Posts Tagged ‘Paul Krugman’

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Contemporary capitalism has a big problem. And no one seems to be able to refute it.

The problem, as Robert J. Gordon sees it, is 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 fure. After fifty (from 1920 to 1970) years of relatively fast growth, and a single decade (the 1950s) of spectacular growth, the prospects for continued growth seem to have dimmed after 1970.

In the century after the end of the Civil War, life in the United States changed beyond recognition. There was a revolution—an economic, rather than a political one—which freed people from an unremitting daily grind of manual labour and household drudgery and a life of darkness, isolation and early death. By the 1970s, many manual, outdoor jobs had been replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by machines, darkness was replaced by electric light, and isolation was replaced not only by travel, but also by colour television, which brought the world into the living room. Most importantly, a newborn infant could expect to live not to the age of 45, but to 72. This economic revolution was unique—and unrepeatable, because so many of its achievements could happen only once. . .

Since 1970, economic growth has been dazzling and disappointing. This apparent paradox is resolved when we recognise that recent advances have mostly occurred in a narrow sphere of activity having to do with entertainment, communications and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress has slowed since 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

From what I have read, Gordon appears to privilege technical innovation over other factors (such as dispossessing noncapitalist producers and creating a large class of wage-laborers, concentrating them in factories and cities, and so on). He also seems to argue that the fruits of past economic growth were evenly distributed and that the drudgery of work itself has been eliminated.

Still, the idea that rapid economic growth took place during a relatively short period of time dispels one of the central myths of capitalism, much as the discovery that relative equality in the distribution of wealth and constant factor shares characterized an exceptional phase of capitalism.

And that’s a problem: the presume and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has mainstream commentators worried.

They’re worried that capitalism can no longer guarantee fast economic growth. And they’re worried, try as they might, that they can’t refute Gordon’s analysis. Not Paul Krugman or Larry Summers or, for that matter, Tyler Cowen.

All three applaud Gordon’s historical analysis. And all three desperately want to argue he’s wrong looking forward. But they can’t.

The best they can come up with is the idea that the future is uncertain. Thus, as Cowen writes, “many past advances came as complete surprises.”

Although the advents of automobiles, spaceships, and robots were widely anticipated, few foretold the arrival of x-rays, radio, lasers, superconductors, nuclear energy, quantum mechanics, or transistors. No one knows what the transistor of the future will be, but we should be careful not to infer too much from our own limited imaginations.

Indeed. We certainly don’t know what lies ahead. But, since the 1970s, we’ve witnessed growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, which resulted in and in turn was exacerbated by the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. Capitalism’s legitimacy, based on “just deserts” and economic stability, was already being called into question. Decades of slow economic growth and the real possibility that that trend might continue for the foreseeable future mean that capitalism (not to mention those who spend their time celebrating capitalism’s successes and failing to imagine alternatives) has an even bigger problem.

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I’ve been telling friends for weeks that it was going to get ugly. If and when the race on the Democratic side tightened in Iowa and New Hampshire, the gloves would come off.

And now they have.

David Brock, a Clinton supporter and founder of a super PAC that coordinates with her campaign told The Wall Street Journal that, if Mr. Sanders were to win the nomination, his democratic socialist identity would trigger a Republican rout in the general election.

Clinton allies with ties to her campaign are highlighting past statements Mr. Sanders has made that, they say, are at odds with America’s market-based, capitalist economy and its two-party political system. . .

“Democratic voters need to know before they vote what’s in the Republican arsenal on Sen. Sanders,” Mr. Brock said. “It’s clear that when Republicans…get done with Sanders, we’ll have President Trump or President Cruz.”

In the interview, Mr. Brock mentioned various speeches and interviews given by Mr. Sanders when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s and a congressman in the 1990s. He cited an article published in a Vermont newspaper in January 1984 that quoted then-Mayor Sanders saying he was unique “in not believing in the capitalist system.”

This, of course, is the same David Brock who, after a stint as a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, authored a sharply critical story about Clarence Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, in The American Spectator magazine (which he later expanded into a book, The Real Anita Hill).

And then we have Paul Krugman, who has followed up on his version of the “art of the possible” by attacking those on the Left—where “there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions”—for veering into “destructive self-indulgence.”

Krugman’s view is that “current polling is meaningless, because [Sanders] has never yet faced their attack machine.”

