Posts Tagged ‘power’

Alston

Last month, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (whose important work I have written about before), issued a tweet about the new poverty and healthcare numbers in the United States along with a challenge to the administration of Donald Trump (which in June decided to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council after Alston issued a report on his 2017 mission to the United States).

The numbers for 2017 are indeed stupefying: more than 45 million Americans (13.9 percent of the population) were poor (according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure*), while 28.5 million (or 8.8 percent) did not have health insurance at any point during the year.

But the situation in the United States is even worse than widespread poverty and lack of access to decent healthcare. It’s high economic inequality, which according to a new report in Scientific American “negatively impacts nearly every aspect of human well-being—as well as the health of the biosphere.”

As Robert Sapolsky (unfortunately behind a paywall) explains, every step down the socioeconomic ladder, starting at the very top, is associated with worse health. Part of the problem, not surprisingly, stems from health risks (such as smoking and alcohol consumption) and protective factors (like health insurance and health-club memberships). But that’s only part of the explanation. But that’s only part of the explanation. The rest has to do with the “stressful psychosocial consequences” of low socioeconomic status.

while poverty is bad for your health, poverty amid plenty—inequality—can be worse by just about any measure: infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more. Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.

It’s not only bodies that suffer from inequality. The natural environment, too, is negatively affected by the large and growing gap between the tiny group at the top and everyone else. According to James Boyce (also behind a paywall), more inequality leads to more environmental degradation—because the people who benefit from using or abusing the environment are economically and politically more powerful than those who are harmed. Moreover, those at the bottom—with less economic and political power—end up “bearing a disproportionate share of the environmental injury.”

Social and institutional trust, too, decline with growing inequality. And, as Bo Rothstein explains, societies like that of the United States can get trapped in a “feedback loop of corruption, distrust and inequality.”

Voters may realize they would benefit from policies that reduce inequality, but their distrust of one another and of their institutions prevents the political system from acting in the way they would prefer.

But what are the economics behind the kind of degrading and destructive inequality we’ve been witnessing in the United States in recent decades? For that, Scientific American turned to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz for an explanation. Readers of this blog will be on familiar ground. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here), Stiglitz criticizes the “fictional narrative” of neoclassical economics, according to which everyone gets what they deserve through markets (which “may at one time have assuaged the guilt of those at the top and persuaded everyone else to accept this sorry state of affairs”), and offers an alternative explanation based on the shift from manufacturing to services (which in his view is a “winner-takes-all system”) and a political rewriting of the rules of economic game (in favor of large corporations, financial institutions, and pharmaceutical companies and against labor). So, for Stiglitz, the science of inequality is based on a set of power-related “market imperfections” that permit those at the top to engage in extracting rents (that is, in withdrawing “income from the national pie that is incommensurate with societal contribution”).

The major problem with Stiglitz’s “science” of economic inequality is that he fails to account for how the United States underwent a transition from less inequality (in the initial postwar period) to growing inequality (since the early 1980s). In order to accomplish that feat, he would need to look elsewhere, to the alternative science of exploitation.

While Stiglitz does mention exploitation at the beginning of his own account (with respect to American slavery), he then drops it from his approach in favor of rent extraction and market imperfections. If he’d followed his initial thrust, he might have been able to explain how—while New Deal reforms and World War II managed to engineer the shift from agriculture to manufacturing, reined in large corporations and Wall Street, and bolstered labor unions—what was kept intact was the ability of capital to appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by workers. Thus, American employers, however regulated, retained both the interest and the means to avoid and attempt to undo those regulations. And eventually they succeeded.

What is missing, then, from Stiglitz’s account is a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income. According to this science of exploitation or class, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.

That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there are not market imperfections such as monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.

But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: Big Pharma. In the case where giant pharmaceutical companies are able to sell the commodities they produce at a price greater than their value, they are able to appropriate surplus from their own workers and to receive a distribution of surplus from other companies, when they pay for the drugs covered in their health-care plans. As a result, the rate of profit for the pharmaceutical companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can change their healthcare plans or cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).**

The analysis could go on. My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over growing inequality in the United States—a theory that is missing from Stiglitz’s article and from Scientific American’s entire report on inequality, a science that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the obscene levels of inequality that are destroying nearly every aspect of human well-being including the natural environment in the United States today.

