Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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Special mention

182570_600 July 26, 2016

by-tiago-hoisel

Back in 2013 (and in a series of other posts), I have argued that neoliberalism (including so-called “left neoliberalism,” as espoused by Hillary Clinton and her new runnning-mate Tim Kaine) is not a unified period or stage of capitalism but, rather, a project to remake the world. Therefore, what we’re living through now is

a neoliberal order in crisis that simply cannot be grasped or contained by mainstream political and economic thought, which has only ever involved an incomplete and always-contested attempt to remake the world, and which represents the contradictory fusion of economic and non-economic processes and events.

As I see it, neoliberalism is both a set of ideas that can be traced back through the history of capitalism and a particular project to transform the world (on behalf of corporate bosses) that coalesced in the 1970s.

So, David Harvey [ht: ja], in a recent interview, unnecessarily separates the ideas from the project.

Since the publication of A Brief History of Neoliberalism in 2005 a lot of ink has been spilled on the concept. There seem to be two main camps: scholars who are most interested in the intellectual history of neoliberalism and people whose concern lies with “actually existing neoliberalism.” Where do you fit?

There’s a tendency in the social sciences, which I tend to resist, to seek a single-bullet theory of something. So there’s a wing of people who say that, well, neoliberalism is an ideology and so they write an idealist history of it.

A version of this is Foucault’s governmentality argument that sees neoliberalizing tendencies already present in the eighteenth century. But if you just treat neoliberalism as an idea or a set of limited practices of governmentality, you will find plenty of precursors.

What’s missing here is the way in which the capitalist class orchestrated its efforts during the 1970s and early 1980s. I think it would be fair to say that at that time — in the English-speaking world anyway — the corporate capitalist class became pretty unified.

The fact is, neoliberalism is both: it’s a set of ideas and a political project. Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. They present a discourse about individuals and an economic system that, according to neoclassical economists and others, needs to be understood and obeyed. We do need to understand that intellectual history because, while such ideas are not always predominant or hegemonic, they exist such that they can be mobilized in particular periods. And that’s exactly what neoliberalism as a political project did, and not for the first time, in the mid-1970s.

It’s not one or another but both, as they coalesced in a particular conjuncture, that we need to understand. Harvey is, I think, missing that connection.

But, in my view, Harvey is correct when, toward the end of the interview, he is asked about the distinction between neoliberalism and capitalism.

Do you think we talk too much about neoliberalism and too little about capitalism? When is it appropriate to use one or the other term, and what are the risks involved in conflating them?

Many liberals say that neoliberalism has gone too far in terms of income inequality, that all this privatization has gone too far, that there are a lot of common goods that we have to take care of, such as the environment.

There are also a variety of ways of talking about capitalism, such as the sharing economy, which turns out to be highly capitalized and highly exploitative.

There’s the notion of ethical capitalism, which turns out to simply be about being reasonably honest instead of stealing. So there is the possibility in some people’s minds of some sort of reform of the neoliberal order into some other form of capitalism.

I think it’s possible that you can make a better capitalism than that which currently exists. But not by much.

The fundamental problems are actually so deep right now that there is no way that we are going to go anywhere without a very strong anticapitalist movement. So I would want to put things in anticapitalist terms rather than putting them in anti-neoliberal terms.

And I think the danger is, when I listen to people talking about anti-neoliberalism, that there is no sense that capitalism is itself, in whatever form, a problem.

The fact is, capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

However, in both cases, the goal has been to extract surplus-value from workers, within and across countries. While criticisms of neoliberalism tend to emphasize the problems created by individualism and free markets, they forget about or overlook the problems—at both the micro and macro levels—associated with class exploitation.

Once we direct our focus to those problems, concerning the conditions and consequences of appropriating and distributing the surplus, the issue is not what kind of better capitalism we can put in place, but what alternatives to capitalism can be imagined and created.

The new paper by Johns Hopkins University economist Laurence Ball, “The Fed and Lehman Brothers” (pdf), is creating quite a stir. And for good reason.

Fed officials have not been transparent about the Lehman crisis. Their explanations for their actions rest on flawed economic and legal reasoning and dubious factual claims.

Ball, on the basis of exhaustive research, calls out the officials in charge—Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (played by William Hurt in the clip from Too Big to Fail at the top of the post), Fed chair Ben Bernanke, and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner—for not bailing out Lehman Brothers in September 2008. His argument is that the Federal Reserve did have the authority to rescue Lehman but chose not to—and they chose not to because they acceded authority to Paulson, who “feared the political firestorm that would have followed a rescue.”

Of course the decision not to rescue Lehman Brothers was political. And, if they’d taken the decision to bailout the failed global financial services firm, that would have been political, too.

