[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes in the Conditions of Production

My series on Trumpian Motion concluded with the question “What happened to the cultural elites?”; meaning why did they not do a better job of resisting the conditions that produced Trump and the ugly Republican party. Of course there is no single answer, but there are several contributing explanations. It’s worth examining these partial explanations, if for no other reason than the hope that open discussion might lead to changes.

I use the term cultural elites in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu as explained in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says Bourdieu believed that culture is largely created by cultural producers such as artists, writers, academics, intellectuals; movie and TV writers, actors and producers; and both social scientists and physical scientists. I assume today Bourdieu would include technologists, especially computer tech workers who design and produce web sites, games, and platforms and much else. The products of these workers shape our interactions with the world and society, and provide a structure through which we understand ourselves and our roles in society.

In the US we don’t have a separate category for intellectuals. We have experts, who have mastered a chunk of knowledge and are able to use it to advance that knowledge and to offer specific guidance where their knowledge is relevant. And we have pundits, who aren’t experts but who have great confidence in their ability to explain things to the rest of us. They too are cultural producers and maybe even cultural elites, people like Tom Friedman, and David Brooks and others I won’t mention; they aren’t all old, you know. There are plenty of these people scattered across the political and ideological spectrum.

In a section discussing the relationship between workers and intellectuals, based in large part on a book on French intellectuals Bourdieu wrote in the late 1980s,Swartz offers an idea that seems relevant to the issue of why cultural elites did not forcefully resist the rise of neoliberalism.

Finally, Bourdieu points to changes in the conditions of intellectual production as a source of ambiguity in political attitudes and behaviors among highly educated workers. He notes a significant decline in the numbers of French intellectuals working as self-employed artisans or entrepreneurs and their increasing integration as salaried employees within large bureaucratic organizations where they no longer claim full control over the means of their intellectual production. P. 239, cites omitted.

This change might encourage more aggressive efforts against the dominant culture, because cultural producers might rebel against their dominated status. But this seems more likely:

These new wage earners of research, [Bourdieu] charges, become more attentive to the norms of “bureaucratic reliability” than act as guardians of the “critical detachment from authority” afforded by the relative autonomy of the university. Moreover, their intellectual products bear the imprint of the “standardized norms of mass production” rather than those of the book or scientific article or the charismatic quality traditionally attached to the independent intellectual. P. 239-40, cites omitted.

This seems like a good partial explanation of the failure of cultural elites to respond to neoliberalism. It also partially explains a point Mike Konczal raised in his article Why Are There No Good Conservative Critiques of Trump’s Unified Government? And, it helps explain the rise of Trumpism as discussed here.

The trend Bourdieu describes is obvious in the US; in fact integration of research workers into the ranks of salaried workers seems even stronger than Swartz’ description. The trend is perhaps worse here because colleges and universities have become so infused with neoliberal business practices, primarily the use of adjuncts (the gig economy for teachers) who have little stability, little opportunity for sustained research, little protection from the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, and much less “critical distance from authority”. Nevertheless, I think (hope) there is still a large amount of independence in academia, especially among tenured faculty. That independence is centered around expertise in fields of study, where depth of knowledge in small areas is paramount. Many of those areas of study are far too specialized for the general public, and for policy-making.

Much of academic study is intermediated for the public and for policy-making by and through think tanks and similar groups. Of course, those organizations do some interesting research, but most of the worker’s time and energy is spent extracting useful ideas from the bowels of journals and academic books and rewriting it so that the rest of us can understand and maybe act on it.

These organizations are dependent on their rich donors, and don’t tolerate much from workers that conflicts with the interests of their donors. As an example, Barry Lynn was at New America Foundation, a prominent democratic think tank for years. He wrote often on the problems of monopoly and lack of competition in the US economy. Then he wrote an article critical of Google, one of the big sponsors of New America, and was driven out. He and a few of his associates started Open Markets Institute with funding from George Soros, another wealthy donor with his own agenda.

Charles and David Koch tried to take over the Cato Institute, which they funded, and which claims to be a libertarian think tank. This effort which was not completely successful, causing a lot of distress on the conservative side. Not much critical detachment from authority there.

Perhaps we should read this as an example of another phenomenon Bourdieu describes, the attempt to exchange cultural capital for economic capital. There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course. For example, in the university setting, getting tenure should involve both teaching and research. Competition for status and other resources in one’s field should be driven by these skills, and so should be a net gain. Good teachers and researchers should be rewarded with tenure and a steady income to support further study and teaching.

3It isn’t obvious that this will happen in the think tank world. Further it’s hard to imagine how the kind of competition we see in academic fields would work in the private sector, where there are powerful forces at work to limit the scope of intellectual activity and control access to influence.

There are similar patterns in other areas of cultural production: journalism, movies, TV, magazines, book publishing, and large parts of the music industry. Consolidation and business failures have increased the control of the few over cultural production. Where once there were many outlets for culture producers, today there are fewer, and most of them are more rigidly ideological.

It’s easy to see how people can lose their independence in these settings. They see themselves as brain workers, employees responding to the cues of their work environment, trying to do good work and advance themselves in a bureaucratic system. Institutional pressures dominate independent thinking critical of existing authority. It isn’t necessary to attribute bad motives to them to despair at the outcome.

Money by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

The New Bezzle

John Kenneth Galbraith gave us the term “the bezzle” in his 1955 book The Great Crash, 1929. Galbraith saw that there was often a long time between a financial crime and its discovery. In the interim holders of the financial asset involved in the crime experiences “psychic wealth”, because they are unaware of the actual losses. Eventually, something changes, and they find out. The Bernie Madoff case is a good example. Until he was exposed after the Great Crash, his loser investors thought they had $57 billion in their accounts. Turns out they had net recoveries of about $10 billion on the $17 billion they invested. That puts the bezzle at $47 billion.

