Archive for Brian Dominick

Harvard Econ Students Walk Out

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It is not surprising that students would be more astute about economics than their professor. This open letter to Harvard Prof. Greg Mankiw, in which they declare they’re walking out of his class because it has a narrow, conservative bias, is gratifying. It starts:

Dear Professor Mankiw—

Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.

Sad that these students don’t express an inkling of what’s really out there in the realm of alternative economic thought and critiques of capitalism, but maybe if they wander down to Occupy Boston while they’re sitting out Mankiw’s class, they’ll learn something useful that they’re not going to hear at Harvard. At least they know they’re being manipulated. Pretty soon, it will be their turn to do the manipulating. Let’s hope this undermines their future in this way.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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Making Wall Street Pay

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My friend Lonnie Atkinson’s latest track. This song needs to be heard. Let’s make it viral!

How we gonna make Wall Street pay (with Anitek) by Lonnie Ray Atkinson

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Liberating Possibilities

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I was quite heartened to read Yotam Marom’s recent ZNet contribution, “Liberating the Impossible”. It’s a succinct and probably superior expression of a commentary I had been working on to share my wishes for the real potential of the so-called “occupy” movement that has swept the country and offered even the most pessimistic and cynical among decent people at least a glimmer of hope.

Any cursory glance at the occupy manifestations nationwide can see that they offer a promising model for subjective social change. That is, they are transforming the participants in very concrete ways, raising consciousness and empowering people with real skills for participating in social change. Of course, they’re not really making much objective change yet. The occupy actions are already influencing society’s understanding of itself, while perhaps inspiring some hope. But OWS and its offshoots haven’t really made reforms, let alone the kind of structural social changes that will be necessary to address the roots of the laundry list of legitimate complaints offered by the diverse array of occupy participants.

Yotam’s portrayal of what needs to happen for the occupation movement to become a real force for actual, objective change in society is astute. In his words, what is called for is a new “dual power” movement that is

able to prefigure the values of a participatory, egalitarian and solidaristic society in new and liberated institutions, while simultaneously toppling the old, oppressive structures that exploit and constrain. We must build the new and fight the old at the same time. We must do it all while telling the story of the world we are creating, to defeat the story told by the masters of the status quo.

I have been saying stuff like this for a long time (since 1996 really), but I never said it this well. In these few sentences, Yotam has captured the crux of what I call “grassroots dual power strategy”, with a terrific emphasis on the need for inspirational vision.

Right now, thousands of North Americans are living in ad-hoc communities that could be the seeds of a new society. But of course, the occupation sites themselves cannot form the literal foundation of a new society. That basis for change absolutely must be intertwoven with the fabric of the society we have today until it can create an alternative foundation and the worst auspices of anti-social (i.e. oppressive) institutions can be toppled and replaced whole cloth. If we want to pull the proverbial rug out from under institutions like capitalism and government, we need to have at least a convincing patchwork of an alternative carpet mostly in place.

Zuccoti Park and its hundreds of local spinoffs can hardly better serve as the headquarters of a mass movement for social change than could some remote commune or compound. This is because the movement needs more than the popular appeal achieved by the occupy encampments; it must make real connections to the everyday lives of people throughout society. It must not just be relevant to our hearts; it has to become relevant to many more people’s economic, cultural, political, and even personal lives by seeping into the spaces where the rest of the so-called 99 percent spend most of our time.

The headquarters of a successful social change movement for real social liberation will be found in the the workplace, the marketplace, the campus, the town hall, the neighborhood, the congregation, the festival, the home. Only when the movement pervades all of these places and more — offering alternative ways to relate and meet our real-world needs as well as practical ways to fight back or stand in solidarity with fellow resisters — will its true potential become evident to people who today don’t feel a direct connection to the occupy encampments.

I’ve been biting my tongue on these matters since the occupy protests started gaining real steam. Having spent about half my life studying, pondering, discussing, writing, and lecturing on matters of large-scale social change strategy, I hesitate to offer specific ideas for getting from this consciousness-raising stage (which I never knew how to achieve) to the institution-building phase. Those of us looking on from the outside, or coming out of past movements that never accomplished over years a consciousness-raising or imagination-stimulating achievements that the occupiers have already managed, should continue observing and not offering more than encouragement and support during this critical phase. Outsiders using the iconic “human microphone” to say “Go home and start organizing your communities” would rightly be no more welcome than sectarians urging the movement to join some obscure party.

