Posts Tagged ‘economics’

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Special mention

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In a recent article, Dan Falk [ht: ja] identifies a fundamental problem in contemporary physics:

many physicists working today have been led astray by mathematics — seduced by equations that might be “beautiful” or “elegant” but which lack obvious connection to the real world.

What struck me is that, if you changed physics and physicists to economics and economists, you’d get the exact same article. And the same set of problems.

Economists—especially mainstream economists but, truth be told, not a few heterodox economists—are obsessed with mathematics and formal modeling as the only correct methods for achieving capital-t truth. Mathematical modeling for them represents the best, most scientific way of producing, disseminating, and determining the veracity of economic knowledge—because it is logical, concise, precise, and elegant.* In that sense, mathematics represents what can only described as a utopia for the practice of modern economics.**

Mathematical utopianism in economics is based on elevating mathematics to the status of a special code or language. It is considered both a neutral language and, at the same time, a language uniquely capable of capturing the essence of reality. Thus, economists see mathematics as having both an underprivileged and overprivileged status vis-à-vis other languages.

Let me explain. On one hand, mathematics is understood to be a neutral medium into which all statements of each theory, and the statements of all theories, can be translated without modifying them. Mathematics, in this view, is devoid of content. It is neutral with respect to the various theories where it is applied. Partial and general equilibrium, game theory, and mathematical programming are concepts that serve to communicate the content of a theory without changing that content. Similarly, mathematical operations on the mathematized objects of analysis are considered to be purely formal. Thus, as a result of the conceptual neutrality of the methods and procedures of mathematical formalization, the objects of analysis are said to be unaffected by their mathematical manipulation. On the other hand, mathematics is considered to be uniquely capable of interpreting theory in its ability to separate the rational kernel from the intuitional (vague, imprecise) husk, the essential from the inessential. It becomes the unique standard of logic, consistency, and proof. Once intuitions are formed, mathematical models can be constructed that prove (or not) the logical consistency of the theory. Other languages are considered incapable of doing this because the operations of mathematics have an essential truth value that other languages do not possess. Mathematical statements, for example, are considered to be based on the necessity of arriving at conclusions as a result of following universal mathematical rules.

It is in these two senses that mathematics is considered to be a special language or code. It is more important than other languages in that it is uniquely capable of generating truth statements. It is also less important in that it is conceived to have no impact on what is being thought and communicated.

The notion of mathematics as a special code is linked, in turn, to the twin pillars of traditional epistemology, empiricism and rationalism. The oversight of mathematics implied by its underprivileged status is informed by an empiricist conception of knowledge: mathematics is considered to be a universal instrument of representation. It is used as a tool to express the statements of a discourse that already, always has an essential grasp on the real. It is the universal language in and through which the objects (and the statements about those objects) of different economic and social theories can all be expressed. In other words, the role of mathematics is to express the various “intuitive” statements of the theorist in a neutral language such that they can be measured against reality. The underprivileged position of mathematics that is linked to an empiricist epistemology contrasts sharply with the overprivileged status of mathematics. This overprivileged conception of mathematics is associated with a rationalist theory of knowledge wherein the subject-object dichotomy is reversed. Here the subject becomes the active participant in discovering knowledge by operating on the theoretical model of reality. In this sense, the logical structure of theory—not the purported correspondence of theory to the facts—becomes the privileged or absolute standard of the process of theorizing. Reality, in turn, is said to correspond to the rational order of thought. The laws that govern reality are deduced from the singular set of mathematical models in and through which the essence of reality can be grasped.***

The conception of mathematics as a mere language contains, however, the seeds of its own destruction. The notion of language as a simple medium through which ideas are communicated has long been challenged—since language is both constitutive of, and constituted by, the process of theorizing. The use of mathematics in economics thus may be reconceptualized as a discursive condition of theories, which constrains and limits, and is partly determined by, those theories. Mathematical concepts—such as the equilibrium position associated with the solution to a set of simultaneous equations, the exogenous status of the rules of a game, or the definition of a series of overlapping value functions to optimize an overall goal—partly determine the notions of relation and causality among the theoretical objects designated by the theories in which the means of mathematical formalization are utilized. They are not the neutral conceptual tools to which the propositions of different theories can be reduced. Similarly, the rationalist idea of abstraction, of simplification, also leads to a fundamental problem. It implies that there is a noise that ultimately escapes the “fictional” mathematical model. It implies an empirical distance between the model and its domain of interpretation, the empirical concrete. And that distance is conceived to be part of the empirical concrete itself. There is a part of reality that necessarily escapes the model. Thus, rationalist deductions from the model cannot produce the truth of the real because something is always “missing.”

