One of the more disturbing examples of a prestigious economist foolishly phoning in his views on prospects for the future of economics came in the form of a recent interview with Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps. It serves to show us once again that a grasp of the real world or the ability to communicate effectively is not necessary for one to be academically successful in the field of economics. (Also not required: a heart.)
This barely coherent piece is so bad, I actually checked to see if it was a translation originally conducted in another language. I normally would never be moved to comment on something of such utterly poor quality. But a website I very much respect, The Browser, featured the interview, and a good friend cheered it on Google+, so I feel compelled to tear it to much-deserved shreds.
Questioned by the interview blog Thought Economics, the Phelps piece is called “Capitalism — What Comes Next?” The response, in case you couldn’t guess, is more capitalism. Interviewer Vikas Shah sets the stage early, lest we get up our hopes that what’s next is something not awful:
As the blinkers of egoism have been lifted, we (as a society) have realised that capitalism — while ostensibly responsible for the vast majority of our civilisation’s advances in the past quarter millennia [sic] — has also been responsible for creating vast inequality, conflict, and potentially irreparable damage to our planet. With no viable alternative to capitalism, however, the time has come to discuss “What happens next?….”
As is par for the “no alternatives” course, Shah doesn’t show his work, so we can’t evaluate how he’s assessed all the alternatives for viability, by what criteria, and so forth. These folks want us to consider their field a science of sorts, but they excuse themselves from the inconvenient duty of scholarly rigor. Bold assertions are allowed without scrutiny so long as they uphold accepted views that favor the privileged classes. And notice how open ended is the treatment of the future of capitalism — economists are encouraged to wildly speculate, and pretty much no one presses them on their pipe dreams, so long as they don’t challenge key facets of capitalism such as markets, hierarchies, and private ownership. Contrast this to the skeptical scrutiny any non-capitalist alternative faces, even from people who admit capitalism has been or has become a veritable train wreck.
So… since we can’t evaluate their no-doubt painstaking (if secretive) evaluation of all possible alternatives, let’s take a look at how Professor Phelps sees capitalism’s downsides.
The downside? Well… of course there’s always a downside to everything. Modern capitalism is a system in which some people are very lucky — they just happen to be at the right place at the right time… and can cash in big-time; while other people aren’t! Some people are very unlucky- they make decisions which turn-out to be ill-fated.
I guess I should be thankful that Phelps doesn’t say all advantages and disadvantages in capitalism boil down to merit, but I can scarcely imagine how he could otherwise present a worse understanding of the system. How could anyone be so out of touch as to suggest that the primary problem with capitalism is that some people are “unlucky”? How is “luck” even a concept acceptable in serious discourse? This guy won a Nobel Prize, but his view of inequity in capitalism is that it’s a matter of chance? Phelps implies that everyone has an opportunity, and some people have bad luck — he says their decisions are “ill-fated”. The supposition that everyone has an opportunity to roll the economic dice is reprehensible.
No, Prof. Phelps, capitalism ensures that most people are born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most people have less than the average share of wealth and opportunity; the vast majority live in the same poverty they were born into and that all their neighbors live in. This isn’t making a decision that turns out unlucky. Billions have no turn at rolling the dice; the dice were long since rolled for them. They suffer deprivation induced by markets that shift material well-being — including necessities such as food, shelter, health care, and education — to those who can place valued economic demand on those resources, irrespective of moral influences. And let’s not forget, the resources are only scarce in the first place because the prevailing economic system allows some people to accumulate and horde vastly more wealth than they and their children and their children’s children’s children could ever hope to spend, while others languish in squalor for generations, including huge swaths of people condemned by class or geography to have no real opportunities.
Phelps admits that “there is naturally a huge amount of inequality within capitalism” (emphasis added). That is in response to a question about why there is poverty (not just inequality). He goes on to advocate a solution:
Capitalism can, to a degree, address that inequality by subsidizing — in one or more ways — the employment of workers at the bottom… low wage workers. It also helps to pull up their wages.
