Posts Tagged ‘ideology’

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Special mention

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While Amazon let it slip last week that its Prime program—the annual membership that offers discount pricing and free 2-day shipping—now tops 100 million members, there’s another number people might be curious about: the company’s average annual wage, which Amazon revealed in compliance with a new regulation that asks companies to show a comparison between an average worker’s wage and the salary of their CEO.

Amazon has reported an average compensation for its varied, mostly warehouse (and now, with Whole Foods, grocery store), workers at $28,446 a year. The federal government defines its poverty guideline for a family of four to be $25,100. So, Amazon’s average wage falls easily within 150 percent of the poverty line—and stands at about one-half of the median household income in the United States.

No wonder, then, that Amazon is owned and run by literally the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos. While he technically “made” only $1.7 million last year, he’s worth $127 billion.* So it means on paper, Bezos makes $59 for every dollar an average employee earns, which is actually a smaller ratio than the average of 271 to 1 for the largest 350 U.S. corporations (pdf).

While Amazon may not have been thrilled by being forced to reveal this not-so-flattering wage comparison, they do have one thing going for them: the only private employer bigger than the e-commerce giant is their retail competitor Walmart, whose workers average only $19,177 per year, putting them far under the federal poverty guidelines. Moreover, the ratio to average-worker pay of Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who took in $22.8 million last year, was an astounding 1,188 to 1.

And the extraordinary numbers continue, across the economy. Royal Caribbean Cruises: 728-1. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals: 215-1. Netflix: 133-1. Live Nation Entertainment: 2,893-1. Honeywell International: 333-1. Fidelity National Information Services: 654-1. UnitedHealth Group: 298-1. And on and on.

Each such ratio indicates the obscene level of inequality in the United States, based on the amount of surplus pumped out of workers and distributed to those who run American corporations on behalf of their boards of directors.

While the figures of CEO-to-average-worker-pay are being reported in the business press, they have not been widely discussed in the media or by the nation’s politicians. It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans underestimate—by a wide margin—the degree of inequality in the United States.

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In a 2014 study, Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton asked about 55,000 people around the globe, including 1,581 participants in the United States, how much money they thought corporate CEOs made compared with unskilled factory workers.** Then they asked how much more pay they thought CEOs should make. American respondents guessed that executives out-earned factory workers roughly 30-to-1—just about what that ratio was in the 1960s and exponentially lower than the actual estimate at the time of 354-to-1. They believed the ideal ratio should be about 7-to-1.

As it turns out, Americans didn’t answer the survey much differently from participants in other countries. Australians believed that roughly 8-to-1 would be a good ratio; the French settled on about 7-to-1; and the Germans settled on around 6-to-1. In every country, the CEO pay-gap ratio was far greater than people assumed. And though they didn’t concur on precisely what would be fair, both conservatives and liberals around the world also concurred that the pay gap should be smaller. People also agreed across income and education levels, as well as across age groups.

Why should this matter?

Because representations of the economy that minimize the existence of inequality or the problems associated with inequality are bound to reinforce the systematic misperceptions found by Norton and others.

That’s exactly what much mainstream economics accomplishes. It deflects attention from the existence of inequality (e.g., by focusing on growth, output, and the price level versus distribution) and from the economic and social problems created by inequality (by attributing the growing gap between the haves and have-nots to forces like globalization and technological change that are beyond our control or invoking more education as the only solution).

Mainstream economics therefore forms part of what others (such as Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman) refer to as “ideology,” “which may predispose people to ‘see’ the level of inequality that their beliefs and values convince them must exist.” And the strength of mainstream economics in the United States—in colleges and universities as well as in the media, think tanks, and in government—and around the world is one of the main reasons Americans, like people in other countries, tend not to see the existing degree of inequality.

On the other hand, the ideology of mainstream economics is never complete. That’s why Americans and citizens around the globe do see that the degree of inequality created by existing economic arrangements is fundamentally unfair.

It’s that sense of unfairness, which is only partially masked by mainstream economics, that can serve as the basis for a radical rethinking and reimagining of contemporary economic and social institutions.

 

*Bezos [ht: sm] received a hostile reception from workers when he arrived in Berlin to pick up an innovation award last Tuesday. As Frank Bsirske, the head of the Verdi trade union, explained: “We have a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world and take us back to the 19th century.” Meanwhile, back in the United States, Amazon reported that its profits more than doubled to $1.6 billion in the first quarter of 2018, sending shares of its stock soaring to an all-time high.

**This is the second high-profile paper in which Norton discovered that Americans have a notion of economic fairness that is strikingly more equal than the current reality, and more equal even than their own underestimate of the degree of inequality.

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Special mention

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Last year, as I reported the other day, I published over 800 new posts.

I’ve never done this before. However, I decided to look back over the year and choose one post for each month of 2016:

January—Liberal ideology

February—Who are the capitalists?

March—Yea, they’re angry!

April—Life among the liberal econ

May—Letting capitalism off the hook

June—Globalization, inequality, and imperialism

July—Trump and the Prosperity Gospel

August—The Mandibles and dystopian finance fiction

September—What about the white working-class?

October—Nobel economics—or why does capital hire labor?

November—Condition of the working-class in the United States

December—China syndrome

Enjoy!

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I know what liberal ideology in economics is all about. I’ve encountered it at every turn, even before I began my formal studies in economics. The same is true of liberal ideology in politics, which has shown its ugly face once again in the current electoral campaign.