So, what’s the alternative? As I see it, there is a double movement that involves both the rejection of mathematics as the discovery of an extra-mathematical reality and the critique of the notion that mathematics merely expresses the form in which otherwise nonmathematical theories are communicated. Thus, for example, it is possible (using, e.g., the insights of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Edmund Husserl) to argue that mathematics is a historical, social invention, not a form of discovery of an independent reality; it is not discovered “out there,” but invented and reinvented over time based on rules that are handed by mathematicians and the actual users of mathematics (such as economists). By the same token, we can see mathematics as introducing both new concepts and new forms of reasoning into other domains, such as economics and for that matter physics (which is exactly what Gaston Bachelard has argued).

This double movement has various effects. It means that there are no grounds for considering mathematics to be a privileged language with respect to other, nonmathematical languages. There is, for example, no logical necessity inherent in the use of the mathematical language. The theorist makes choices about the kinds of mathematics that are used, about the steps from one mathematical argument to another, and whether or not any mathematics will be used at all. Different uses (or not) of mathematics and different kinds of mathematics will have determinate effects on the discourse in question. Discourses change as they are mathematized—they are changed, not in the direction of becoming more (or less) scientific, but by transforming the way the objects of the discourse are constructed, and the way statements are made about those objects.

Ultimately, this deconstruction of mathematics as a special code leads to a rejection of the conception of mathematics as a special language of representation. The status of mathematics is both more representational and less representational than allowed by the discourse of representation. More, in the sense that mathematics has effects on the very structure of the mathematized theory; mathematics is not neutral. Less, to the extent that the use of mathematics does not guarantee the scientificity of the theory in question; it is merely one discursive strategy among others.

One alternative approach to making sense of the use of mathematics in economic theory is to consider mathematics not in terms of representation, but as a form of “illustration.” For economists, mathematical concepts and models can be understood as metaphors or heuristic devices that illustrate part of the contradictory movement of economic and social processes. These concepts and models can be used, where appropriate, to consider in artificial isolation one or another moment in the course of the constant movement and change in the economy and society. Mathematics may be used, then, to illustrate the statements of economic theory but, like all metaphors (in economics as in literature and other areas of social thought), it outlives its usefulness and then has to be dismantled.

As I see it, this conception of mathematical models as illustrative metaphors does not constitute a flat rejection of their use in economic theory. Rather, it accords to mathematical concepts and models a discursive status different from the one that is attributed to them in the work of mathematical economists. It accepts the possibility—but not the necessity—of using mathematical propositions as metaphors that are borrowed from outside of economic theory and transformed to teach and develop some of the concepts and statements of one or another economic theory.

Deconstructing the status of mathematics as a special code has the advantage of transforming both the way economics is done within any particular theory and the way the debate between different economic theories itself is conducted. It undermines the Truth-effect associated with mathematical utopianism and focuses attention, instead, on the conditions and consequences of different ways of thinking about the economy.

That debate—about the effects of different languages on economics, and the effects of different economic theories on the wider society—has its own utopian moment: transforming economics into a space not of blind obedience to mathematical protocols, but of real theoretical and political choices.

 


*From time to time, there have been a few admonishments from among economists themselves. Oskar Morgenstern (e.g., in his essay “Limits to the Uses of Mathematics in Economics,” published in 1963) and, more forcefully, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (especially in his 1971 Entropy Law and the Economic Process), Philip Mirowski (e.g., in More Heat Than Light, in 1989), and Paul Romer have indicated some of the problems associated with the wholesale mathematization of economics. However, even their limited criticisms have been ignored for the most part by economists.

In recent years, students (such as the members of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics) have been at the forefront of questioning the fetishism of mathematical methods in economics:

It is clear that maths and statistics are crucial to our discipline. But all too often students learn to master quantitative methods without ever discussing if and why they should be used, the choice of assumptions and the applicability of results. Also, there are important aspects of economics which cannot be understood using exclusively quantitative methods: sound economic inquiry requires that quantitative methods are complemented by methods used by other social sciences. For instance, the understanding of institutions and culture could be greatly enhanced if qualitative analysis was given more attention in economics curricula. Nevertheless, most economics students never take a single class in qualitative methods.

Their pleas, too, have been mostly greeted with indifference or contempt by economists.

**As I see it, the current fad of relying on randomized experiments and big data does not really undo the longstanding utopian claims associated with mathematical modeling, since the formal models are still there in the background, orienting the issues (including the choice of data sets) taken up in the new experimental and data-heavy approach to economics. Then, in addition, there is the problem that others—such as John P. A. Ionnidis et al. (unfortunately behind a paywall)—have discovered: most economists use data sets that are much too small relative to the size of the effects they report. This means that a sizable fraction of the findings reported by economists are simply the result of publication bias—the tendency of academic journals to report accidental results that only appear to be statistically significant.