Here’s another example. In the Antebellum South, there were nearly 4 million slaves with a value estimated at between $3.1 and $3.6 billion. After the war, that value went to zero. What was the net worth of the slavers in the late 1850s? They thought they were rich enough to battle the Union on equal terms, but the value of slaves wasn’t nearly equal to the value of the steel mills and industry of the northern states.

The problem of identifying the value of capital interests is very difficult. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century Piketty acknowledges the problem, and selects a solution appropriate to his purposes: the market valuations of the many forms capital can take. Here’s an excellent essay discussing this choice and its critics. By using this definition, Piketty simply ignores the problem of the bezzle, which makes sense in the terms of his project. Using Galbraith’s definition I suspect it wouldn’t make make a difference.

But I think the term leads us to a broader definition. The Great Crash provides a good example of what that new definition should be. The current estimate is that the Great Crash resulted in the loss of nearly 30% of household net worth between 2007 and 2010. The average household lost nearly $50 thousand in net worth between 2007 and 2010 according to the GAO report. Page 27 in the .pdf. By 2013, when markets were functioning — let’s say normally — the GAO estimated total household paper wealth losses at $9.1 trillion. Report here.

A large part of this paper loss was the decline in financial assets which affected people directly and through their pensions and retirement plans. Another large part was the result of lower house prices, which left many people with mortgage debt higher than the new prices. Here’s a priceless sentence from the report:

Economists we spoke with noted that precrisis asset prices may have reflected unsustainably high (or “bubble”) valuations and it may not be appropriate to consider the full amount of the overall decline in net worth as a loss associated with the crisis.

I bet the millions of people who lost that money don’t really care what economists think now, because none of the economists who could have made this stick before the Great Crash said this when it would have mattered. Far from it: the economics tribe insisted that markets were all-knowing and perfect in their understanding, and spent their days explaining why this time was different.

This superficial description shows that these households are in the same position as Madoff investors and Southern slavers: they thought they had something they didn’t, and they changed their behavior based on it.

I can just hear Paul Krugman explaining that bubbles and bezzles are really hard to model, and that’s why no one studies them. That’s probably true. Also, so what? Here’s my clever idea: look for data and see what it tells us. It worked for Piketty, who found that the historical record showed that inequality increases when r > g. Piketty and Saez, and Gabriel Zucman who did the estimate on tax shelters, didn’t have a model. They did have dusty records and big computer skills, just like all their contemporaries.

I hope that somewhere in academia there are young economists who look at Piketty, Saez and Zucman and their colleagues and say “I could do that”. And it’s just not that hard. Here are some hints.

1. There’s a big pile of student loan debt that isn’t going to be repaid. How much of that is on the books of the US Treasury, and how much is private sector? How much in the latter category is delinquent? Who holds it and in what form? If it’s in trusts, there isn’t going to be any enforcement, and the losses will fall on the owners of the securities. If it’s in the hands of originators, what happens to their balance sheets as this stuff cascades into default?

2. Every month we see another big business crash and burn. Often they fail because they are held by private equity investment firms. The crashes mean that a lot of debt isn’t going to be repaid. How big is that likely to be, and who’s going to eat that loss?

3. For the past 8 years or so, investors have been chasing yield. There’s some Galbraith bezzle in this stuff. How much dreck is sitting in their portfolios?

4. What does the rest of the mortgage overhang and related RMBS look like?

5. How much money is there in organized crime? A big part of the profits filters into the economy in the form of some kind of investment. How much of it is in the stock market? What happens when or if that ever gets traced and seized?

6. In the same way, how much have oligarchs and politicians stolen from other nations and moved into world financial markets? What happens if we got serious about that?

7. Another form of points 5 and 6: Rich people have stashed as much as $32 trillion in overseas tax shelters. If people got serious about this, their governments could seize this money and/or impose huge taxes on it. Say half of it, $16 trillion, got sucked up by taxation and seizure, and was removed from the financial markets and banks where it sits. What would happen then?

So, economists, just how big is the bezzle?

10 Years Out: What’s with the Bear in the Middle?

[NB: Check the byline — it’s me, Rayne. I am not a registered financial representative or a lawyer; this post is based on my own observations and opinions. As always, your mileage may vary.]

On a chilly March evening ten years ago tonight, I was yelling at loved ones: Sell. For gods’ sake, SELL.

My own household had moved its investments from a number of mutual funds to guaranteed income. Every fund in the portfolio to that point contained a chunk of an investment bank and was therefore exposed to what I felt was sure to come.

It was obvious to anyone who was really paying attention that something was really off. Trying to buy a house in 2004 was almost impossible where I live, in spite of the ongoing migration of manufacturing jobs offshore. In the target price range for a 2000-square foot house, there were only a handful of homes listed and they all needed more than $50K in improvements. The nearby farmers’ fields were full of a new crop: single-family homes, mostly 3-bedroom and up, had eaten acres and acres in less than a year. It was insanity — there was no way this pace could be maintained, not with my state’s problematic over-reliance on the automobile industry.

Instead of buying an existing home, I built a new one. It didn’t make sense to spend $50K on improvements requiring a lot of construction if I couldn’t guarantee I could hire a contractor when new construction was so hot. I didn’t build in the top end neighborhood, either. I left myself some room in case I had to leave the area quickly for a new job; I also left room for the market to improve.

