Economics

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Testing The Limits on Wealth Inequality

In this post, I pointed out that we are going to see an empirical test of Piketty’s theory of rising wealth inequality. The theory itself is not well understood, and Piketty has revisited it since the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and published an economist’s dream of a paper in full mathematical glory here. The American Economics Association devoted space in its journal to arguments about the theory, giving Piketty an opportunity to discuss his theory in what I think is a very readable paper, and one worth the time.

He starts by saying that the relation between r, the rate of return to capital, and g, the rate of growth in the overall economy, are not predictive. They cannot be used to forecast the future, and are not even the most important factor in rising wealth inequality. The crucial factors are institutional changes and political shocks. Neither can the relation tell us anything about the decrease in the labor share of national income. He points to supply and demand for skills and education in this paper, as he does in his book, but this is a at best an incomplete explanation, owing more to the neoliberal view that the problems of workers are their fault than to a clear understanding of social processes in the US. A better explanation lies in tax law changes, changes in labor law and enforcement of labor law, rancid decisions from the Supreme Court, failure to update minimum wage and related laws, and government support for outsourcing and globalization.

What the theory does say is the subject of Part II.

I now clarify the role played by r > g in my analysis of the long-run level of wealth inequality. Specifically, a higher r − g gap will tend to greatly amplify the steady-state inequality of a wealth distribution that arises out of a given mixture of shocks (including labor income shocks).

In other words, as the raw number r – g increases, wealth inequality reaches a limit at a higher level, and income and wealth mobility become lower.

The important point is that in this class of models, relatively small changes in r − g can generate large changes in steady-state wealth inequality. For example, simple simulations of the model with binomial taste shocks show that going from r − g = 2% to r − g = 3% is sufficient to move the inverted Pareto coefficient from b = 2.28 to b = 3.25. Taken literally, this corresponds to a shift from an economy with moderate wealth inequality — say, with a top 1 percent wealth share around 20–30 percent, such as present-day Europe or the United States — to an economy with very high wealth inequality with a top 1 percent wealth share around 50–60 percent, such as pre-World War I Europe.

The inverted Pareto coefficient β is a measure of inequality used by Piketty and his colleagues. Here’s how he explains it in this paper:

That is, if β = 2, the average income of individuals with income above $100,000 is $200,000 and the average income of individuals with income above $1 million is $2 million. Intuitively, a higher β means a fatter upper tail of the distribution. From now on, we refer to β as the inverted Pareto coefficient.

The theoretical basis for this result can be found here, where Piketty and his colleague Gabriel Zucman provide a typical economists mathematical explanation. I’ve read some of this paper, but it is tough going.

The returns to capital, especially business capital, are quite a lot higher than the levels given in Piketty’s example. Here’s the chart:

real returns on capital
The returns to all capital after tax are about 7%. Paul Krugman put up a blog post saying that a realistic growth rate is about 2.2% at best for the next few years. This gives a difference r – g = 4.8%. Then using the equations on page 1356, we get an estimate that the inverted Pareto coefficient would be in the range of 11, which is a lot higher than the levels Piketty uses in the quoted material. By way of comparison, with that number, the average wealth of people with more than $10 million net worth would be $110 million. In the example Piketty gives for the top .1% with β =3.25, the figure would be $32.5 million.

Piketty notes that these coefficients are a rapidly rising function of r – g, which is apparently the case. In a recent paper, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman estimate that the top .1% has a wealth share of 22% as of 2012, and there is every reason to think that has risen.

With Piketty’s general rule standing alone, there is no obvious limit to the level of wealth inequality, but in practice there are many practical reasons that it will level off. Some people will have more children, so the fortunes are divided into smaller shares. Some are lucky in investments and others aren’t. There are external shocks, wars and depressions. There are divorces, which split fortunes. Some people are able to earn high levels of labor income on top of capital income, increasing their wealth. Some die early, so their offspring are forced to spend more of their capital income to preserve their existing level of consumption. Others have expensive tastes and spend too much. These external forces eventually bring about a more or less static level of wealth inequality. Overall, this static level is higher when the fraction g/r is lower.

The time periods in the theoretical models used by Piketty and his colleagues are generational, they run 30 years. The big changes in wealth inequality began in the 70s, I’d guess, but became prominent enough that they were noticed in the late 80s and early 90s as the Reagan/Bush era tax cuts took hold, and regulatory structures were dismantled. By 2000, the final touches of formal deregulation were complete, and the Bush administration stopped enforcing most remaining laws leaving capital accumulation without restraint from legal pressure. It’s been about 15 years with little change, about half a cycle. The results follow the line Piketty and his colleagues predicted, and every year the new data supports their theories.

From this we can see that the coming empirical test is the maximum level of wealth inequality, or to put it another way, it’s a test of the downward pressures on the limits of wealth accumulation.

As a nation we have only taken the smallest possible steps to stem that tide, such as slow increases in the minimum wage, and tiny increases in taxes on the wealthiest to the extent they choose not to evade taxation in all sorts of allegedly legal ways. Neither of the presumptive candidates has any intention of making the kinds of changes necessary to change the outcome.

That brings us to the second empirical test: the level of wealth inequality that a civilized nation will accept before demanding change.

Or maybe the test is whether we are so cowed we won’t ever make any demands on our new lords and masters.

Update: for more on the uselessness of tweaks to the current system, see this interview by the excellent Lynn Parramore with Lance Taylor.

Empirical Test of Piketty’s r > g Theory Coming

Bernie Sanders forced the issue of wealth inequality into the presidential campaign, which presented a real problem for neoliberals of the Democratic persuasion. They want us to believe that the market rewards people in accordance with their merit and hard work. It doesn’t. They want us to believe everyone can get ahead if they get a good education and work hard. Not so. So the neoliberal dems fall back on their version of trickle-down: economic growth is the cure. So what is the future of economic growth?

