Posts Tagged ‘economics’

T2D

Mainstream economists continue to discuss the two great crises of capitalism during the past century just like the pillars of society performed in the brothel—a “house of infinite mirrors and theaters”—in Jean Genet’s The Balcony.* The order they represent is indeed threatened by an uprising in the streets, and the only question is: can they reestablish the illusion of control?

The latest version of the absurdist economic play opens with Brad DeLong, who dons the costume of the liberal mainstream economist and argues that, while the Great Depression of the 1930s was far deeper than the Great Recession (what I have long referred to as the Second Great Depression), the recovery from the crash of 2007-08 was so mishandled that it casts a shadow over the U.S. economy in a way the first Great Depression did not.

now we are haunted by our Great Recession in a sense that our predecessors were not haunted by the Great Depression. Looking forward, it appears that we will be haunted for who knows how long. No unbiased observer projects anything other than slow growth, much slower than the years during and after World War II. Nobody is forecasting that the haunting will cease — that the shadow left from the Great Recession will lift.

Basically, DeLong blames two groups—conservative mainstream economists and policymakers (“including the decision makers at the top in the Obama administration”)—for a recovery that was both too long and too slow. The first claims the monetary and fiscal policies that were adopted were wrongheaded from the start, and fought every attempt to sustain or expand them. The second group claims they prevented a second Great Depression and refuses to acknowledge the failure of the policies they devised and adopted.

The customer who dresses up as a representative of the conservative wing of mainstream economics, Robert Samuelson, expresses his sympathy with DeLong’s analysis but considers it be overstated. Samuelson’s view is that slow growth is not caused by the shadow cast by inadequate economic policies, but is the more or less inevitable result of two exogenous events: reduced growth of the labor force and slower growth in productivity.

The retirement of baby-boom workers would have occurred without the Great Recession. The slowdown in productivity growth — reflecting technology, management and worker skills — is not well understood, but may also be independent of the Great Recession.

This is exactly what is to be expected in the high-end economic brothel. It’s a debate confined to growth rates and the degree to which economic policies or exogenous factors should ultimately shoulder the blame of the crisis of legitimacy of the current economic order. Each, it seems, wants to play the fantasy of the Chief of Police in order to create the illusion of restoring order.**

What DeLong and Samuelson choose not to talk about are the fundamental differences between the response to the 1929 crash and the most recent crisis of capitalism. As is clear from the data in the chart at the top of the post, the balance of power was fundamentally altered as a result of the New Deals (the first and especially the second), which simply didn’t occur in recent years. After 1929, the wage share (the green line) remained relatively constant, even in the face of massive unemployment—and eventually, as a result of a whole series of other policies (from regulating the financial sector through jobs programs to unleashing a wave of labor-union organizing), the shares of national income going to the bottom 90 percent (the blue line) and the top 1 percent (the red line) moved in opposite directions. The current recovery has been quite different: a declining wage share (which, admittedly, continues a decades-long slide), the bottom 90 percent losing out and the top 1 percent resuming its rise.

And the reason? As I see it, what was happening outside the brothel, in the streets, explains the different responses to the two crashes. It was the Left—in the form of political parties (Socialist, Communist, and the left-wing of the Democratic Party), but also labor unions, councils of the unemployed, academics, and so on—that pushed the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress to adopt policies that moved beyond restoring economic growth to fundamentally restructure the U.S. economy (which, of course, continued during and after the war years).*** Nothing similar happened in the United States after 2008. As a result, the policies that were discussed and eventually adopted only meant a recovery for large corporations and wealthy households. Everyone else has been left to battle over the scraps—attempting to get by on low-paying jobs retirement incomes based on volatile stock markets, with underwater mortgages and rising student debt, and facing out-of-control healthcare costs.****

It should come as no surprise, then, that the elites who continue to play out their fantasies in the house of mirrors have lost the trust of ordinary people. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, it’s clear that new masqueraders have been willing to don the costumes and continue the fantasy that the old order can be restored.

