Posts Tagged ‘free markets’


Special mention

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Special mention

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There is perhaps no more cherished an idea within mainstream economics than that everyone benefits from free trade and, more generally, globalization. They represent the solution to the problem of scarcity for the world as a whole, much as free markets are celebrated as the best way of allocating scarce resources within nations. And any exceptions to free markets, whether national or international, need to be criticized and opposed at every turn.

That celebration of capitalist globalization, as Nikil Saval explains, has been the common sense that mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, have adhered to and disseminated, in their research, teaching, and policy advice, for many decades.

Today, of course, that common sense has been challenged—during the Second Great Depression, in the Brexit vote, during the course of the electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—and economic elites, establishment politicians, and mainstream economists have been quick to issue dire warnings about the perils of disrupting the forces of globalization.

I have my own criticisms of Saval’s discussion of the rise and fall of the idea of globalization, especially his complete overlooking of the long tradition of globalization critics, especially on the Left, who have emphasized the dirty, violent, unequalizing underside of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.*

However, as a survey of the role of globalization within mainstream economics, Saval’s essay is well worth a careful read.

In particular, Saval points out that, in the heyday of the globalization consensus, Dani Rodrick was one of the few mainstream economists who had the temerity to question its merits in public.

And who was one of the leading defenders of the idea that globalization had to be celebrated and it critics treated with derision? None other than Paul Krugman.

Paul Krugman, who would win the Nobel prize in 2008 for his earlier work in trade theory and economic geography, privately warned Rodrik that his work would give “ammunition to the barbarians”.

It was a tacit acknowledgment that pro-globalisation economists, journalists and politicians had come under growing pressure from a new movement on the left, who were raising concerns very similar to Rodrik’s. Over the course of the 1990s, an unwieldy international coalition had begun to contest the notion that globalisation was good. Called “anti-globalisation” by the media, and the “alter-globalisation” or “global justice” movement by its participants, it tried to draw attention to the devastating effect that free trade policies were having, especially in the developing world, where globalisation was supposed to be having its most beneficial effect. This was a time when figures such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had given the topic a glitzy prominence by documenting his time among what he gratingly called “globalutionaries”: chatting amiably with the CEO of Monsanto one day, gawking at lingerie manufacturers in Sri Lanka the next. Activists were intent on showing a much darker picture, revealing how the record of globalisation consisted mostly of farmers pushed off their land and the rampant proliferation of sweatshops. They also implicated the highest world bodies in their critique: the G7, World Bank and IMF. In 1999, the movement reached a high point when a unique coalition of trade unions and environmentalists managed to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

In a state of panic, economists responded with a flood of columns and books that defended the necessity of a more open global market economy, in tones ranging from grandiose to sarcastic. In January 2000, Krugman used his first piece as a New York Times columnist to denounce the “trashing” of the WTO, calling it “a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of – yes! – denying opportunity to third-world workers”.

The irony is that Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of his research and publications that called into question the neoclassical idea that countries engaged in and benefited from international trade based on given—exogenous—resource endowments and technologies. Instead, Krugman argued, those endowments and technologies were created historically and could be changed by government policies, including histories and policies that run counter to free trade and globalization.

Krugman was thus the one who gave theoretical “ammunition to the barbarians.” But that was the key: he considered the critics of globalization—the alter-globalization activists, heterodox economists, and many others—”barbarians.” For Krugman, they were and should remain outside the gates because, in his view, they were not trained in or respectful of the protocols of mainstream economics. The “barbarians” could not be trusted to understand or adhere to the ways mainstream economists like Krugman analyzed the exceptions to the common sense of globalization. They might get out of control and develop other arguments and economic institutions.

But then the winds began to shift.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the cracks began to show in the consensus on globalisation, to the point that, today, there may no longer be a consensus. Economists who were once ardent proponents of globalisation have become some of its most prominent critics. Erstwhile supporters now concede, at least in part, that it has produced inequality, unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Nuances and criticisms that economists only used to raise in private seminars are finally coming out in the open.