Earlier this year Gerald Friedman did a study of the potential impact of Bernie Sanders’ economic ideas, saying they would create enormous economic growth. That drew fire from many liberal economists, including Paul Krugman who wrote several blog posts saying Friedman’s numbers were ridiculous, and using that as a opportunity to bash Sanders supporters for naiveté and for encouraging impossible expectation. On February 23, he put up a post with his own predictions of growth: a fraction over 2%. And that, he says, is good enough.

And let me say that the great thing about a progressive agenda is that it doesn’t require big growth promises to make it work, because the elements of that agenda are good things in their own right. Conservatives need to promise miracles to justify policies whose direct effect is to comfort the comfortable (cutting taxes on the rich) and afflict the afflicted (slashing social insurance); progressives only need to defend themselves against the charge that doing good will somehow kill economic growth. It won’t, and that should be enough.

But what about inequality in this scenario? Thanks to Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in The Twenty-First Century, we can say with some certainty that it isn’t going to get better with this kind of thinking. Remember Piketty’s basic finding: if r > g, wealth inequality will increase to a very high level. In this formulation, r is the rate of return to capital, and g is the growth rate of the economy. Here’s a chart from the St. Louis Fed showing the rate of return to capital in the US:
real returns on capital
With the exception of the immediate post-Great Crash years, the All capital after tax line doesn’t sink below 5%, and the most recent figures show it near 7%. Here’s the definition, found in Note 5:

“Business” capital includes nonresidential fixed capital (structures, equipment, and intellectual property) and inventories. “All” capital includes business capital and residential capital.”

Piketty’s definition of capital is broader than this definition of “all”, but there isn’t any reason to think that will have a material effect on the overall number. In other words, r is about 5% higher than g, so we can expect a steady increase in wealth inequality.

The Republicans couldn’t care less: they nominated a billionaire. What’s on offer from the Democratic Party? Here’s Hillary Clinton’s webpage on economic issues. It’s mostly neoliberal ideas, from cutting taxes to deregulation to trade (see the part on small businesses), and some liberal ideas: investment in infrastructure and research, equal pay, paid leave and affordable child care. Her new idea? Let’s give tax breaks to companies that share profits with workers. Also, raise the minimum wage to $12 some day, and some tiny steps to increasing taxes on the rich by closing loopholes and making sure rich people pay more taxes than Warren Buffett’s secretary.

We are going to get an empirical test of Piketty’s idea, but we already know how it will turn out. The rich have nothing to fear.

The Theory of Business Enterprise Part 3: Business Principles

Panel of Maggie and Jiggs comic strip, undated.

Panel of Maggie and Jiggs comic strip, undated.


By principles, Veblen means the overarching habits of mind that enable one to participate effectively in a society or a subset of society. Before the machine age, the age of the industrial process, people thought about themselves and the world around them in terms of “…the principles of (primitive) blood relationship, clan solidarity, paternal descent, Levitical cleanness, divine guidance, allegiance, nationality”. Veblen thinks these principles are in decline as of 1904, replaced by habits of mind of thinking in terms of cause and effect, a scientific habit of mind, because that is what a machine culture needs. These habits relate to the pecuniary nature of the machine age. And the basis for the pecuniary culture is the ownership of property, which is the only one of the primitive standards to survive into the machine age. It not only survives, it becomes the dominant principle of the machine age. Every transaction, it seems, is settled with a payment of money.

Veblen says that the theory of property as used in the machine age comes from John Locke. Before Locke, the general theory was that the Deity gave dominion over the earth to humans, and specifically the King, who in the name of the Deity gave control over land and the things in it to those he desired, who in turn gave it to others. Locke offers a different view, which Veblen describes this way; the quotes are from Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.:

This modern European, common-sense theory says that ownership is a “Natural Right.” What a man has made, whatsoever “he hath mixed his labor with,” that he has thereby made his property. It is his to do with it as he will. He has extended to the object of his labor that discretionary control which in the nature of things he of right exercises over the motions of his own person. It is his in the nature of things by virtue of his having made it. “Thus labor, in the beginning, gave a right of property.” The personal force, the functional efficiency of the workman shaping material facts to human use, is in this doctrine accepted as the definitive, axiomatic ground of ownership; behind this the argument does not penetrate, except it be to trace the workman’s creative efficiency back to its ulterior source in the creative efficiency of the Deity, the “Great Artificer.”

I had never read any of Locke’s works, so I took a look at the Second Treatise. Here’s the original, and here’s a translated version that is somewhat easier to grasp. As I read Chapter 5, Veblen seems to be accurate. There is a lot of scholarly material attempting to understand and apply Locke’s ideas; here’s an example. For those interested in a polemical current view of Locke (and who isn’t?), here’s a fascinating essay by John Quiggan in Jacobin, Locke Against Freedom. Quiggan says that David Hume offered a rejoinder to this view:

As Hume objected, “there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice.”

Veblen agrees with Hume:

It became a principle of the natural order of things that free labor is the original source of wealth and the basis of ownership. In point of historical fact, no doubt, such was not the pedigree of modern industry or modern ownership; but the serene, undoubting assumption of Locke and his generation only stands out the more strongly and unequivocally for this its discrepancy with fact.

He thinks that Locke’s general idea came from a time when most useful work was done by small artisans like cobblers and blacksmiths, and farmers. He traces it on to the needs of merchants, and into his time. Veblen saw that while that this idea might work in earlier times, it’s application was not suited to the machine age. Still it was the dominant theory.

Veblen describes two other business principles. The first is the stability of money values, which at the time stood on the stability of the price of gold and to a much lesser extent, of silver. It was an assumption of businessmen, but not of economists, says Veblen. The second is a regular rate of profit. This enabled businessmen to capitalize their plant and equipment and their industrial processes, so that value turned on the capitalization rather than output, livelihood of the owner, or serviceability of products.