The fact is, Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner (as well as mainstream economists and other economic policymakers) were caught in their own logic of deregulating financial institutions and letting “the market” work according to its own rules (because, as Paulson admits, “they were making too much money”). That meant the emergence of a giant financial bubble—based on a toxic mix of subprime mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and credit-default swaps—that would eventually burst. To save Lehman would have meant questioning those same private, market-based rules—with the hope that letting Lehman go under would restore order and not bring the rest of the financial system to its knees.

But, just so we understand, if they had chosen to rescue Lehman, that also would have been a political decision—to save the bankers that had made enormous profits from fees and bets on both simple and complex financial deals while, from 2007 on, everyone else was suffering from mounting foreclosures, homelessness, and unemployment.

As we know, they took the political decision not to bailout Lehman and then they covered it up, behind a series of stories—they had carefully examined the adequacy of Lehman’s collateral and they lacked the legal authority to intervene—that are convincingly disputed by Ball. Documenting the lack of transparency on the part of U.S. financial authorities about the decisions that were and were not taken in 2008 (from Bear Sterns through Lehman Brothers to AIG) is the real significance of Ball’s investigation.

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But it’s not the real political issue. Whether or not to rescue Lehman pales into insignificance when compared to two other events: the decision to let the financial system spiral out of control, and the decision not to nationalize the major financial institutions. The fact is, profits in the financial sector were enormous, reaching 40 percent of total domestic profits by the mid-2000s. It was a political decision to allow those profits to grow, even as the financial mechanisms that generated those profits were creating the financial fragility that led to the crash of 2007-08.

And then, after the crash, when the U.S. government owned an increasingly large share of the financial sector (from AIG to Ally Bank, the former GM financing arm), it was a political decision not to nationalize—or, better, not to effectively utilize the de facto nationalization of—the financial institutions it had rescued. The Obama administration and the Fed could have taken over decisionmaking in the banks, insurance companies, and government-sponsored enterprises it then owned (in exchange for the direct bailouts and other financial commitments) but they chose not to, preferring instead to negotiate payback plans and return them as quickly as possible to private ownership. That, too, was a political decision.

Ball admits “We will never know what Lehman Brothers’ long-term fate would have been if the Fed rescued it from its liquidity crisis.” True.

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But we do know what the fate of the U.S. economy has been as the result of two, much more important political decisions—to deregulate financial markets beginning in the 1990s and to not nationalize the major financial institutions after they were rescued with trillions of dollars of public financing and commitments. The first decision led directly to the crash of 2007-08, the second to the Second Great Depression and further concentration of Too Big to Fail financial institutions.

And, in the United States and around the world, we’re still living through the disastrous consequences of both of those essentially political decisions.

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A new report from McKinsey & Company, “Poorer than Their Parents? Flat or Falling Incomes in Advanced Countries” (pdf), confirms many people’s worst fears. As it turns out, the trend in stagnating or declining incomes for most workers (including the middle-class) is not confined to the United States, but is a global phenomenon.

Brexit and Trump are just the tip of the iceberg. Because of flat or falling incomes, many workers across the rich countries are angry and want change.

According to the authors of the report, as much as 70 percent of the households in 25 advanced economies saw their incomes drop in the past decade. That compares to just 2 percent of households that saw declining incomes in the previous 12 years.*

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In the United States, fully 81 percent of households suffered a decline in market income between 2005 and 2013. But, as it turns out, after taxes and transfers, falling market incomes were turned into flat disposable incomes. (The situation elsewhere, such as in France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy, was even worse, in terms of both market and disposable incomes.)

Here’s what the U.S. numbers mean: employers were able to take advantage of declining labor incomes (since only upper-income households experienced strong wage growth, which is really just a distribution of the surplus to most of them), thus increasing corporate profits; while workers, through taxes on their wages (and thus not a distribution of the surplus), were forced to pay to finance programs that helped reverse some of the effect of declining market incomes.

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Another major consequence of flat or falling incomes is a dramatic increase in inequality over the course of the past two decades. Since I’m quite critical of comparing inequality indicators (e.g., Gini coefficients) across countries (as I explained here), what is most relevant is the change in inequality indicators for individual countries and, especially, the difference between market-income and disposable-income indicators. Thus, for example, when the authors of the report calculate “net Gini” (market Ginis minus the effect of taxes and transfers, the middle line for each country in the chart above), the United States ends up reversing market inequality the least—scoring 35 in 1993 and 37 in 2005 and 2012.**

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The final major economic consequence, in the United States and elsewhere is that today’s younger generation—regardless of level of education—is increasingly at risk of ending up poorer than their parents. As readers can see in the chart above, wage incomes declined for all segments of the labor force in the 2002–12 period but, in all three countries, wage income declines were most severe for younger workers (under the age of 30). The average decrease in the wage income of these young workers ranged from 2 percent (for higher educated workers in France) to 27 percent (for medium educated workers in Italy). In the United states, lower educated young workers faced a decline of 15 percent, similar to that of medium educated workers; while even higher educated young workers saw a decline in their incomes.