A few months before the financial crisis hit, Krugman was already confessing to a “guilty conscience”. In the 1990s, he had been very influential in arguing that global trade with poor countries had only a small effect on workers’ wages in rich countries. By 2008, he was having doubts: the data seemed to suggest that the effect was much larger than he had suspected.

And yet, as Saval points out, mainstream economists’ recognition of the unequalizing effects of capitalist globalization has come too late: “much of the damage done by globalisation—economic and political—is irreversible.”

The damage is, of course, only irreversible within the existing economic institutions. Imagining and enacting a radically different way of organizing the economy would undo that damage and benefit those who have been forced to have the freedom to submit to the forces of capitalist globalization.

But Rodrik and Krugman—and mainstream economists generally—don’t seem to be interested in participating in that project, which would give the “barbarians” a say in creating a different kind of globalization, beyond capitalism.


*Back in 2000—and in a series of articles, book chapters, and blog posts since then—I have attempted to rethink the relationship between capitalist globalization and imperialism. Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik has also made the case for the continuing relevance of imperialism as an analytical construct for understanding and challenging effectively the logic and dynamics of contemporary capitalism.


Mark Tansey, “Discarding the Frame” (1993″

Obviously, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. Some have therefore begun to make the case that an era has come to an end.

The problem, of course, is while the old may be dying, it’s not all clear the new can be born. And, as Antonio Gramsci warned during the previous world-shaking crisis, “in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”

For Pankaj Mishra, it is the era of neoliberalism that has come to an end.

In this new reality, the rhetoric of the conservative right echoes that of the socialistic left as it tries to acknowledge the politically explosive problem of inequality. The leaders of Britain and the United States, two countries that practically invented global capitalism, flirt with rejecting the free-trade zones (the European Union, Nafta) they helped build.

Mishra is correct in tracing British neoliberalism—at least, I hasten to add, its most recent phase—through both the Conservative and Labour Parties, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and David Cameron.* All of them, albeit in different ways, celebrated and defended individual initiative, self-regulating markets, cheap credit, privatized social services, and greater international trade—bolstered by military adventurism abroad. Similarly, in the United States, Reaganism extended through both Bush administrations as well as the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barak Obama—and would have been continued by Hillary Clinton—with analogous promises of prosperity based on unleashing competitive market forces, together with military interventions in other countries.

Without a doubt, the combination of capitalist instability—the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression—and obscene levels of inequality—parallel to the years leading up to the crash of 1929—not to mention the interminable military conflicts that have deflected funding at home and created waves of refugees from war-torn zones, has called into question the legacy and presumptions of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Where I think Mishra goes wrong is in arguing that “A new economic consensus is quickly replacing the neoliberal one to which Blair and Clinton, as well as Thatcher and Reagan, subscribed.” Yes, in both the United Kingdom and the United States—in the campaign rhetoric of Theresa May and Trump, and in the actual policy proposals of Corbyn and Sanders—neoliberalism has been challenged. But precisely because the existing framing of the questions has not changed, a new economic consensus—an alternative common sense—cannot be born.

To put it differently, the neoliberal frame has been discarded but the ongoing debate remains framed by the terms that gave rise to neoliberalism in the first place. What I mean by that is, while recent criticisms of neoliberalism have emphasized the myriad problems created by individualism and free markets, the current discussion forgets about or overlooks the even-deeper problems based on and associated with capitalism itself. So, once again, we’re caught in the pendulum swing between a more private, market-oriented form of capitalism and a more public, government-regulated form of capitalism. The former has failed—that era does seem to be crumbling—and so now we begin to turn (as we did during the last system-wide economic crisis) to the latter.**

However, the issue that keeps getting swept under the political rug is, how do we deal with the surplus? If the surplus is left largely in private hands, and the vast majority who produce it have no say in how it’s appropriated and distributed, it should come as no surprise that we continue to see a whole host of “morbid phenomena”—from toxic urban water and a burning tower block to a new wave of corporate concentration  and still-escalating inequality.

