Posts Tagged ‘Second Great Depression’

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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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Last month, Alexander Beunder, the editor of Socialist Economist, asked a handful of “expert economists from around the world”—including Johanna Bockman, Prabhat Patnaik, Andrew Kliman, and myself—two key questions concerning the problems and prospects for socialism, economics, and the Left in the world today. Beunder requested that we keep our answers to two hundred words.

Our answers are now posted on-line, which can be read by clicking on the links below. Here are mine:

What economic obstacles is the Left facing in the 21st Century? 

The spectacular failures of capitalism in the United States have provided fertile ground for a renewed interest in socialism. These include the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression, the lopsided nature of the current recovery, and a decades-old trend of obscene and still-rising inequality. In addition, the increasing indebtedness associated with higher education, the high cost and limited access to healthcare, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left working-class Americans, especially young workers, with gnawing financial insecurity — and growing support for socialism. However, the U.S. Left currently faces two main economic obstacles: the decline in labor unions and an attempt to regulate capitalism. During the postwar Golden Age, union representation peaked at almost 35%. Now, it is down to 11.1% — and only 6.6% in the private sector. At least in part as a result, the Left has shifted its focus more to regulating capitalism, often by invoking a nostalgia for manufacturing and using the theoretical lens of Keynesian economics, and moving away from criticizing capitalism, especially its class dimensions (particularly the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed, as Marxists and other socialists understand them).

How can the Left use economics as a tool in the 21st Century? 

Socialist economists can help identify the ways the current problems of American capitalism are not just a matter of economic “imperfections,” but deeply embedded in capitalism itself. Moreover, the Left has the opportunity to propose changes that benefit workers in the short term and empower the working-class to make additional changes over time. Socialist economists can play a key role in the ongoing debates within economic theory (regarding stagnant wages, growing inequality, the one-sided nature of the recovery, and so on) and national politics (concerning universal healthcare, student debt, precarious jobs, and the like)—and to engage the rehabilitation of socialism as a legitimate position within American politics. For example, socialist economists can change the debate about inequality and explain how it is a product not of a lack of skills, but of rising exploitation and the distribution of the growing surplus to the top 10 percent. Similarly, they can change the limits of the possible by showing how movement in the direction of universal healthcare can improve the lives of working-class Americans and, at the same time, create the space for other ways of organizing healthcare itself—by expanding worker cooperatives and other community-oriented ways of providing health services.

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Everyone, it seems, is writing their version of the lessons to be learned after the crash of 2008. And most of them are getting it wrong.

Here, for the record, are some of the lessons I’ve taken from the crash:

  1. What has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?
  2. Mainstream economists got globalization wrong
  3. The policy consensus on economics has not fundamentally changed
  4. Mainstream economics has fallen in the eyes of the public—and for good reason
  5. Little has changed in terms of the teaching of economics
  6. Mainstream economists reject the new populism, which they helped to create
  7. The normal workings of capitalism created, together and over time, the conditions for the most severe set of crises since the first Great Depression
  8. Mainstream economists, for the most part, haven’t even attempted to make sense of the role inequality played in creating the Second Great Depression
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Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, “Murió la Verdad/Truth Has Died” (1814-15)

The liberal establishment continues to mourn the death of truth. Everyone else is moving on.

Every day, it seems, one or another liberal—pundit, columnist, or scholar—issues a warning that, in the age of Donald Trump, we now live in a post-truth world. In their view, we face a fundamental choice: either return to a singular, capital-t truth or suffer the consequences of multiple sets of beliefs, facts, and truths.

For example, just the other day, Keith Kahn-Harris [ht: ja] (in the Guardian) noted the “sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy,” which in his view “are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.” It’s what he calls “denialism”: the transformation of the “private sickness” of self-deception into the “public dogma” of seeing the world in a whole new way.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: from those who are sceptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately sceptical about their scepticism. What they all have in common, I would argue, is a particular type of desire. This desire – for something not to be true – is the driver of denialism.