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And then, of course, there are the political consequences of flat or declining incomes. The authors of the report note that

The people who felt they were not advancing and believed this was a persistent problem expressed sharply negative views of foreign trade and immigration. They were nearly twice as likely to believe that “Legal immigrants are ruining the culture and cohesiveness of our society” as those who were advancing or neutral, and one-and-a-half times as likely as those who were not advancing but hopeful about the future. Nearly 70 percent of them also agreed with the statement “Cheaper foreign labor is creating unfair competition to our domestic businesses,” compared with 43 percent of those who were advancing or neutral. Fifty-six percent of them also believed that “The influx of foreign goods and services is leading to domestic job losses,” compared with 29 percent of the advancing or neutral respondents and 41 percent of those who were not advancing but hopeful about the future.

By implication, failure to correct flat or falling incomes could lead to a rise in the number of people who see flat or falling incomes as a persistent problem and lose faith in tenets of the global economic architecture.

That’s the source of the challenge to the self-professed expertise of mainstream economists (who tend to celebrate a market-based global economy), as well as movements as diverse as Brexit, the Trump campaign, and the insurgency within the Democratic Party represented by Bernie Sanders.

But the authors of the report are not done. The natural final question is, what are the prospects for the future? Their conclusion is, to say the least, sobering. If present trends continue—including the decline in labor unions, the continuation of job-displacing digital technologies, the rise in temporary and part-time work, and overall slow growth—it is likely

an even larger proportion of income groups in advanced economies—from 70 to 80 percent—could experience flat or falling real market incomes in the next decade to 2025 than did during the 2005–12 period.

As I see it, the existing set of economic institutions can neither accommodate nor preclude the possibility of an even larger portion of flat or falling incomes for the foreseeable future. The current economic system has failed, even on its own terms.

The situation is so dire that the authors of the report (who, remember, did this research for McKinsey, the most prestigious management consultancy in the world) note that “the idea of a guaranteed basic income has attracted renewed interest as policy makers seek to grapple with flat or falling incomes in the middle class, high youth unemployment, and the prospect of further job losses to digitization.”

A universal basic income is certainly a start. It’s a recognition of how dire the current situation is and how ominous the future prospects are for the majority of the population—workers, the middle-class, call them what you will—within the advanced countries.

But it’s only a start. The widespread nature of flat or falling incomes in the United States and across the rich countries, and then the dire forecast looking forward, mean it’s time to imagine and create a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

 

*In general, the analysis in the report appears to be carefully done. I do, however, have one criticism. The major comparison is between two periods: 1993-2005 (when most incomes were rising) and 2005-2014 (when they were falling). That’s fine. All of the data of which I am aware (such as real wages and average 90-percent incomes) confirm much the same trends. The problem is, it was in the mid-1990s that workers’ incomes were at their lowest. If we extended the analysis back to the mid-1970s, then we’d discover that, across the entire 1973-2014 period, workers’ incomes have been generally flat (with both short-term increases and decreases within that long-term trend).

**On a scale of 0 to 100, where a score of 100 indicates complete inequality (one person earns all of the income) and a score of 0 represents completely even distribution of income across the population (each citizen earns the same amount). Numbers in the high 40s for market income and high 30s in the net Gini coefficient (after taxes and transfers) indicate an obscenely unequal distribution of income in the United States.

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Special mention

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Now that Bernie Sanders has endorsed the not-Trump Democratic candidate, it’s time to sort through the debris of Sanders’s own campaign.

Kshama Sawant [ht: ja] has authored one of the most insightful responses—and I mostly agree with her critical analysis of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party and her understanding of how the Sanders campaign challenged mainstream political discourse in the United States:

Bernie’s campaign has shaken the foundations of U.S. politics with its bold challenge to the corrupt political establishment and the domination of Wall Street and the super rich over society. Tens of thousands of people became politically active for the first time, and a broader discussion about socialism has been put back on the agenda. But the issues Sanders ran on, like a national $15 minimum wage, opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and Medicare for all, will in no way be advanced by his capitulation to Clinton.

And, yes, “Bernie’s endorsement will be used in an attempt to prop up that same rotten establishment, including the corporate-owned leadership of the Democratic Party which has fought against him at every step, and which just booed him in the last week.”