And, of course, that third approach has policy implications very different from the others—not to force workers to increase their productivity in order to receive higher wages through the labor market or to hope that decreasing market concentration will make the distribution of income more equal, but instead to attack the problem at its source. That would mean changing both markets and power with the goal of eliminating class exploitation.

 

*The official rate was 12.3 percent, which means that 39.7 million Americans fell below the poverty line.

**This is one of the reasons capitalist employers might support “affordable” healthcare, to raise their rates of profit.

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Special mention

"Keeping Watch" (Mark Streeter/Savannah Morning News)  RallT20180530_low

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It’s hard to imagine any kind of utopian project in Puerto Rico—especially after a decade of mounting economic crisis and a savage series of austerity measures, and then of course the widespread devastation of and notably slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.

But that’s exactly what’s taking place on the island, according to a recent report by Naomi Klein in The Intercept.

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In fact, in the midst of the disaster, two radically different utopian visions are taking shape: one is a libertarian project of privatization and gated communities for newly minted cryptocurrency millionaires and billionaires; the other aims to create a decentralized form of sovereignty—of energy, food, and much else—for ordinary Puerto Ricans.

Neither vision is new; aspects of both were being articulated before the hurricane reduced much of the island to rubble. But they’ve taken on new urgency, in the midst of the collapse of the old model and the series of shocks—both economic and environmental—that have made contemporary Puerto Rico such a disaster zone.

In many ways, it’s a familiar story. We’ve seen this kind of battle of utopian visions in many cases of “disaster capitalism”: from Chile in the 1970s through post-Katrina New Orleans to the largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit. Each created the possibility of criticizing the existing model and then radically remaking the economic and social landscape.

Puerto Rico is the latest site of this battle of fundamentally different utopian visions.

One such vision is sponsored by the administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, backed by the Financial Oversight and Management Board (which consists of seven members appointed by the President of the United States and one ex-officio member designated by the Governor of Puerto Rico, created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016). Even before Hurricane Maria hit the island, the goal was to cut back on and eventually privatize government services, especially the power grid and public school system, and attract wealthy individuals and create corporate tax havens with massive tax breaks to an island that is functionally bankrupt. The latest step in this plan was announced at Blockchain Unbound, a three-day “immersive” pitch earlier this month at San Juan’s ornate Condado Vanderbilt Hotel for blockchain and cryptocurrencies with a special focus on why Puerto Rico will “be the epicenter of this multitrillion-dollar market.”

Department of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera

used the conference to announce the creation of a new advisory council to attract blockchain businesses to the island. And he extolled the lifestyle bonuses that awaited attendees if they followed the self-described “Puertopians” who have already taken the plunge. As Laboy told The Intercept, for the 500 to 1,000 high-net-worth individuals who relocated since the tax holidays were introduced five years ago — many of them opting for gated communities with their own private schools — it’s all about “living in a tropical island, with great people, with great weather, with great piña coladas.” And why not? “You’re gonna be, like, in this endless vacation in a tropical place, where you’re actually working. That combination, I think, is very powerful.”

The various elements of the other, opposing utopian vision also preceded Maria. Casa Pueblo, a decades-old community and ecology center with deep roots in the Cordillera Central, is one source.

Already a community hub before the storm, the pink house rapidly transformed into a nerve center for self-organized relief efforts. It would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any other agency would arrive with significant aid, so people flocked to Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws — and draw on its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics. Most critically, Casa Pueblo became a kind of makeshift field hospital, its airy rooms crowded with elderly people who needed to plug in oxygen machines.

Thanks also to those solar panels, Casa Pueblo’s radio station was able to continue broadcasting, making it the community’s sole source of in- formation when downed power lines and cell towers had knocked out everything else. Twenty years after those panels were first installed, rooftop solar power didn’t look frivolous at all — in fact, it looked like the best hope for survival in a future sure to bring more Maria-sized weather shocks.

But there’s also the Segunda Unidad Botijas 1 farm school in Orocovis (where students learn and practice (“agro-ecological” farming), Organización Boricuá (a network of farmers who use traditional Puerto Rican methods), the Citizens Front for the Audit of the Debt (which in the year before Hurricane Maria called for an audit of the island’s debt), and now JunteGente (the People Together, which has begun drafting a people’s platform, one that will unite their various causes into a common vision for a radically transformed Puerto Rico).

