Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

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Economic inequality is arguably the crucial issue facing contemporary capitalism—especially in the United States but also across the entire world economy.

Over the course of the last four decades, income inequality has soared in the United States, as the share of pre-tax national income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart above) has risen from 10.4 percent in 1976 to 20.2 percent in 2014. For the world economy as a whole, the top 1-percent share (the green line), which was already 15.6 percent in 1982, has continued to rise, reaching 20.4 percent in 2016. Even in countries with less inequality—such as France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom—the top 1-percent share has been rising in recent decades.

Clearly, many people are worried about the obscene levels of inequality in the world today.

In a famous study, which I wrote about back in 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans both underestimate the current level of inequality in the United States and prefer a much more equal distribution than currently exists.*

In other words, the amount of inequality favored by Americans—their ideal or utopian horizon—hovers somewhere between the level of inequality that obtains in modern-day Sweden and perfect equality.

What about contemporary economists? What is their utopian horizon when it comes to the distribution of income?

Not surprisingly, economists are fundamentally divided. They hold radically different views about the distribution of income, which both inform and informed by their different utopian visions.

For example, neoclassical economists, the predominant group in U.S. colleges and universities, analyze the distribution of income in terms of marginal productivity theory. Within their framework of analysis, each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) within perfectly competitive markets according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, inequality is simply not a problem, as long as each factor is rewarded according to its productivity. Since in the real world they see few if any exceptions to perfectly competitive markets, their view is that the distribution of income within contemporary capitalism corresponds to—or at least comes close to matching—their utopian horizon.

Other mainstream economists, especially those on the more liberal wing (such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty), hold the exact same utopian horizon—of just deserts based on marginal productivity theory. However, in their view, the real world falls short, generating a distribution of income in recent years that is more unequal, and therefore less fair, than is predicted within neoclassical theory. So, bothered by the obscene levels of contemporary inequality, they look for exceptions to perfectly competitive markets.

Thus, for example, Stiglitz has focused on what he calls rent-seeking behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets because some agents are able to capture rents that exceed their marginal contributions to production.** If such rents were eliminated—for example, by regulating markets—the distribution of income would match the utopian horizon of neoclassical economics.***

What about Marxian theory? It’s quite a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are diametrically opposed. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume and work to achieve), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts.” That’s because Marxian economics is informed by a radically different utopian horizon.

Let me explain. Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

That’s because the Marxian critique of political economy is informed by a radically different utopian horizon: the elimination of exploitation. Marxian economists don’t presume that, under capitalism, the distribution of income will be equal. Nor do they promise that the kinds of noncapitalist economic and social institutions they seek to create will deliver a perfectly equal distribution of income. However, in focusing on class exploitation, they both show how the unequal distribution of income in the world today is affected by and in turn affects the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value and argue that the distribution of income would likely change—in the direction of greater equality—if the conditions of existence of exploitation were dismantled.

In my view, lurking behind the scenes of the contemporary debate over economic inequality is a raging battle between radically different utopian visions of the distribution of income.


*The Ariely and Norton research focused on wealth, not income, inequality. I suspect much the same would hold true if Americans were asked about their views concerning the actual and desired degree of inequality in the distribution of income.

**It is important to note that, according to mainstream economics, any economic agent can engage in rent-seeking behavior. In come cases it may be labor, in other cases capital or even land.

***More recently, some mainstream economists (such as Piketty) have started to look outside the economy, at the political sphere. They’ve long held the view that, within a democracy, if voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income, they will support political candidates and parties that enact a redistribution of income. But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades—not in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France—and the question is why. Here, the utopian horizon concerning the economy is the neoclassical one, or marginal productivity theory, but they imagine a separate democratic politics is able to correct any imbalances generated by the economy. As I see it, this is consistent with the neoclassical tradition, in that neoclassical economists have long taken the distribution of factor endowments as a given, exogenous to the economy and therefore subject to political decisions.

Tax Reform

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When it comes to artificial intelligence and automation, the current White House seems to want to have it both ways.

On one hand, it warns about the potentially unequalizing, “winner-take-most” effects of the economic use of artificial intelligence:

Research consistently finds that the jobs that are threatened by automation are highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers. This means that automation will continue to put downward pressure on demand for this group, putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on inequality. In the longer-run, there may be different or larger effects. One possibility is superstar-biased technological change, where the benefits of technology accrue to an even smaller portion of society than just highly-skilled workers. The winner-take-most nature of information technology markets means that only a few may come to dominate markets. If labor productivity increases do not translate into wage increases, then the large economic gains brought about by AI could accrue to a select few. Instead of broadly shared prosperity for workers and consumers, this might push towards reduced competition and increased wealth inequality.

But then it invokes, and repeats numerous times across the report, the usual mainstream economists’ nostrums about the “strong relationship between productivity and wages”—such that “with more AI the most plausible outcome will be a combination of higher wages and more opportunities for leisure for a wide range of workers.”

Except, of course, historically that has not been the case—certainly not in the United States.



For example, from the early 1970s to the present, workers’ wages have not kept pace with increases in productivity. Not by a long shot. As is clear from the chart above, productivity since 1973 has risen much more than workers’ compensation—72.2 percent, compared to a paltry 9.2 percent.


And while over the same period hours worked have in fact fallen, the decrease in the United States (a minuscule 5.6 percent) has been far less than the increase in productivity—and much less than in other countries, such as France (24 percent) and Germany (27.3 percent).

So, yes, whether the use of artificial intelligence leads to improvements for U.S. workers—in the form of higher wages and fewer hours worked—”depends not only on the technology itself but also on the institutions and policies that are in place.”

But the experience of the past four decades suggests it will not benefit the American working-class.