Questioning some dimensions of neoliberalism does not, in and of itself, constitute a new economic consensus. I’m willing to admit it is a start. But, as long as remain within the present framing of the issues, as long as we cannot show how unreasonable the existing reason is, we cannot say the existing era has actually come to an end and a new era is upon us.

For that we need a new common sense, one that identifies capitalism itself as the problem and imagines and enacts a different relationship to the surplus.


*I add that caveat because, as I argued a year ago,

Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. . .capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

**And even then it’s only a beginning—since, we need to remember, both Sanders and Corbyn did lose in their respective electoral contests. And, at least in the United States, the terms of neoliberalism are still being invoked—for example, by Ron Johnson, Republican senator from Wisconsin—in the current healthcare debate


There doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about mainstream economists’ rejection of the new populism.

Lest we forget, mainstream economists in the United States and Europe (and, of course, around the world) mostly celebrated current economic arrangements. As far as they were concerned, everyone benefits from contemporary globalization (the more trade the better) and from the distribution of income created by market forces (since everyone gets what they deserve).

To be sure, those who identify with different wings of mainstream economics debate the extent to which there are market imperfections and therefore how much interference there should be in markets. Conservative mainstream economists tend to argue in favor of less regulation, their liberal counterparts for more government intervention. But they share the same general economic vision—that capitalism is characterized by “just deserts,” stable growth, and rising standards of living.

Except of course in recent decades it hasn’t. Not by a long shot.

Inequality has skyrocketed to obscene levels (and continues to rise), leaving many people behind. The crash of 2007-08 shattered the illusion of stability—and now there’s a deepening worry of “secular stagnation” moving forward. And, while the conspicuous consumption of the tiny group at the top continues unabated, only rising debt keeps everyone else from falling down the ladder.

No wonder, then, that economic populists, especially those on the Right, are rejecting the status quo—and winning campaigns and elections (often in the form of protest votes).

For the most part, to judge by Brigitte Granville’s survey of a variety of Project Syndicate commentators’ responses to populism, mainstream economists remain blind as to “why so many voters have embraced facile policies and populist politics.”

That’s pretty much what one would expect, given mainstream economists’ general commitment to the status quo.

But even when they admit that “much has gone wrong for a great many people,” as Margaret MacMillan does (“Globalization and automation are eliminating jobs in developed countries; powerful corporations and wealthy individuals in too many countries are getting a greater share of the wealth and paying fewer taxes; and living conditions continue to deteriorate for people in the US Rust Belt or Northeast England and Wales”), we read the spectacular claim that today’s populists—these “new, outsider political forces”—are wrong because they “claim to have a monopoly on truth.”

Now, I understand, MacMillian is a historian, not an economist. But the idea that populists are somehow the only ones who claim to have a monopoly on truth is an extraordinary diagnosis of the problem.

Think of the legions of mainstream economists who have lined up over the years to claim a monopoly on the truth concerning a wide variety of policies, from restricting minimum wages and approving NAFTA to deregulating finance and voting no on Brexit. They are the ones who have aligned themselves with the interests of economic and political elites and who, in the name of expertise, have attempted to trump democratic, public discussion of important economic issues.

It should come as no surprise, then, that mainstream economists—such as Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan—are so concerned that economists have been demoted within the new Trump administration. The horror! The chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers is not going to be a member of the Cabinet.

Yes, it is true, business acumen is not the same as economic analytics. (I teach economics in a College of Arts and Letters, not in a business school—and, as I remind my students on a regular basis, I’m the last person they should turn to for investment or business advice.) But that’s a far cry from claiming a monopoly on the truth, which is only available to those who speak and write in the language of mainstream economics.*

If mainstream economists finally relinquished that claim—and, as a result, spent more time both learning the languages of other traditions within the discipline of economics and listening to the grievances and desires of those who have been sacrificed at the altar of the status quo—perhaps then they’d have something useful to contribute to the larger debate about where the world is headed right now.