But this fledgling movement has to (and I believe can) make that transition to a dual power. It may come as a natural, evolutionary outgrowth of the occupy phase. Or maybe it will be a leap from spectacular encampment to the far-less-sexy community and workplace organizing activities. Sooner or later, I hope movement participants will recognize a mid-term objective of forming a real dual power capable not only of challenging the dominant system but offering real-world alternatives.

But then again, I think Yotam already said this even better than I can after all these years. And his words are probably going to ring truer with his generation, hopefully more so than mine ever did in my own time. I love the way Yotam portrays the potential for a subsequent phase that would mark the manifestation of a dual-power movement:

We will make a real impact when we re-open the abandoned hospitals and put doctors in them; when we bring the occupation to the schools and the schools to the occupation; when we liberate foreclosed homes not just for a day, but to move families back into them. We will make a real impact when the government sessions where they continue to pass new austerity measures behind our backs are interrupted by our active resistance to them; when the arms trucks can’t get across the bridges because we’ve blocked them; when the banks have to close not their branch lobbies, but their headquarters, because those they have disenfranchised have risen up to barricade their doorways.

Do yourself the favor of reading the rest of his short incitement.

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The Future Economy of International Activism

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[Note: This post was published prematurely by mistake. It has been changed to reflect that Jonathan Glennie did not in fact work for PBI in Colombia (he worked with them as a member of a separate organization). Significant copy edits were made. –BD]

One aim for this blog is to tie activism and economics more closely. Not because I want to inject economic concepts into activism as much as the reverse, or at least to show how serious economic thought and social change or solidarity work are intertwined.

A recent commentary in The Guardian does this well. The former Colombia office manager for a Christian Aid chapter says Peace Brigades International, known for a style of solidarity activism called “protective accompaniment”, is “An NGO fit for the future”. And while I don’t know if he’s right, I like that Jonathan Glennie is looking ahead and encouraging basically radical innovation in the world of international activism.

Glennie starts with a rather odd assumption:

Assuming (and hoping) that the world’s poor countries continue to do relatively well economically, as they have done for the past decade, gradually the problems will become less associated with absolute lack of money.

By “gradually”, he must mean really gradually, with a patient eye for optimism most non-NGOers could never muster. But in any case, Glennie crucially doesn’t miss foreseeing a potential counter-shift based on inevitable effects of climate change or the probable costs of energy and resource price spikes.

The future challenge for international NGOs will be to discern the new threats to the interests of the poorest and most marginalised that emanate from an increasingly unequal, volatile and resource-scarce world.

Gratifyingly, Glennie put human rights in perspective, suggesting NGOs should do what he claims Peace Brigades attempts to, which is “make the links between attacks on human rights defenders and certain development models that lead to displacement and environmental degradation.” He explains:

In my experience, those countries that are most vociferous in their support of human rights defenders are the ones that go cold when questions are raised about their own corporate interests that lie at the heart of the problem. Canada and the UK are prime examples. They will go out on a limb to stand up for human rights, but suggest that it is their own mining companies that are causing the problem and you might as well be talking to a wall.

Most NGOs are incapable, owing to mission constraints and structural ineptness, to ask the big questions essentially hitting on why they exist in the first place. Their mantras more or less boil down to “treat the symptoms”, implicitly ignoring the cause.

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Small is Beautiful… Can Big Be, Too?

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Recently I’ve noticed economic observers engaging in something of a backlash against the idea that small businesses are the key to economic prosperity. And as much as I hate nearly every feature of large corporations, I have to agree that the fetishization of small business is blind to the very important matters of stability and productivity.

In one important contribution to this emerging counter-trend, Jared Bernstein of the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times under the title “Small Isn’t Always Beautiful”. Bernstein is primarily concerned with job growth, and while he seems to tacitly admit he’s ignoring the rest of the big vs. small picture, that picture is by no means black and white.

Think Progress’s Matt Yglesias picked up on the Bernstein piece, praising purported evolutionary characteristics of the growth of firms. This prompted Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior to wax positively apoplectic about this “market selection” process that weeds out the little guys and yields benevolent giants.