Only a fundamental rethink, which rejects all the illusions created within the economic bordello, will chart a path that is radically different from the recoveries that followed both great crises of capitalism of the past hundred years.

 

*I saw my first production of “O Balcão” at Sao Paulo’s Teatro Oficina in 1970, as a young exchange student during one of the most repressive years of the Brazilian dictatorship. Staging Genet’s play at that moment represented both a searing critique of the military regime and an extraordinary act of resistance to government censorship.

**Much the same can be said of a parallel debate, between Joseph Stiglitz and Lawrence Summers.

***Even then, we need to recognize how limited the recovery from the first Great Depression was. Amidst all the changes and new regulations, leaving control of the surplus in private hands left large corporations with the interest and means to circumvent and ultimately eliminate the New Deal regulations, thus creating the conditions for the Second Great Depression.

****As Evan Horowitz has shown, roughly 14 percent of workers have seen no raise over the past year (counting only those who have stayed in the same job). That means, with inflation, their real wages have fallen. Moreover, “when a large share of workers get passed over for raises, wage growth for all workers tends to remain slow in the year ahead.”

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Teaching critical literacy.

That’s what professors do in the classroom. We teach students languages in order to make some sense of the world around them. How to view a film or read a novel. How to think about economics, politics, and culture. How to understand cell biology or the evolution of the universe.

And, of course, how to think critically about those languages—both their conditions and their consequences.

I’ve been thinking about the task of teaching critical literacy as I prepare the syllabi and lectures for my final semester at the University of Notre Dame.

Lately, I’ve been struck by the way mainstream economics is usually taught as a choice between markets and policy. Whenever a problem comes up—say, inequality or climate change—one group of mainstream economists offers the market as a solution, while the other group suggests that markets aren’t enough and need to be supplemented by government policies. Thus, for example, conservative, market-oriented economists teach students that, with free markets, everybody gets what they deserve (so inequality isn’t really a problem) and greenhouse gas emissions will decline over time (by imposing a tax on the burning of carbon-based fuels). Liberal economists generally argue that market outcomes are inadequate and require additional policies—for example, minimum-wage laws (to lower inequality) and stringent regulations on carbon emissions (because allowing the market to work through carbon taxes, or even cap-and-trade schemes, won’t achieve the necessary reductions to avoid global warming).*

That’s the way mainstream economists frame the issues for students—and, for that matter, for the general public. Markets or policies. Either rely on markets or implement new policies. Once someone learns the language, they see the world in a particular way, and they’re permitted to participate in the debate on those terms.

The problem is, something crucial is being left out of those languages, and thus the economic and political debate: institutions. The existing set of institutions are taken as given. Therefore, the possibility of changing existing institutions or creating new institutions to solve economic and social problems is simply taken off the table.

Among those institutions, perhaps the key one is the corporation. The presumption within mainstream economics is that privately owned, publicly traded corporations are simply there, allowed to operate freely within markets or nudged in a better direction by government policies. What mainstream economists never encourage students (or, again the general public) to consider is the possibility that institutions—especially the corporation—might be modified or radically transformed to create the foundation for a different kind of economy.

Consider how strange that is. Corporations are the central institution when it comes to the distribution of income and therefore the obscene, and still-growing, levels of inequality in the U.S. and world economies. It’s how most workers are paid (because that’s where jobs are available) and where the surplus is first appropriated (by the boards of directors) and then distributed (to shareholders and others). And as workers’ wages stagnate, and the surplus grows, economic inequality becomes worse and worse.

The same is true with climate change. The major institution involved in producing and using fossil fuels—and therefore creating the conditions for global warming—is the corporation. Especially gigantic multinational corporations. Some make profits by extracting fossil fuels; others use those fuels to produce commodities and to transport them around the world. They are the basis of the fossil-fuel-intensive Capitalocene.

Within the language of mainstream economists, the corporation is always-already there. They may allow for different kinds of markets and different kinds of policies but never for an alternative to the institution of the corporation —whether a different kind of corporation or a non-corporate way of organizing economic and social life.