It is not at first clear what Phelps means about subsidizing low-wage work, or what “it” is in the second sentence that is so helpful to raise wages. But later he seems to be suggesting traditional subsidy in the form of government intervention. (Phelps never lists the “more” ways capitalism can address inequality.) It’s very weird to suggest a government subsidy is capitalism addressing the inequality it causes. The economy gets the credit for requiring government intervention to stave off poverty; how clever of capitalism.
So what good are these subsidies?
This helps increase economic inclusion and reduce inequality so that low-wage participants in an economy can feel that they’re not receiving unnecessarily low-wages and low-rewards… that society has addressed their situation and done something about it.
You see, it makes people feel like they’re not being screwed over. They are receiving “unnecessarily low wages”, because capitalism suggests employers keep the largest possible share of revenues, but the government can come in and make people feel like society has addressed this inequity. Phelps offers no concrete suggestion as to the form these subsidies should take, but he does at least advocate higher taxes to pay for them.
Then Phelps gets crude on a kind of magnificent level:
That will, of course, leave the Bill Gates’ of the world who are very rich because, besides being very bright and driven, they got extraordinarily lucky. Wealth inequality of that sort doesn’t cause me concern- It doesn’t matter to me that the Rockefeller’s may own half of Maine (for example) or that Ted Turner may own half of Montana… What does it matter? I think Ted Turner did a great thing with CNN and he’s very rich! so what? I just don’t get it. I just never understood why there was such an aesthetic revulsion to outsized rewards for people who had a big idea and- generally speaking- worked their heads off to develop that idea. I don’t have any problem with it. [SIC!]
So the revulsion to outsized remuneration is aesthetic, not moral or ethical? A single family owning or controlling massive amounts of property, thus restricting everyone else to share the remaining portion among themselves, is not a moral matter? It’s not immoral to deprive vast numbers of people of the basics in order to permit some to accumulate and horde extreme amounts of wealth? My objection to that is just a matter of personal taste?
And we see again that there’s nothing wrong with an economy valuing luck, perhaps because we all had an equal chance of being born a Rockefeller, and it’s tough luck if we were not.
Phelps then states that “there are plenty of leftist billionaires”. This is a curious claim. I wonder what he means by “plenty” and “leftist”. He does at least admit there are more on the Right. But that kind of calls into question, since the issue is political influence of capital, how one side having fewer can still have “plenty”.
When the conversation turns to the Arab Spring, Phelps staggers boldly into the land of the bizarre, redefining capitalism to suit his peculiar slant. This part is barely coherent, so read carefully:
I think Egypt and Tunisia were examples of yet-another economic system… namely the system which, for a lack of a better word, we call ‘Corporatism’. This system has private ownership… one of the things that Egypt did, for example, in the last ten or fifteen years was privatise a lot of enterprises. Those enterprises became owned by people in the military. Corporatism doesn’t mean social ownership… that’s socialism. Corporatism means that there is a great deal of central control, directed by the government, of the private sector. A great deal of regulation… a great deal of two-way communication occurs with the private sector seeking favours from the government and the government seeking the same from the private sector…. In Egypt and Tunisia, you had a very rudimentary corporatist system which was being exploited all-out by the rulers who took advantage of their powers to put their cronies in place as managers and owners of various enterprises. The bulk of the population, many of whom who- by this time- have college or university degrees of some sort.. cannot break into the system! They can’t get jobs in those enterprises.. they are strictly for the insiders. They can’t even sell their fruits on the streets without a license- and there aren’t very many of those [licenses] distributed. It’s a very closed system… a system that’s about as far from modern capitalism as you can get! Well functioning modern capitalism allows anybody to start-up a company, to go into business for himself, and start coming up with new ideas, and working on their development.
Okay, for starters, I think Phelps’s assessment of the situations in Egypt and Tunisia are generally sound, if a bit elementary. That’s not where my gripe is.