Perhaps most readably, The New Yorker financial writer James Surowiecki made a series of astute, essentially undeniable points about large vs. small businesses vis a vis economic growth, under the title “Big is Beautiful”. He followed up these statements (which I’ll get to in a minute) with a conclusion that only makes sense in a world where all economic writing in the American liberal press has to somehow uphold the absurd notion that capitalism is not utter lunacy. In the end, Surowiecki conspicuously does not uphold the title assertion about big being beautiful, but rather just exposes one of capitalism’s many critical contradictions: that big and small are often both bad and good simultaneously.

Let’s look at some of Suroweicki’s unassailable truths, all building the case that large companies are good for the economy because “greater productivity is the main driver of long-term economic growth and higher living standards”:

small businesses are, on the whole, less productive than big businesses, and though they do create most jobs, they also destroy most jobs, since, while starting a business is easy, keeping it going is hard.

True enough (though I think semantically it should say small businesses create and destroy the most jobs, not most jobs).

In part, this is because big businesses are able to enjoy economies of scale and scope. Big businesses are also better able to make investments in productivity-enhancing technologies and systems;

Another truism. And these are big matters. Productivity and employment stability are huge factors in any economy.

But let’s look at some of the more qualitative assessments of the large-small break.

A recent study by the economists Erik Hurst and Benjamin Pugsley shows that only a tiny fraction of small-business owners have any interest in becoming big-business owners, or even in bringing a new idea to market. Most are people who simply want to run a small company, do work they enjoy, and have some control over their own financial lives.

Now that’s curious: most small-business owners (thus almost certainly most business owners) are in it not for empire or wealth so much as for self-management and fulfillment.

Some of the [political] support [for small businesses] derives from real virtues that small companies offer—diversity of choice, connection to local communities.

Surowiecki doesn’t take this further, but it’s also true that large businesses have an incredibly difficult time meeting the challenges of diversity and community. He’s tacitly arguing for the loss of these things.

The conclusion?

Small may be beautiful. It’s just not all that prosperous.

Think about that. The more qualitatively appreciable way of doing business doesn’t provide as many stable jobs or as much growth as the approach that is inferior in qualitative terms. Shouldn’t such a glaring contradiction be considered a fundamental flaw of capitalism, rather than treated as a natural law of economics that we all just have to accept? In order for it to be a law, it would have to extend across systems and not be particular to just some, like market capitalism.

Let’s examine scale by looking at some of the relevant factors that inhibit small businesses from being more productive in raw economistic terms. It’s not too complicated; mainly, we’re talking about the ability to pool resources, carry out common tasks in-house vs. using vendors, and the advantages mass-oriented branding and reach.

  • wholesaling & resources — This is the most common element we think of when the term “economies of scale” is raised. The more you buy, the less you pay per unit, thus the higher the margin. Each item you stock in your corner grocery cost you more from the wholesaler than it did the giant chain that has a retailer competing with you across the street. If you custom-build motorcycles, you’re going to pay way more per tire than a big manufacturer does when it puts in an order for 100,000 at a time.
  • distribution — Whether you own your own trucks like many groceries, department stores, and other chains, or you simply have a huge contract with a major trucking company (and other shippers), you’re paying less per unit to ship the goods you sell if you’ve got a massive network and are shipping huge quantities around the clock.
  • R&D — Research and development is resource intensive, and in most industries it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the “little guy” to buck up against concentrated capital. Consider even that many (if not most) terrific inventions and innovations that arise from independent minds (rather than big R&D departments) get licensed and gobbled up by major operators, and also that rolling out innovations can often be costlier than developing them, and it’s easy to see why this area is dominated by big guns, with wonderfully notable exceptions.
  • labor — Payroll processing, benefit packages, human resources overhead, and numerous other costs of employing workers are cheaper per-unit for large companies with thousands of employees than for small businesses.
  • marketing — In a capitalist economy, massive advantage is accrued by firms that can leverage advanced or large-scale marketing campaigns. National companies can afford to create higher-end ads for multiple markets, and they can do ad buys in bulk.
  • market access — That larger companies can reach more potential customers is obvious, but consider that it also more likely includes overseas markets, and we see another fundamental advantage to scale.
  • capital and credit access — As a rule, big companies can more easily raise fundamentally more operating funds.
  • administrative overhead — Sure McDonald’s spends more on accountants than Joe’s Burger Joint, but probably not as a share of gross revenues. Big businesses concentrate and compartmentalize management and secretarial functions in ways that small operations simply cannot.
  • environmental impact — (This isn’t a productivity factor, for the most part, but I’m including it so we can assess and understand the fuller advantages of scale.) Environmental impact is a mixed matter, but generally speaking fewer facilities doing more concentrated production means less pollution, duplication, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, it can also mean concentrated pollution that is fundamentally worse than distributed pollution (such as with factory farm waste). It can also mean more alienation between decision makers and the habitats they affect, which encourages careless policies. And it can lead to increased shipping activity. But overall, like it or not, fewer facilities would be more environmentally friendly than more facilities, assuming the same production output.

