Posts Tagged ‘policy’

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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, “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.

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Inequality

The latest IMF Fiscal Monitor, “Tackling Inequality,” is out and it represents a direct challenge to the United States.

It’s not just a rebuke to Donald Trump, who with his allies is pursuing under the guise of “tax reform” a set of policies that will lead to even greater inequality—or, for that matter, Republicans in state governments across the country that have sought to cut back on programs targeted at poor Americans. It also takes to task decades of growing inequality in the United States, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

As is clear from the chart above, the distribution of both income and wealth in the United States has become increasingly unequal since the mid-1970s. The share of income captured by the top 1 percent has more than doubled (from 10 to 20 percent), while it’s share of total wealth has increased dramatically (from 23 percent to 39 percent). Meanwhile, the share of income of the bottom 50 percent has declined precipitously (from 20 percent to 12.5 percent) and it’s share of wealth, which was never very high (at 0.9 percent), is now nonexistent (at negative 0.1 percent).

And what is the United States doing about it? Absolutely nothing. Over the course of the past four decades it’s done very little to tackle the problem of growing inequality—and what it has done has been spectacularly ineffective. Thus, inequality has grown to obscene levels.

What’s interesting about the IMF report is that it raises—and then challenges—every important argument made by mainstream economists and members of the economic and political elite.

Should we worry just about income inequality? Well, no, since “changes in income inequality are reflected in other inequality dimensions, such as wealth inequality.”

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Doesn’t the United States take care of the problem by redistribution? Absolutely not, since only Israel does less than the United States in terms of lowering inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) through taxes and transfers.

But doesn’t tackling inequality through progressive income taxes lower economic growth? Again, no: “There is not strong empirical evidence showing that progressivity has been harmful for growth.”

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Nor is there any justification for low tax rates on those at the top in terms of social preferences. Most Americans, according to a recent Gallup survey, most believe that the rich and corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes. In fact, the IMF notes, perhaps thinking about the United States, “societal preferences may not be reflected in actual policy implementation because of the concentration of political power in certain affluent groups.”

Clearly, much more can be done to lower the degree of inequality in the United States.

As a sign of the times, the IMF even chooses to discuss the role a Universal Basic Income might play in decreasing inequality.

Proponents argue that a UBI can be used as a redistributive tool to help address poverty and inequality better than means-­tested programs, which su er from information constraints, high administrative costs, and other obsta­cles that limit benefit take-­up. A UBI could also help address increased income uncertainty resulting from the impact of technology (particularly automation) on jobs.

UBI

According to its calculations, a Universal Basic Income in the United States (calibrated at 25 percent of median per capita income, in addition to existing programs) would cost only 6.5 percent of national income and achieve a remarkable reduction in both inequality (by more than 5 Gini points) and poverty (by more than 10 percentage points).

What puts the United States in stark relief is the contrast between the whole panoply of inequality-reducing policies that are available—from more progressive income taxes and the adoption of wealth taxes to reducing gaps in education and health programs—and the fact that the United States is moving in the opposite direction.

The United States is simply not tackling the problem, with the inevitable result: current levels of economic inequality are—by any measure, and especially in comparison to what could be but isn’t being done—grotesque.

labor-inequality

I understand readers’ attention is mostly focused on today’s election. However, it is not too soon to look beyond the results themselves, to consider the economic policies of the new administration. If Hillary Clinton is elected (as seems likely), reducing “labor market monopsony” appears to be one of the directions economic policy will be going.

 

For decades now, the labor share of U.S. national income (the blue line measured on the left-hand vertical axis in the chart above) has steadily declined, while the shares of income and wealth captured by the top 1 percent (the red and green lines on the right-hand axis) has increased. And in recent years, even as employment has mostly recovered from the Second Great Depression, the wages paid to the majority of workers have continued to stagnate (even while incomes of workers at the very top, especially CEOs and other corporate executives, have risen).

Might it be the case that employers are conspiring to keep workers’ wages down?

The idea that employers often try and ultimately succeed in keeping workers’ wages lower than they otherwise would be has been recognized seen at least the end of the eighteenth century—an observation made by none other than Adam Smith:

What are the common wages of labour, depends every where upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. . .

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things which nobody ever hears of. Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

However, it wasn’t until 1932 that we got the modern term for exercising market power on the purchasing or demand side of a market: monopsony. It should come as no surprise that it was invented by Joan Robinson (with help from classicist B. L. Hallward) and first utilized in her Economics of Imperfect Competition.

It is necessary to find a name for the individual buyer which will correspond to the name monopolist for the individual seller. In the following pages an individual buyer is referred to as a monopsonist.

Still, within mainstream economics, the idea that employers would operate as monopsonists—and therefore exercise power in setting workers’ wages—was mostly considered irrelevant, either overlooked or considered to be a minor exception (as, e.g., in the stereotypical “company town”) to the rule of perfectly competitive markets.

Now, however, that seems to have changed. The combination of slow wage growth, obscene and still-increasing inequality, and growing concentration among corporations in the production and selling of commodities (the classical case of monopoly) has put monopsony back on the agenda—at least for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf).

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Monopsony in the labor market serves an important explanatory role for Jason Furman and the other members of the Council because it creates a situation in which both wages (W2) and employment (Q2) are lower than they would be in perfect competition (W1 and Q1, respectively). In consequence, as a result of the shifting of the balance of bargaining toward employers, the wage share declines and both employers’ profits and the incomes of high-level corporate employees increase.*

What this means, in terms of policy, is a series of reforms designed to move markets closer to mainstream economists’ ideal of perfect competition: anti-trust enforcement as well reforms to labor markets (such as modernizing non-compete clauses, pay transparency, and affordable health care) that enhance the ability of workers to move between employers and move closer to “normal” wages.

The problem, of course, is that the theory of labor market monopsony, which pertains to individual employers, also serves to obscure the power wielded by employers as a class. When, as the result of a complex historical process, the labor market itself is created, a large group of people is forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, who own or have access to the financial resources to hire those workers. Under such conditions (as they are first created and then reproduced over time), even if individual employers exercise no market power at all (and take the wage as given by the market), workers’ wages are still only equal to the value of their labor power, which is less than the value workers create. Workers are, in other words, exploited—even in the absence of individual monopsony.

What monopsony does, initially, is lower the wage to a level below the value of labor power (thus making it difficult for workers to continue to sell their ability to work under customary conditions). Then, if such a condition persists, the value of labor power itself falls (as the value of the basket of goods that make up the workers’ customary standard of living declines), thus increasing the level of exploitation. That, of course, is exactly what has happened in the United States since the mid-1970s.

Enforcing anti-trust laws and reforming the labor market might lower the amount of individual employers’ power in the labor market, thus raising the price (and, perhaps eventually, the value) of labor power. But it would not eliminate the monopsony of the group of employers as a whole in relation to the working-class.

The only way to abolish that class monopsony and build a more equitable economy is to eliminate the central role and regulating principle of the labor market—by creating the conditions whereby workers are not excluded from participating in the appropriation of their surplus labor.

 

*It is also the case that, if there is significant monopsony in the labor market, an increase in the minimum wage (at least up to W1) will actually lead to an increase in employment (toward Q1).

 

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