Except it didn’t. The last landscaping contractor must have pulled away from my new home in 2005 just as the bubble began to deflate. There were signs it was going to get worse, too, what with fuel prices skyrocketing. Banks increasingly offered crazy terms on mortgages just so they could something, anything, not taking the hint the market was saturated. Given the number of people relying too heavily on adjustable rate mortgages with ridiculously low entry rates, the increased gasoline price costing the average family more than $1000 a year was certain to cause credit card defaults and foreclosures.

Something ugly was coming.

~ ~ ~

In March 2008 — almost exactly a month after the Washington Post published an op-ed by New York’s then-Governor Eliot Spitzer exhorting action on subprime mortgages — 85-year-old  American investment bank Bear Stearns crashed and burned.

After urgent, fancy foot work by the Federal Reserve Bank, J.P. Morgan and other key investors, settlements were made with bail out money and remnants of the firm were ultimately snapped up by J.P. Morgan for what amounted to the cost of Bear Stearn’s headquarters building, about $2 per share. By St. Patrick’s Day, Bear Stearns was no more, completely subsumed.

It would be another six months before the next large investment bank crashed — Lehman Brothers — taking the global economy with it.

~ ~ ~

At the time the crash was blamed on lax controls on lending to home buyers, encouraging an excess of subprime mortgages, combined with investment banks’ more recent taste for collateralized debt obligations bundling mortgages into tranches for slicing up and trading.

But not all of the trash loans were residential mortgages stuffed into tranches. Some of the loans were to developers and contractors who were building commercial facilities and multi-family buildings. Some of these loans were packaged into funds which were more like offshore corporations.

The two funds triggering Bear Stearns’ meltdown were just that: offshore funds incorporated in the Cayman Islands in 2003, holding various assets including tranches of poorly-collateralized mortgages, managed by Bear Stearns Asset Management (BSAM). What mortgages were in these two funds the public doesn’t really know; were they single-family residential mortgages or commercial facilities mortgages, or some combination? The information is out there somewhere but it’s not at the public’s fingertips.

The financial media still paints a messy picture even a decade later, blaming Bear Stearns management but not its own persistent failure to provide a more comprehensive and accessible picture of the financial industry’s health.

These two funds collapsed because too many mortgages within their CDOs failed; the effect on the bank was like pulling out two critical load-bearing pieces in a game of Jenga. The cascading demand for cash to resolve the failures may have pushed other investment banks’ equally sketchy funds to fail as well, crashing the entire heap nearly a decade ago.

~ ~ ~

It was a surprise blast from the unpleasant past to see Bear Stearns’ name pop up in the middle of recent testimony before the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence. Fusion GPS’ Glenn Simpson cited the investment bank as a source of financing for Donald Trump and some sketchy condominium development.

[SIMPSON]… There’s the Trump vodka business that was earlier. And then ultimately, you know, what we came to realize was that the money was actually coming out of Russia and going into his properties in Florida and New York and Panama and Toronto and these other places.

And what we, you know, gradually begun to understand, which, you know, I suppose I should kick myself for not figuring out earlier, but I don’t know that much about the real estate business, which is I alluded to this earlier, so, you know, by 2003, 2004, Donald Trump was not able to get bank credit for — and if you’re a real estate developer and you can’t get bank loans, you know, you’ve got a problem.

And all these guys, they used leverage like, you know, — so there’s alternative systems of financing, and sometimes it’s — well, there’s a variety of alternative systems of financing. But in any case, you need alternative financing.

One of the things that we now know about how the condo projects were financed is that you have to — you can get credit if you can show that you’ve sold a certain number of units.

So it turns out that, you know, one of the most important things to look at is — this is especially true of the early overseas developments, like Toronto and Panama — you can get credit if you can show that you sold a certain percentage of your units.

And so the real trick is to get people who say they’ve bought those units, and that’s where the Russians are to be found, is in some of those pre-sales, is what they’re called. And that’s how, for instance, in Panama they got the credit of — they got a — Bear Stearns to issue a bond by telling Bear Stearns that they’d sold a bunch of units to a bunch of Russian gangsters.

And, of course, they didn’t put that in the underwriting information, they just said, we’ve sold a bunch of units and here’s who bought them, and that’s how they got the credit. So that’s sort of an example of the alternative financing. … [bold mine, excerpt pages 95-96]

The timing mentioned, 2003-2004, is very close to the time that Bear Stearns launched the two Cayman-based funds which failed first. Is it possible Trump’s financing provided by Bear Stearns ended up in the funds’ CDOs? Probably not — Simpson refers to bonds. But let’s look at a financial statement from one of the subject funds:

It’s difficult to tell what’s in any of the CDOs listed in this summary. Who knows what mortgages are in them or from where they originated without access to more details?

Note the bonds at the bottom — again, what’s in them? What percentage of these bonds consisted of dicey or outright fraudulent financing for construction related to money laundering? Again, we can’t tell without access to more granular details. We don’t know whether bond(s) offered to Trump developments were in Bear Stearns’ first two failed funds or if they helped cause the eventual financial pyroclastic flow toward Bear Stearns’ end.

~ ~ ~

Another thing sticks in my craw — a bit from Michael Lewis’ The Big Short:

The bond market, because it consisted mainly of big institutional investors, experienced no similarly populist political pressure. Even as it came to dwarf the stock market, the bond market eluded serious regulation. Bond salesmen could say and do anything without fear that they’d be reported to some authority. Bond traders could explore inside information without worrying that they would be caught. Bond technicians could dream up ever more complicated securities without worrying too much about government regulation — one reason why so many derivatives had been derived, one way or another, from bonds. … [bold mine]

In other words, nobody would look askance at all at bonds sold to finance a condominium development with rather thin commitment to payment. Nobody looked askance at the ratio of CDOs to bonds, either, though Bear Stearns would try to offset the CDOs’ losses by liquidating bonds. This fund as an example couldn’t manage this offset based on the ratio alone; it would have been catastrophically worse if the collateral beneath the bonds was as fraudulent as many subprime adjustable rate mortgages in CDOs were at the time.