So, Puerto Rico is now the home of two radically different utopian visions—one that promises a playground for the super-rich, the other a new model of self-management for the majority of the island’s population.

But there are two problems confronting the second, more popular vision. First, it requires a level of political participation of the population “that has a lot of other things on its plate right now.” Thinking big and scrambling just to survive in the midst of disaster are often difficult to articulate and sustain simultaneously.

The other problem is time—the difference between “the speed of movements and the speed of capital.” As Klein explains,

Capital is fast. Unencumbered by democratic norms, the governor and the fiscal control board can whip up their plan to radically downsize and auction off the territory in a matter of weeks — even faster, in fact, because their plans were fully developed during the debt crisis. All they had to do was dust them off and repackage them as hurricane relief, then release their fiats. Hedge fund managers and crypto-traders can similarly decide to relocate and build their “Puertopia” on a whim, with no one to consult but their accountants and lawyers.

Clearly, the libertarian utopian project clearly has time—and the power of capital and government, in Puerto Rico and on the mainland—on its side. But that doesn’t mean it will win. It can be imposed by decree but it still requires popular consent.

Arguably, the power of that consent is more closely aligned with the

dream of a society with far deeper commitments and engagement — with each other, within communities, and with the natural systems whose health is a prerequisite for any kind of safe future.

The future of Puertopia will be the outcome of the battle between two radically different visions of utopia for the island and its people.

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Special mention

FellP20180308_low  Cartoonist Gary Varvel: Trump's tariff can of worms

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I have often argued—in lectures, talks, and publications—that every economic theory has a utopian dimension. Economists don’t explicitly talk about utopia but, my argument goes, they can’t do what they do without some utopian horizon.

The issue of utopia is there, at least in the background, in every area of economics—perhaps especially on the topic of control.

Consider, for example, the theory of the firm (which I have written about many times over the years), which is the focus of University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales’s lecture honoring Oliver Hart, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for economics, at this year’s Allied Social Science Association meeting.

One of the many merits of Oliver’s contribution is to have brought back the concept of power inside economics. This is a concept pervasive in political science and sociology, and pervasive in Marxian economics, but completely absent from neoclassical economics. In fact, Oliver’s view of the firm is very reminiscent of the Marxian view, but where Marx sees exploitation, Oliver sees an efficient allocation.

Zingales is right: Hart’s neoclassical treatment of control informs a theory of the firm that stands diametrically opposed to a Marxian theory of the firm. And those contrasting theories of the firm are both conditions and consequences of different utopian horizons. Thus, Hart both envisions and looks to move toward an efficient use of control within the firm such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents (workers) can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal (capitalists). Marxists, on the other hand, see the firm as a site of exploitation—capitalists extracting surplus-value from the workers they hire—and look to create the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

In my view, those are very different utopias—the efficient allocation of resources versus the absence of exploitation—that both inform and are informed by quite different theories of the firm.

As is turns out, the issue of control—and, with it, utopia—comes up in another, quite different context. As George DeMartino and Deidre McCloskey explain, in their rejoinder to Anne Krueger’s attack on their recent edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics,

When you have influence over others you take on ethical burdens. Think of your responsibilities to, say, your family or friends. And when you fail to confront those burdens openly, honestly, and courageously you are apt to make mistakes. As professional economists we have influence, and we do develop conversations about how we operate. Yet there is no serious, critical, scholarly conversation about professional economic ethics—never has been. That’s not good.

While the DeMartino and McCloskey volume includes contributions from both mainstream and heterodox economists (a point that Krueger overlooks in her review), it is still the case that the discipline of economics, dominated as it has been by mainstream economics, has never had a serious, sustained conversation about ethics.

Consider this: it is possible to get a degree in economics—at any level, undergraduate, Master’s, or doctorate—without a single reading or lecture, much less an entire course, on ethics. And yet economists do exercise a great deal of power over others: over other economists (through hiring, research funding, and publishing venues), their students (in terms of what can and cannot be said, talked about, and theorized in their courses), and the wider society (through the dissemination of particular theories of the economy as well as the policies they advocate to governments and multilateral institutions). In fact, they also exercise power over themselves, in true panopticon fashion, as they seek to adhere to and reinforce certain disciplinary protocols and procedures.

