Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Devil’s dung

Posted: 10 July 2015 in Uncategorized
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Pope Francis’s recent references to money as the “dung of the devil” (or, alternatively, the “devil’s dung“) brought to mind lots of different references (from the etymology of dung in terms of different classes of workers to Freud’s tale of the devil whose gifts of money turn to excrement upon his leaving).

But, at the suggestion of a friend [ht: ja], I also began to imagine how we might retitle basic economics courses in a Catholic university. Consider the following:

Econ 101—Mephistopheles’ Market Manure

Econ 102:—Satanic Sewers of National Economies

or just get right to the point,

all intro-level courses—Beezelbub’s Bourgeois Bullshit

Any other suggestions?

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The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has confirmed what many of us have suspected for a long time: job tenure is declining not just for millenials, but for workers of all wages.

What we see in this chart—using the 20- to 30-year-olds, for example—is that the median job tenure was four years among those born in 1953 (baby boomers) when they were between 20 and 30 years old. For 20- to 30-year-olds born in 1993 (millennials), however, median job tenure is only one year. Similar—and some even more dramatic—declines occur across cohorts within each age group.

Declining job tenure is not just all about millennials having short attention spans. In fact, there is a greater (five-year) decline in median job tenure between 41- and 50-year-old “Depression babies” (born in 1933) and 41- to 50-year-old GenXers (born in 1973).

The authors of the report dispute the attention-span explanation for declining job tenure. But then they go on to paint a rosy picture of what this means—for workers (“a world of possibilities that our parents and grandparents never dreamt of”!) and for the economy as a whole (“the flexibility of workers seeking their highest rents and the flexibility of firms to seek better matches for their needed skills mean greater productivity—not to mention growth—all around”).

What the authors fail to mention is that declining job tenure across the board means much higher corporate profits (since employers can hire and shed workers more easily) and a lot more work for workers (since they have to spend more time and energy making themselves “attractive” to employers and figuring out how they’re going to survive between jobs).

Declining job tenure—what mainstream economists refer to as “flexible” labor markets—is the natural outcome of the commodification of labor power. The only solution to the problem, then, is to treat people’s ability to work as something other than a commodity. Then, we would have real flexibility in our work and in the rest of our lives.

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Thomas Palley does an admirable job summarizing and discussing the implications of four different stories about the relationship between inequality and the financial crash of 2007-08. The only problem is, he completely overlooks a fifth story about that relationship, one that hinges on the existence and use of the surplus.

According to Palley, there are four major stories of the financial crisis and the role they attribute to income inequality. They are identified with (1) Raghuram Rajan (according to whom inequality has not really been a problem per se but the government responded to populist pressures to do something about growing inequality by extending home mortgages to unwarranted buyers), (2) Michael Kumhoff and Romain Rancière (who developed a model in which worsening income distribution, caused by declining union bargaining power, led to a persistent surge in borrowing as workers tried to maintain their living standards, which rendered the economy fragile to a financial sector shock), (3) Gauti B. Eggertsson and Paul Krugman (who leave out inequality entirely and focus instead on the idea that a financial bubble drove excessive borrowing and leverage in the US economy—which, when the bubble burst in 2007-08, led to a financial crisis and a deep recession, which in turn prompted a wave of deleveraging as borrowers shifted to rebuilding their balance sheets and excess saving that reduced aggregate demand), and (4) Palley himself (who , in his “structural Keynesian” account, focuses on the shift from wage-led growth to neoliberal financialization).

Thus, according to Palley,

Income inequality did not cause the financial crisis. The crisis was caused by the implosion of the asset price and credit bubbles which had been off-setting and obscuring the impact of inequality. However, once the financial bubble burst and financial markets ceased filling the demand gap created by income inequality, the demand effects of inequality came to the fore.

Viewed in that light, stagnation is the joint-product of the long-running credit bubble, the financial crisis and income inequality. The credit bubble left behind a large debt over-hang; the financial crisis destroyed the credit-worthiness of millions; and income inequality has created a “structural” demand shortage.

Palley then proceeds to discuss the implications, for economic policy, of each one of these four stories.

The entire essay is worth a good, careful read. But let me focus here just on the causal stories, and leave for another post the implications of the stories for policy.