I’m slightly more concerned with the near-useless label “corporatism” for a heavily regimented private-ownership economy. It sounds like fascist corporatism in the European sense, but in the US, corporatism is understood to be when private enterprises dominate society, not when the government strong-arms corporations. Basically, the term is close to meaningless, even as Phelps defines it. (The Thought Economics blog appears to be UK-based, but Phelps is an American US-based economist.)
Yet this semantic gripe pales compared to how odd it is that Phelps describes a model that is essentially identical to that of the US in structural description — the US being an economy he says is truly capitalist, not “corporatist”. Phelps basically describes the US “modern capitalist” system (when describing Egypt/Tunisia), then says it’s as far from modern capitalism as an economy can get. Jobs for insiders only, licenses required for fruit vendors, private sector and government in bed with each other — how is this not precisely what we have here, let alone the farthest thing from it? While I think it’s safe to say corporate influence on government is far stronger than the reverse in the US, that hardly makes it the polar opposite of a scenario where the reverse is true but the effect on everyday people is nearly identical.
Granted, in Tunisia and Egypt, these noted obstacles are in some ways much more severe, but the difference is one of degrees, not fundamental or structural. What a strange way to make a case that an economic system is not like that of the United States.
Finally, skipping lots of other weirdness that’s simply too depressing/obtuse to critique, we get to the big question of interest to FuturEconomy.com. Shah asks Phelps, “What is the future of economics as a discipline?” After prattling on about his own past contributions to the field of economics, which I won’t comment on here because I’m admittedly unfamiliar with them, Phelps provides his response:
Economics has contributed to the march away from these principles by reducing economies to ‘stochastic steady-state models‘ in which prices are the entire interest. Prices, in these models, ‘vibrate’ in some way. I find this incredible…. This thinking began seeping into the financial sector so then the banks started importing French mathematicians to work out how to price various assets as if anyone could possibly know what these assets are worth? We live in an uncertain world… not just a vibrating one! Economics will (and should) always have a scientific side… but it has to remember that no piece of evidence is ever decisive on its own… we have to understand that our subject is human creativity. That will be a very different kind of science from what we have had before. There hardly is any science of creativity yet- yet alone a science of individual or societal creativity which understands the interactions of people- that’s the next giant-step.
Now, I admit I don’t really have a clue what he’s talking about. I could guess, but I don’t think I should have to. He should just explain it, or his interviewer should if he thinks it’s worth publishing at all. Excluding the ironic polemic on the importance of science in economics, I want to focus on the one real declarative statement that I can at least understand syntactically.
Phelps says the field has reduced economies to “stochastic steady-state models”. I think perhaps this is a somewhat astute observation about the world of finance. Wall Street and its in-house economists and consultants and analysts seem to have done this. And you’ll notice, Shah has linked to the Wikipedia entry for “steady state”, the scientific modeling concept, not the economic concept, which is also referenced in that entry.
Now, if you think about it, the academic and broader field of economics has really done the opposite with regard to everything outside of Wall Street. Almost nobody is looking at the US or global economies as “steady state”. They’re instead hanging onto the ages-old notion of infinite growth. A steady-state economy is fundamentally different from a dynamic growth economy. Have you seen a trend among economists to declare that consistent growth is no longer (or even should not be) desirable and possible? For the most part, liberal and conservative economists fully agree that growth is the way forward; their only dispute is over how to grow the economy (and to some much lesser extent, for whom). Only a few people are talking about steady-state economies that are fixed to population size and do not grow via fiat currency and financial leveraging.
The almost hilarious paradox here is that, in answering what needs to happen next for economics, the field, Phelps misses an opportunity to say we should be entertaining the school of steady-state economics because we live on a steady-state planet. Instead, he offers a vague prescription about how economics needs to get “creative” in looking at human capacities (at least, I think that’s what he’s saying).
To end on a positive note, let’s take Phelps’s advice: what could be more creative than exploring — with a firm grasp on the relevant science — ideas for steady-state non-capitalist economics? I’m going to try to do more of that here in coming weeks.