If the goal of teaching economic is critical literacy, then we have to teach students the multiple languages of economics—including the possibilities that are foreclosed by some languages and opened up by other languages. One of our tasks, then, is to look beyond the language of markets and policy and to expose students to a language of changing institutions.

Now that I begin to look back on my decades of teaching economics, I guess that’s what I’ve been doing the entire time, exploring and promoting critical literacy. I’ve always taken as one of my responsibilities the teaching of the language of mainstream economists. But I haven’t stopped there. I’ve also always endeavored to expose students to other languages, other ways of making sense of the world around them.

Maybe, as a result, some of them have left knowing that it’s not just a question of markets or policy. Economic institutions are important, too.

Addendum

To complicate matters a bit further, the three elements I’ve focused on in this blog post—markets, policy, and institutions—are not mutually exclusive. Thus, for example, at least some conservative mainstream economists do understand that properly functioning markets do presume certain institutions (such as the rule of law and the protection of private property) and policies (especially not regulating markets), while liberals often advocate policies that allow markets to operate with better outcomes (I’m thinking, in particular, of antitrust legislation) and institutions to be safeguarded (especially when they might be threatened by grotesque levels of inequality and the effects of climate change). As for institutions, I can well imagine noncorporate enterprises—for example, worker cooperatives—operating within markets and relying on government policy. However, such enterprises imply the existence of markets and policies that differ markedly from those that prevail today, which are taken as given and immutable by mainstream economists.

 

*Dani Rodrik summarizes the terms of the debate well in a recent column: when a local factory closes because a firm has decided to outsource production,

Economists’ usual answer is to call for “greater labor market flexibility”: workers should simply leave depressed areas and seek jobs elsewhere. . .

Alternatively, economists might recommend compensating the losers from economic change, through social transfers and other benefits.

Once again, it’s a question of markets (in this case, the labor market) and policy (more generous social transfers to the “losers”).

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Mark Tansey, “The Occupation” (1984)

It’s not the best of times. In fact, it feels increasingly like the worst of times. I’m thinking, at the moment, of the savage attacks in Pittsburgh (at the Tree of Life synagogue) and Louisville, Kentucky (where 2 black people were recently gunned down by a white shooter at a Kroger store) as well as the election of Jair Bolsonaro (who represents, in equal parts, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump) in Brazil. So, it seems appropriate to change gears and, instead of continuing my series on utopia, to turn my attention to its opposite: dystopia. 

Mainstream economics has long been guided by a utopianism—at both the micro and macro levels. In microeconomics, the utopian promise is that, if the prices of goods and services are allowed to reach their market equilibrium, everyone gets what they pay for, everyone is equal, and everyone benefits. Similarly, the shared goal of mainstream 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.

But that utopianism has been disrupted in recent years, by a series of warnings that reflect the emergence of a much more dystopian view among some (but certainly not all) mainstream economists. For example, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression have raised the specter of “secular stagnation,” the idea that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global economic crisis. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by financial stability. Then, there’s Robert J. Gordon, who has expressed his concern that economic growth is slowing down, it has been for decades, and there’s no prospect for a resumption of fast economic growth in the foreseeable future because of a dearth of technical innovations. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has demonstrated the obscene and still-growing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth and expressed his worry that current trends will, if they continue, culminate in a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

Such negative views are not confined to economics, of course. We all remember how readers sought out famous dystopian stories—for example, by Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell—that connected the anxieties that arose during the early days of the Trump administration to apprehensions the world has experienced before.

However, Sophie Gilbert [ht: ja] suggests that, over the last couple of years, fictional dystopias have fundamentally changed.

They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it.

She’s referring to speculative-fiction books that parallel the themes in and draw inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—novels such as Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, and Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps. 

With the help of Jo Lindsay Walton, coeditor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal Vector and editor of the Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy database, I have discovered another burgeoning literature in recent years, representing and critically engaging the dystopian economics in fantasy and science fiction.