Economics is saturated with power, and thus replete with ethical moments.

Once again, the issue of control is bound up with different utopian horizons. Most economists—certainly most mainstream economists—are not comfortable with and have no use for discussions of ethics. That’s because, in their view, economists adhere to a code of objectivity and scientificity and an epistemology of absolute truth. So, there’s no room for an ethics associated with “influence over others.” That’s their utopia: a free-market of ideas in which the “truth,” of theory and policy, is revealed.

Other economists have a quite different view. They see a world of unequal power, including within the discipline of economics. And the existence of that unequal power demands a conversation about ethics in order to reveal the conditions and especially the consequences of different ways of doing economics. If there is no single-t, absolute truth—and thus no single standard of objectivity and scientificity—within economics, then the use of one theory instead of another has particular effects on the world within which that theorizing takes place. Here, the utopian horizon is not a free market of ideas, but instead a reimagining of the discipline of economics as an agonistic field of incommensurable discourses.

And, from a specifically Marxian perspective, the utopian moment is to create the conditions whereby the critique of political economy renders itself no longer useful. Marxists recognize that they may not be able to control the path to such an outcome but it is their goal—their ethical stance, their utopian horizon.

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Is education the solution to the problem of growing inequality?

As I wrote in early 2015,

Americans like to think that education is the solution to all economic and social problems. Including, of course, growing inequality.

Why? Because focusing on education—encouraging people to get more higher education—involves no particular tradeoffs. More education for some doesn’t mean less education for others (at least in principle). And providing more education doesn’t involve any structural changes in society—just more funding. (Of course, suggesting more education under current conditions—when public financing of higher education continues to decline, and students and their families are forced to take on more and more debt—is itself disingenuous).

As a result, there’s a broad consensus in the middle—among conservatives and liberals alike—that encouraging more young people who have yet to enter the labor market and existing workers who want to get ahead to obtain a college education will solve the problem of inequality.

And I proceeded to show how, in terms of declining wages for workers at various levels of education and increasing inequality within the top 1 percent, more education does not actually solve the problem of inequality.

But education is still the preferred solution of mainstream Democrats, and inequality itself is receiving less attention. And Thomas Frank [ht: sm] (in an interview with Jennifer Berkshire aka EduShyster) explains why:

Tom Frank: The Democratic party really doesn’t care about inequality because they’re now a party of the professional class: affluent, white-collar professionals. They themselves say this all the time; they talk about the professional class as being their constituency. But we don’t often try to put the pieces together and try to figure out, well what does it mean to be a party of the professional class vs. the working class? One thing it means is that inequality is seen as the natural order of things. In fact, professionals believe in inequality. They think of inequality as totally fair and the way things should be, and they think that because they themselves are the winners in the great inequality sweepstakes.

EduShyster: There are many great lines in Listen, Liberal, but one of my faves is that whenever the kind of liberal you’re describing stumbles upon an economic problem—say, the collapse of the middle class—s/he sees an education problem.

Frank: That’s one of the lines in the book that I’m quite proud of. The liberals I’m describing are an affluent group, by and large, who’ve done very well, and they attribute their success to their education. The professional class is defined by educational achievement. That’s who they are. They’re defined by how and what they did in school. So they look out at the rest of the country that’s going in reverse, at the middle class dream that’s falling apart, and they say *you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.* But defining every economic problem as an education problem is basically a way of blaming the victim.

EduShyster: Here, allow me to repeat that for emphasis, but with italics to emphasize the condescension: you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.

Frank: There is nothing that gives the lie to the meritocratic view of the world than what’s happened to humanities PhDs. These are people with the highest degree there is. They spent the most time in school of anyone. This is where the idea that education solves economic problems totally breaks down. I spent 25 years in school and got a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, a degree that used to be valued in the marketplace. But the marketplace figured out a way to casualize university labor. The whole idea of the professional, meritocratic way of looking at the world is that if you study, you’ll win—good things will come to you. I studied hard, and I got good grades and I got a PhD and my dissertation was even published. None of it made any difference. What my generation learned, and what everybody is starting to understand now, is that it’s not about education—it’s about power. It’s about power in the workplace. And we didn’t have any.

Basically, mainstream liberals, like their conservative counterparts, believe in “just deserts,” the idea that everyone receives what they deserve in capitalist markets. That means, if there are fundamentally unequal outcomes (which barely anyone attempts to deny these days), it’s because that’s what people deserve.

