they might also have mentioned the deliberate forgetting by mainstream economists and economic policymakers of other economic ideas, now as in the past.

And, in this day and age, it smacks viewers in the face that, as Shane Ferro wrote, “Women and minorities are almost entirely left out of this film—not unlike the way they’ve been left out of financial and economics professions.” The only two expert women the movie manages to feature are Lucy Prebble, a playwright who once wrote a play about the collapse of Enron, and Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor who studies how monkeys make decisions. Neither, as it turns out, has a background in economics, or much knowledge of capitalism, its history, or the 2007-08 crash.*

But the worst part of this high-budget, cleverly animated documentary is the actual story Terry and Kocken decided to tell. What it boils down to is this: financial crises have always been with us (at least since Tulip Mania in the 1630s), people tend to make irrational decisions (e.g, by forgetting about previous crises and taking on too much risk), and making irrational decisions is part of our human nature, as determined by evolutionary behavioral psychology (hence the monkeys).

Actually, the film is more confused than that. At one point, it features Minsky (in an animated dialogue with his son)—and, if it had continued in that vein, it would have been able to reveal something about the financial fragility inherent in the regular boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism (since the key actors in Minsky’s approach are capitalist enterprises and banks). But then Minksy is dropped and the filmmakers decide to go in a different direction, with a fanciful discussion of human nature (continuing an approach that, from the beginning, features an undifferentiated “we” who is responsible for speculation, risk-taking, euphoria, forgetting, and so on) and then an attempt to ground human nature in primate behavior (this after criticizing the scientistic pretensions of neoclassical economics).

There’s no attempt to identify the dynamics of a particular economic system, which we usually refer to as capitalism. No attempt to identify particular and differentiated actors and institutions within capitalism, such as bankers, workers, consumers, politicians, enterprises, financial markets, and so on. No references to other countries today, in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom. No mention of the grotesques levels of inequality in the lead-up to the crash, and no discussion of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and so on after the crash.

Instead, what we are presented with is a succession of financial crises, which in the end are grounded in our singular human nature.

That, to say the least, is not a particularly insightful analysis of the causes and consequences of the crash. And the best the filmmakers and the various talking heads can come up with by way of policies is the need, since human nature can’t be changed, to regulate the financial system (perhaps, at its most adventurous, by restoring Glass-Steagal barriers between commercial and investment banking) to keep “us” from making the same mistakes.

To which we can all respond: “Been there, done that. Now let’s try something that might actually work, beginning with the inherent instabilities of capitalism itself.”

 

*Here’s the list of the contributors: Dan Ariely, Dirk Bezemer, Zvi Bodie, Willem Buiter, John Cassidy, John Cusack, John K. Galbraith, James K. Galbraith, Andy Haldane, Daniel Kahneman, Steve Keen, Stephen Kinsella, Larry Kotlikoff, Paul Krugman, George Magnus, Paul Mason, Perry Mehrling, Hyman P. Minsky, Alan Minsky, Lucy Prebble, Laurie Santos, Robert J. Shiller, Nathan Tankus, Sweder Van Wijnbergen, and Randall Wray.