*According to Andrea Brandolini, the late Tony Atkinson understood this: “‘Economists are too often prisoners within the theoretical walls they have erected’, he recently wrote discussing austerity policies, ‘and fail to see that important considerations are missing”


René Magritte, “The Infinite Recognition” (1963)

Dan Rodrick, like most mainstream economists, wouldn’t know left-wing economics if it bit him on the proverbial nose (as I explained in early 2015). What he’s really referring to—in his essay, “The Abdication of the Left”—is liberal economics, the left-of-center wing of mainstream economics.

But, if you replace all his references to “the Left” with “liberalism,” you can read Rodrick’s latest column as a forceful indictment of left-of-center mainstream economics over the course of the past few decades.

As an emerging new establishment consensus grudgingly concedes, globalization accentuates class divisions between those who have the skills and resources to take advantage of global markets and those who don’t. Income and class cleavages, in contrast to identity cleavages based on race, ethnicity, or religion, have traditionally strengthened the political left. So why has the left been unable to mount a significant political challenge to globalization?. . .

Economists and technocrats on the left bear a large part of the blame. Instead of contributing to such a program, they abdicated too easily to market fundamentalism and bought in to its central tenets. Worse still, they led the hyper-globalization movement at crucial junctures.

Rodrick is correct. The liberal wing of mainstream economics (in the academy, as advisers to liberal political parties, and in multinational financial and development agencies) did, in fact, embrace market fundamentalism—from domestic financial markets to international trade and capital flows—and the policies they promoted did serve to accentuate existing income and class cleavages. And then, after creating the conditions (in the form of growing inequality and financial fragility) for the crash of 2007-08, they proceeded to manage the imposition of austerity policies, both within and across countries.

So, indeed, liberals are in large part responsible for the resurgence of the Right, in the form of anti-immigrant protests and nativist populism. Those movements, which have been moving from the fringe to center stage in the United States and Europe, are the more-or-less inevitable backlash against free-market fundamentalism and economic austerity.*

That’s not to say those on the Left—the real Left, not Rodrick’s liberal mainstream economists—do not share some of the blame. Their own weak opposition to market fundamentalism and economic austerity, which often meant little more than a return to Keynesian macroeconomics and the defense of existing welfare-state programs, created a vacuum for other policies and strategies. What was needed (both where the Left was in power, from Greece’s Syriza to Brazil’s Workers’ Party, to where it was not, including the United States and the rest of Europe) was an approach that, at one and the same time, highlighted the structural causes of growing income and class cleavages and proposed alternative economic and social institutions.

If, as Rodrick explains, “the right thrives on deepening divisions in society – ‘us’ versus ‘them’.” and liberalism looks to enact “reforms that bridge” those cleavages, the Left aims to overcome those cleavages by creating new, noncapitalist ways of organizing economic and social life. Not just managing the cleavages but actually eliminating them.

That, as I see it, is the challenge for the Left moving forward.


*As Brad DeLong admits, the liberal fantasy of free markets and globalization—his own view of the world—”did go horribly wrong”:

Financial globalization was intended to take down barriers to capital inflows erected by rent-seekers in developing countries, and so speed growth in economies that had been starved of capital while also equalizing incomes. Financial deregulation was supposed to break up the cozy investment banking and other oligarchies of Wall Street and diminish their private-sector tax on the American economy. Financial deregulation was supposed to provide the poorer half of America with the access to fairly priced credit that it lacked and with the opportunity to invest in assets that would yield equity-class returns, which it also lacked. And, in a world in which central banks had the powers and the will to successfully stabilize aggregate demand, there seemed little downside to letting people who could not put together a 20% down payment buy a house, to forcing Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to deal with competition from Citigroup and Bank of America, and to allow entrepreneurs in Mexico to raise funds not just from a cozy oligarchy of Mexico City banks but on the global capital market.

