Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

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Special mention

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If you listened to or read the text of President Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, you might have been surprised by the explicit mention of socialism.

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.

Or maybe not—since just last year the Council of Economic Advisers apparently found it necessary to issue a report, on the cusp of the midterm elections, to push back against the fact that “socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse.” And Fox News is engaged in its own campaign against socialism, since “support for Karl Marx’s collectivist ideas is steadily increasing.”

The irony, of course, is that Trump and his principal media outlet are in part responsible for the growth of support for socialism and for policies that are often associated with socialism (such as raising taxes on the income and wealth of the rich).* Claiming that “our country is vibrant and our economy is thriving like never before” and then scapegoating immigrants in “organized caravans [that] are on the march to the United States,” while ignoring the effects of the largest tax break for large corporations in U.S. history—which, while boosting economic growth, executive salaries, and the stock market, leaves American workers further and further behind—makes the case for socialism even more compelling.

But interest in socialism was growing even before Trump took office, especially among millennials. The question is, why?

As I’ve noted before, the members of Generation Y are generation screwed, with lower earnings, fewer jobs, more part-time employment, and a higher unemployment rate than any other generation in the postwar period. As a result, they’re more likely than their elders to think of themselves as working-class and less likely to identify as middle-class.

For Malcolm Harris, the problem is exploitation:

This is a fundamentally capitalist story. Workers have always been exploited, but that rate of exploitation. . .is increasing exponentially for millennials.

What Harris is referring to is the growing gap between productivity and workers’ wages. And it really doesn’t matter how that gap is measured.

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Harris refers to the numbers produced by the Economic Policy Institute, according to which”net productivity” has grown 6.2 times “hourly compensation” since 1973.

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Alternatively, we can look at the gap between real output per person in the nonfarm business sector and real weekly earnings, which has increased by a factor of almost 10 since 1980.

Both measures point to increasing exploitation—to a growing gap between what workers produce and what they receive back as their pay. And it’s that exploitation—which neither Trump nor, for that matter, “conventional American economists” want to talk about—that is generating interest in socialism today.

Workers, especially young workers, are suffering the consequences of increased exploitation and beginning to look beyond capitalism, to different ways of organizing the U.S. economy and society. Socialism, since at least the end of the eighteenth century, has been the name for those alternatives.

Why is there growing interest in socialism in the United States today? The answer is clear. It’s capitalist exploitation, stupid!

 

*Such policies now include abolishing billionaires. However, Farhad Manjoo, who tried to sort out good from bad billionaires, never asks where those billions come from.  If he did, he’d discover the ways an increasingly unequal and unjust distribution of income is tied to—as both condition and consequence—a fundamentally unequal and unjust structure of production.

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No matter how we measure it, most Americans are falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top.

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That’s not at all surprising. Whether we compare the growing gap between average wages and Gross Domestic Product per capita (as in the chart on the left) or real median household income and real Gross Domestic Product per capita (as in the chart on the right), it’s clear the average American has been losing out. A growing proportion of what workers produce hasn’t been going to them but to the richest households for decades now.

That does not mean, contra Robert Samuelson, that “the incomes of most Americans have stagnated for decades.” That’s a canard. No one makes that argument.

No, the real issue is that American workers have been producing more and more but getting only a tiny share of that increase. As I explained last year,

That’s what mainstream economists can’t or won’t understand: that workers may be worse off even as their wages and incomes rise. That problem flies in the face of every attempt to celebrate the existing order by claiming “just deserts.”

It’s what is known as relative immiseration. And it simply can’t be disputed by the alternative statistics invoked by Samuelson or Stephen J. Rose (pdf).

The exact numbers concerning the distribution of income in the United States depend, of course, on a whole host of assumptions and methodological choices, mostly involving what counts as “income.” The more categories that are included in income—starting with the traditional series (wages and salaries, dividends, interest, and rent) before and after taxes, and then including payments from government programs (such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the earned-income tax credit), and going so far as to add employer contributions for health insurance and 401(k) retirement accounts, the employer share of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, government noncash benefits (e.g., the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, and housing vouchers), housing services (homeowners paying rent to themselves) and government services (e.g., defense, education, legal system, and administration)—the less measured inequality turns out to be.

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In fact, as Rose demonstrates, most of the available studies show growing inequality in the United States, with a high and rising share of income captured by the top 1 percent.** The only real outlier is by Auten and Splinter, who merely demonstrate that it is possible for mainstream economists to make growing inequality virtually disappear with enough “massaging” of the underlying numbers.***

In the end, Samuelson himself is forced to admit,

None of this means we should stop debating inequality. Who gets what, and why, are inevitable subjects for examination in a rich democratic society. By contrast with many advanced societies, income and wealth are indisputably more concentrated in the United States.

And the problem of growing inequality is only going to get worse as we move forward, especially with ongoing automation. As David Autor explains,

employment is growing steadily, and its growth in terms of number of jobs has not been discernibly dented by technological progress. But the sum of wage payments to workers is growing more slowly than economic value-added, so labor’s share of the pie of net earnings is falling. This doesn’t mean that wages are falling. It means that they are not growing in lock step with value-added.

That’s exactly right. Workers’ wages and middle-class incomes may continue to rise in absolute terms but their relative standing with respect to the tiny group at the top—those who are in the position of capturing the surplus—will likely worsen.

Measure by measure, the economic and social landscape is being fractured and American workers are being left behind.

 

*So that I avoid the problem I encountered when I presented my “Merchant of Venice” paper, this post is not about Shakespeare’s play.

**The main studies include Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (pdf), Piketty, Saez and Gabriel Zucman (pdf), Gerald Auten and David Splinter (pdf), and the Congressional Budget Office. As I showed in 2016, even Rose, for all the faults in his own study, found

an enormous increase in inequality between 1979 and 2014: combined, the share of income going to the rich and upper middle-class more than doubled, from 30 to 63.1 percent, while the amount of income going to everyone else—middle-class, lower middle-class, and poor—fell precipitously, to less than 40 percent.

***Auten and Splinter arrive at such a misleading result through two statistical maneuvers: allocating underreported income (primarily business income) according to IRS audit data and retirement income. Thus, they conclude, “Our results suggest an alternative narrative about top income shares: changes in the top one percent income shares over the last half century are likely to have been relatively modest.”

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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).

 

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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.