The root cause of the 2008 crash remains the collapse of poorly collateralized as well as fraudulent mortgages. But I have to wonder:

— With so much attention on CDOs and mortgage defaults combined with a lack of bond market adequate monitoring, how much did crappy bonds, based on fraudulent representations of collateral, contribute to the crash?

— If there was so little regulation and oversight of the bond market, how much sketchy or fraudulent project financing was in bonds on the banks’ books — including projects like Trump’s, based on promises to pay made by offshore vehicles or non-U.S. citizens?

— With so little regulation and oversight, would it have been possible for one or more nation-states using offshore finance vehicles to “weaponize” banks’ books? How many of the crappy bonds contributing to the 2008 crash were based on poorly collateralized pre-sales to Russian oligarchs and gangsters?

— What assurances do we have today — especially with Mick Mulvaney defunding the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and knocking off an opportunity to look more deeply into credit reporting by killing off the Equifax investigation — that investment banks have changed their practices and ensured legitimate projects are financed?

—What assurances do we have that our legislators see the slippery slip when they approve legislation like S. 2155 just this week, weakening Dodd-Frank reforms?

~ ~ ~

Recall the state of the economy between Bear Stearns’ and Lehman Brothers’ crashes. Oil prices rose to over $150/barrel, resulting in $4/gallon gasoline. Other commodity prices rose in tandem with fuel prices. The home buyers who could least afford any change in their household expenses were the same ones targeted for subprime mortgages with shady terms; it came down to paying for gas to get to work and feeding the family, or making the mortgage payment.

The price of oil at the time had been driven up by excess speculation. Legislation passed in June 2008 requiring all commodity futures trading to require a minimum of 30% margin upfront rather than 10%. Oil prices dropped drastically and reduced in volatility almost overnight, but it was already too late. Too many home buyers could no longer afford their payments and mortgage defaults began to snowball.

Which brings me to yet another question: if the bond market could have been “weaponized” at that time, could a volatile commodities market likewise have been used as a trigger?

Are there any other weak points in our market which could be “weaponized,” for that matter?

~ ~ ~

On this tenth anniversary after the crash began with Bear Stearns’ collapse, I feel more secure about my retirement portfolio. There were no frantic phone calls to family members exhorting moves to safety this evening. My exposure to the remaining weaknesses of investment banking have been minimized as much as possible, though I remain vulnerable because I have a mortgage. Real estate isn’t the sure return it once was. Only uber-wealthy investors buying into certain urban markets come out on top. But wealthy real estate investors can still cause self-inflicted damage.

Atlanta, Georgia’s market has turned around since the crash — but it was home to another failed Trump real estate project, a 363-unit Trump Tower which went into foreclosure with pre-sales of only 100 units. (In January 2017, Trump ranted about Atlanta as Rep. John Lewis’ district, calling it “falling apart” and “crime infested.” One wonders what crime he meant…)

Hollywood, Florida had a brush with a failed Trump project:

In 2006, he and billionaire condo king Jorge Perez began selling a 23-story apartment building near Mar-a-Lago, but the project was abandoned a year later because of slow sales. Another Perez-Trump deal, the 200-unit Hollywood oceanfront tower, was foreclosed in 2010 after selling less than 15% of its units. (The building eventually opened, still Trump-branded, but without Perez.)

So did the Miami, Florida area:

Trump Sunny Isles, a three-tower residential complex outside Miami, has also struggled. Trump partnered with Perez again and another developer named Gil Dezer to build the project, which targeted wealthy Latin Americans. . . .

Unfortunately, the last two towers of the development opened in the middle of the financial crisis, and Perez bailed on them. . . .

And Puerto Rico, too, was home to a Trump-branded golf course which failed in 2015.

Though with so many failures followed by continued attempts, it’s worth asking if this is a business model. How does Trump continue to benefit from so much failure? How do the backers he has benefit from staking Trump money or title?

Trump’s business alone wasn’t the cause of the 2008 crash. There were far more players involved — millions, if we want to blame residential homeowners who were misled by banks to believe they could safely contract a mortgage in spite of either inadequate collateral or income and ultimately forced into foreclosure. But at least one of Trump’s business projects was in the mix if Fusion’s Simpson’s testimony is truthful; what would keep Trump or real estate investors like Trump from contributing to (if not causing) another crash today?

We must ask when we see that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his former son-in-law Jeffrey Yohai were engaged in sketchy real estate development projects the community/regional Banc of California may have deterred by forcibly shutting their accounts.

And ask again when we see a community bank like The Federal Savings Bank of Chicago involved in another of Manafort’s bank frauds.

The damage could be even worse, in the case of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is over his head in debt on 666 Fifth Avenue and whose family business is distressed, possibly causing geopolitical turmoil to shakedown new financing.

How many of these flimsy real estate deals and junky mortgages, loans, and bonds are there in the system when we can now see these affiliated with the president and his campaign advisers? How many of them will it take to cause another crash if legislators continue to pick away at safeguards?

Let’s hope I’m not writing another financial postmortem like this one in March 2028.

Money by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

Senate Democrats Caving, May Roll Back Dodd-Frank Regulations

After the recent indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates which included charges for bank fraud, it should be obvious there are still problems with smaller banks making loans based on sketchy collateralization.