And France’s socialist technocrats were right: in highly-open economies the task of managing aggregate demand has to be a global, or at least a North Atlantic-wide, or at least a continent-wide exercise. In a good world, large exchange rate changes should only take place in response to persistent fundamental disequilibria rather than being used as first-line tools for demand management.

It all did go horribly wrong.


As if in direct response to one of my recent posts on “ignoring the experts,” the best mainstream economist Noah Smith can come up with is there is no single, unified elite opinion—perhaps on Brexit but not on most economic issues.

The “elite” isn’t a single unified bloc. There are many different kinds of elites. Politicians, bureaucrats, wealthy businesspeople, corporate managers, financiers, academics and media personalities can all be labeled elites. But there are huge fissures and rivalries both within and between these groups. They are almost never in broad agreement on any issue — Brexit was the exception, not the rule.

That’s not saying much. Of course, elites and elite opinions are divided. They have always have been and certainly are now.

The issue is not whether different groups or fractions within the elite hold different opinions, but the limits of those differences and the views that are marginalized or excluded as a result.

Consider the views of mainstream economists (which is really what my original post was about). They hold different views about most economic issues—from labor markets to international trade—but the range of differences is very narrow. As I explained back in January:

while conservative mainstream economists believe that efficiency, growth, and full employment stem from allowing markets to operate freely, liberal mainstream economists argue that markets are often imperfect and therefore the only way to achieve (or at least approximate) those goals is to intervene in and regulate markets. Those are the terms of the mainstream debate in economics, from the origins of modern economic discourse in the late-eighteenth century right on down to the present.

Think about it as the difference between the invisible hand and the visible hand.

Liberal mainstream economists, of course, hotly contest the free-market doctrine of their conservative counterparts. But notice also that they hold in common both the goals and the limits of economic policy with conservatives. Liberals and conservatives share the idea that the goals of an economy are to ensure efficiency, growth, and full employment. And they share the idea that economic policy should be limited to tinkering with capitalism—in the direction of more regulation or, for conservatives, more free markets—in order to achieve those goals.

That’s it, the limits of the mainstream debate.

Mainstream economists use different theories and promote different policies within those narrow limits. What they exclude are theories and policies that fall outside those limits—and thus, in their view, don’t deserve a hearing.

Their expertise ends when it comes to theories that focus on such things as the inherent instability of capitalism or the role of class in determining the value of goods and services and the distribution of income. And they exclude policies that either change the fundamental rules of capitalism or look beyond capitalism, to alternative ways of organizing economic and social life.

What that means, concretely, is mainstream economists tend to minimize the damage—to different groups of people and to society as a whole—of existing economic arrangements. Just as Paul Krugman minimizes the loss of jobs from deindustrialization (“we’re talking about 1.5 percent of the work force”), Smith understates the disruptive effects of globalization (in referring to “some economic setbacks” for the middle-class of rich nations while presuming everyone else has gained).

So, yes, mainstream economists (like the elites whose position they never contest) often find themselves disagreeing among themselves about theories and policies. But it’s precisely because the limits of their disagreements are so narrow, there’s always a surplus of meaning that falls outside of and escapes their purview. That’s when alternative theories and policies flourish—and all mainstream economists can do is invoke their self-professed expertise to attempt to quash the alternatives and relegate them to (or beyond) the margins.

Sometimes, of course, it works and non-elite opinion falls in line. But other times—after the crash of 2007-08, in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, and so on—it doesn’t and the narrow limits of expert opinion are challenged, parodied, or ignored. And other possibilities, always just below the surface, acquire new resonance.

Elites, who simply can’t or don’t want to understand, suggest the masses just eat cake (or, today, crack)—and, like Smith, hide behind the idea that “there are no easy answers to the challenges of the modern global economy.”