In both cases, liberal ideology is based on the idea that the existing system, while perhaps imperfect, is the only game in town. It is a conception both of what is and of how change can and should take place—gradually and without major disruption. According to liberals, the biggest threat is populism, when the masses of people challenge the existing common sense and seek radical change. It therefore works with conservative ideology, as two bookends of mainstream discourse, to limit the theoretical and policy debate to a narrow set of options.

Here’s how liberal ideology works in economics: At the microeconomic level, capitalism (or, as liberals generally refer to it, the market system) has the potential of achieving an efficient allocation of resources. As for the macroeconomy, capitalism is capable of providing stable growth and full employment. Capitalism, therefore, promises the best possible outcomes both for individuals and for the economy as a whole.

Now, 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.

Liberals, in particular, believe that the appropriate set of government institutions and regulations can move capitalism toward microeconomic efficiency (within individual markets, national economies, and across the global economy) and macroeconomic stability and full employment (especially, during a downturn, with expansionary fiscal and monetary policies). Anything else, from the perspective of liberal ideology, represents an unscientific view of the economy and an unwarranted attempt to dismantle existing economic institutions.

What liberal mainstream economists don’t see is that capitalism, despite its premises and promises, fails to deliver on them. For example, capitalism holds up “just deserts” as an ideal—everybody gets what they deserve—but it actually means that most people are forced to surrender the surplus they create to their employers, who are allowed to either keep it (and do with it what they want) or distribute it to still others (the tiny group at the top that manages the way those enterprises operate). Capitalism also pledges stable growth and full employment but then, precisely because of that private control over the surplus, regularly delivers boom-and-bust cycles and throws millions out of work.

Liberals also don’t see (because they don’t want to or, given their theory, can’t see) that even the policies they endorse to make capitalism work better are frustrated at every turn. Why? Because, even when regulations are imposed (such as they were during the New Deal programs of the 1930s), they leave in place both the interest and means on the part of employers and their allies to first evade and then, eventually, overturn those regulations.

Not only does liberal economic ideology offer a limited view of how capitalism works; it is also serves to keep out of the debate both other theories of capitalism and other ideas of how the economy might be organized. It’s premised on the notion that here are the acceptable terms of discussion—capitalism is characterized by markets that work more or less well, at the microeconomic and macroeconomic levels—and that other conceptions of capitalism—which introduce things like class exploitation into the discussion—are simply wrong or irrelevant. And it limits the discussion to regulating markets and rules out of court the possibility of imagining and creating other economic institutions—ways of organizing the economy that seek, for example, to actually eliminate class exploitation.

Part of the problem is that, from the perspective of liberal ideology, fundamental changes to the way the economy is organized aren’t necessary. That’s the liberal fantasy that markets can be made to work correctly. The other part of the problem is the liberal stoking of fears that changing current institutions—dismantling some and creating new ones—leads to chaos.

The latter is the basis of the ever-present charge of populism. Creating economic institutions that give “too much” to the mass of working people—whether high minimum wages or guaranteed lifetime incomes or taking areas of the economy out of international trade or giving workers some say in how the enterprises in which they labor operate—are deemed to be too costly or simply unfeasible.

And then, when those arguments fail to work, if radical ideas appear to capture the popular imagination, liberal economic ideology casts the final die: fundamentally changing how the economy works would be so disruptive of existing arrangements that it would invite a negative reaction by those currently in charge. It would create, so the argument goes, chaos. Therefore, it is necessary to protect existing regulations and perhaps introduce a few new regulations to markets and leave things at that.

That’s how liberal ideology works in economics. And, as it turns out, that’s exactly how liberal ideology is being deployed in our current political debate—to normalize one, very limited set of options and to marginalize any discontent or desire that threatens to go beyond them.

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While we’re on the topic, I want to note three additional problems in Aaron Steelman’s recent essay on contemporary economics.

First, Steelman presumes that the goal of heterodox economists is to break into mainstream economics. While that may be the hope and goal of some heterodox economists, my sense from talking and working with many heterodox economists over the years is that is the furthest thing from their minds. They don’t want to break into the mainstream; what they want is to develop alternative approaches—in their research, teaching, service—without always having to be looking over their shoulders and worrying about being disciplined and punished by the mainstream economists who run the high-profile departments, journals, and funding sources in and around the discipline.

Which leads to my second point: why is it Steelman simply assumes that “significant differences in methodological approaches and fields of study” need to lead to a split of an economics department, at Notre Dame or elsewhere? Such differences exist in a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to zoology, and splits neither occur or are called for. In other words, what is it about mainstream economics that it simply can’t allow for or coexist with nonmainstream approaches? That’s a question I’d like to see the Steelmans of the world consider.

Finally, Steelman notes that not all departments that have encouraged the existence of nonmainstream or heterodox approaches are on the Left. He mentions the free-market or Austrian approaches that predominate in the economics departments at Florida State, Clemson, and George Mason. What he doesn’t mention is that those departments and universities have received significant funding from the Koch brothers, as documented by Inside Higher Ed and the Washington Post.

Economists at those institutions may teach the magic of the free market but there’s nothing magical about how they have grown in prominence in recent years or how other heterodox economists, many of whom have broken from mainstream economics, have been pushed to or beyond the margins of the discipline.

As many heterodox economists well understand, but Steelman apparently does not, the marketplace of ideas in economics is embedded within and structured by power, interests, and ideology. Which is what many students of economics today want to see transformed, so that they are finally able to study theories and approaches other than those of mainstream economics.

 

Here’s a second video with Antonio Callari (the first is here)—this one on Marx’s intervention into the arena of philosophy and the idea of freedom as the basis of a Marxian project of transforming the world.