Well, Sanders is now facing the red-baiting attack machine, and it’s coming from inside his own party.

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One never knows how representative comments on columns are but the latest Krugman column has been challenged by many respondents, including fg from Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Oh oh, Mr. Krugman, it appears that your idealism has veered into destructive self-indulgence, but please don’t paint the rest of us believers with the same brush. You sound exhausted, we’re not. We absolutely must continue to fight for the ideals, promises and potential of this nation, even if it means backing an irascible old social democrat, a Don Quixote, because he is not tilting at windmills, he is tilting at real danger to our existence as a free and enlightened nation.

And then there’s BH from Houston, Texas:

The best way to make sure change doesn’t happen is to not even try. Single-payer may not be politically feasible with the current Congress, but political capital can be created; Congress is not immutable. Millennials support Sanders by a 3:1 margin, and their influential electorally will only grow in the coming decades.

“No we can’t!” is not a smart strategy, politically, intellectually or emotionally by Clinton and her surrogates (fishing for a position in her administration, Paul?).

Whenever a commentator declares that “politics is the art of the possible”—and proceeds to make whatever arguments they deem necessary to delegitimize ideas that challenge the current common sense—I’m on my guard. What we’re being told is to accept present conditions as immutable facts of life, and to trim our goals accordingly. We’re being told not to entertain ideas that point in the direction of the not-yet possible.

So it is with Paul Krugman these days. Now that Bernie Sanders has to be taken seriously, Krugman has taken to invoking the art of the possible and, in the process, both rewriting history and declaring that Sanders’s plans represent deceitful fantasies.

In order to make a thinly veiled case for Hillary Clinton against Sanders, Krugman has decided that Too Big to Fail Banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs—which now long after the crash are all Too Bigger to Fail—played no significant role in 2008. Instead, the problem, as Krugman (citing Mike Konczal) sees it, was shadow banking. While breaking up the big banks might not solve all the problems of the financial sector, it’s simply disingenuous to try to whitewash the history of the crash of 2007-08 by arguing that the nation’s largest banks played only a marginal role in creating the conditions of the bubble that eventually burst and, when it did, in bringing the world economy to its knees.

If the art of the possible with respect to financial reform is one or another version of Dodd-Frank, it’s extending private health insurance to cover more people—and decidedly not proposing a single-payer (let along a single-provider) plan. Here, Krugman relies on Ezra Klein to assert that Sanders’s plan is a fantasy, since it relies on cost-savings associated with government setting health reimbursement fees (like the current Medicare system) and it would mean disrupting the existing, private insurance system. And, of course, we can’t have that.

The fact is, Krugman (along with Konczal, Klein, and many others in recent days) is determined to make the American electorate stick to existing policies and policy options, which don’t disrupt business as usual. That’s the art of the possible, as proposed and practiced by Clinton.

What Sanders and his growing number of supporters are relying on is our disenchantment with the existing possibilities, which put us in the Second Great Depression and left too many Americans without decent healthcare, and a desire to make strides that challenge the current common sense and help us imagine the next steps.

That’s politics as the art of the not-yet possible.

Or, alternatively, we can just let Juan Perón take over.

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John Lennon (on the B side of “Imagine”) thought that life was hard, “really hard.” I can understand that.

But is modeling inequality really all that hard?

Paul Krugman seems to think so, at least when it comes to the size or personal distribution of income. That’s his excuse for why mainstream economists were late to the inequality party: they just didn’t know how to model it.

And, according to Krugman, not even Marx can be of much help.

Well, let’s see. It’s true, Marx focused on the factor distribution of income—wages, profits, and rent, to laborers, capitalists, and landowners—because his critique was directed at classical political economy. And the classical political economists—especially Smith and Ricardo—did, in fact, focus their attention on factor shares.

That was Marx’s goal in the chapter on the Trinity Formula: to show that what the classicals thought were separate sources of income to the three factors of production all stemmed from value created by labor. Thus, for example, laborers received in the form of wages part of the value they created (“that portion of his labour appears which we call necessary labour”); the rest, the surplus-value, was divided among capitalists (“as dividends proportionate to the share of the social capital each holds”) and landed property (which “is confined to transferring a portion of the produced surplus-value from the pockets of capital to its own”).

