Posts Tagged ‘United States’

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Yes, according to Andrew Martin, eating bad pizza helps support bad politicians.

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If you watched the Downton Abbey Season 5 finale, you will have seen the elaborately staged grouse shoot:

The bird shooting party is an extraordinary example of what life is like for these fortunate silver-spooners. They have helpers to clean their guns and prepare their guns. They have helpers to carry their guns to the field and to quickly reload for them after they shoot. They have helpers to beat the bushes and scare the birds into flight above their heads. And once the birds have been shot out of the air they have dogs to retrieve them from the fields.

Anything else we can do for you, chaps? Why yes. Once the unlucky birds are brought back to the house, it’s up to Mrs. Patmore and the cooks to clean and prepare them and serve them up as a delicious dinner. It’s amazing how much you can get done when everyone else does it for you. That’s a secret the rich have always tried to keep to themselves.

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As it turns out, those scenes are a good way of understanding the mechanisms behind James Kwak’s chart of wealth distribution in the United States:

Imagine all the families in the United States lined up from left to right along the X-axis, from poorest to richest; the red line shows the total value of (almost) everything they own, minus their debts. All household wealth is represented by the area under the red line. The problem with understanding this picture, however, is that the red line is indistinguishable from zero for the vast majority of the population—all the wealth is crammed into the right-hand part of the chart.

Indeed! Those at the very top today have figured out what those who lived upstairs in Downton Abbey knew almost a century ago: it’s amazing how much wealth you can come to own when everyone else creates it but ends up owning very little of it.

economic segregation

It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider; it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander [pdf]. What they do is construct an index of economic segregation based on three variables—income, education, and occupation—which are themselves highly correlated.

The ten large metropoles with the highest values on the Overall Economic Segregation Index are Austin, Columbus, San Antonio, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Memphis. When the listed is expanded to cover all metro areas, a number of college towns rise to the top: Tallahassee (home to Florida State University) jumps to first place and Trenton-Ewing (Princeton University) to second, while Austin falls to third. Tucson (University of Arizona) and Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) also make the list, along with Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk.

The least segregated large metropoles include Orlando, Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Providence, and Virginia Beach. Rustbelt metros like Cincinnati, Rochester, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh also have relatively low levels of overall economic segregation.

Another notable finding is that economic segregation tends to be more intensive in high-tech, knowledge-based metropolitan areas. It is positively correlated with high-tech industry, the “creative class” share of the workforce, and the share of college graduates. In other words, the so-called new economy is less a cure and more a cause of the new levels of class segregation in urban America.

And the implication of their analysis?

Where cities and neighborhoods once mixed different kinds of people together, they are now becoming more homogenous and segregated by income, education, and occupation. Separating across these three key dimensions of socio-economic class, this bigger sort threatens to undermine the essential role that cities have played as incubators of innovation, creativity, and economic progress.

net worth

According to a new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, little has changed over the past 25 years in terms of the glaring wealth gap in the United States between blacks and Hispanics on one hand, and whites on the other.

The median wealth levels of Hispanic and black families are about 90 percent lower today than the median wealth levels for whites. Back in 1989, the median wealth of a white family was $130,102. In 2013, it was $134,008, after adjusting for inflation. For a Hispanic family, they were $9,229 and $13,900, while for a black family, they were $7,736 and $11,184.

The one group that has experienced an improvement, both absolutely and relative to whites, are Asian families. Their real median wealth grew between 1989 and 2013 from $64,165 to $91,440. And, because of that growth, and the precipitous decline in white family wealth after 2007, Asian household wealth rose from 49 to 68 percent of white wealth.

While the authors of the study do not attempt to analyze all the factors causing the large and persistent gap between white and black/Hispanic wealth, they do look at the role of age profiles and educational attainment and conclude that

differences in the age composition and in the level of educational attainment across groups explain relatively little of the gaps. Indeed, race- and ethnicity-related financial-health disparities are greatest among older and better-educated groups, where financial health and wealth generally are at their highest levels.

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As the Economist explains,

Inflation rates around the world have been sinking over the last three years. Pervasive economic weakness in the rich world and a slowdown in Chinese growth drove the initial decline. Lately tumbling oil prices have helped to push inflation into negative territory across much of the euro area. America, Britain and China, where inflation rates have dropped below 1%, may soon join Europe in deflation. Falling prices for things like petrol have been “unambiguously good” for consumers, in the words of Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England. But broad and persistent deflation is not a healthy thing for a modern economy. It will make big debts harder for households and governments to repay, and it could hinder central banks looking to perk up slumping economies.

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Special mention

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By his own account, Yanis Varoufakis is an “erratic Marxist.” He’s also, it appears, a committed critic of postmodernism.

In my previous discussion of Varoufakis’s interpretation of Marxism, I deliberately avoided mentioning his “pot shot” at postmodernism:

A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone.

I, for one, am not prepared to blow fresh wind into the sails of this postmodern version of the 1930s.

But, as friends reminded me, I had forgotten (or repressed?) Varoufakis’s earlier attack on postmodernism, which he delivered in two reviews (or two versions of a review) of a book on postmodernism and economics.

As it turns out, I had a hand in the book in question, Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledgewhich I edited with two close friends and comrades: Jack Amariglio and Stephen Cullenberg.