Veblen’s discussion of Locke is strikingly contemporary. Locke’s theory of ownership by reason of work done certainly doesn’t seem like a useful principle to me. Suppose a person sets up a factory, buys raw materials and machines, and hires some people to work for him. Who exactly is mixing labor with goods so as to “own” the resulting product? Or, consider a scientist working in a lab on identifying anti-virals for the Zika virus. The project will require the current work of thousands of people, and past work of uncounted numbers. Who exactly do we identify as the owner of the finished protocols and the final results? Whatever it is, it has little to do with the work done by those uncounted people. Ownership is divorced completely from substantially all of the workers who created the new solutions.

On the other hand, those old ideas that Veblen dismissed so casually never died. I don’t think many ideas ever die, but the ties of kinship, nation, and the Church are especially hardy. Even the idea of Levitical cleanness remains, as we can see in the unending efforts to control the lives and health of women, not just here, but around the world. There are even theoretical frameworks in which such principles have an important place, such as Moral Foundations Theory, discussed here:

We propose a simple hypothesis: Political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations—Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity—whereas political conservatives construct moral systems more evenly upon five psychological foundations—the same ones as liberals, plus Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity.

In the US the rise of the anti-Enlightenment right wing and its sponsors forces us to question whether the scientific mind continues to be a form of self-governance and of shared cultural values. And, of course, Natural Law lives on in the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas, at least according to an astonishing article in the Regent University Law Review which I couldn’t make myself read because the sections I did read were appalling, google it if you have to know.

Locke’s ideas generally are associated with the Founding Fathers. No doubt his positions on slavery and expropriating the lands of Native Americans, and his idea that ownership of private property free of governmental interference is a crucial element of freedom, were congenial to their personal desires and philosophical positions. We may need to think about property more closely, as we have done with the other two.

The Theory of Business Enterprise Part 2: Neoclassical Economists and Veblen

The material framework of modern civilization is the industrial system, and the directing force which animates this framework is business enterprise. To a greater extent than any other known phase of culture, modern Christendom takes its complexion from its economic organization. This modern economic organization is the “Capitalistic System” or “Modern Industrial System,” so called. Its characteristic features, and at the same time the forces by virtue of which it dominates modern culture, are the machine process and investment for a profit.

That’s the first paragraph of The Theory of Business Enterprise by Thorstein Veblen. The 1904 book is written in an unfamiliar style, combining words and formulations we don’t use any more with a decided lack of the kinds of references we’d expect in a work of sociology or economics. It shows a kind of subversive humor as well. The reference to Christendom is funny coming from an agnostic whose rejection of religion made it difficult for him to find work. And it’s blunt.

The first three chapters lay out several ideas about the way society was organized at the time he wrote. By then the industrialization of the country and the consolidation into trusts, holding companies and interlocking directorates was well underway. The dominant force in society, Veblen says, was the industrial process with its intricate workings that required coordination of workers across many plants and industries for maximum efficiency. It required standardization of processes and goods across the range of activity, from hours of operation to fine details about the items produced so that they could be used for many different purposes. That meant that a large segment of the population had to adapt the way they lived to accommodate the processes of industry. The people who controlled the great enterprises held direct or indirect control over a large part of the lives a vast number of working people.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution factories were owned an operated by individuals with a view to making a living. Over time the Captains of Industry (his words) built up capital and began to treat factories not as sources of livelihood but assets to be bought and sold, and operated as generators of profit from investment. As Veblen describes the activities of the businessmen, it feels like the creation of a market in plants and equipment and other rights of ownership like railroad rights-of-way and patents. The industrial processes themselves were not operated, or even necessarily understood, by the Captains. They were designed and operated by engineers, inventors and mechanics, ond operated by workers with varying degrees of skill. All of them were working to make production as simple and as useful as possible. They depended for their livelihoods on paychecks from the Captains of Industry.

As different parts of production moved from handicraft to machine process, ownership of parts of the industrial process often were not the most efficient, as with railroads and electricity. The boundaries were unstable because the Captains of Industry were constantly fighting with one another for control of different parts of the process.

Standard economics in Veblen’s time looked a lot like our neoliberal economics as taught by Mankiw. Veblen disagrees. He starts with the proposition that the sole point of investment for profit is profit, not efficiency or the good of the community.

1. Standard economics taught that businesses are efficient. The smooth working of industrial processes require constant attention and interstitial adjustments. Veblen points out that there are opportunities for profit when the smooth operation of industrial processes is disrupted. It doesn’t matter how the disruption comes about, whether there is an improvement that reduces a cost, or a spike in demand perhaps because of a war, or a drop in demand because of a depression, or whether the Captain of Industry disrupts his own operations or whether a competitor does so. Disruptions are opportunities for profit. It doesn’t matter that the workers are thrown out or the community suffers. There are profits to be made.

The outcome of this management of industrial affairs through pecuniary transactions, therefore, has been to dissociate the interests of those men who exercise the discretion from the interests of the community. This is true in a peculiar degree and increasingly since the fuller development of the machine industry has brought about a close-knit and wide-reaching articulation of industrial processes, and has at the same time given rise to a class of pecuniary experts whose business is the strategic management of the interstitial relations of the system. Broadly, this class of business men, in so far as they have no ulterior strategic ends to serve, have an interest in making the disturbances of the system large and frequent, since it is in the conjunctures of change that their gain emerges. Qualifications of this proposition may be needed, and it will be necessary to return to this point presently.

What this means that that there are people in businesses who job is to disrupt things to make a profit. Veblen doesn’t believe in the magic invisible hand of the market; he sees the fists of the Captains of Industry.