***Economists often move back and forth between the two otherwise diametrically opposed conceptions of mathematics because they represent two sides of the same epistemological coin: although each reverses the order of proof of the other, both empiricism and rationalism presume the same fundamental terms and some form of correspondence between them. In this sense, they are variant forms of an “essentialist” conception of the process of theorizing. Both of them invoke an absolute epistemological standard to guarantee the (singular, unique) scientificity of the production of economic knowledge.

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Nicola Headlam is, I think, right with respect to “how the rules of the economy are set”:

“Somehow, someone, somewhere made these rules up. They aren’t laws of nature.” And they determine “who’s got what and where and why”.

The question is, how do we teach economics so that that message gets through?

Aditya Chakrabortty [ht: ja] reports on one way of doing it—a makeshift classroom in a converted church, with nine “lay people” and two facilitators (Headlam and Anne Hines, who are donating their time), in the Levenshulme area of Manchester, England.

Part of what makes the course interesting, at least to me, are the participants:

Those doing the Levenshulme crash course don’t look like your typical seminar room attendees. Not only are they decades older; all but one is a women. The average undergraduate economics course, according to the Royal Economic Society, is about 67% male and 25% privately educated (compared with 7% of the population). After the class, a charity van pulls up outside, offering three bags of short-dated food for £6. Several “students” collect their groceries for the week.

Everyone here brings their own lived experience of economics. In her motorised wheelchair, Joanne Wilcock notes how “everything is much more expensive when you’re disabled”. Bang on, yet you hardly ever read that in an article on the latest inflation figures. Bhatt knows that Levenshulme is supposed to be gentrifying – “fancy cars, flash weddings” – but notices his neighbours can’t afford to do up their own houses. “All fur coat and no knickers!” he concludes, and the room cracks up.

Another is the pedagogy:

That impulse may now be dressed up in polite euphemism – but it lives on. “So many thinktanks and MPs come up with good ideas to change our economy, but they’re all stuck in their political bubble,” says the head of Economy, Joe Earle. “Ordinary people barely get a say in the thing that rules their lives.”

Contrast that with this class and its polite horizontalism, where no one is presumed to be a total expert and everyone is treated as if they have something valuable to say. . .

At the end of the class, each participant tells the rest the best thing they have learned. There’s a pause when it gets to Aklima Akhter, who only came to this country in 2013 and has been sitting so benignly quiet in her white headscarf. She starts haltingly: “It is difficult for me, you know … the subject, the language.”

All around her are faces pursed in little moues of encouragement, but then Akhter speeds up with fluency. “But my favourite word was ‘nationalisation’. Because when things are privatised it is the rich who get all the benefit.” And for once in this room, no one is laughing.

The contrast to the usual economics classroom couldn’t be more stark—in terms of both the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the students and the commitment on the part of the facilitators to recognizing the “everyday” questions and viewpoints the students bring to learning about economics.

The usual method, at least these days (and outside of for-profit colleges and universities, which tend to attract older students), is to teach mostly young male undergraduates (according to Claudia Goldin [pdf]) in a vertical manner.* What I mean by the latter is the presumption that the ideas students bring to the classroom are probably wrong, and need to be replaced by the “correct” methods and models. And, for the most part, that means pushing students through the chapters of a traditional textbook of economics, and therefore teaching them a narrow version of economics, consisting almost entirely of neoclassical and Keynesian theories, approaches, and policies.

That way of teaching economics has the effect of naturalizing a capitalist economy. First, it reduces the universe of relevant economic thought to contemporary mainstream economics. No other economic theories, now or in the past, need apply. (Nor, for that matter, should knowledges about the economy beyond mainstream economics, from either disciplines or from outside the academy.) Second, the methods and models are taught in a “common sense” manner. As I discussed back in May, markets have a magical, quasi-mystical status within mainstream economics. They are the original starting-point of neoclassical theory—presented as being “just there,” with the requisite price and quantity axes and supply and demand schedules, as the origin and focus of economic analysis. As for macroeconomics, which I discussed this past April, the premise and promise of both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability. In both cases, at the micro and macro levels, the rules governing the economy are considered to be natural laws, which are correctly captured within the models of mainstream economics—and then, of course, meant to be respected and obeyed.

As I explained in 2011, after 70 students walked out of Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics class, my approach couldn’t be more different (all of my course syllabi are publicly available here):

For almost 30 years, I have focused on teaching neoclassical economic theory, which I present both as one story about the economy among many and as the hegemonic story among economists inside and outside the academy. I start with economic history and then present neoclassical theory from its basic assumptions (such as the assumptions about human nature) through its most important theoretical conclusions and policy recommendations (such as general equilibrium and Pareto efficiency). Then, after I present some of the extensions of neoclassical theory (such as imperfect competition, game theory, and international trade), I discuss some of the basic criticisms of neoclassical theory (from the endogeneity of preferences through the concept of capital to the distribution of income), a couple of lectures on Marxian economic theory, and the consequences for theory and policy of the differences among economic theories.