It’s right there in the indictments.

After reading about the recent relationship between bank fraudster Rick Gates, an identity monitoring company, and one of the biggest credit monitoring firms, it should be obvious there’s no daylight between bank fraud and other consumer financial products.

It’s right there in publicly filed records and marketing statements.

After reading about Donald Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s repeated real estate development failures, whether he borrowed the money from investment banks (Bear Stearns in 2006, in Trump’s case; Citigroup and Deutsche Bank recently, in Jared’s) or whether he licensed his brand while managing failing properties (Taj Mahal casino, Puerto Rico golf course, Panama condos, etc. failing after 2008), it should be obvious the underlying threats setting 2008’s economic crash in motion didn’t end after Dodd-Frank regulatory reform was passed. (Goodness knows Trump and Kushner aren’t the only failures, just the most well-known.)

Again, all of this is public record.

Which is why it is absurd that Democratic Senators are caving in and rolling back Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms with S.2155, the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act.

Do community banks need some relief from the additional expenses of compliance? Perhaps — but how does rolling back part of Dodd-Franks ensure that bank frauds like Rick Gates and Paul Manafort are stopped? Something isn’t working; the answer may be more, not less regulation.

Do Too-Big-To-Fail banks need to ensure they can’t crash the economy by virtue of their size? Sure, but what has been done to prevent more piecemeal failures like those Trump’s circle exemplify?

The capper? The CBO score on this bill sucks:

– The bill would increase federal deficits by $671 million over the 2018-2027 period
– And “would increase the likelihood that a large financial firm with assets of between $100 billion and $250 billion would fail.”

Read this piece by Mike Konzcal, Why Are Democrats Helping Trump Dismantle Dodd-Frank?

Also Matt Yglesias at Vox, and Molly Hensley-Clancy at BuzzFeed — the latter points out voters want more regulatory control on banks, not less.

See also Indivisible’s backgrounder-explainer and @Celeste_P’s call script on S.2155.

And then call your senators and tell them to vote against S.2155, then come up with a better solution to help community banks. Enlist friends and family to make calls; this bill is expected to go to a vote late today or first thing in the morning.

You might also point out to Senate Dems if smaller community banks fail because of Trump’s policies and his circle’s kleptocracy, it’ll be on them for aiding and abetting Trumpian nonsense when they are up for re-election.

EDIT: I forgot you may not have this phone number memorized as I do —

US Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121

Make the calls now!

Three Things: This Matin, Think Latin

I have three things cluttering up my notes — just big enough to give pause but not big enough for a full post. I’ll toss them out here for an open thread.

~ 3 ~
Aluminum -> Aeronautics -> Stock Market and Spies
I’ve spent quite a while researching the aeronautics industry over the couple of years, trying to make sense out of a snippet in the Buryakov spy case indictment. The three spies were at one point digging into an aeronautics company, but the limited amount of information in the indictment suggested they were looking at a non-U.S. company.

You can imagine my surprise on December 6, 2016, when then-president-elect tweeted about Boeing’s contract for the next Air Force One, complaining it was too expensive. Was it Boeing the spies were discussing? But the company didn’t fit what I could see in the indictment, though Boeing’s business is exposed to Russia, in terms of competition and in terms of components (titanium, in particular).

It didn’t help that Trump tweeted before the stock market opened and Boeing’s stock plummeted after the opening bell. There was plenty of time for dark pool operators to go in and take positions between Trump’s tweet and the market’s open. What an incredible bonanza for those who might be on their toes — or who knew in advance this was going to happen.

And, of course, the media explained this all away as Trump’s “Art of the Deal” tactics, ignoring the fact he wasn’t yet president and he was renegotiating the terms of a signed government contract before he took office. (Ignoring also this is not much different than renegotiating sanctions before taking office…)

I was surprised again only a couple weeks later about Boeing and Lockheed; this time I wasn’t the only person who saw the opportunity, though the timing of the tweet and market opening were different.

Again, the media took note of the change in stock prices before rolling over and playing dead before the holidays.

There have been a few other opportunities like this to “take advantage of the market,” though they are a bit more obscure. Look back at the NYSE and S&P trends whenever Trump has tweeted about North Korea; if one knew it was coming, they could make a fortune.

A human would only need the gap as long as that between a Fox and Friends’ mention of bad, bad North Korea and a corresponding Trump tweet to make the play (although one might have to watch that vomit-inducing program to do this). An algorithm monitoring FaF program and Trump tweets would need even less time.

Yesterday was somebody’s platinum opportunity even if Trump was dicking around with U.S. manufacturers (including aeronautics companies) and global aluminum and steel producers. His flip-flop on tariffs surely made somebody beaucoup bucks — maybe even an oligarch with a lot of money and a stake in one of the metals, assuming he knew in advance where Trump was going to end up by the close of the market day. The market this morning is still trying to make sense of his ridiculous premise that trade wars are good and winnable; too bad the market still believes this incredibly crappy businessman is fighting a war for U.S. trade.

Just for the heck of it, go to Google News, search for [trump tariffs -solar], look for Full Coverage, sort by date and not relevance. Note how many times you see Russia mentioned in the chronologically ordered feed — mine shows exactly zero while China, Korea, Germany are all over the feed. I sure hope somebody at the SEC is paying as much attention to this as cryptocurrency.

I suppose I have to spell this out: airplanes are made of aluminum and steel, capisce?

~ 2 ~
Italian Son
One niggling bit from Glenn Simpson’s testimony for Fusion GPS before the Senate Intelligence Committee has stuck with me. I wish I could time travel and leave Simpson a note before testimony and tell him, “TELL US WHAT YOU SEE, GLENN!” when he is presented with Paul Manafort’s handwritten notes. The recorder only types what was actually said and Glenn says only the sketchiest bit about what he sees. Reading this transcript, we have only the thinnest amount of context to piece together what he sees.