2. Standard economics taught that one of the main values provided by the businessman is the rationalization of industrial processes. Veblen says that consolidation is done not in the interest of smoother industrial processes, but in the interest of profits. It only happens when the Captains of Industry can profit, which is always long after the need becomes obvious, and only in the way in which the Captains of Industry can profit, which may or may not be most efficient. He admits that a businessman may be motivated by ideals of workmanship and serviceability (his word) to the community, but this is “not measurable in its aggregate results”. To the extent it is measurable, it comes from the elimination of the costs of the business transactions that are eliminated by mergers and “industrially futile manoeuvring” to gain leverage for deals, so that

… probably the largest, assuredly the securest and most unquestionable, service rendered by the great modern captains of industry is this curtailment of the business to be done, this sweeping retirement of business men as a class from the service and the definitive cancelment of opportunities for private enterprise.

3. Standard economics taught that businesses are subject to the indirect control of consumers, who decide by their purchases which businesses survive and which fail. Veblen says that businesses of his day, business owners are removed from actual contact with customers. There is plenty of money to be made cheating customers, he says, in part because industrial processes were so efficient that there was plenty of room for waste and war.

4. Standard economics taught that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism. Veblen says businessmen charge as much as they can. Competition is only a factor when the Captain doesn’t have a monopoly, and then it is only one of several factors.

But it is very doubtful if there are any successful business ventures within the range of the modern industries from which the monopoly element is wholly absent. They are, at any rate, few and not of great magnitude. And the endeavor of all such enterprises that look to a permanent continuance of their business is to establish as much of a monopoly as may be. Fn. omitted.

5. Standard economics taught that the market pays according to the value of the work done, which is taken to be proportional to the value to the community. Veblen says there is no relationship between the profits and wages of a business and value to the community, and that money is a poor proxy for value to a community. He also says that wages bear no relation to the productive value of the work done, but rather workers are paid only enough to get them to work hard enough to make the products of their labor saleable.

Standard economics from Veblen’s day is taught in Econ 101 today. Veblen is an astringent antidote.

The Theory of Business Enterprise Part 1: Introduction

Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of Business Enterprise in 1904. He is best know for The Theory of the Leisure Class, with its famous phrase, conspicuous consumption. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. There are two things that recommend him to me. First, he studied with Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the central figures of American Pragmatism, and eventually worked with John Dewey, another central figure in the only genuinely American philosophy. Second, he studied with John Bates Clark, one of the earliest neoclassical economists, and rejected his views. In general, he saw the economy as embedded in social institutions, not as an entity on its own. Mark Thoma presents the views of Veblen and Clark on the state of the worker in a capitalist system; the two short pieces will help set the context for this series.

Much of what I have written here is directed at showing that neoliberal economic theory is almost useless as a guide to policy that works for the 99%. The series on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions showed that in the hard sciences, successful ideas are been verified and formalized and organized into textbooks to speed up learning. In economics, the academics took the same route. That’s how we got economics textbooks like Samuelson and Nordhaus and Mankiw, both of which are I have addressed in a number of posts. The difference is that practicing economists don’t believe that Econ 101 textbooks are the best understanding of the way the economy works. Those ideas can be quite dangerous. For example, academic economists used models that don’t predict crashes to advise policymakers that deregulating the financial sector would be just fine. That led to the Great Crash. There is no penalty for being wrong. The same old failures just maunder on until death knocks them out of the expert hierarchy. As far as I can tell, they have never managed to excise a single one piece of the arrant nonsense they spout to an ignorant reporter or a politician looking for validation of a crackpot idea. They can’t even kill off the gold standard which is out there today thanks to the supposedly-educated Ted Cruz.

Why is that so? Marion Fourcade and her colleagues have some answers. What I want to do is to examine older books by the dissenters, people who didn’t buy into the silly ideas like this one from The Theory of Political Economy, 1871, by William Stanley Jevons:

I wish to say a few words, in this place, upon the relation of Economics to Moral Science. The theory which follows is entirely based on a calculus of pleasure and pain; and the object of Economics is to maximise happiness by purchasing pleasure, as it were, at the lowest cost of pain.

By “moral science” Jevons means the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. It was Jevons’ intent to translate those ideas into calculus. The discussion was not meant to be humorous. Keynes said that if people knew the principles underlying economics, they’d consider them preposterous, but sadly he was wrong. Nowadays, those ideas are taught to everyone as gospel. Keynes in his time, and I in mine, doubt that academic economists ever read Jevons or Pareto or any of their other intellectual ancestors, let alone the dissenters, including Veblen.

It’s my hope that by reading older books at the boundary of economics and sociology and other disciplines, we can unearth a different tradition and different solutions. And here’s a story.

I went to a sort of book club moderated by a very old man who had long since retired from the University of Chicago where he taught English literature. One of the books he selected was De Rerum Natura, by the Roman writer Lucretius, a fascinating work from about 50 BCE. It’s usually described as an early version of atomic theory. He started by telling us a story. He said that when he was in college he read a lot by the ancient Greeks, plays, philosophy, and even a bit of Euclid. It made him wonder why such smart people would take Greek Mythology seriously, when it was obviously just a bunch of fanciful stories. There were the Sophists who rejected the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle [cf. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig], but as we know from Plato, Socrates was condemned to die in part because he did not believe in the gods of Athens. It wasn’t until this session of his book club and his reading of Lucretius that he realized that there were Greeks who flatly rejected the mythology and attempted to conjure up from their limited knowledge a completely material description of the world.

In just the same way, there have always been dissenting economists who offered completely different views of the way a capitalist economy works. The dominant version has concealed the dissenters, not least from themselves, but we are more likely to get a good ideas from the dissenters than from people trying to tweak the dominant structure.

Wonks and Activists

Marcy took on the excellent Jonathan Cohn’s piece on wonks vs. activists here, but I want to pile on. Wonks only get heard if politicians want to hear them, and even then, they aren’t always right.

Paul Krugman has written many laudatory pieces about Obamacare in both his blog and his column, but it is not working to the level the policy wonks promised. Enrollment levels are turning up lower than anticipated. Insurance company profits are up, leading to mergers and a loss of competition. And, of course, there are too many who have policies under Obamacare who can’t use them because of the costs.