Now, I understand, my approach to teaching economics is specific to its context (in an American research university, with full-time undergraduate students, during the past three-plus decades). It might not work in a Levenshulme community center or a labor college or elsewhere. But, even in those circumstances, I would insist on history (and thus highlight the radical changes in both economic thought and economic institutions over time) and a discussion of the differences among economic theories today (neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian, based on different entry points and methods), as well as the different theoretical and social consequences of those theories.

My hope is that students would learn, if nothing else, that the rules of the economy aren’t—and never have been—”laws of nature.”

 

*Chakrabortty refers to the fact that “Not so long ago, a Levenshulme resident could learn economics – or any number of other subjects – through the adult evening classes offered by the University of Manchester. The extramural programme stretched as far afield as Wigan and Burnley, and by the 1970s employed more than 30 academic staff. Then followed decades of cuts, until the entire department was shut down in 2006.” In the United States, students haven been able to study economics in a variety of settings, such as labor colleges (including the Work People’s College [1904-41] in Duluth, Minnesota, Brookwood Labor College [1921-37] in Katonah, New York, and Commonwealth College [1923-41] near Mena, Arkansas, as well as the National Labor College, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, which closed in 2014) and centers of popular education (including, still, the Center for Popular Economics and the Highlander Center).

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The goal of mainstream economists is to get everybody to work. As a result, they celebrate capitalism for creating full employment—and worry that capitalism will falter if not enough people are working.

The utopian premise and promise of mainstream economic theory are that capitalism generates an efficient allocation of resources, including labor. Thus, underlying all mainstream economic models is a labor market characterized by full employment.

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Thus, for example, in a typical mainstream macroeconomic model, an equilibrium wage rate in the the labor market (Wf, in the lower left quadrant) is characterized by full employment (the supply of and demand for labor are equal, at Lf), which in turn generates a level of full-employment output (Yf, via the production function, in the lower right quadrant) and a corresponding level of prices (P0, in the upper quadrants). If the money wage is flexible it is possible to ignore the top left quadrant, because, in that case, the equilibrium real wage, employment and output are Wf, Lf and Yf, respectively, whatever the price level. With flexible money wages, the aggregate supply curve is independent of the price level and is represented by YFYF.

That’s the neoclassical version of the story. The Keynesian alternative is that the aggregate supply curve is relatively elastic below full employment and the wage rate is fixed by institutions, and therefore is not perfectly flexible. In such a case, aggregate demand determines the level of output, which will normally fall below the full-employment level.

And so we have the longstanding argument between the two wings of mainstream economics—between the invisible hand of flexible wages and the visible hand of government spending. But, equally important, what the two theories of macroeconomics have in common is the ultimate goal: full employment. In other words, both groups of economists presume that the aim of capitalism is to generate full employment and that, with the appropriate policies—free markets for the neoclassicals, government intervention for the Keynesians—capitalism is capable of putting everyone to work.

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But the argument also goes in the opposite direction: capitalism works best when everyone is working. That’s because capitalist growth (e.g., in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita, the green line in the chart, measured on the left) is predicated on the growth of the labor force (the the red line, measured on the right).

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Mainstream economists also argue that a low work rate is an important cause of low incomes and high poverty. They argue that, when considering different policy interventions for this population—including improving educational attainment, raising the minimum wage, and increasing the number of two-earner families—the most beneficial intervention for improving incomes is to assume that all household heads work full-time.

Finally, mainstream economists argue that, in addition to increasing incomes and decreasing poverty, work has an additional benefit: it gives people dignity and a sense of self-worth. The idea, as articulated for example by Brad DeLong, is that having a job gives workers an honorable place in society, which presumably they are deprived of if they receive some kind of government assistance—whether in the form of payments from one or another anti-poverty program or a universal basic income. “Just giving people money” (according to Eduardo Porter) disrupts the incentive to work and undermines the “social, psychological, and economic anchor” associated with having a job.

That’s why there’s such an intense debate these days over the participation rate of U.S. workers. Even though the unemployment rate has fallen to historically low levels (and now stands at 3.8 percent), the lack of participation—whether measured in terms of the labor force participation rate (the blue line in the chart) or the employment-population ratio (the red line)—remains much lower than it was a couple of decades ago.* According to mainstream economists, that’s why rates of growth in output and incomes have slowed. There simply aren’t enough people working.