A good example of a dystopian scenario is “Dream Job,” by Seamus Sullivan. As the editor explains, it is a “cutting parable for a generation that undersleeps and overworks to get underpaid—where paying your student loans is quite actually a waking nightmare.” The protagonist, Aishwarya, lives in Bengaluru and works for low wages in a call center. In order to supplement her income, to pay back her loans, she attaches wireless electrodes that arrive by courier from SleepTyte and sleeps for an extra hour or two a day on behalf of someone else (such as as banker in Chicago), who gets more waking hours in the day without feeling tired. An eight-hour shift pays more than the call center and her customers tip her well. But even though Aishwarya manages to save enough rent for her own apartment, the increasing number of hours she’s spending sleeping for someone else leads to her own ruin, as her body deteriorates and she can no longer control the break between her customers’ dreams and her own living nightmare.

As Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien explain, while much twentieth-century science fiction tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism, a growing body of recent work looks to counter that narrative and emphasize the negative effects of the existing (or, in the near future, imaginable) technologies of capitalism, especially increased automation and the rise of digital platforms.* The themes include, in addition to the capitalist takeover of sleep time, the automation and digitization of both the labor process and the distribution of commodities, the proliferation of new border zones and heightened constraints on the circulation of laboring bodies, the reappropriation by capital of ameliorative measures such as the universal basic income, the development of performance-enhancing drugs for the workplace, the development of surveillance technologies and a concomitant increase in hacking tools designed to evade detection, and the intensification of climate change. The result is a dystopian landscape of impoverishment and impasse,

not a transitional space on its way to postcapitalism, but an immiserated space going nowhere at all, a wasted landscape of inequality and insecurity built on the backs of precarious workers and hardwired to keep them in their place at the bottom of the slagheap.

The fact is, utopian literature has always been accompanied by its dystopian opposite—each, in their own way, showing how the existing world falls short of its promise. Both genres also serve to cast familiar things in a strange light, so that we begin to notice them as if for the first time. What distinguishes dystopian “science friction” is the warning that if things continue on this course, if elements of the economy’s current logic remain unchecked and alternatives are not imagined and implemented, the outcomes may be catastrophic both individually and for society as a whole.

As is turns out, mainstream economic theory, when viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, is replete with its own dystopian narratives. As Walton points out, the story of the origin of money offered by mainstream economists—that money was invented in order to surmount the problems associated with barter—is not only a fiction, which runs counter to what anthropologists and others have documented to be the real, messy origins of money as a way of keeping track of debts and as a result of the actions of sovereigns and the state; it rests on a dystopian vision of a money-less economy.** The usual argument is that barter requires the double coincidence of wants, the unlikely situation of two people, each having a good that the other wants at the right time and place to make an exchange. Without money, producers (who are always-already presumed to be self-interested and separate, in a social division of labor) are forced to either curtail both their production and consumption, because they can’t count on exchanging the extra goods and services they produce for the other goods they want to consume. People would have to spend time searching for others to trade with, a huge waste of resources. Barter is therefore inconvenient and inefficient—a presumed dystopia that can only be superseded by finding something that can serve as a means of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. Hence, money.

The barter myth is eager to argue that money arises from the uncoordinated, self-interested behavior of individuals, without any role for communal deliberation or governmental authority. Simultaneously, it tries to insinuate that money is a completely natural part of who and what we are. It tells us that learning to use money isn’t too different from an infant learning to move around, or to make their thoughts and feelings known. In other words, money has to be the way it is, because we are the way we are.

The theory and policies of mainstream economics are based on a variety of other dystopian stories. Consider, for example, the minimum wage. According to mainstream economists (like Gregory Mankiw), while the aim of the minimum wage may be to help poor workers, it actually hurts them, because it creates a situation where the quantity demanded of labor is less than the quantity supplied of labor. In other words, a minimum wage may raise the incomes of those workers who have jobs but it lowers the incomes of workers who can’t find jobs. Those workers, who mainstream economists presume would be employed at lower wages (because they have little experience, few skills, and thus low productivity), would be better off by being allowed to escape the dystopia of a regulated labor market as a result of eliminating the minimum wage. Similar dystopian stories undergird mainstream theory and policy in many other areas, from rent control (which, it is argued, creates a shortage of housing and long waiting lists) to international trade (which, if regulated, e.g., by tariffs, would lead to higher prices for imported goods and less trade for the world as a whole).