Then, to ratchet up the morbid consequences of the death of truth, Kahn-Harris plays the ultimate trump card: contemporary denialism involves doubting the existence of the Holocaust, which in turn makes it possible “to publicly celebrate genocide once again, to revel in antisemitism’s finest hour.”

Olivia Paschal [ht: ja] (in the Atlantic) is concerned about a different facet of the world after truth: the role of repetition in creating beliefs that run counter to truth Thus, as she sees it, “even when people know a claim is false, just a few repetitions can make them more likely to think it’s true.” Such “illusory” truths serve to make false claims “familiar” and thus became ways of reframing the debate. Thus, according to Paschal, Fox News has been able to broadcast Trump’s claims (e.g., about the unfairness and inaccuracy of the Russia investigation), which “is also almost certainly contributing to their plausibility among the segments of the population that trust the network.”

As if in response, just yesterday, Margaret Sullivan (in the Washington Post) claimed that, among the consequences of the crisis in American newsrooms, is the decline of “common information—an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about.” So, she complains, in an already deeply divided nation, people turn to Facebook and cable news and thus “were deep in their own echo chambers and couldn’t seem to hear anything else.”

These are just three recent examples of a burgeoning series of complaints, and warnings about the dangers of a world in which a singular truth no longer holds and the need to restore such a truth (as if it once existed)—by challenging denialism, exposing illusory truths, and establishing a set of agree-upon facts.

The “trauma” of Trump’s win just can’t make liberals stop writing this stuff. They keep trying their best to ask the nearly undisguised question: “are Trump supporters really human, like us?” This tells me that the members of the liberal establishment really thought they were never going to face another serious challenge to their ideological hegemony. And now that voters have had the temerity to defy the existing authority, liberals it seems can only dehumanize Trump supporters and, like the members of the Ancien Régime watching over the female cadaver of truth, hope their powers will eventually be restored.

Everyone else, however, is moving on—and a growing number of them are espousing socialist ideas or at least expressing support for them.

The turn to socialism stems in large part from the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression and the lopsided nature of the recovery. It also represents a disenchantment with mainstream economists and their theories of capitalism, since they failed to consider even the possibility of a crisis in the years before 2007-08, and they didn’t haven’t anything useful to offer once the crash happened. Nor have mainstream economists (or pundits and politicians) been able to explain, much less suggest appropriate policies to undo, the obscene degree of inequality that has been steadily growing for decades now. And, of course, the rising cost of education, the unreliability of health insurance, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left young people with gnawing material insecurity—and an interest in socialism.

Additional impetus has come from the spectacular—and largely unexpected—successes of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. And just this past June Americans witnessed the surprising electoral victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, against ten-term House incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York congressional primary.*

At a pace that appears to match, if not surpass, all the liberal complaints about the death of truth, mainstream American media outlets now regularly publish discussions of (including, but certainly not limited to, attacks on) socialism. There’s socialism in the New York Times, the Washington Post, on CNN, Vox, and on and on.

But, of course, authors in other publications have been thinking about and developing different definitions and approaches to socialism for much longer. One of the best, especially for a younger generation, is Jacobin, which recently included a piece by Neal Meyer on what democratic socialism might mean:

Like many progressives, we want to build a world where everyone has a right to food, healthcare, a good home, an enriching education, and a union job that pays well. We think this kind of economic security is necessary for people to live rich and creative lives — and to be truly free.

We want to guarantee all of this while stopping climate change and building an economy that’s ecologically sustainable. We want to build a world without war, where people in other countries are free from the fear of US military intervention and economic exploitation. And we want to end mass incarceration and police brutality, gender violence, intolerance towards queer people, job and housing discrimination, deportations, and all other forms of oppression.

Unlike many progressives however, we’ve come to the conclusion that to build this better world it’s going to take a lot more work than winning an election and passing incremental reforms.

That’s pretty general but, at this early stage of the new, revitalized discussion of socialism in the United States, it’s a pretty good start.

It certainly moves us beyond the seemingly endless series of teeth-gnashing complaints about the perils of the post-truth world and charts a different path forward, which involves among other things a recognition of the real resentments and desires of working-class Americans, including those who voted for Trump.