In the longer version of the review, which appeared in 2002 in the Journal of Economic Methodology [unfortunately gated], Varoufakis was actually quite complimentary about at least some aspects of the book.

Anyone interested in the postmodern stirrings of economic discourse should turn immediately to Post-Modernism, Economics and Knowledge, edited by S. Cullenberg, J. Amariglio and D. Ruccio (Routledge 2001). It explicates Postmodernity’s various strands succinctly and with sensitivity to the large retinue of meanings that the postmodern condition has acquired over the years. It comprises twenty-two taut, well-crafted chapters categorised in seven distinct parts blending nicely into one another. Of the contributors most are economists, albeit of a somewhat iconoclastic disposition, while three philosophers, one English professor and one anthropologist combine forces with them to offer the reader a delightful mixture of perspectives. Perhaps the book’s greatest asset is its clear, thoughtful introduction that gives the whole edifice its integrity, restrains the wayward tendencies of some contributors and whets the reader’s appetite.

But then, in the rest of the review, and especially in the shorter version published in The Post-Autistic Economics Review, Varoufakis spends most of his time attacking postmodernism, presumably to warn off “young dissidents” who are or might be attracted to the idea (“the task of the PAE movement must be to clear the way for radical criticism that avoids the postmodern trap as resolutely as it opposes economic autism”). His basic argument is that the postmodern critique of mainstream economics is doomed to failure, by first being absorbed into mainstream economics and then strengthening it (“Postmodernity unwittingly blows fresh wind in the sails of neoclassicism, the undisputed champion of the deconstructed human agent. While warning us correctly that new authoritarianisms will be born when we get caught up in our own rhetoric, it offers no resistance to the current authoritarianism of neoclassical economics and, more so, the socio-economic system that it serves”), supplemented by the all-too-common allusion that postmodernism is the easy way out (“the postmodern turn will be chosen by pseudo-dissidents whose prime interests lie in acquiring a chic image”).

And the alternative? Varoufakis proposes “an historically grounded understanding of how systematic patterns of power and economics are the joint products of the continual feedback between technological developments and evolving social formations” guided by “an unbending commitment to a rational transformation of society.”

Now, in the reminder of this comment I don’t want to offer a defense of our project of postmodern criticism (developed in that book or in other volumes, such as Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory and Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics). Suffice it to say, given our work on the journal Rethinking Marxism and our other Marxist associations, we’ve never been particularly sympathetic either to neoclassical economics or to capitalism. On the contrary.

What interests me more, given the current crises of capitalism and the predicament of the Left (whether in Greece, Spain, or the United States), are the terms with which we can formulate our critique. Varoufakis sees (or at least saw) a strict dichotomy: postmodern fragmentation or rational transformation. For me, there is no such dichotomy, at least if we allow that rationality is itself a contradictory discursive and social construction. If so, then the battle is between different rationalities, which of course have very different effects.

One rationality, embodied as much in the troika’s formula of austerity for Greece as in the lopsided economy recovery in the United States, is captured by neoclassical economics: everybody gets what they deserve, as long as free markets are unleashed on the world. The other rationality starts with the proposition that everyone should get what they deserve but they don’t—and can’t—within existing economic institutions. Those institutions—capitalist institutions—make “just deserts” impossible.

That idea, that there’s a clash of rationalities within the world today, is precisely an effect of the postmodern questioning of metanarratives. Postmodernism, in this sense, represents a critique of a singular (humanist) rationality, just as it serves to undermine the neoclassical claim of a monopoly on scientific knowledge (indeed, the scientism that animates much of economic theory, mainstream as well as heterodox), the presumption of causal hierarchies within economic analysis (again, both mainstream and heterodox), and much else.

My point is not to simply reverse Varoufakis’s claims, for example, by asserting that fragmentation, irrationality, disunity, and so on are necessarily progressive and that esssentialism, rationality, and unity are necessarily regressive. None of those moves is necessarily one or another, outside of a particular historical conjuncture.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The effects of the moves that we make, the demands we hold up, the criticisms we formulate depend on a specific context, on what is taken to be the existing common sense and how best to disrupt that common sense. The fact is, modernism (at least in economics) has long been associated with a humanist, universal, scientistic set of claims, and part of the task of carrying out a ruthless criticism of mainstream economics is to challenge and deconstruct those claims (including the idea that such claims are even possible).

Is that all? No, of course not. In my view, the postmodern critique of mainstream economics needs to be supplemented by a Marxist critique. But, I want to be clear, it also goes in the other direction: that Marxist critique (traditionally formulated in terms of “laws of motion,” a hierarchy of base and superstructure, and so on) needs to be supplemented by postmodernism.

In the end, the Varoufakises of the world may disagree. However, what I believe we can come to some agreement on is the need to continue to criticize “the inexorable devaluation of political goods, the vulgar commodification of human bodies and values, the impossibility of conceptualising freedom-from-the-market, the depiction of Central Banks as ‘independent’ only when under the thumb of financial capital, the confusion of liberty with the freedom to exploit and to demean and, above all else, the portrayal of coercion as tâtonnement.”

In my view, both postmodernism and Marxism, each in their different ways, play useful roles in carrying out that critique.