Dystopian stories thus serve as the foundation for much of mainstream economics—from the origins of monetary exchange to the effects of regulating otherwise-free markets. Their aim is to make an economy without money, or a monetary economy that is subject to government regulations, literally unthinkable.

But, Walton reminds us, “the relationship between dystopia and utopia is intensely slippery.” First, because it’s possible to go across the grain and actually want to inhabit what mainstream economists consider to be a dystopian landscape—for example, by embracing the forms of gift exchange that can prosper in a world without money. Second, once everything is torn down, it is possible to imagine other ways things can be put back together. Thus, for example, while Laura Horn argues that the ubiquitous theme of corporate dystopia in popular science fiction generally only allows for heroic individual acts of resistance, it is also possible to provide a sense of what comes “after the corporation,” such as “alternative visions of organising collectively owned, or at least worker-directed, production.”***

Dystopian thinking can therefore serve as a springboard both for criticizing the speculative fictions of mainstream economics and for imagining an “archaeology of the future” (to borrow Fredric Jameson’s characterization) that entices us to look beyond capitalism and to imagine alternative ways of organizing economic and social life.****

 

*Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien, “Science Friction,” Vector, no. 288 (Fall 2018): 34-41.

**Jo Lindsay Walton, “Afterword: Cockayne Blues,” in Strange Economics: Economic Speculative Fiction, ed. David F. Shultz (TdotSpec, 2018), 301-326.

***Laura Horn (“Future Incorporated,” in Economic Science Fictions, ed. William Davies [London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018], pp.  41-58).

****Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

 

Alston

Last month, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (whose important work I have written about before), issued a tweet about the new poverty and healthcare numbers in the United States along with a challenge to the administration of Donald Trump (which in June decided to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council after Alston issued a report on his 2017 mission to the United States).

The numbers for 2017 are indeed stupefying: more than 45 million Americans (13.9 percent of the population) were poor (according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure*), while 28.5 million (or 8.8 percent) did not have health insurance at any point during the year.

But the situation in the United States is even worse than widespread poverty and lack of access to decent healthcare. It’s high economic inequality, which according to a new report in Scientific American “negatively impacts nearly every aspect of human well-being—as well as the health of the biosphere.”

As Robert Sapolsky (unfortunately behind a paywall) explains, every step down the socioeconomic ladder, starting at the very top, is associated with worse health. Part of the problem, not surprisingly, stems from health risks (such as smoking and alcohol consumption) and protective factors (like health insurance and health-club memberships). But that’s only part of the explanation. But that’s only part of the explanation. The rest has to do with the “stressful psychosocial consequences” of low socioeconomic status.

while poverty is bad for your health, poverty amid plenty—inequality—can be worse by just about any measure: infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more. Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.

It’s not only bodies that suffer from inequality. The natural environment, too, is negatively affected by the large and growing gap between the tiny group at the top and everyone else. According to James Boyce (also behind a paywall), more inequality leads to more environmental degradation—because the people who benefit from using or abusing the environment are economically and politically more powerful than those who are harmed. Moreover, those at the bottom—with less economic and political power—end up “bearing a disproportionate share of the environmental injury.”

Social and institutional trust, too, decline with growing inequality. And, as Bo Rothstein explains, societies like that of the United States can get trapped in a “feedback loop of corruption, distrust and inequality.”

Voters may realize they would benefit from policies that reduce inequality, but their distrust of one another and of their institutions prevents the political system from acting in the way they would prefer.