While I am sympathetic to Palley’s critique of the other three stories, what’s missing from his own account is the role inequality played in the financial crisis itself.

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Consider, for example, what happened to profits and wages in the long run-up to the crash of 2007-08. What we can see, from 1970 onward, is a steady decline in the wage share of national income and an initially halting and then uneven increase in corporate profits (measured here in terms of “net operating surplus”).* The argument is that the decline in the wage share led to increased profits both directly and indirectly: directly, as wage costs for producing enterprises declined; and indirectly, as some of those corporate profits were recycled through financial enterprises to lend to workers, thereby further boosting the profit share of national income. That combination fueled the housing and asset bubbles that eventually burst in 2007-08.

So, on my account—on my structural class account—inequality played an important role in creating the conditions for the most recent financial crash. And now, during the Second Great Depression, the class inequality that was such an important factor before is on the rise again.

Now, I understand, that’s not a complete story about the relationship between inequality and the crash of 2007-08. But it’s a start. It shows that such a story is possible. And, as I will explain in another post, it has implications for economic policy very different from the other four stories out there.

*My chart doesn’t show all of what I consider to be the economic (class) surplus. To get there, we’d have to transfer some of what is included in wages and salaries (e.g., the salaries of CEOs, which put them in the top 1 percent) to “net operating surplus.” I’m still searching for a good way to do that.

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For most mainstream economists, culture is either a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or 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).

For Raymond Williams [ht: ja], culture was something very different.

Williams makes it clear early on that if he could pick only one term to investigate, it would be “culture.” The word comes from the Latin verb colere and originally meant “to cultivate,” in the sense of tending farmland. A “noun of process,” it gradually expanded to include human development, and by the late 18th century, people commonly used “culture” to mean how we cultivate ourselves. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the word took on a new emphasis: It came to mean both an entire way of life (as in “folk” or “Japanese” culture) and a realm of aesthetic or intellectual activity that stood apart from, or above, the everyday (basically, what people parody when they say “culchah”). Over several hundred pages, Williams shows how dozens of writers developed these senses of “culture” in order to explain, and manage, the changes remaking British society in the 19th century—from rapid industrialization to the new markets it created for literature, and from land enclosure to overseas colonization.

Williams (along with, of course, many others, including Stuart Hall and Edward Said) redefined the meaning of culture, which provided “a record of change, and of the clashes of interest that drive that change.” Williams and the other “cultural materialists” of the time challenged both traditional humanities scholarship (which sought to identify and cultivate the elitist “finer values”) and traditional Marxism (according to which culture either reflected the “economic base” or, in its mass commodified form, forced workers to accept capitalist values).

Implicitly, Williams and the others also challenged mainstream economists’ version of culture, by emphasizing the idea 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).

That’s the approach I took in my presentation last year in my 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 Montreal.

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.

And it was in honor of Williams that I accepted the invitation to write the entry on “Capitalism” for Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and later, with Maliha Safri, to launch the Keywords series in the journal Rethinking Marxism.

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I’m taking nominations for the best examples of dismal economic scientists.

While I wait for your suggestions, I’m going to offer two of my own nominations: Tyler Cowen and Paul Romer.

I am nominating Cowen because, in his argument that the economy probably needs a “reset,” he only focuses on lowering workers’ wages. First, he makes no mention of resetting corporate profits or the incomes of those at the very top, as if what they manage to capture were completely off limits. All the adjustment in the new, “grimmer future” will be born by those at the bottom. Second, he completely overlooks the mechanisms of his own economic theory: if lower rates of economic growth are the product of lower rates of growth of available workers (a key factor in the theory of secular stagnation), then the relative scarcity of workers should mean higher—not lower—wages. In other words, Cowen is determined to make sure all the costs of the new, slower-growing economy will be born by shifted onto those who can least afford it. For that reason, I nominate Cowen for the title of dismal economist.

I also want to nominate Romer, who continues to double down on his “mathiness” argument, by asserting (against all the work that has taken place in the philosophy of science in recent decades) that (a) there’s a single truth, (b) that truth can only be obtained via science, and (c) mathematical modeling is the singular method for making progress in science to obtain truth. There are so many things wrong with each of those assertions it’s hard to know where to begin. And I won’t, at least right now. Let me just say Romer deserves his nomination as one of the most dismal economists because of the extraordinary arrogance, pretentiousness, and ignorance of the following statements:

About math:. . .I’ve seen clear evidence that math can facilitate scientific progress toward the truth.