Me, I’ll take socialism over truth any day.

 

*According to CNN, the excitement surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s June stunner spurred another spike in dues-paying members of Democratic Socialists of America. The group now claims to have more than 45,000 members nationally.

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Robert McElvaine, premier historian of the first Great Depression (whose books we have used to teach A Tale of Two Depressions), argues that Republicans today are repeating the same mistakes as the Republicans who were in charge during the 1920s, whose trickledown policies led to the spectacular crash of 1929.

As a historian of the Great Depression, I can say: I’ve seen this show before.

In 1926, Calvin Coolidge’s treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, one of the world’s richest men, pushed through a massive tax cut that would substantially contribute to the causes of the Great Depression. Republican Sen. George Norris of Nebraska said that Mellon himself would reap from the tax bill “a larger personal reduction [in taxes] than the aggregate of practically all the taxpayers in the state of Nebraska.” The same is true now of Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other fabulously rich people.

During the 1920s, Republicans almost literally worshiped business. “The business of America,” Coolidge proclaimed, “is business.” Coolidge also remarked that, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple,” and “the man who works there worships there.” That faith in the Market as God has been the Republican religion ever since. A few months after he became president in 1981, Ronald Reagan praised Coolidge for cutting “taxes four times” and said “we had probably the greatest growth in prosperity that we’ve ever known.” Reagan said nothing about what happened to “Coolidge Prosperity” a few months after he left office.

In fact,

The crash followed a decade of Republican control of the federal government during which trickle-down policies, including massive tax cuts for the rich, produced the greatest concentration of income in the accounts of the richest 0.01 percent at any time between World War I and 2007 (when trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the hyper-rich, and deregulation again resulted in another economic collapse).

In 1929, the share of income captured by the top .01 percent (the über-rich, whose income share is indicated in the blue line in the chart above) reached 4 percent, and their share of wealth (the red line) even higher: 10 percent. Much the same kind of inequality existed in 2008, when the top .01 percent shares of income and wealth were 4.1 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively—on the eve of the Second Great Depression.

The only real difference is, while the top .01 percent shares of income and wealth fell during the depression of the 1930s (and continued to fall during the postwar period), they’ve been rising since 2008. In 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the top .01 percent share of income had increased to 4.4 percent and their share of wealth to 9.7 percent.

And now Coolidge’s Republican descendants are attempting to ram through a set of tax cuts that will allow those in the top .01 percent to keep more of their extraordinary income and to accumulate even more wealth.

All the while claiming that the benefits will trickle down to the rest of us.

In his position as a historian of the first Great Depression, who has also lived through the Second Great Depression, McElvaine certainly understands what’s going on:

Republican policies in the ’20s instead pushed to concentrate more of the income at the top. Nine decades later, Republicans are rushing to do it again — and they are sprinting toward an economic cliff. Another round of Government of the People, by the Republicans, for the super-rich will be catastrophic. The American people must call a halt before it’s too late.

 

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Mainstream economics lies in tatters. Certainly, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression called into question mainstream macroeconomics, which has failed to provide a convincing explanation of either the causes or consequences of the most severe crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But mainstream microeconomics, too, increasingly appears to be a fantasy—especially when it comes to issues of corporate power.

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Neoclassical microeconomics is based on a set of models that assume perfect competition. What that means, as my students learned the other day, is that, while in the short run firms may capture super-profits (because price is greater than average total cost, at P1 in the chart above), in the “long run,” with free entry and exit, all those extra-normal profits are competed away (since price is driven down to P2, equal to minimum average total cost). That’s why the long run is such an important concept in neoclassical economic theory. The idea is that, starting with perfect competition, neoclassical economists always end up with. . .perfect competition.*

Except, of course, in the real world, where exactly the opposite has been occurring for the past few decades. Thus, as the authors of the new report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have explained, there is a growing concern that

increasing market concentration in leading sectors of the global economy and the growing market and lobbying powers of dominant corporations are creating a new form of global rentier capitalism to the detriment of balanced and inclusive growth for the many.