All these advantages would seem to uphold Surowiecki’s conclusion that big businesses are the true backbone of growth, and that the more of them we have, the better off everybody is.

Setting the rest of their relative “ugliness” aside for now, let’s first note that an economy heavily reliant on big businesses isn’t without growth- or jobs-related liabilities, not to mention the political threat of conglomerated capital. As unlikely as the corner store may be to innovate or offer a great benefits package, it’s also unlikely to offshore jobs or move overseas at the drop of a dime. And while small businesses can associate to apply generalized pressure on policymakers, rarely can they muster the same kind of concentrated, specialized political influence as giants in fields such as manufacturing, agribusiness, telecom, finance, and so forth (especially compared to the power these sectors wield when they associate). Nor are small businesses so phenomenally distanced from the rest of the population — including their own workers and consumers — as giant corporations inherently wind up, enabling the notorious “faceless corporation” to engage in anti-social policies without having to face the consequences so immediately or directly.

Nevertheless, while he conspicuously fails to paint a complete picture of big vs. small for us to evaluate the merits of each, and by extension consider his thesis that “big is beautiful”, Surowiecki is correct on the matter of productivity advantages of scale and scope, and it’s a very important point that many who romanticize small business tend to want to downplay.

But all this contradiction exposes is how inadequate capitalism is. This isn’t some side feature of the system that naysayers like me can take potshots at. It’s a core attribute: the keys to productivity inherently detract from the quality of economic interactions. As scale increases, workers are alienated from their bosses and the products they make; consumers are alienated from the decision-makers of the businesses they patronize; marketing departments and firms add a whole layer to this mediation.

One of the key ways to grow an economy is to concentrate production processes in order to create greater marginal advantages of scale. This also tends to concentrate capital and to alienate capitalists from consumers, not just within firms (think of the quality of interactions at Barnes and Noble compared to your local independent bookseller), but also in the economy as a whole as more and more small businesses give way to big competitors, leaving fewer producer-consumer interfaces available.

A sane economic system would harness the opportunities of scale without losing the advantages of more intimate enterprises. But how could this be done? What is keeping firms from doing this in a market capitalist system?

The key problem is propriety. In order to achieve scale in a competitive market system, a company has to grow itself. Want a spiffy ad campaign? You have to be national. Want to do your own shipping? Get vertical.* To take advantage of scale in a market economy, a business has to grow its power base. In doing so, it sacrifices the community connections and personal capacities that make it a quality employer and producer. This is a simplistic generalization, but it’s basically stipulated by reasonable critics of the “small is beautiful” mentality.

The key, then, is to break the bonds of competition so that all producers of all sizes can take advantage of scale. In a participatory economy, scale would be built into every enterprise, no matter the size. While each firm would have to demonstrate its ability to work generally as efficiently with resources as the others in its industry, it would have the freedom to customize and personalize everything from its workplace to its products, within socially agreed norms that maintain the integrity of its output.

Let’s see how a participatory economy fairs on the main productive aspects of scale mentioned earlier.