In other posts I wrote about how Paul Krugman, a genuine expert, was completely wrong about the impact of trade treaties, especially NAFTA. Larry Summers, a genuine expert with a lot of real-world experience, has been disastrously wrong on a number of occasions, not least of which was his loud endorsement of financial deregulation, even after the Long Term Capital Management debacle. Summers was one of the people who quashed the efforts of Brooksley Born to regulate derivatives.

In each of these cases, there were plenty of people warning of disaster ahead. In each case, the liberal experts rejected the warnings. Krugman insulted the trade union leaders and the economists who supported them. Many people think the attacks on Brooksley Born were personal, or even sexist, but she had a proven track record of being right, while her opponents, who included Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin along with Summers, don’t.

It’s important to note that unlike their conservative counterparts, who are always wrong, liberal experts are frequently right. For example, Krugman has been the loudest voice calling for use of fiscal policy to confront the current economic situation. From the outset of the crisis in 2008, he called for a bigger stimulus, and has done so steadily ever with increasing vigor and with some signs of anger. He is one of the few prominent economists to look at the failures of the discipline in the wake of the Great Crash.

Even so, the fact remains that wonks don’t have the greatest batting average. And there are several reasons for this.

1. Economists and most wonks use models for the bulk of their work, but the models are inherently limited. All models are based on data from the past, and operate on the principle that the past is reasonably predictive. The point of activism is to change the future so that it isn’t like the past. Activists can see the past clearly, and many leftish activists can see that the past was dominated by the rich who arranged things solely in their own interest. The work of the activist is directed at changing things so that the future doesn’t look like the past.

2. Models are inherently utopian. Krugman has written extensively about his views of the importance of models. there are inherent problems with models, as Krugman said himself:

Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy. During the golden years, financial economists came to believe that markets were inherently stable — indeed, that stocks and other assets were always priced just right. There was nothing in the prevailing models suggesting the possibility of the kind of collapse that happened last year.

To make a model, you make assumptions about the economy, and what can safely be left out of the unending complexity of the real world so that the math and piles of data can be run through a computer. Most of the real world is left out of models and we can assume that important things are missing. For example, as Joseph Stiglitz says here, there are banks in the real world, but not in the models. The linked article gives a great example of the problems created by this choice.

But it’s actually worse. Markets are assumed to be stable, and people are assumed to be rational agents. That means that the models also do not incorporate fraud, which is a real problem in the US. They also don’t include corruption, in the form of legislative favors, regulatory capture, a politicized judiciary, and wimpy to non-existent criminal and civil law enforcement. It also means that markets are assumed to be competitive, which they aren’t. In other words, these models are utopian, and the people who rely on them to inform their punditry are bound to be wrong.

3. Obamacare rests on the idea that the solution had to be based on markets. Health insurance markets are primitive, so we have to make better ones. The competitors in these new markets are health insurance companies. But these new markets required insurance companies to compete, and that’s not the goal of insurance companies. Their sole interest is their profits. Competition drives down profits. They want to merge and eliminate competition so they can make all the profits possible market by market. How could the healthcare wonks fix that problem? They had to assume that other parts of government would enforce antitrust laws. That didn’t happen. So Aetna merged with Cigna and there will be more.

Here’s the ugly reality. If politicians like the liberal argument, the liberals get to be heard, to the exact extent the politicians like. The health policy wonks didn’t get to do anything beyond what Obama wanted. Krugman was heard on trade, because Bill Clinton wanted to hear NAFTA would be fine. If politicians don’t like the argument, they get new wonks who agree with them. Liberal wonks don’t get to argue for the public option or single payer because politicians don’t want to hear it. Krugman doesn’t get to be heard on fiscal stimulus, because politicians don’t want to hear it.

The point of activism is to exchange one set of politicians for others who agree with the activists. Then liberal wonks can get to work and do something useful.

Military Keynsianism, American Exceptionalism, and Trump

This Chas Freeman piece, The End of the American Empire, has gotten a lot of attention since it got posted yesterday. He talks about several key issues, starting with how counterproductive our “sphere of influence” Empire, which brings an expectation we can dictate the rules for all other countries (save China and Russia, and — I’d add — until recent successes in undermining Bolivarism, parts of South America) around the world.

The notion of a sphere of influence that is global except for a few no-go zones in Russia and China is now so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that our politicians think it entirely natural to make a number of far-reaching assertions, like these:

(1) The world is desperate for Americans to lead it by making the rules, regulating global public goods, policing the global commons, and doing in “bad guys” everywhere by whatever means our president considers most expedient.

(2) America is losing influence by not putting more boots on the ground in more places.

(3) The United States is the indispensable arbiter of what the world’s international financial institutions should do and how they should do it.

(4)  Even if they change, American values always represent universal norms, from which other cultures deviate at their peril. Thus, profanity, sacrilege, and blasphemy — all of which were not so long ago anathema to Americans — are now basic human rights to be insisted upon internationally. So are homosexuality, climate change denial, the sale of genetically modified foodstuffs, and the consumption of alcohol.

These American conceits are, of course, delusional. They are all the more unpersuasive to foreigners because everyone can see that America is now in a schizophrenic muddle — able to open fire at perceived enemies, but delusional, distracted, and internally divided to the point of political paralysis.

This sphere of influence Empire, on top of being horrible for the rest of the world, is also sucking the US dry internally.

Diplomacy-free foreign policy blows up enough things to liven up the TV news, but it generates terrorist blowback and it is expensive. There is a direct line of causation between European and American interventions in the Middle East and the bombings in Boston, Paris, and Brussels as well as the flood of refugees now inundating Europe. And so far this century, we’ve racked up over $6 trillion in outlays and future financial obligations in wars that fail to achieve much, if anything, other than breeding anti-American terrorists with global reach.