Once again, there’s an ongoing discussion among mainstream economists about the causes of that decline and what to do about it. More conservative mainstream economists tend to focus on the supply side of the labor market and the unwillingness of workers to make themselves available—mostly because they’re benefiting from some part of the social safety net (such as disability insurance, welfare, or government health insurance). Liberal mainstream economists also worry about the supply side (especially, for example, when it comes to women, who might not be able to work because they don’t have adequate childcare) but put more emphasis on the demand side (for example, the elimination of specific kinds of jobs based on international trade, automation, or the effects of economic downturns). Underlying this debate is a shared presumption that more people working will be better for them and for the economy as a whole.

Even portions of the Left accept the idea that the goal is to move toward more work. Thus, for example, both modern monetary theorists and Bernie Sanders argue in favor of a government job guarantee. The idea is that, if private employers can’t or won’t make the decisions to hire workers and create full employment, then the government needs to step in, as the “employer of last resort.” Again, the presumption—shared with those in both wings of mainstream economics—is that the goal of the current economic system and appropriate economic policy is get more workers to work more.

The utopianism of full employment is so entrenched, as a seemingly uncontested common sense, it’s difficult to imagine a different utopian horizon. But there is one, which emerges from at least three different theoretical and political traditions.

In the Marxian tradition, more work also means more surplus labor, which benefits all those who manage to get a cut of the surplus—but not workers themselves, who fall increasingly behind their employers and others in the small group at the top. That’s because, as employment increases, more workers are performing both necessary and surplus labor. Therefore, even assuming the rate of surplus extraction remains constant, the total amount of surplus created by workers increases. But, of course, the rate itself often increases—for example, as a result of competition among capitalists, who find ways of increasing productivity, which tends to lower the amount they have to pay to hire their workers (as I explain in more detail here). So, what appears to be an unalloyed good in the mainstream tradition—more jobs and more workers—is an economic and social disaster from a Marxian perspective. More workers produce more surplus, which is used to create a growing gap between those at the top and everyone else.

Then there’s the broader socialist tradition, which attacked the capitalist work ethic and claimed “The Right to Be Lazy.” Here’s Paul LaFargue back in 1883:

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).

Today, in the United States and around the world, the capitalist work ethic still prevails.

Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

And there’s a third tradition, one that directly contests the idea that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither wing of mainstream economists (nor, for that matter, many today on the liberal-left) has been able to formulate or sustain such insight.

Contesting the utopianism of full employment with a different utopian horizon creates the possibility of imagining and creating a different world—in which work acquires different meanings, in which the distinction between necessary and surplus is redefined and perhaps erased, and for the first time in modern history workers are no longer forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else and achieve the right to be lazy.

 

*The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the labor force participation rate as the share of the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population either working or willing to work. Simply put, it is the portion of the population that is currently employed or looking for work. It differs from both the unemployment rate (the number of unemployed divided by the civilian labor force) and the employment-population ratio (the ratio of total civilian employment to the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population).

 

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Liberals like to talk about all kinds of social ills and identity-laden tensions—but not class struggle. That’s their persistent and enduring blindspot.

Except, it seems, when it comes to Donald Trump.

Thomas B. Edsall is a good example. Over the years, he’s produced a series of solid, insightful surveys of liberal research and analysis on a wide variety of economic and political topics. But he hasn’t written much if anything about class—until his latest, titled “The Class Struggle According to Donald Trump.”

And, to give him credit, Edsall is right about one thing:

Trump campaigned as the ally of the white working class, but any notion that he would take its side as it faces off against employers is a gross misjudgment.

But his view of class struggle is sorely lacking. First, Edsall starts with and highlights the recent work of Alan Krueger and Eric Posner, who criticize “labor market collusion” on the part of large employers and maintain that the ideal labor market is one in which “workers can move freely to seek the most desirable opportunities for which they are qualified.”

Presumably, if the appropriate reforms were made—for example, scrutinizing mergers for adverse labor market effects, banning non-compete covenants that bind low-wage workers, and no-poaching arrangements among establishments that belong to a single franchise—the problem of class struggle would be solved.

Second, Edsall accepts the idea that, until the 1970s, class struggle in the United States had mostly disappeared or been held in abeyance, under the “postwar capital-labor accord.” But there never was such an accord—or, as it is sometimes referred to, a “truce.”

As economists Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard (unfortunately behind a paywall) have argued,

Recent U.S. historical and industrial relations scholarship rejects the existence of such an accord. . .The existence or non-existence of an accord is not only an important matter of history; it has very definite practical effects. During the 1980s and 1990s especially, many in the labor movement and some radical economists sought “cooperation” between capital and labor as a cure for the ills of the American economy, often harkening back to the imagined “golden age.” But if such cooperation is a historical chimera, the time and energy put into “cooperation” might have been better spent in the self-organization of the working class.