But of course some within the mainstream do believe inequality is a problem, if only because it might incite a reaction that calls into question the existing order. And that’s where conservatives and liberal begin to differ: whereas conservatives tend to want to eliminate government intervention (e.g., because it creates a dependency on social welfare programs), liberals look to education as the solution (to the problem of inequality as well as to issues of declining productivity, slow growth, and much else).

What neither conservatives nor liberals want to see is unequal power in the workplace—and that’s a problem more education simply can’t solve.

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Clearly, mainstream economists don’t like it when their advice is ignored. But that’s what seems to have happened with Brexit, Britain’s decision to exit the European Union.

In the lead up to the 23 June referendum, 12 Nobel Laureates and 175 U.K.-based mainstream economists launched their version of Project Fear to warn voters about the economic dangers—recession, inflation, falling investment, lower growth, and higher taxes—from deciding against Remain. But the people ignored the dramatic pleas for economic stability on the part of the “high priests of capitalism” and voted instead to Leave.*

Jean Pisani-Ferry sees the result as one example of a much broader “angry attitude toward the bearers of knowledge and expertise”—but one that is specifically aimed at mainstream economists. Why? The presumed expertise of mainstream economists was compromised because they “failed to warn them about the risk of a financial crisis in 2008,” they’re biased toward “mobility of labor across borders, trade openness, and globalization more generally,” and because they “tend to disregard or minimize” the effects of openness on particular classes or communities.

While Pisani-Ferry gives greater weight to the third explanation, the fact is they’re related. The thread running through all three factors is the issue of distribution. Mainstream economists tend to treat the inequalities that are both the cause and consequence of capitalism as either irrelevant (because everyone gets what they deserve) or as exogenous (created outside and independent of the economy itself). Thus, they ignored the role of inequality both in creating the conditions leading up to the crash of 2007-08 and as a consequence of the way the recovery was crafted and took place; and they tend to model and support economic globalization—in people, trade, finances, and much else—as if everyone benefits, rather than seeing winners and losers. Because mainstream economists relegate issues like power and class to (and, in many cases, beyond) the margins, they literally don’t see for themselves or show to others the unequal distributions that are either presumed by capitalism or that follow from capitalist ways of organizing economic and social life.

Neil Irwin, too, has expressed his concern about the rejection of expert opinion with respect to Brexit (and, he adds, the success of Donald Trump’s campaign). And draws much the same lesson: mainstream economists (and, more generally, the members of the economic elite whose views they tend to celebrate) focus their attention on efficiency and economic growth—with respect to issues ranging from rent control to international trade—and not on the unequal outcomes of those policies. Thus, he asks, “what if those gaps between the economic elite and the general public are created not by differences in expertise but in priorities?”

In the end, the problem identified by Pisani-Ferry and Irwin is not really one of economic expertise. It is, rather, a question of priorities and perspectives. Mainstream economists hold one set of theories, according to which capitalist markets lead to (or, at least can, with the appropriate policies, end up with) efficient, dynamic outcomes from which everyone benefits. But other economists—both other academic economists and everyday economists—use different economic theories, many of which highlight the unequal conditions and consequences of capitalist activities and institutions. In other words, each of these groups has a different expertise, informed by a different way of organizing their knowledge about the economy, including the effects of economic practices and policies.

What we’re seeing, then—with Brexit, but also after the most recent financial crash and the uneven recovery, the success of the campaigns of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, not to mention the battles over austerity and much else across Europe and the rest of the world right now—is a widespread challenge to the self-professed expertise of mainstream economists. It’s also a challenge to the economic and social system glorified by mainstream economists and by the elites that both govern and gain from that system.

Those academic and economic elites are clearly worried their opinions, backed up by their presumed expertise, no longer hold sway in the way they once did. And for good reason.

All they have to do is remember the fate of their predecessors who suggested the downtrodden and everyone else who had been marginalized or otherwise beaten down by the system just eat cake.

 

*As Rafael Behr explains, “People had many motives to vote leave, but the most potent elements were resentment of an elite political class, rage at decades of social alienation in large swaths of the country, and a determination to reverse a tide of mass migration. Those forces overwhelmed expert pleas for economic stability.”