And there’s nothing to suggest that trend won’t continue—unless, of course, there is a radical change in economic institutions and policies, which allow workers to have much more of a say in the technologies that are adopted and how wages and hours are set.


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Bob Trotman, “Business as Usual” (2009)

Is anyone else struck by the contradiction between what is actually going on in the world and the fact that, for those in charge, it’s just business as usual?

Consider, for example, the decision to drop the charges against the three remaining officers facing trial in connection with the April 2015 death in policy custody of Freddie Gray. In fact, according to Mapping Police Violence, “only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved.” Charles Blow, for one, is appropriately “incandescent with rage”:

Bill Clinton, who I found more beguiling than many, apparently, took the stage and shifted the burden of dismantling oppression from the shoulders of the oppressors to the shoulders of the oppressed, saying: “If you’re a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.”

How are the people without the power, the people against whom the power is being exercised, supposed to alter the perversion of that power if the abusers are not held accountable?

I am exhausted. I am repulsed. I am over all the circular dialogue. But I don’t know precisely where that leaves me other than in a hurt and festering place. America is edging ever closer to telling people like me that the eye of justice isn’t blind but jaundiced, and I say back to America, that is incredibly dangerous.

And during that same convention, as broad swathes of Americans continue to suffer from the Wall Street-engineered crash of 2007-08 (not just, as Barack Obama put it, “pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures”), hordes of financial industry executives (as well as drug companies, health insurers, and others) descended on Philadelphia.

While protesters marched in the streets and blocked traffic, Democratic donors congregated in a few reserved hotels and shuttled between private receptions with A-list elected officials. If the talk onstage at the Wells Fargo Center was about reducing inequality and breaking down barriers, downtown Philadelphia evoked the world as it still often is: a stratified society with privilege and access determined by wealth.

In fact, as Thomas Frank warns, Donald Trump might end up stealing the voters Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are taking for granted.

Let’s see: trade agreements, outreach to hawks, “bipartisanship”, Wall Street. All that’s missing is a “Grand Bargain” otherwise it’s the exact same game plan as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people. The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous.

When Democrats sold out their own rank and file in the past it constituted betrayal, but at least it sometimes got them elected. Specifically, the strategy succeeded back in the 1990s when Republicans were market purists and working people truly had “nowhere else to go”. As our modern Clintonists of 2016 move instinctively to dismiss the concerns of working people, however, they should keep this in mind: those people may have finally found somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the European Union is disintegrating and the euro zone continues to impose Draconian austerity measures. As Joseph Stiglitz explains in a recent interview, banks and corporate interests generally have been the only beneficiaries.

Q. In your telling, Germany has imposed austerity across Europe out of faith in a discredited economic idea, the notion that if policy makers concentrate solely on preventing budget deficits and inflation, the markets can be counted on to deliver prosperity. A lot of your book is devoted to demolishing this idea. Does the German elite still really believe in this philosophy, or is something else at play?

A. I’ve visited Germany often, and I’m shocked about how strong the belief is in this view that has been totally discredited elsewhere.

But the policies are mixed together with interests. When the Greek crisis broke out in 2010, what was really at risk were German and to some extent French banks. And there was an enormous bailout that was called a bailout of Greece but was really a bailout of German and French banks. Most of the money went to Greece and then right away went back to Germany and France. . .

Q. You argue that some European leaders secretly welcomed mass unemployment as a means of adjusting to the crisis because this was the only way they could see to spur investment — lowering wages. The strictures of the euro took other options off the table: Crisis countries could not let their currency fall or lower interest rates or expand government spending. Was unemployment really embraced as a fix?

A. They wanted to break the back of workers. Their view was that workers needed to accept a wage cut and we are going to change the bargaining rules to make it more difficult for them to resist. And if we need to add on a little dose of unemployment, well, that’s unfortunate.

Q. Doesn’t that goal predate the crisis?

A. It’s very clear that the euro was a neo-liberal project in its construction. Employers like low wages. They have broken the back of the unions in many of the countries of Europe. They would view that as a great achievement.

However ironically, it has fallen to the Boston Consulting Group [ht: sm] to sound the alarm about attempting to conduct business as usual:

Societies in the United States and Europe are being fundamentally challenged in ways we have not seen for decades—with nationalistic rhetoric and agendas from the far right and a deep distrust of business, globalization, and technology from the far left. Many worry that such a polarization of public opinion and policy making could introduce new risks and uncertainties that would deter investment (which is already far too low, judging by current interest rates) and undermine the basis for future prosperity.

Why this polarization? While there are many causes, and they vary from country to country, it reflects in large part widespread and growing dissatisfaction with entrenched economic and social inequality and greater personal uncertainty in a fast-changing global economy. It also reflects people’s mistrust of political and corporate elites, who are seen as the architects of this state of affairs. Economic inequality within our societies is a byproduct of the way we have managed the past three and a half decades of global economic integration. At the same time, technology—in particular, recent advances in robotics, machine intelligence, and distributed ledgers (blockchain)—could replace human labor in many areas, further compounding dislocation, inequality, and discontent.

Brexit was a watershed. The British vote to leave the European Union was motivated in large part by frustration with economic stagnation and inequality, and it has created fertile ground for nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiment. The English West Midlands, the region with highest “leave” vote, has experienced stagnating median household incomes for nearly two decades.

The division between those who have captured the vast majority of the benefits from global integration and technological progress and those who haven’t runs between major cities and smaller communities, between young and old, and between people with different levels of education. And it’s not just Great Britain—70% of the US workforce has experienced no real wage increase in the past four decades. Similar patterns can be observed in Canada, Germany, and other European countries. Wealth concentration has also increased globally, with around 1% of people controlling 50% of the world’s assets.