But, even though I share her dismay in Sanders’s announcement that he was endorsing Clinton (I felt physically ill as I watched it) and his plans to campaign on her behalf to defeat Donald Trump (although I think whatever campaigning he does will be more for “his” issues and his opposition to Trump than for Clinton herself or even many of the mainstream down-ticket candidates), I don’t think Sawant gives enough credit to Sanders nor does she appreciate what his campaign achieved. Her statement that “Sanders [sic] endorsement of Clinton is a fundamental failure of leadership” is simply too harsh.

As I see it, precisely because Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination, he was forced to conform to one of the unwritten rules—that he accept his defeat and endorse the winner. Not to do so would have delegitimized anyone coming after him, from local politicians and national legislators to presidential candidates who are willing to take up the banner of socialism within the Democratic Party.

Of course, there’s still the issue of whether Sanders should have run for the Democratic nomination. Sawant certainly believes he shouldn’t have, that it was a fundamental mistake not to run an independent campaign.

Again, I disagree. The fact is, at least at the national level, the Democratic Party, for all its faults (and there I’m in substantial agreement with Sawant and many other critics), is the place where many people can learn and hone their political skills. Hundreds of paid staffers and thousands of volunteers, most of them young, acquired the kind of knowledge and experience—about their fellow citizens, contacting and mobilizing voters, organizing a political campaign, and so much more—precisely because they participated in a broad-based, national political movement. And millions of their fellow citizens, members of the 99 percent, were able to recognize themselves in the multitudes who came out in support of Sanders.

Those multitudes, in turn, were able to hear their issues defined and enunciated on a national level, issues that were then amplified for millions of others, including those who (for whatever reason) didn’t vote for Sanders. Those ideas—about the corruption of the democratic process, the need for universal healthcare, the trade deals that only benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals, the need for publicly funded higher education, as well as socialism itself (or at least one version of it)—are now a material force that won’t simply disappear.

To simply conclude that Sanders is a sell-out, that he never should have run for the presidential nomination within the Democratic Party, and instead should have become involved in one or another small party or movement on the “real” Left, represents a denial of the issues that were taken up at the national level and the millions who obtained a political education in the process.

Nothing can take those away—not Clinton’s victory nor the left-wing denunciations of Sanders.

As I see it, we shouldn’t lose sight of those achievements even as we pick through the debris of Sanders’s campaign after Tuesday’s endorsement.

Class myths

Posted: 7 July 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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As I argued back in May, “American politics has always been about class. And this presidential election is no different.”

Nancy Isenberg agrees that “the 2016 election is about class.” So, she sets out to debunk 5 myths about class in the United States.

Class myth number 1: The working class is white and male.

America has never housed some monolithic entity called the “working class.” As early as 1791, Alexander Hamilton argued that those best suited for factory work were women and children, which became the norm in textile mills until child labor laws were passed in the 20th century. Chinese workers built the Transcontinental Railroad; immigrants labored in the Ohio steel industry; whites and blacks toiled side by side in 20th-century Louisiana sawmills.

Today’s working class is even more diverse. A recent study found that more than half of all Hispanics and African Americans identify as working class. Additionally, about 50 percent of women see themselves as working class. Another report predicted that people of color will make up the majority of the American working class by 2032.

Class myth number 2: Most Americans don’t notice class differences.

The desire to erase class divisions goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the North American continent would flatten classes into a “happy mediocrity.” . . .

Today, record inequality divides the rich and the poor. Our country’s wealthy “1 percent” takes home 20 percent of all pretax income, double their 1980 share. For most middle-class and lower-income families, income has either stagnated or fallen. In short, Americans have not escaped class hierarchies, but reinvented them generation by generation.

Class myth number 3: Class mobility is uniquely American.

Since America’s founding, its politicians have promised a society unbound by class. . .

But in reality, it’s harder to rise above your class in the United States than in just about any other developed country; economic mobility is much more possible in places like Japan, Germany and Australia.

Class myth number 4: With talent and hard work, you can rise above your class.

It’s a tale as old as Horatio Alger: Anyone can make it in America, no matter their upbringing. As CNN put the notion , “Through hard work and perseverance, even the poorest people can make it to middle class or above.”

But actually, it’s hard to rise above your income level. In cities such as Atlanta, New York and Washington, a child raised in a poor family has a less than 10 percent chance of becoming wealthy in his or her lifetime. It’s not much better in other parts of the country.

Class myth number 5: Class oppression isn’t as significant as racial oppression.

Class power takes many forms. Its enduring force, its ability to project hatred toward the lower classes, was best summed up by two presidents 175 years apart. In 1790, then-Vice President John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” he wrote. Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

There is, of course, a lot more that can be said about class in the United States, including the fact that not everything in politics can or should be reduced to class.

However, dispelling some of the significant, oft-repeated myths about class is an important first step in recognizing and eventually eliminating the class problems that affect—and infect—the American polity.