Q. Do any of the other entries in here mean anything to you in light of the research you’ve conducted or what you otherwise know about Mr. Browder?

A. I’m going to — I can only speculate about some of these things. I mean, sometimes —

MR. LEVY: Don’t speculate.

A. Just would be guesses.

Q. Okay.

A. I can skip down a couple. So “Value in Cyprus as inter,” I don’t know what that means.”Illici,” I don’t know what that means. “Active sponsors of RNC,” I don’t know what that means. “Browder hired Joanna Glover” is a mistaken reference to Juliana Glover, who was Dick Cheney’s press secretary during the Iraq war and associated with another foreign policy controversy. “Russian adoptions by American families” I assume is a reference to the adoption issue.

Q. And by “adoption issue” do you mean Russia prohibiting U.S. families from adopting Russian babies as a measure in response to the Magnitsky act?

A. I assume so.

Bold mine, to emphasis the bit which has been chewing away at me. “Illici” could be an interrupted “illicit”; the committee and Simpson use the word or a modifier, illicitly, eight times during the course of their closed door session. It’s not a word we use every day; the average American Joe/Josie is more likely to use “illegitimate” or the even more popular “illegal” to describe an unlawful or undesirable action or outcome.

(I’m skeptical Manafort was stupid enough to begin scratching out “illicit” and catch himself in time, but then I can’t believe how stupid much of this criminality has been.)

But the average American Joe/Josie doesn’t travel abroad, speak with Europeans often, or speak second languages. The average white Joe/Josie may be three or more generations from their immigrant antecedents.

Not so Mr. Manafort, who is second generation Italian on both sides of his family. He may speak some Italian since his grandfather was an immigrant — and quite likely Catholic, too. Hello, Latin masses in Italian American communities.

Did Manafort mean “illici,” a derivative of Latin “illicio,” which means to entice or seduce? Or was it a corrupted variant of Latin “illico,” which means immediately?

Or is Manafort a bad speller who really meant either “elici”, “elicio,” or “elicit,” meaning to draw out or entice?

Like Simpson, these are just guesses. Only Manafort really knows and I seriously doubt he’ll ever tell what he meant.

~ 1 ~
If you haven’t checked your personal online privacy and cybersecurity recently, give Privacy Haus’s checklist a look. Nearly all of the items I’ve already addressed but I tried one of the items suggested as a fix to an ongoing challenge. Good stuff!

~ 0 ~
That’s it, have at it in this open thread! One last thing: if you didn’t read Marcy’s op-ed, Has Jared Kushner Conspired to Defraud America? in Wednesday’s NYT, you should. You’re going to need it as part of a primer going forward.

Three Things: No, No, and Hell to the NO on the Tax Bill [UPDATED]

NB: Update at the bottom of this post.

I don’t have three things. I just have three (or more) layers of pure rage about the so-called tax reform bill now returned to the Senate floor.

There is not one good thing about this bill. Nothing, nada, zippo, nil. How anyone could possibly think adding $1 trillion to the deficit — ostensibly to raid Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in the near future — is a positive is simply beyond my grasp.

And yet Senate Republicans are willing to set fire to the economy, torch people’s health care, wreak ruin upon academia and research, just to stay on their donors’ good side.

Super-wealthy donors are extorting performance from the GOP by withholding donations until they get their tax cuts. They are literally demanding the GOP obtains campaign contributions from the lowest and middle classes by increasing taxes or reducing benefits and transferring the funding to the uppermost class which does not need it but will instead convert the tax cuts to campaign contributions.

If these corrupt GOP senators continue blindly supporting this tax bill, they will stem consumption by the true engine of economic growth while encouraging greater anger across the largest percentage of citizens. I am reminded of the economic troubles in Germany before the 1929 market crash, the following wave of mass unemployment and a banking crisis leading to domination of National Socialism.

We know how that turned out.

This is an open thread. Bring your tax bill rage and off-topic stuff here.

UPDATE — 4:45 PM EST —

Looks like Senate GOP has been inundated with lobbyists’ requests for favors (read: quid pro quos for future donations) now being tacked onto the tax bill without any final draft bill available for reading by either the Senate or the public. Totally corrupt bunch of hacks.

As @Celeste_pewter says, keep calling; even if Sen. ‘Turtlehead’ McConnell says the GOP has 51 votes, they still need to get through conference committee. Congressional switchboard is (202) 224-3121. Here’s a script for your use.

Thanks to Sen. Ron Wyden who continues to fight for the individual mandate.

Boos and rotten tomatoes to Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who sold out for rather meager tidbits — state/local tax write-offs for Collins, and drilling more oil for Murkowski. The cost to constituents’ health and financial well-being is a lousy trade-off .

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4B

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects in Part 4A.
Part 4A.

In Part 4A, I laid out the neoliberal theory of the person, and the beginning of an appraisal of the effect of that theory on elites. In this post I add to that appraisal, and take up the impact of this theory on the rest of us. In the next post I will offer a possible explanatory context, but not a solution.

The neoliberal theory of the person is the basis of the economics most of the elites learn as undergrads, and in business schools. Lawyers are taught neoliberal principles in anti-trust classes and in the jurisprudential aspects of other courses, through the impact of the law and economics movement. When elites get jobs in business or law or government, they are surrounded by others who are deeply enmeshed in neoliberalism, even if they can’t name it. They believe that the market, whatever that is, is a wonderful, if occasionally erratic, judge of worth. They earn what they make because the market rewards the productive, and everyone finds their level in that system of rewards, based on their personal merit and their productivity. As they rise in pay and prestige, that opinion is cemented. It’s like Calvinism, with the market substituted for the Almighty. And if the market rewards the productive and dumps on the “non-productive”, then that is right and just.