  • wholesaling — In a “parecon”, all resources are equally accessible by all producers. Without markets, all allocation is merely a logistical matter, with no one looking to take a cut out of being the “middle man” doing the simplest or fewest transactions for the highest relative return.
  • distribution — All firms have equal access to distribution networks with priority managed through participatory planning that seeks equity (fairness) rather than profit in distribution. There is no obvious advantage to a firm being large, except that it might influence location of transportation “hubs”. Locating near such a hub would achieve this advantage for a small producer.
  • R&D — The elimination of patents and intellectual property means the advantages of all inventions and innovations are immediately available to all producers. The advantage of this to the entire economy cannot be overstated.
  • labor — In a parecon, aside from relatively minimal overhead of tracking personnel, the marginal advantages of scale offered to large employers in modern capitalism are all but eliminated. No more bulk health insurance packages or payroll management to tip the scales in favor of big players.
  • marketing — Participatory socialism entirely eliminates the need for marketing, trusting consumers to know what they want and facilitating the acquisition of it without hawking wares through an artificial desire-creation machine that itself constitutes a net drain on the economy, requiring work and spawning waste where there need be none.
  • market access — The entire participatory economy benefits from giving all producers bilateral access to consumers (who are after all participatory planners), but more importantly, a lack of such access on a large scale would not make or break a firm. Parecon facilitates appropriately scaled consumer-producer interactions, and it does so fundamentally better than any capitalist marketing department or firm could ever dream.
  • capital and credit access — All firms have access to the counterparts of these features in a participatory economy, with industry and consumer councils considering all proposals for expansion on their merits. Size would not be a condition for acquiring increased capacity.
  • administrative overhead — This is perhaps the one area where participatory socialism might at first appear weaker than capitalism. No doubt, generally more “man hours” will be spent on managerial tasks inside a given firm or industry, though many administrative tasks would either be eliminated or would lend themselves to concentration with the achievement of scale. In any case, the upside of this distributed (collective) management is the huge advantage of widespread personal empowerment as a byproduct of economic activity. This is that self-management factor Surowiecki noted as an incentive for small business owners to stay small. There’s no concentration of managerial power or overhead at the top… and this is good. Most of us want a nice, comfortable, fair share of management, not a king’s ransom of power.
  • environmental impact — On this matter, there’s really no contest. In a participatory economy, there are in theory essentially no externalities; the environmental effects of production and consumption are built into “prices”. This would likely encourage scaling of at least some aspects of many production operations, all else being equal, but it would only be one factor, and it wouldn’t necessarily effect key elements of an enterprise, such as community interface or worker self-management.

In short, a participatory economy permits firms of various sizes to productively coexist, respecting the needs of each operation and the population it serves (both workers and consumers), be it local, regional, international, and so forth, all while increasing access to most of the advantages currently only associated with large-scale firms. By eliminating the incentive to make those advantages proprietary, society can assure that they don’t get hoarded. If society decides the efficiency enhancements of concentrated administrative activity and softened environmental impact militate toward increased scale, such would be the trend. But if consumers and workers decided smaller is indeed overwhelmingly desirable in terms of workplaces, public interfaces, product outlets, etc, few if any advantages of scale would be lost on smaller firms.

An economic system that offers the advantages of economies of scale and the advantages of small, personalized enterprises would seem to be fundamentally superior than one that poses a trade off. Too bad the very idea of a rational economy is outside the realm of acceptable discourse, where a system rife with contradictions has been pre-ordained.

 

* There are notable exceptions in businesses that pool resources to achieve some advantages of scale, including owner cooperatives and associations. Better known is the franchise model. But these exceptions have weaknesses that prove the rule. To the extent they achieve scale through association, they lose the distinct characteristics that customers and employees appreciate.

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Because the Problem with the Combustion Engine is Who’s Driving

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Market forces take us in pretty peculiar directions. The technophile in me says this is way cool, but the environmentalist wishes the geniuses making robot cars were working on something else, like mass transit.

There is one potential environmental advantage to driverless automobiles:

‘This kind of car is actually perfect for car sharing,’ said [Raul] Rojas [the head of the university’s research group for artificial intelligence]. ‘There will be no more need for owning a car — once the automobile has dropped off its passenger it will drive on to the next passenger.’

The idea of having fewer cars on the road sounds great for a few reasons. First, it implies less congestion. Also, fewer cars implies less oil consumption and lower emissions — indeed, fewer resources overall (metals, batteries, etc). But the number of cars on the road isn’t the only factor when it comes to carbon consumption and emissions.