Today, under Trump, Edsall and other liberals are attempting to revive that tradition, hoping that reforming the labor market can serve as the basis for more “cooperation” between capital and labor.

Ironically, both Trump and liberal thinkers like Edsall invoke a nostalgia for the exact same postwar period. In the case of Trump, it was a time when U.S. manufacturing successfully exported to the entire world; for Edsall and company, it’s when labor and capital agreed to cooperate and negotiate peacefully.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t intense class struggle during that period—or, for that matter, afterward. Only that the conditions and consequences have changed. And employers have been on the winning side for decades now, long before Trump was elected.

Consider the data Edsall himself cites, which are illustrated in the chart at the top of the post. Since 1970, the wage share of national income (the orange line) has fallen by more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, beginning in 1986, the profit share (the blue line) has risen by 164 percent. For decades now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, a class struggle has been waged by corporate boards of directors and workers—and the working-class has been losing.

It’s true, they’re still losing under Trump. But they also lost during the recovery from the crash of 2007-08. Just as they did in the decades leading up to the greatest crash since the first Great Depression.

In fact, one can argue that capitalists’ remarkable success in extracting more or more profit from workers is precisely what created the obscene levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth that have left the majority of the U.S. population falling further and further behind—and, as a consequence, the election of Donald Trump.

The problem is not, as liberals would like to believe, that exceptional circumstances—market imperfections—have turned the tide against workers. It’s that class struggle is inherent to capitalism, and workers are only useful as creators of the enormous profits captured by their employers.

As I see it, class struggle between employers and workers can’t be solved by reforming the labor market. It can only be eliminated by getting rid of the labor market itself—that is, by moving beyond capitalism.

That’s a real solution to the problem of class struggle that neither Trump nor American liberals are interested in thinking about.

Block chain network concept on technology background

Forget Bitcoin. It’s the underlying technology, blockchain, that is generating the most excitement. Even utopia!

Bitcoin is a digital currency that was invented in 2009 by a person (or group) who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His stated goal was to create “a new electronic cash system” that was “completely decentralized with no server or central authority.” After cultivating the concept and technology, in 2011, Nakamoto turned over the source code and domains to others in the bitcoin community, and subsequently vanished.

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While Bitcoin (and other so-called cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, Ripple, and the other 1500 or so other such currencies) have generated a great deal of media attention (for their novelty, their ability to permit transactions beyond government surveillance and control, and their wild gyrations in price), it’s blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, that carries the utopian promise of remaking the economy and society.

At its most basic, blockchain provides a decentralized database, or “distributed digital ledger,” of transactions that everyone on the network can see. This network is essentially a chain of computers that must all approve an exchange before it can be verified and recorded.* The technology can work for almost every type of transaction involving exchange-value, including money, goods, and property. It can also serve as the basis for a variety of other functions, from distributed cloud storage and the recording of property titles to authenticated voting and decentralized social media platforms.

For some (such as Brendan Markey-Towler), blockchain technology makes it possible not only to envision, but to establish a viable pathway toward, a utopian alternative to contemporary society.

On the face of it a mundane and boring technology for bookkeeping, blockchain is actually revolutionary because it makes the anarchist utopia a more realisable dream than has ever before been possible. At the very least it provides the strongest challenge ever posed to the monopoly of the state over the promulgation, formation, keeping and verification of institutions and the public record. The purpose of this essay is to investigate the conditions under which this might occur, and the dynamics of a society organised using blockchain technologies.

According to Markey-Towler, blockchain can serve as the basis for organizing an anarchist utopia—”a society which is composed of groups formed entirely by mutual association and absent violence and coercion.” The idea is that the keeping of verifiable records via blockchain technology allows for the creation of a public record that is kept by everyone and updated by collective consent, which means there is no nexus of power (such as the state or monopoly corporations) that can be exercised to corrupt or use the public record as a tool of extortion.** Even more, the existence of blockchain technology makes it possible to exit from existing economic and social relations and to practice, if only in a selected domain, a different way of organizing economic and social transactions. Thus, it permits a “sort of competition” for adherents between the two systems—one organized in and by the state, the other via decentralized distributed ledgers—and creates the possibility for individuals to choose the set of institutions associated with the alternative, blockchain technology.

I have no interest here in exploring either the feasibility or desirability of such a blockchain utopia (although I have elsewhere, e.g., here and here). My focus for the moment is otherwise—on the fact that the claims about blockchain from the latest example of a long series of “technological utopianisms.”

Many will remember this 2012 iPhone commercial claiming the device is the most used camera in the world. Light piano music twinkles and images of people living their best lives flit past. It is utopic desire, crystallized: the ad says that the gadget will make us happy, and that, through its lens, we’ll all evolve into a better version of ourselves. Facebook (like other social media) promised to give “people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” And there’s Uber, which pledges “to make transportation safer and more accessible, helping people order food quickly and affordably, reducing congestion in cities by getting more people into fewer cars, and creating opportunities for people to work on their own terms.”