The farther elites get from the productive work of businesses, the more they come to regard employees as cogs in a machine, not fully human, merely factors of production. The ease with which they fire people is the result of their belief that elites are productive and the rest tools. Lawyers and politicians may see their employees as humans, if weak versions, but the rest of the working world vanishes, except when needed. In brief, the elites operationalize Karl Polanyi’s concept of labor as a fictitious commodity.

And how does this work out for the lesser people? They are forced to live and work in the neoliberal world. They learn to repeat its tropes. For a beautiful piece of research on this, see Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, 2015, by Jennifer M. Silva, The people Silva interviewed describe themselves in the terms in the Mirowski quote in Part 4A, as bundles of skill sets, who must take risks and invest in themselves to get ahead; when it doesn’t work, they think it’s their fault, they blame themselves, and they struggle to find some other way forward.

I saw this many times in my 25 years of bankruptcy practice. People who file Chapter 7 always blamed themselves, and never could understand how their failures resulted from the cruel form of capitalism we enjoy in the US. Here’s a composite case. A young couple with two low-level jobs in a county near Nashville decide that the husband will go back to school so he can get a better job. The wife gets pregnant, suffers a bad miscarriage and can’t go on working. They don’t have insurance, and the bills pile up. He drops out to get a job to support them and tries to pay down the debt. She gets well enough to work, and then he loses his job. They can’t pay the medical and student debt. They get money from family, but it doesn’t work. They file Chapter 7, but they can’t discharge the student debt and they feel obligated to pay back their families. And when we talk to them, they blame themselves in words and phrases exactly like those Silva reports in her book.

In Part 4A, I describe two of the prevalent ideas that neoliberalism has given us, Bork’s antitrust revisionism and Posner’s Law and Economics. For the elites, the first was a boon. It was easy to explain how the markets would protect consumers after a merger. Corporations became larger and larger. Regulators allowed almost every merger, and the elites became more and more powerful, with more and more assets under their control. Combine the new wealth and power with their belief that they are superior, as shown by the rewards heaped on them by the all-knowing market, and suddenly elites are exerting even greater control over the government and using it to enrich themselves as managers and shareholders. According to Mirowski, this is a desired outcome of neoliberalism. See, e.g. point 10.

The Law and Economics movement supports this view. Courts following Posner look at economic efficiency above any other interest, and interpret the laws narrowly so as not to interfere with the sacred market. The consistent rulings in their favor support elites in thinking they are wonderful.

After the Great Crash, brought on by elites at gigantic banks, hedge funds, big law firms and other cheats and liars, not a single member of the elites went to jail, and they all got paid, and they all got to keep their ill-gotten gains. Many of the political elites defended their Wall Street friends. Pundits and academics and think-tankers sprang to the defense of Wall Street. Both of these groups pretended that it was everybody’s fault, or the fault of those evil subprime borrowers or nobody’s fault because it was all perfectly legal and the deals were between equally sophisticated and brilliant people, but it surely wasn’t the fault of the well-known people who organized and sold RMBSs and other deals. The prosecutors said they couldn’t indict any individual because responsibility was spread out among lots of people, or it was too hard to get a conviction, or because something something. When elites are not held accountable, it reinforces their sense of how wonderful they are.

But the effect of these two two neoliberal theories on the rest of us is bad. As I note in Part 4A, based on this paper by Simcha Barkai, increasing concentration is perhaps the most important cause of the wage-productivity gap. Wage stagnation as profits increased has left workers struggling to get ahead, to the point that less than half of US households can pay an unexpected $500 bill without borrowing or selling something.

In the same way, the law and economics movement has hurt workers. For example, Banks and other large corporations put arbitration clauses in all their contracts, and clauses that bar class actions, and courts routinely uphold these clauses, because it’s so efficient. That means that when you get cheated in one of Wells Fargo’s schemes, you have to arbitrate, and class actions are barred.

So far, the legacy political parties and the elites have been able to deflect the anger that is slowly building up in our society as frustration turns into pain. It’s dawning on all of us that the way we treat our people is disgusting, whether it’s cops killing unarmed Black people, sexual predators attacking women, unfair pay for people of color, massive corruption, lawsuits with utterly unjust results; the list is endless.

My prediction of the slow death of neoliberalism is based on my profound hope that people are realizing that neoliberalism is a nightmarish theory, the spell will be broken, and people will demand to be treated like human beings with natural rights that must be the central focus of social organization.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 4A The Nature of the Person

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 3A. This post at Naked Capitalism expands on Part 3, and adds a discussion of Simcha Barkai’s paper and methodology; I discuss other aspects below.

In this post, I take up the nature of the person in neoliberal theory and neoliberal society. I begin by describing the nature of the person in theory, and then apply it to elites. In a separate post I will discuss the nature of the average person in neoliberal theory and society. Then I will try to put this in a general context, based on my initial readings on Critical Theory.