We borrowed the money to conduct these military activities abroad at the expense of investing in our homeland. What we have to show for staggering additions to our national debt is falling living standards for all but the “one percent,” a shrinking middle class, a rising fear of terrorism, rotting infrastructure, unattended forest fires, and eroding civil liberties. Yet, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, every major party candidate for president promises not just to continue — but to double down on — the policies that produced this mess.

[snip]

Whatever the cure for our foul mood and foreigners’ doubts about us may be, it is not spending more money on our armed forces, piling up more debt with military Keynesianism, or pretending that the world yearns for us to make all its decisions for it or to be its policeman.

As it happens, I’m also reading Greg Grandin’s biography (I think the better description is “intellectual history”) of Henry Kissinger, which I also recommend. Grandin portrays Kissinger (a New Left figure with an old right morality or lack thereof, Grandin suggests) as the cornerstone for this process, down to what Freeman points to as one key problem with our Empire, that it gets run out of the National Security Council. I’m just part way in, but Grandin describes how Kissinger, partly in a bid to remain in Nixon’s good graces, packaged a bunch of foreign intervention (and because it’s Kissinger, outright genocide) for domestic consumption. We extended the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos not for strategic reasons but for domestic political consumption, dead protestors notwithstanding.

Both pieces resonate with something I’ve increasingly been thinking: that what gets called American Exceptionalism — which is really the sphere of influence Freeman describes packaged up under an always dubious and increasingly tarnished moral claim to authority — significantly served a domestic purpose (though it also served to accrue power for America’s elites, including its big corporations): to make Americans content with their lives, even if we never got the kind of social welfare that Europe instituted after World War II.

Europe got universal healthcare. We got the right to claim ourselves morally superior to the rest of the world, even if we paid more for crappy health insurance.

I’d add something neither man focuses on: American exceptionalism always has a domestic component, which largely involves white people (especially men) lording over people of color.

I raise all this because it’s something I’ve been thinking about increasingly this election year, to explain Trump especially, but also the counter-establishment mood generally. I think the electorate really consists of three blocks: Trump voters who want to reclaim the privileges of American exceptionalism for their own benefit (which is why his supporters so often express their outrage in terms of race, because exceptionalism involves the domination of both the rest of the world and of people of color domestically). Then there are the Hillary and mainstream GOP voters, who are trying to squeeze some benefit out of what Freeman rightly calls military Keynesianism (though I’d argue neoliberalism is about corporate welfare Keynesianism more generally). And then lefties — many but not all of whom support Sanders — who question both the corporate Keynesianism and, especially, the sphere of influence empire.

My real point, however, is that the Trump effect is secondary. It is absolutely true that American workers and middle class, generally, have been losing ground. And it absolutely true that whites may perceive themselves to be losing more ground as people of color equalize outcomes, however little that is really going on. It is, further, absolutely true that large swaths of flyover country whites are killing themselves, often through addiction, at increasing rates, which seems to reflect a deep malaise.

But I also think the effect of the Trump side of the equation — the thing that’s driving rabid adherence to an orange boob promising a big wall and domestic investment as well as promising to treat other countries with utter disdain — is secondary malaise, the loss of the self-belief that America actually is exceptional.

(White) America needs to stop believing its superior stems from the ability to lord over much of the rest of the world and start investing in actually living with the rest of the world.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 7: Superfluous People

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to discussion of the totalitarian regime, which comes when the totalitarian movement has taken power. Arendt says that totalitarian movements don’t offer a specific program for government. Instead, they propose to operate under a “scientific” program. For the Nazis, this was the law of nature with its eternal progress towards perfection, which Arendt thinks arises from a skewed form of Darwinism. For the Communists it was the laws of history as supposedly discovered by Marx. Once in power, the totalitarian regime becomes an instrument for the will of the leader, who in turn is an instrument for imposing and acting out those laws. It is here that Arendt takes up the issue of concentration camps. She says that they are instruments for studying ways to reduce individuals to oblivion, to being superfluous, which is the goal of totalitarianism.

Men insofar as they are more than animal reaction and fulfillment of functions are entirely superfluous to totalitarian regimes. Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous. Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity. Precisely because man’s resources are so great, he can be fully dominated only when he becomes a specimen of the animal-species man.

The totalitarian attempt to make men superfluous reflects ihe experience of modern masses of their superfluity on an overcrowded earth. The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. Yet, within the framework of the totalitarian ideology, nothing could be more sensible and logical; if the inmates are vermin, it is logical that they should be killed by poison gas; if they are degenerate, they should not be allowed to contaminate the population; if they have “slave-like souls” (Himmler), no one should waste his time trying to re-educate them. … P. 457.

Why is it necessary that people become superfluous? The answer appears in the final chapter, Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government. Ideologies are “… isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise…”. P.468. They are the scientific programs offered by totalitarian movements as the organizing principles of societies. For Arendt, the Nazi ideology revolves around the idea of the laws of nature, of blood, while the Communist ideology revolves around the historical laws of Marxism. In both cases, human beings are in the way of the historical forces, and must be forcibly denied the ability to interfere with the primal force.

Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to “stabilize” men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history. It is this movement which singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose, and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the “objective enemy” of History or Nature, of the class or the race. Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; “guilty” is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over “inferior races,”, over individuals “unfit to live,” over “dying classes and decadent peoples.” Terror executes these judgments, and before its court, all concerned are subjectively innocent: the murdered because they did nothing against the system, and the murderers because they do not really murder but execute a death sentence pronounced by some higher tribunal. The rulers themselves do not claim to be just or wise, but only to execute historical or natural laws; they do not apply laws, but execute a movement in accordance with its inherent law. Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some supra-human force, Nature or History. P. 465.