The real variable, all else being equal, is the time (vehicle hours) spent actually driving on the roads. So fewer cars getting used way more often isn’t necessarily a net gain in this respect.

In fact, what if the market strongly encouraged increased use of personal vehicles among people who otherwise would rely on public transportation? If owning a share of a vehicle or multi-vehicle cooperative meant a car was delivered to you on schedule regularly and took you to your destinations for a couple of thousand dollars a year plus mileage fees, might you think twice about packing into a crowded subway platform day after day?

My point isn’t to suggest there aren’t smart solutions, or that the worst is inevitable even if the market was left to its devices, but I think leaving outcomes up to the market could be tragic. A little urban planning could go a long way toward keeping driverless autos on the right track, or mitigating the demand for them altogether by making mass transit cheaper and more attractive than it is today.

As an aside, this was one of my favorite bits from the article:

‘However, all in all, one can definitely say that computer-controlled cars will be much safer than human drivers,’ said [Ferdinand] Dudenhoeffer, a professor for automotive economics. ‘Especially if you keep in mind that most of today’s accidents are caused by human error.’

An economist who peddles bizarre logical fallacies? Hard to believe, right? So the fact that human error causes most accidents in a world where there is literally just one robot car on the road (for just a few months) is evidence that robot cars will be safer when there are more of them on the road. I mean, right now the robot error rate is zero! This guy is a professor.

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Linkage: Peak Oil, Symbolic Wealth, Class War, Externalities

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I’ve been very busy lately and thus haven’t been able to post even links to all the terrific stuff I’ve been reading. I’m trying to use Twitter and Google+ a little more to share links to stories, but as usual the temptation to comment somewhat substantively is very hard to resist. I hope you find some of these interesting!

Getting Sober on Peak Oil

I think a lot of folks on both sides of the the debate over the concept of peak oil are drunk with ideologism. So I really appreciate, and essentially agree with, James Hamilton’s sober take.

‘Symbolic Wealth’

I’m not a fan of the style of Charles Hugh Smith’s blog; I think his peculiar presentation — in design and rhetoric — undermines his credibility. But I can’t help agreeing with him a significant portion of the time. Here he exposes the fallacy of wealth and equity as it corresponds to the real world. Nothing groundbreaking, but if you’re new to economic philosophy, this is something a lot of PhD economists can’t seem to grasp… yetI bet you’ll get it intuitively.

No War Like Class War

Richard D. Wolff drops knowledge on the history of class conflict and consciousness in America. It ain’t what’s being presented in recent debates.

Republicans claim, in Orwellian fashion, that Obama’s millionaire tax is ‘class war’. The reality is that the super-rich won the war.

Pollute for America?

Karl Smith over at Modeled Behavior makes a case that we need to suck it up and get polluting if we hope to escape our economic woes to the extent they’re driven by low cheap-energy supply. I read a lot of economists from across the spectrum, and I appreciate those who acknowledge climate change and resource limits as scientific truths, even if they conclude we shouldn’t worry so much in the short term.

Now in the long run something has to be done, if for no other reason than fossil fuels are not forever. In the short run there are many who are concerned about pollution, both C02 and the groundwater pollution from new fracking techniques.

I do not argue that these aren’t serious concerns. I do not dispute the science of global warming or the clear evidence of burning water, from natural gas contamination.

However, there are things worse the pollution and we have them. We should take steps to mitigate the harm but our first duty should be to relieve suffering now where we can and lay the foundation for recovery in the immediate future.

I disagree completely, but it’s interesting. Karl incidentally does not show his math (seems to avoid it, in fact) in terms of demonstrating why he thinks opening protected reserves can affect the market.

Food Inc. Strikes Back

Agribusiness giants are fighting back against the Michael Pollans and Food, Incs of the new food movement. Food advocate Anna Lappé expplains why we definitely do not want the new U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance influencing food policy debate in America. (And why you can count on them doing just that.)

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The Robot Invasion

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Okay, I know I like to talk about robots, especially to ask where the innovation/productivity dividend is for the workforce. While we’re waiting for that to pay off, check out this infographic from the Singularity Hub.

the rise of robotic labor in the workforce

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Capitalism… Ugh… What Now?

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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.

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‘The First Economist’

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economist fails but says the theory is still sound

Nonsequitur cartoon by Wiley Miller.

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