It is really just a short step to show that, in recent decades (from the mid-1970s onward), both that more surplus-value has been pumped out of the direct producers and that investment bankers, CEOs, and other members of the 1 percent have been able to capture a large share of that mass of surplus-value. That’s how we can connect changing factor (wage and profit) shares to the increasingly unequal individual distribution of income (including the rising percentage of income going to the top 1, .01, and .001 percents).

See, that wasn’t so hard. . .

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Paul Krugman is right: there is no clear or unambiguous relationship between inequality and capitalist economic growth.

If there were such a relationship, liberal thinkers could make their case that less inequality would promote more growth and everyone would benefit.

The fact is, however, there are more unequal and less unequal forms and periods of capitalist growth. As a result, there’s no general correlation between inequality and growth within capitalism.

The chart above depicts both inequality (the profit-wage ratio, in blue on the left) and economic growth (nominal GDP growth, in red on the right) for the United States. We can clearly see periods of relatively high economic growth accompanied by growing inequality (e.g., in the late 1970s) and periods of very slow economic growth also accompanied by growing inequality (e.g., since 2009). The converse is also true: high economic growth with falling inequality (in the early 1950s) and slow economic growth with falling inequality (e.g., late 1980s).

What this means, at least for me, is we need to pay attention to the particular conditions for economic growth during each period or phase of capitalist development. In general, capitalism can grow (or not) under both more unequal and less unequal conditions.

That’s not to say, however, that within any given period (more or less) growth and (more or less) inequality are not connected. A plausible story can be told that growing inequality during the 2000s fueled the financial bubble that eventually burst in 2007-08.

We also need to reverse the relationship and look at the relationship from growth to inequality. It’s pretty clear that the nature of the growth that has occurred since 2009 has created more inequality, that is, the particular form of the recovery that has been enacted since the crash of 2007-08 has enhanced corporate profits (and incomes at the very top) and made everyone else (who receive wages to get by) pay the costs.

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Finally, while we’re on the topic, there is one general tendency of capitalist growth we need to point out: the role of profitability. In the end, profitability is what makes capitalism work (or not). As we can see from the chart above (which includes just the corporate profit share and growth), each period of a declining profit share is followed by a recession, after which the profit share rises (at least for a time).

So, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones: capitalists can’t always get what they want. When they don’t (leading up to the most recent financial crash), neither will anyone else. And, even when they do (as they have since 2009), there’s no guarantee anyone else will.

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There’s no doubt that economic inequality is growing within the great cities, in the United State and around the world. The question is, is inequality killing what is great about those cities?

According to a new report by Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes for Brookings (in an update to an earlier study), inequality in the 50 largest cities in the United States (measured in terms of the disparity between the bottom 20 percent and the top 5 percent) is much higher than the national average.

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Thus,

Across the 50 largest cities, households in the 95th percentile of income earned 11.6 times as much as households at the 20th percentile, a considerably wider margin than the national average ratio of 9.3. This difference reflects the fact that in big cities the rich have higher incomes, and the poor lower incomes, than their counterparts nationally. From 2012 to 2013, the inequality ratio widened in both cities and the nation overall, as incomes at the top grew somewhat faster than incomes at the bottom. Notably, incomes grew faster for both the rich and poor in cities than they did elsewhere.

Similar trends have been reported elsewhere, in London and other major cities. (Baltimore, for those keeping track, was ranked twelfth in 2013 inequality, with a 95/20 ratio of 12.3.)

So, are these obscene levels of inequality destroying our cities?

Paul Krugman is not too sure about the historical lessons—but he does admit that “we’re now arguably looking at something new,”

as the really wealthy — domestic malefactors of great wealth, but also oligarchs, princelings, and sheiks — buy up prime real estate and leave it vacant, creating luxury-shopping wastelands at best (I know, snobbish Upper West Side bias), expensive ghost districts at worst.

David Harvey [ht: sk], for his part, sees increasing urbanization around the world connected to widespread “discontent emerging around the quality of urban life.”

So you can see this discontent producing uprisings in some instances, or mass protests like Gezi and what happened in Brazil shortly after Gezi. There is actually a long tradition of urban uprisings — the Paris Commune in 1871 and other instances well before that — but I think that the urban question is really becoming a central question today, and the qualities of urban life are moving to the forefront of what contemporary protests are about. . .