That idea, the idea of the unrestrained movement of supra-human forces, should sound familiar. That’s how Arendt described Imperialism, the early form of unrestrained capitalism. It also describes today’s world as seen by the architects of neoliberalism. They warn that everyone loses if The Market is subjected to even the slightest restraint, whether to movement of jobs and capital overseas or to prohibit dumping toxins into earth, air and water. They insist that foreign limitations on patents and copyrights are impossible restraints. They preach that the only legitimate goal of government is to enforce property rights to the utter maximum. For them, the restless movement of money in the hands of the rich and powerful operates in accordance with its own internal logic, logic which cannot be questioned by quasi-humans not gifted with the power to control vast sums of wealth. They tell us that The Market knows all and fixes everything as long as we mere humans do not interfere with its workings. Neoliberal capitalism is a form of supra-human force that Arendt warned us about.

Neoliberalism forms world view of movement conservatives. Here’s an article in the National Review on this issue by one Kevin Williamson. :

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed[mund] Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Williamson’s NRO colleague David French agrees:

My childhood was different from Kevin’s, but I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.

For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best.

Williamson and French agree that the white working-class people are superfluous, and so are their communities and their way of life. Millions of them should just hire U-Hauls and move to the blessed land of plentiful jobs. They must all lose themselves and their way of life to the inexorable laws of movement, only this time, it’s the inexorable laws of neoliberalism, of rampant unrestrained capitalism. By those rules, individuals cannot act collectively, through unions or through active government. They are permitted to act collectively in their Churches, which emphasize their helplessness in this world except through the will of the Almighty, and therefore pose no real threat to the interests of the rich and powerful.

These white working-class people and their communities aren’t economically viable, and nothing can or should be done to make things different. They should surrender to the external and ungovernable force of hyper-capitalism. They are superfluous, and if they die in misery, leaving their families in poverty, it’s just the natural law of economic freedom working itself out in the passive voice, with the invisible hand of the rich and powerful hidden in a fog of words.

Index to prior posts in this series

The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 4 Conclusion

Most economists supported NAFTA, and then spent years justifying their support with models and econometric studies they claimed showed that it had little effect. They continued to support trade treaties when China entered the World Trade Organization. They supported the KORUS deal and most supported TPP. Meanwhile, manufacturing job losses increased from the allegedly minor losses of NAFTA to astonishingly high levels.
Link. Link. The linked studies don’t count ancillary job losses, including the jobs that never came here because US corporate executives took US generated capital and know-how overseas to build new plants, many with advanced manufacturing capability. The damage done by these trade deals to people and communities is obvious now, especially after Bernie Sanders won the Michigan primary, and an increasing number of economists are talking about it in public.

There is a strong parallel here with the crucial role played by economists in deregulation of the financial sector. This too had widespread support from economists across ideological spectrum.

How did these experts get it so wrong, and wreak such damage on so many people? I think it’s because they have so much confidence in their models, and use their authority as experts to push through policies based on those models. And if I’m right, this is a genuine problem for liberal experts.

We can see the confidence in models in Krugman’s work. In this blog post, Krugman takes up the question of why economists were so late to the study of inequality. He says he agrees with this Bloomberg View column by Justin Fox (which gives a nice history of the issue), but says that Fox missed a critical part of that failure: inequality is “a hard issue to model”.

The other [issue one might model] involves the personal distribution of income and wealth. Why are investment bankers paid so much? Why did the gap between CEOs and the average worker widen so much after 1980?

And here’s the thing: we really don’t know how to model personal income distribution — at best we have some semi-plausible ad hoc stories. Part of why Piketty made such a big splash was that he offered a sketch of a model of wealth inequality that tied it into broader macro numbers — r > g and all that — which gave all of us something systematic to talk about. But he himself concedes that the big rise in inequality so far has come from a surge in the right tail of earnings, which may have had something to do with norms, but in any case isn’t well explained by any model we have right now. Emphasis in original.

Krugman claims to rely on his models. He’s written a number of blog posts explaining his views and defending the process against those who argue that models are worthless if they don’t predict disasters and other bitter criticisms. Here’s an example from earlier this year.

And that really gets at my point, which is not that existing models are always the right guide for policy, but that policy preferences should be disciplined by models. If you don’t believe the implications of the standard model in any area, OK; but then give me a model, or at least a sketch of a model, to justify your instincts.

Conservatives and their economists insist that the vast increase in incomes at the top and the decrease at the bottom are the result of some special skill or lack of skill, or that the “market pays people what they are worth”; but that is just false, as I explain in detail here and here. Fox says that economists should look outside their specialties and consider the possibility of changing social norms, as some sociologists suggest, or changes in laws and political priorities, as some political scientists suggest. I doubt that social norms have changed. Every survey I’ve seen says that people don’t know the actual figures about wealth and income inequality, and wildly underestimate them.

Krugman says Piketty offers the explanation of “r > g and all that”, but what I read in Piketty is his theory that the rich use their economic and political power to get favorable changes in laws, regulations and court rulings, changes that increase wealth and income inequality solely for their benefit, with the losses inflicted on the rest of us. As far as I can tell, raw economic and political power are completely outside the economist field of view, simply because they cannot be modeled. And on top of that, those models don’t even consider fraud and corruption, which play a large role in our version of capitalism.

In his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, Krugman makes the case that the real basis for NAFTA is foreign policy. It was intended to help Mexico transition to a more Westernized economy, which he thought was a good idea. That is a policy judgment, not an economic judgment. But whatever the government and the economists thought, NAFTA was an experiment in the exercise of raw economic power.

The same thing was true about China and the WTO, and TPP and TISA and US/China deals like BITs. The point of these treaties is to change the nature of existing markets and social structures, to create non-governmental forms of control of trade and property, and to protect and enhance the economic power of some US industries at the expense of the lives of millions of workers. Hiding behind weasel words like Free Trade and the professional reputations of most economists, Congress has ceded US sovereignty to a bunch of rogue corporations acting strictly in the interest of profits and shareholder returns, with neoliberals in both parties supporting Fast Track approval of whatever they want.