Many will recognize these as pledges that technology will usher in the new utopian society. But, as Howard P. Segal reminds us,

few if any of the high-tech zealots of our own day have even considered the possibility that, far from being original, their crusades fit squarely within a rich Western tradition of technological utopianism. It is not likely that very many of them realize how old-fashioned they really are when celebrating technology’s prospects for transforming the nation and, in due course, the world.***

They are merely the latest in a long line—starting with the late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Pansophists (such as Tomasso Campanella, Johann Valentin Andreae, and Francis Bacon) through the utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century (especially Henri de Saint-Simon) through the numerous technological utopians of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries (including Edward Bellamy, Henry Olerich, Edgar Chambliss)—of prophets of progress and the possibility of achieving utopia through the introduction and expansion of new technologies.

Technological utopianism, as I am using it here, refers to one or more of the following three claims:

  1. Technology is the means for creating a perfect society.
  2. The perfect society itself is modeled on technology.
  3. The perfect society is one that promotes the development of new, better technologies.

Clearly, Markey-Towler’s enthusiastic claims for blockchain technology meets the definition. So, as it turns out, does contemporary mainstream economics.

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Mainstream economists treat technological innovation as the sine qua non of economic and social progress—the key to economic growth and the achievement of global prosperity. It is introduced in the production function as y, the “recipe,” whereby capital (K) and labor (L) can be combined to produce output (Y). Thus, even without changes in the amount of capital and labor, output will be increased as new technologies are introduced. Thus, when they move from an individual firm’s production function to economy-wide economic growth, mainstream economists claim that the key is the increase in productivity due to technological change, which is generally referred to as the “Solow residual” (named after Nobel laureate Robert Solow).****

The mainstream argument is that the level of production and the rate of economic growth can be increased by the introduction of new technologies, which lead to higher levels of productivity. More goods and services are thus made available to satisfy human wants, thus solving the problem of scarcity.*****

Moreover, mainstream economists claim, an economic system based on free markets is the best way of encouraging the development and application of new technologies. At a microeconomic level, profit-maximizing firms have an incentive choose the best, more efficient technologies, for themselves and for the economy as a whole. And free international trade is the best way of increasing the pool of research and development experiments, from which the best technology is chosen. Thus, technology trade increases national income in each country and raises the total gains from trade.

Contemporary mainstream economics thus combines market utopianism with technological utopianism.

As I see it, the biggest problem with technological utopianism is that it takes politics out of the equation—whether in imagining solutions to economic and social problems or envisioning the role of technology in a radically different kind of economy and society. Technology thus becomes a substitute for politics. As Aleszu Bajak has recently explained with respect to finding a solution to climate change,

Relying on a technological fix that’s just over the horizon avoids the mountain moving required to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, bring hundreds of countries into agreement on how to limit and clean up emissions, and alter the consumption habits of an entire civilization. Those are systemic complexities ingrained in our economies and cultures. Propping up glaciers to limit sea level rise, sprinkling iron dust into the oceans to encourage plankton growth to absorb carbon, or spraying the skies to reflect the sun’s heat just seems simpler.

Much the same can be said of obscene inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth, the “diseases of despair” that now afflict a large portion of the U.S. population, or the prospect that new forms of automation will eliminate jobs and make workers redundant. In each case, a technological fix is promised—tax-rate changes for inequality, the expansion of healthcare insurance for increasing levels of addiction, a universal basic income for labor-substituting robots—when the problem itself is political, not technical.

And that means the solution has to be political—organizing people to criticize the existing set of institutions, in order to imagine and create new ways of organizing the economy and society. New technologies may even have a role to play in enabling people to see such a “virtual reality.”

Tackling problems as deeply ingrained as the ones humanity faces right now will require facing a question that technology alone cannot address: are we willing to band together to criticize and change the existing set of economic and social institutions?

 

*To carry out a transaction a party needs two things: a wallet (public key) and a private key. A wallet is a string of digits and letters, also called a public key. It is an address that appears each time a transaction is done. The private key is a string of random digits that should be kept in secret. When someone enables a transaction it is signed with a private key, which is only visible to a sender. Then a network of nodes carries that transaction making sure that it is valid. Once it confirms its validity the transaction is put into a block where, because it has been “hashed,” it is virtually impossible to change without being detected.

**Technically, blockchain fulfills three requirements: (a) it guarantees a certain degree of reciprocity and security with respect to exchange and property; (b) it is sufficiently easy to interact with and to keep records; and (c) it permits a certain degree of freedom to use one’s property, that is, it is secure from theft, corruption, and manipulation.