But what are the economics behind the kind of degrading and destructive inequality we’ve been witnessing in the United States in recent decades? For that, Scientific American turned to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz for an explanation. Readers of this blog will be on familiar ground. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here), Stiglitz criticizes the “fictional narrative” of neoclassical economics, according to which everyone gets what they deserve through markets (which “may at one time have assuaged the guilt of those at the top and persuaded everyone else to accept this sorry state of affairs”), and offers an alternative explanation based on the shift from manufacturing to services (which in his view is a “winner-takes-all system”) and a political rewriting of the rules of economic game (in favor of large corporations, financial institutions, and pharmaceutical companies and against labor). So, for Stiglitz, the science of inequality is based on a set of power-related “market imperfections” that permit those at the top to engage in extracting rents (that is, in withdrawing “income from the national pie that is incommensurate with societal contribution”).

The major problem with Stiglitz’s “science” of economic inequality is that he fails to account for how the United States underwent a transition from less inequality (in the initial postwar period) to growing inequality (since the early 1980s). In order to accomplish that feat, he would need to look elsewhere, to the alternative science of exploitation.

While Stiglitz does mention exploitation at the beginning of his own account (with respect to American slavery), he then drops it from his approach in favor of rent extraction and market imperfections. If he’d followed his initial thrust, he might have been able to explain how—while New Deal reforms and World War II managed to engineer the shift from agriculture to manufacturing, reined in large corporations and Wall Street, and bolstered labor unions—what was kept intact was the ability of capital to appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by workers. Thus, American employers, however regulated, retained both the interest and the means to avoid and attempt to undo those regulations. And eventually they succeeded.

What is missing, then, from Stiglitz’s account is a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income. According to this science of exploitation or class, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.

That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there are not market imperfections such as monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.

But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: Big Pharma. In the case where giant pharmaceutical companies are able to sell the commodities they produce at a price greater than their value, they are able to appropriate surplus from their own workers and to receive a distribution of surplus from other companies, when they pay for the drugs covered in their health-care plans. As a result, the rate of profit for the pharmaceutical companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can change their healthcare plans or cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).**

The analysis could go on. My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over growing inequality in the United States—a theory that is missing from Stiglitz’s article and from Scientific American’s entire report on inequality, a science that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the obscene levels of inequality that are destroying nearly every aspect of human well-being including the natural environment in the United States today.

And, of course, that third approach has policy implications very different from the others—not to force workers to increase their productivity in order to receive higher wages through the labor market or to hope that decreasing market concentration will make the distribution of income more equal, but instead to attack the problem at its source. That would mean changing both markets and power with the goal of eliminating class exploitation.

 

*The official rate was 12.3 percent, which means that 39.7 million Americans fell below the poverty line.

**This is one of the reasons capitalist employers might support “affordable” healthcare, to raise their rates of profit.

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Mark Tansey, “Source of the Loue” (1988)

Two giants of mainstream economics—Joseph Stiglitz and Lawrence Summers—have been engaged in an acrimonious, titanic battle in recent weeks. The question is, what’s it all about? And, even more important, what’s at stake in this debate?

At first glance, the intense, even personal back-and-forth between Stiglitz and Summers seems a bit odd. Both economists are firmly in the liberal wing of mainstream economics and politics—as against, for example, Gene Epstein (an Austrian economist, who accuses Stiglitz of regularly siding with left-wing populists like Hugo Chávez) or John Taylor (a committed supply-sider, who has long been suspicious of “demand-side discretionary stimulus packages”). Both Stiglitz and Summers have pointed out the limitations of monetary policy, especially in the midst of deep economic recessions, and have favored relatively large fiscal-policy interventions, a hallmark of mainstream liberal economic policy.

One might be tempted to see it as merely a clash of outsized egos, which of course is not at all rare among mainstream economists. Their exaggerated sense of self-importance and intellectual arrogance are legion. Neither Stiglitz nor Summers has ever been accused of being a shrinking-violet when it comes to debates in the many academic and policy-related positions they’ve held.* And there’s certainly a degree of personal animus behind the current debate. Apparently, Summers [ht: bn] successfully lobbied in 2000 for Stiglitz’s removal from the World Bank, reportedly as a condition of the reappointment of Jim Wolfensohn as President of the World Bank. And, in 2013, Stiglitz came out strongly in favor of Janet Yellen, over Summers, for head of the Federal Reserve.**

That’s certainly part of the story. And the personal attacks and evident animosity from both sides have attracted a great deal attention of onlookers. But I think much more is at stake.