Krugman counts himself a lukewarm opponent of TPP, as do other liberal economists, for political and not economic reasons. Even though the damage is done, it’s nice to see this change.

That leads me to the conclusion that liberal elites, especially liberal economists, have a real problem: they have been wrong too often on too many important issues. They were wrong about trade. They were wrong about neoliberal economics in general, the Washington Consensus, and, as Queen Elizabeth II pointed out, they couldn’t even see the Great Crash coming.

After the Great Crash, they searched for explanations, but while some focused on the effect of deregulation, there were still plenty of defenders, including many who denied the relevance of the gradual weakening and then elimination of Glass-Steagall, but none of those explanations touched on fraud and corruption. No liberal economists called for prosecutions. Instead they focused the debate on the nature of their models, claiming that they were unfairly blamed for not predicting the Great Crash. Of course, those were the very models they used to advise policy makers that deregulation would be just fine.

Economists have all used the same introductory textbooks for decades now, teaching the simple tropes of capitalism. That sets the baseline for economic theory for the great mass of citizens who have been taught to think the ideas of Econ 101 as laid out the textbooks of Mankiw or Samuelson and Nordhaus are Gospel. Liberal economists who move away from those ideas are rejected by conservatives.

Now liberals say we trusted you to be right, and you weren’t. And not just that, you were wrong in the worst possible way: you concurred with conservative economists. That costs the liberal elites credibility with liberals and even many centrists.

And progressives, the heirs to FDR, by nature more suspicious of wealth and power, say: we trusted you, but you didn’t even question the goals and motives of the rich and powerful. Why would we ever trust you? We aren’t even sure we’re on the same side.

That presents liberal economists with a real problem. Why would anyone listen to them now?

Index to prior posts in this series.

The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 3 on Trade

Paul Krugman has been walking back his nearly unbridled support of trade treaties lately. In this blog post, he says “I think I’ve never assumed away the income distribution effects.” Those distributional effects are, he says, predicted by the standard models. In the Foreign Affairs article I’ve discussed in the last two posts in this series, he must be referring to his statement that NAFTA will “…probably lead to a slight fall in the real wages of unskilled U.S. workers”. Here’s part of of his explanation:

When a country with a highly skilled labor force increases its trade with a country in which skill is at a greater premium, it can expect a decline in the real wages of its own unskilled workers. As a matter of economic principles, we should expect to see at least some adverse impact of NAFTA on the wages of American manual workers.

All the evidence suggests, however, that this effect will be extremely small. For one thing, since the existing barriers to trade between the United States and Mexico are already quite low, it is hard to see how removing them could have any dramatic effect on wage rates.

At first, the evidence did better, but then the trade explosion with China began. That resulted in enormous job losses directly and indirectly in the US, The rest of what happened is that real wages of both the working class and the middle class stagnated, and substantially all the gains went to a tiny minority of rich people. I don’t see that prediction in this or any of Krugman’s other writings. In fact, inequality plays no role in any of these early works of Krugman or, for that matter, any other liberal or conservative economists.

As part of his walk-back on free trade, Krugman says this:

Furthermore, as Mark Kleiman sagely observes, the conventional case for trade liberalization relies on the assertion that the government could redistribute income to ensure that everyone wins — but we now have an ideology utterly opposed to such redistribution in full control of one party, and with blocking power against anything but a minor move in that direction by the other.

Here’s what Kleiman said:

The Econ-101 case for free trade is straightforward: Trade benefits those who produce exports and those who consume imports (including producers who use imported goods as inputs). It hurts the producers of goods which can be made better or more cheaply abroad. But the gains to the winners exceed the gains to the losers: that is, the winners could make the losers whole and still come out ahead themselves. Therefore, trade passes the Pareto test.

[Yes, this elides a number of issues, including path-dependency in increasing-returns and learning-by-doing markets on the pure-economics side and the salting of actual agreements with provisions that create or protect economic rents on the political-economy side. It also ignores the biggest gainers from trade: workers in low-wage countries, most notably the Chinese factory workers whose parents were barefoot peasants.]

So, the key point in this analysis is the Pareto test. This is the idea that any change in any change in economic allocation that makes one person or group better off without hurting anyone else is good. Suppose the 1% has 90% of the wealth of a society, and the 99% has the rest. If you try to take some of the wealth from the 1% to balance things out a bit, you violate the Pareto test, because the 1% is made worse off by loss of a bit of wealth, even though the bulk of society is better off. That principle sounds like a justification for the way the rich whine about taxation. It also sounds like a lousy way to run a society.

The Pareto test also implies that if a change benefits one group and another group loses, then if the winners pay enough to make the losers whole financially, then it should be just fine. That’s what Kleiman means when he talks about the government redistributing the benefits of trade. So, suppose the allocation of the social goods in a society gives the 1% all the gains but the 99% all lose. Then we redistribute money from the 1% to the 99%. Krugman and the rest of the liberal elites accepted this as a justification for the damage which their models predicted free trade would inflict on the working class. This astonishing idea is common in the economist tribe, even among more conservative economists.

I hardly need point out that neither political party ever contemplated any reallocation of gains either on the expected losses from NAFTA (small decrease in real wages of low-skilled workers), or on the massive losses that arose from trade with China. Krugman didn’t mention this argument in his 1993 Foreign Affairs article. Congress did set up a small program to support the hundreds of thousands who lost jobs because of NAFTA, but those funds were quickly exhausted, did little to ameliorate the problem and never reached anyone who didn’t get a job because US corporate executives built new advanced manufacturing facilities in China and Taiwan. And there was no compensation for anyone whose job was an indirect casualty of the closing of US factories, and no compensation to communities wrecked by plant closures, or forced to bid tax concessions and more to keep jobs.

So, how did things turn out so badly when the great brains all told us it would all work out on average?

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