***Howard P. Segal, Technology and Utopia (American Historical Association, 2006), p. 66.

****Solow (1957) started with a neoclassical production function where Yt = At•F(Kt, Lt), where Yt is aggregate output in time period t, Kt is the stock of physical capital, Lt is the labor force and At represents productivity growth due to technology. Solow then estimated the variables for the U.S. economy for the period 1909-49, where output per labor hour approximately doubled. According to his estimates, about one-eighth of the increment in labor productivity could be attributed to increased capital per person hour, and the remaining seven-eighths to the residual.

*****This is one of the reasons why Robert Gordon’s work on the slowing-down of U.S. productivity growth has been met with such concern.

global wealth

The premise and promise of capitalism, going back to Adam Smith, have been that global wealth would increase and serve as a benefit to all of humanity.* But the experience of recent decades has challenged those claims: while global wealth has indeed grown, most of the increase has been captured by a small group at the top. The result is that an obscenely unequal distribution of the world’s wealth has become even more unequal—and, if business as usual continues, it will turn out to be even more grotesquely unequal in the decades ahead.

The alarm was most recently sounded by Michael Savage, in the Guardian, who cited a projection produced by the House of Commons library to the effect that, if trends seen since the 2008 financial crash were to continue, then the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth by 2030.”

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I finally managed to track down that report, which was commissioned by MP Liam Byrne, who is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth. It relies on data compiled by Credit Suisse and a projection assuming that total wealth grows at the same rates as during the period 2008-17.

The problem, of course, is global wealth is notoriously difficult to calculate—for both empirical and theoretical reasons—and Credit Suisse doesn’t reveal its methodology.

That’s why the work of the World Inequality Lab is so important.** They’re doing the painstaking work of calculating the wealth that has been generated by global capitalism and how its ownership is distributed.

Thus far, they have reasonably good data for a selection of nations: China, Europe (represented by three countries, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom), and the United States. Those are the numbers illustrated in the chart at the top of this post (with the vertical green line, at 2015, separating past trends from future projections). What they find is that

At the global level represented by China, Europe, and the United States), wealth is substantially more concentrated than income: the top 10% owns more than 70% of the total wealth. The top 1% wealthiest individuals alone own 33% of total wealth in 2017. This figure is up from 28% in 1980. The bottom of the population, on the other hand, owns almost no wealth over the entire period (less than 2%).

The share owned by the top 1 percent is less than reported by Byrne but it’s still an one-third of global wealth. (The share for the top 1 percent in the United States is even higher: an astounding 41.8 percent in 2012.)

But the projection looking forward is similarly dramatic: according to the World Inequality Lab, if present trends continue the share of each of the top groups—the top 1 percent, the top 0.1 percent, and the top 0.01 percent—would growth by one percentage point every five years. What that means is that, by 2050, the share of each group would increase dramatically. In particular, the share owned by the top 0.1 percent would eventually match that of the declining middle group—at a quarter of global wealth.

What we’ve been seeing in recent decades is that an unequal distribution of wealth leads to even more inequality, since wealth inequality is amplified as wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group at the top. First, past wealth is capitalized at a faster pace, since the rate of return on wealth is faster than the rate of growth of the economy. Moreover, this effect is reinforced by the fact that rates of return tend to increase with the level of wealth: the rates of return available to large financial portfolios are usually much higher than those open to small bank deposits and the other savings vehicles available to everyone else.

None of this is new. Those in the small group at the top have long been able to put distance between themselves and everyone else precisely because they’ve been able to capture the surplus and then convert their share of the surplus into ownership of wealth. And the returns on their wealth allow them to capture even more of the surplus produced within global capitalism.

In short, unless radical economic changes are made within nations, the unequal distribution of global wealth created by contemporary capitalism is both the premise and promise of an even more unequal distribution of wealth in the decades to come.

 

*To be clear, the “wealth of nations” that Smith referred to was current production or, as it is currently measured, Gross Domestic Product—the “immense accumulation of commodities” produced and exchanged in a country’s economy over a particular period of time. Mainstream economists (such as Robert Barro) often claim that inequality in global capitalism is decreasing, because of “convergence,” that is, growth rates in developing countries of the Global South are faster than in the developed North and the gap in GDP per capita is closing. Today, wealth refers to the ownership of assets, both financial (stocks, bonds, etc.) and nonfinancial (especially housing)—as against income (flows of value associated with either doing or owning) or sums of transactions (which is what is captured in GDP).

**The other major sources of information on global wealth are Forbes (which publishes global rankings on the world’s billionaires) and the French business consulting company Capgemini (which issues an annual World Wealth Report focused on the wealth of global High Net Worth Individuals).