The current debate began with the critique Stiglitz leveled at the notion of “secular stagnation,” which Summers has championed starting in 2013 as an explanation for the slow recovery of the U.S. economy after the crash of 2007-08. The worry among many mainstream economists has been that, given the severity and duration of the Second Great Depression, capitalism could no longer deliver the goods.*** In particular, Summers invoked the specter of persistently slow growth, which had originally been put forward in the midst of the first Great Depression by Alvin Hansen, created by demography: the decrease in the number of available workers, itself a result of the declines in the rate of population growth and the labor force participation rate. The worry is that, looking forward, there simply won’t be enough workers to sustain the rates of potential economic growth we saw in the years leading up to the most recent crisis of capitalism. In the meantime, Summers, in traditional Keynesian fashion, expressed his support for raising the level of aggregate demand, through public and private spending, even at low real interest rates (which, in his view, were incapable of fulfilling their traditional role of boosting spending).****

Stiglitz for his part has dismissed the idea of secular stagnation, as “an excuse for flawed economic policies” (especially the inadequate stimulus package proposed and enacted by the administration of Barack Obama), and put forward an alternative analysis for capitalism’s slow growth problem: its inability to manage structural transformations of the economy. According to Stiglitz, the shift from manufacturing-led growth to services-led growth characterized the U.S. economy in the years before the most recent crash, analogous to the manner in which the crisis in agriculture “led to a decrease in demand for urban goods and thus to an economy-wide downturn” in the lead-up to the depression of the 1930s. Thus, in his view, World War II brought about a structural transformation in the United States (“as the war effort moved large numbers of people from rural areas to urban centers and retrained them with the skills needed for a manufacturing economy”) but nothing similar was undertaken in the wake of the crash of 2007-08.

The Obama administration made a crucial mistake in 2009 in not pursuing a larger, longer, better-structured, and more flexible fiscal stimulus. Had it done so, the economy’s rebound would have been stronger, and there would have been no talk of secular stagnation.

These are the terms of the theoretical debate, then, between Stiglitz and Summers: a focus on sectoral shifts versus a worry about secular stagnation. The first concerns the way the private forces of American capitalism have been inept in handling structural transformations of the economy, while the second focuses on ways in which “the private economy may not find its way back to full employment following a sharp contraction.”

For my part, both stories have an important role to play in making sense of both economic depressions—the first as well as the second. The problem is, neither Stiglitz nor Summers has presented an analysis of how American capitalism created the conditions for either crash. Stiglitz does not explain how the crisis in agriculture in the 1920s or the move away from manufacturing in recent decades was created by tendencies within existing economic institutions. Similarly, Summers does not conduct an analysis of the changes in U.S. capitalism that, in addition to producing lower growth rates, led to the massive downturn beginning in 2007-08. Their respective approaches are characterized by exogenous event rather than the endogenous changes leading to instability one might look for in a capitalist economy.

Moreover, both Stiglitz and Summers presume that the appropriate stimulus project will fulfill the mainstream macroeconomic utopia characterized by levels of output and a price level that corresponds to full employment and price stability. There is nothing in either of their approaches that recognizes capitalism’s inherent instability or its tendency, even in recovery, of generating one-sided outcomes. For Stiglitz, “the challenge was—and remains—political, not economic: there is nothing that inherently prevents our economy from being run in a way that ensures full employment and shared prosperity.” Similarly, Summers emphasizes the way “fiscal policies and structural measures to support sustained and adequate aggregate demand” can overcome the problems posed by secular stagnation. In other words, both Stiglitz and Summers redirect attention from capitalism’s own tendencies toward instability and uneven recoveries and focus instead on the set of economic policies that in their view are able to create full employment and price stability.