And they’re not just talking about financial rentier incomes, which has been the focus of attention since the global meltdown provoked by Wall Street nine years ago. Their argument is that a defining feature of “hyperglobalization” is the proliferation of rent-seeking strategies, from technological innovations to mergers and acquisitions, within the non-financial corporate sector. The result is the growth of corporate rents or “surplus profits.”**

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As Figure 6.1 shows, the share of surplus profits in total profits grew significantly for all firms both before and after the global financial crisis—from 4 percent during the 1995-2000 period to 19 percent in 2001-2008 and even higher, to 23 percent, in 2009-2015. The top 100 firms (ranked by market capitalization) also saw the growth of their surplus profits, from 16 percent to 30 percent and then, most recently, to 40 percent.***

The analysis suggests both that surplus profits for all firms have grown over time and that there is an ongoing process of bipolarization, with a growing gap between a few high-performing firms and a growing number of low-performing firms.

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That conclusion is confirmed by their analysis of market concentration, which is presented in Figure 6.2 in terms of the market capitalization of the top 100 nonfinancial firms between 1995 and 2015. The red line shows the actual share of the top 100 firms relative to their hypothetical equal share, assuming that total market capitalization was distributed equally over all firms. The blue line shows the observed share of the top 100 firms relative to the observed share of the bottom 2,000 firms in the sample.

Both measures indicate that the market power of the top companies increased substantially over the 1995-2015 period. For example, the combined share of market capitalization of the top 100 firms was 23 times higher than the share these firms would have held had market capitalization been distributed equally across all firms. By 2015, this gap had increased nearly fourfold, to 84 times. This overall upward surge in concentration, measured by market capitalization since 1995, experienced brief interruptions in 2002−03 after the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and in 2009−2010 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and it stabilized at high levels thereafter.****

So, what is causing this growth in market concentration? One reason is because of the nature of the underlying technologies, which involve costs of production that do not rise proportionally to the quantities produced. Instead, after initial high sunk costs (e.g., in the form of expenditures on research and development), the variable costs of producing additional units of output are negligible.***** And then, of course, growing firms can use intellectual property rights and lobbying powers to protect themselves against actual or potential competitors.

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Giant firms can also use their super-profits to merge with and to acquire other firms, a process that has accelerated because—as both a consequence and cause—of the weakening of antitrust legislation and enforcement.

What we’re seeing, then, is a “vicious cycle of underregulation and regulatory capture, on the one hand, and further rampant growth of corporate market power on the other.”

The models of mainstream economics turn out to be a shield, hiding and protecting this strengthening of corporate rule.

What the rest of us, including the folks at UNCTAD, have been witnessing in the real world is the emergence and consolidation of global rentier capitalism.

 

*There’s another reason why the long run is so important for neoclassical economists. All incomes are presumed to be returns to “factors of production” (e.g., land, labor, and capital), equal to their “marginal products.” But short-run super-profits are a theoretical embarrassment. They represent a return not to any factor of production but to something else: serendipity or Fortuna. Oops! That’s another reason it’s important, within a neoclassical world, for short-run super-profits to be competed away in the long run—to eliminate the existence of returns to the decidedly non-productive factor of luck.

**UNCTAD defines surplus profits as the difference between the estimate of total typical profits and the total of actually observed profits of all firms in the sample in that year. Thus, they end up with a lower estimate of surplus or super-profits than if they’d used a strictly neoclassical definition, which would compare actual profits to a zero-rent (or long-run equilibrium) benchmark.

***The authors note that

these results need to be interpreted with caution. More important than the absolute size of surplus profits for firms in the database in any given sub-period, is their increase over time, in particular the surplus profits of the top 100 firms.

****The authors of the study focus particular attention on the so-called high-tech sector, in which they show “a growing predominance of ‘winner takes most’ superstar firms.”

*****Thus, as Piero Sraffa argued long ago, the standard neoclassical model of perfect competition, with U-shaped marginal and average cost curves (i.e., “diminishing returns”), is called into question by increasing returns, with declining marginal and average cost curves.