So we are seeing these sorts of emerging urban uprisings in a patchy way all around the world: in Buenos Aires, in Bolivia, in Brazil, etc. Latin America is full of this sort of stuff. But even in Europe we have seen major urban unrest: in London, Stockholm, Paris, and so on. What we have to do is to start thinking of a new form of politics, which is what anti-capitalism should fundamentally be about. Unfortunately, the traditional left still focuses narrowly on workers and the workplace, whereas now it’s the politics of everyday life that really matters.

The problem, as I see it, is neither Krugman nor Harvey offers a convincing class analysis that connects inequality with what is happening to and in the world’s cities. For Krugman, it’s a tiny group of wealthy oligarchs versus everyone else; Harvey seems to believe the “revolts in Baltimore and in Tahrir Square and so on” have nothing to do with the proletariat, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels.

Now, I’m the first to admit the world has radically changed since the mid-nineteenth century. But that only means we have to update our class analysis of what is occurring within cities—where, to my mind, there is a broad class that is still doing most of the work and a tiny class at the top that is managing to capture a large portion of what those workers produce (within those cities and, in some instances, from cities across the globe). Otherwise, we’re going to fail to recognize the complex class dynamics of what is currently happening in our cities, and of course how they might be reshaped into urban centers that are worthy of the name of great cities.

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You remember the dialogue:

Queen: Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face.

Magic Mirror: What wouldst thou know, my Queen?

Queen: Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

I was reminded of this particular snippet from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs while reading the various defenses of contemporary macroeconomic models. Mainstream macroeconomists failed to predict the most recent economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but, according to them everything in macroeconomics is just fine.

There’s David Andolfatto, who argues that the goal of macro models is not really prediction; it is, instead, only conditional forecasts (“IF a set of circumstances hold, THEN a number of events are likely to follow.”). So, in his view, the existing models are mostly fine—as long as they’re supplemented with some “financial market frictions” and a bit of economic history.

Mark Thoma, for his part, mostly agrees with Andolfatto but adds we need to ask the right questions.

we didn’t foresee the need to ask questions (and build models) that would be useful in a financial crisis — we were focused on models that would explain “normal times” (which is connected to the fact that we thought the Great Moderation would continue due to arrogance on behalf of economists leading to the belief that modern policy tools, particularly from the Fed, would prevent major meltdowns, financial or otherwise). That is happening now, so we’ll be much more prepared if history repeats itself, but I have to wonder what other questions we should be asking, but aren’t.

Then, of course, there’s Paul Krugman who (not for the first time) defends hydraulic Keynesianism (aka Hicksian IS/LM models)—”little equilibrium models with some real-world adjustments”—which in his view have been “stunningly successful.”

And, finally, to complete my sample from just the last couple of days, we have Noah Smith, who defends the existing macroeconomic models—because they’re models!—and chides heterodox economists for not having any alternative models to offer.

The issue, as I see it, is not whether there’s a macroeconomic model (e.g., dynamic stochastic general equilibrium, as depicted in the illustration above, or Bastard Keynesian or whatever) that can, with the appropriate external “shock,” generate a boom-and-bust cycle or zero-lower-bound case for government intervention. There’s a whole host of models that can generate such outcomes.

No, there are two real issues that are never even mentioned in these attempts to defend contemporary macroeconomic models. First, what is widely recognized to be the single most important economic problem of our time—the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth—doesn’t (and, in models with a single representative agent, simply can’t) play a role in either causing boom-and-bust cycles or as a result of the lopsided recovery that has come from the kinds of fiscal and monetary policies that have been used in recent years.

That’s the specific issue. And then there’s a second, more general issue: the only way you can get an economic crisis from mainstream models (of whatever stripe, using however much math) is via some kind of external shock. The biggest problem with existing models is not that they failed to predict the crisis; it’s that the only possibility of a crisis comes from an exogenous event. The key failure of mainstream macroeconomic models is to exclude from analysis the idea that the “normal” workings of capitalism generate economic crises on a regular basis—some of which are relatively mild recessions, others of which (such as we’ve seen since 2007) are full-scale depressions.  What really should be of interest are theories that generate boom-and-bust cycles based on endogenous events within capitalism itself.

With respect to both these issues, contemporary mainstream macroeconomic models have “stunningly” failed.

I imagine that’s what the slave in the magic mirror, who simply will not lie to the Queen, would say.