If you think that math is worthless or dangerous, I’m sure that there are people who will be happy to discuss this with you. I’m not interested. I’m busy.

About truth and science: My fundamental premise is that there is an objective notion of truth and that science can help us make progress toward truth.

If you do not accept this premise, I’m sure that there are people who would be happy to debate it with you. I’m not interested. I’m busy.

And please do not write to tell me that science is a social process or that the progress it makes toward the truth can be irregular. I know.

Me, I’m not too busy to discuss either the fundamental injustices of contemporary capitalism or the often-worthless and dangerous role mathematics, truth, and science have played and continue to play in the discipline of economics.

I’m also not too busy to post additional nominations for dismal economists.

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We know (e.g., as a result of the 2013 Pew Research Center survey) that most people in the world believe that current economic arrangements favor the well-off and that economic inequality is a very big problem.*

And they’re right: the economy system in most countries is fundamentally unfair (favoring those at the top over everyone else) and that, as a result, the gap (between those at the top and everyone else) is a problem that needs to be solved—if not within the current economy system, then in a different one.

But we also know, since at least the pioneering study by Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton, that people’s beliefs about inequality are quite different from actual levels of inequality. That notion is confirmed by a new study, by Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman, “Misperceiving Inequality.” What they show is that, on a wide variety of measures (of income and wealth inequality, poverty, earnings for different jobs, and so on), what people think they know is often wrong. Perhaps even more important, they show that the perceived level of inequality—and not the actual level—correlates strongly with demand for redistribution and reported conflict between rich and poor.

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 researchers.

That’s exactly what much mainstream economics accomplishes. It deflects attention from the existence of inequality (e.g., by focusing on growth versus distribution) and from the economic and social problems created by inequality (by attributing inequality to forces like globalization and technological change beyond our control or invoking more education as the solution).

Mainstream economics therefore forms part of what Gimpelson and Treisman refers 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—is one of the main reasons Americans, more than citizens in other countries, tend not to believe in inequality.

*Specifically, the public in advanced (median of 74 percent), emerging (70 percent) and developing (70 percent) economies are mostly in agreement that the current economic system generally favors the wealthy and is not fair to most people in their country. And, in 31 of the 39 countries surveyed, half or more of the population believe that the gap between the rich and the poor is a very big problem in their societies.

Is Dan Price [ht:sm], the founder and CEO of Gravity Payments who raised the salaries of his employees and slashed his own pay, a socialist hero?

Well, no. Not really. Price certainly doesn’t think so. And, in the end, he—not Gravity’s employees as a group—is the one who decided what the new pay scheme would look like. He is the one who took the decision to distribute some of the surplus produced by his workers back to them in the form of higher wages and to take a smaller amount of that surplus in his compensation.

But I do like the fact that the two KTVB interviewers, Dee Sarton and Carolyn Holly, are clearly taken with Dan Price and his decision—which presumably stand in sharp contrast to all the other CEOs they’ve been forced to interview over the years.

Even more, Price’s decision proves once again (as I argued back in 2013) that “capitalists do lots of different things.”

They do make profits (at least sometimes, but over what timeframe are they supposedly maximizing those profits?). But they don’t follow any single rule. They also seek to grow their enterprises and destroy the competition and maintain good public relations and buy government officials and reward their CEOs and squeeze workers and lower costs and build factories that collapse and. . .well, you get the idea. In other words, they appropriate and distribute surplus-value in all kinds of ways depending on the particular conditions and struggles that take place over the shape and direction of their enterprises.

So, I’m not prepared to celebrate Price as a “good capitalist,” as against all the “bad capitalists” who are choosing to increase the gap between average workers’ pay and the enormous payments to CEOs.

My point is a actually somewhat different: first, that capitalists—whether in Columbus or Seattle—do lots of different things, and presuming they follow a simple rule (whether profit-maximization as in the usual neoclassical story, or the accumulation of capital in many heterodox stories) means missing out on the complex, contradictory dynamics of capitalist enterprises; and second, that other kinds of enterprises (in which workers themselves make the decisions about how the surplus is appropriated and distributed) would do even more, on a wider scale, to transform the dynamics of the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. economy.