Finally, while Stiglitz and Summers mention en passant the problem of growing inequality, neither takes the problem seriously, at least in terms of analyzing the conditions that led to the crash of 2007-08—or, for that matter, the lopsided nature of the recovery. There’s nothing in the debate (or in their other writings) about how rising inequality across decades, based on stagnant wages and record profits, served to dismantle government regulations on the financial sector (because those who received the profits had both the means and interest to do so) and to propel the tremendous growth (on both the demand and supply sides) of financial activities within the U.S. economy. Nor is there a discussion of how focusing on the recovery of banks, large corporations, and the incomes and wealth of a tiny group at the top was based on a deterioration of the economic and social conditions of everyone else—much less how a larger stimulus package would have produced a substantially different outcome.

The fact is, the debate between Stiglitz and Summers is based on a discussion of terms and a mode of analysis that are firmly inscribed within the liberal wing of mainstream economics. Focusing on the choice between one or the other merely to serves to block, brick by brick, the development of much more germane approaches to analyzing the conditions and consequences of the ways American capitalism has been characterized by fundamental instability and obscene levels of inequality—today as in the past.

 

*Stiglitz is a recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal (1979) and the Nobel Prize in Economics (2001). He served as the Chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers (1995-1997) and Chief Economist at the World Bank (1997-2000). He is currently a professor of economics at Columbia University (since 2001). Summers is former Vice President of Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank (1991–93), senior U.S. Treasury Department official throughout Clinton’s administration (ultimately Treasury Secretary, 1999–2001), and former director of the National Economic Council for President Obama (2009–2010). He is a former president of Harvard University (2001–2006), where he is currently a professor and director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

**My choice, for what it’s worth, was Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Raskin.

***As I explained in 2016, contemporary capitalism has a slow-growth problem—”because growth is both a premise and promise of a particularly capitalist way of organizing our economic activities.”

****An archive of Summers’s various blog posts on secular stagnation can be found here.

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Last month, Alexander Beunder, the editor of Socialist Economist, asked a handful of “expert economists from around the world”—including Johanna Bockman, Prabhat Patnaik, Andrew Kliman, and myself—two key questions concerning the problems and prospects for socialism, economics, and the Left in the world today. Beunder requested that we keep our answers to two hundred words.

Our answers are now posted on-line, which can be read by clicking on the links below. Here are mine:

What economic obstacles is the Left facing in the 21st Century? 

The spectacular failures of capitalism in the United States have provided fertile ground for a renewed interest in socialism. These include the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression, the lopsided nature of the current recovery, and a decades-old trend of obscene and still-rising inequality. In addition, the increasing indebtedness associated with higher education, the high cost and limited access to healthcare, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left working-class Americans, especially young workers, with gnawing financial insecurity — and growing support for socialism. However, the U.S. Left currently faces two main economic obstacles: the decline in labor unions and an attempt to regulate capitalism. During the postwar Golden Age, union representation peaked at almost 35%. Now, it is down to 11.1% — and only 6.6% in the private sector. At least in part as a result, the Left has shifted its focus more to regulating capitalism, often by invoking a nostalgia for manufacturing and using the theoretical lens of Keynesian economics, and moving away from criticizing capitalism, especially its class dimensions (particularly the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed, as Marxists and other socialists understand them).

How can the Left use economics as a tool in the 21st Century? 

Socialist economists can help identify the ways the current problems of American capitalism are not just a matter of economic “imperfections,” but deeply embedded in capitalism itself. Moreover, the Left has the opportunity to propose changes that benefit workers in the short term and empower the working-class to make additional changes over time. Socialist economists can play a key role in the ongoing debates within economic theory (regarding stagnant wages, growing inequality, the one-sided nature of the recovery, and so on) and national politics (concerning universal healthcare, student debt, precarious jobs, and the like)—and to engage the rehabilitation of socialism as a legitimate position within American politics. For example, socialist economists can change the debate about inequality and explain how it is a product not of a lack of skills, but of rising exploitation and the distribution of the growing surplus to the top 10 percent. Similarly, they can change the limits of the possible by showing how movement in the direction of universal healthcare can improve the lives of working-class Americans and, at the same time, create the space for other ways of organizing healthcare itself—by expanding worker cooperatives and other community-oriented ways of providing health services.

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Special mention

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