The nature of the person in a neoliberal society is simple: a utility-maximizing computing machine, only interested in satisfying wants and needs in a world of scarce resources, where survival depends on the ability to grab stuff ahead of other people. Somewhat more elegantly, Philip Mirowski explains it this way

Neoliberalism thoroughly revises what it means to be a human person. Classical liberalism identified “labor” as the critical original human infusion that both created and justified private property. Foucault correctly identifies the concept of “human capital” as the signal neoliberal departure that undermines centuries of political thought that parlayed humanism into stories of natural rights. Not only does neoliberalism deconstruct any special status for human labor, but it lays waste to older distinctions between production and consumption rooted in the labor theory of value, and reduces the human being to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts. “Government of the self ” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; this is one possible way to understand the concept of “biopower.” Under this regime, the individual displays no necessary continuity from one “decision” to the next. The manager of You becomes the new ghost in the machine.

Mirowski could be describing corporations: they are in fact the Platonic Ideal of this version of human nature. They have only one goal: to succeed in the market, whatever that is, by grabbing everything they can, money, power, resources, everything. We should all aspire to be like corporations.

In the neoliberal universe, the market, whatever that is, is the perfect computer. It balances all desires with money and spits out the perfect answer. The market can do no wrong. It disciplines everyone to its demands. There is no need for external government oriented regulation. Any regulation will simply make everything worse. In fact, there is no need for or room for democratic control of any kind. The market also selects our leaders, as Thorstein Veblen observed over a century ago.

We’ve been living under this intellectual regime for half a century now, and we can see its impact all around us. On the corporate side let’s look at two of the main theoretical innovations, Robert Bork’s antitrust revisions and Richard Posner’s Law and Economics movement.

As far back as 1960, Bork was fretting that socialism would be enforced on the US through antitrust law. In his seminal 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, he claimed that the purpose of the Sherman Act, the crucial antitrust law, was to protect consumer welfare, and that the existing law protected inefficient firms and thus drove up consumer prices. That view was adopted by the Supreme Court in 1979. Supposedly it would protect consumers better than prior law focused on the dangers of concentrated money and power.

A recent paper by Simcha Barkai shows how that worked out. Barkai is now a professor at the London School of Economics. His paper, Declining Labor and Capital Shares, is here. The first two sections and the conclusion lay out the thesis in English, not econspeak. The labor share is declining. The cost of capital is low and little additional capital has not been added to the existing depreciating stock, so the capital share is low. Profits are up in an amount sufficient to cover both drops. The profit share has risen because of increased concentration, which occurred because of the adoption of Bork’s opinion. See Part 3A, Observations.

Across specifications, the profit share (equal to the ratio of profits to gross value added) has increased by more than 12 percentage points. To offer a sense of magnitude, the value of this increase in profits amounts to over $1.1 trillion in 2014, or $14 thousand for each of the approximately 81 million employees of the non-financial corporate sector. P. 3.

Profits go to the owners of firms, who distribute the money as they see fit. Profits are not distributed to the 99%; they go to shareholders and top management. This is terrible for consumers, whose wages have stagnated while profits soar. Bork was totally wrong, and wrong in ways that hurt people and society.

The second neoliberal innovation is the Law and Economics Movement, driven by Richard Posner, recently retired from the Seventh Circuit. This is from a 1987 speech he gave at the American Economic Association, behind pay-wall but available through your local library. According to Posner, these are the basic premises of Law and Economics:

1) People act as rational maximizers of their satisfactions in making such nonmarket decisions as whether to marry or divorce, commit or refrain from committing crimes, make an arrest, litigate or settle a lawsuit, drive a car carefully or carelessly, pollute (a nonmarket activity because pollution is not traded in the market), refuse to associate with people of a different race, fix a mandatory retirement age for employees.

2) Rules of law operate to impose prices on (sometimes subsidize) these nonmarket activities, thereby altering the amount or character of the activity.

A third premise, discussed at greater length later, guides some research in the economics of nonmarket law:

3) Common law, (i.e., judge-made) rules are often best explained as efforts, whether or not conscious, to bring about either Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks efficient outcomes. P. 5

You can find my discussion of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency here, with a link to a discussion of Pareto Efficiency. Posner is quite serious about this.

/

This is from [Posner’s] 1985 article in the Columbia Law Review, An Economic Theory of the Criminal Law:

My analysis can be summarized in the following propositions:
1. The major function of criminal law in a capitalist society is to prevent people from bypassing the system of voluntary, compensated exchange-the “market,” explicit or implicit-in situations where, because transaction costs are low, the market is a more efficient method of allocating resources than forced exchange. Market bypassing in such situations is inefficient — in the sense in which economists equate efficiency with wealth maximization — no matter how much utility it may confer on the offender. … (P. 1195, footnote omitted)

Posner carefully explains how this works with rape. I’m sure Weinstein, O’Reilly and all of the sexual predators heartily endorse his conclusions. It’s just sick to think in terms of the utility these predators gain balanced against the “disutility” to the people they attack. In Kaldor-Hicks terms, the predator can make everything right with a few bucks and/or a part in a movie, and Posner would be fine with that.

This analysis is explicitly inhuman: it takes no account of human dignity, or bodily autonomy and personhood of people under assault. The disutility caused by rich predators? What kind of person thinks like that?

To be precise, that is the exact mindset that neoliberalism calls out. That focus on economic efficiency defined in the most dehumanizing terms possible is at the core of the education of the elites and it perfectly explains their behavior in their institutional roles. All of them are sure they are perfection of humanity because they were selected by the perfect market. And it is therefore right and just that they should be in charge of everything. Screw democracy; as Posner put it in a 2007 opinion, the value of voting to the individual is elusive.

M&M Mars Candy, Trump and The Estate Tax Giveaway

[Ed Note: This is a guest post by our tax law expert friend Bob Lord. It is a particularized abject story of exactly what kind of interests are pushing the Trump “Tax Cuts” agenda, why, and how ridiculously corrupt and insulting to the 99.5% of America the effort really is.]

The Mars family has made billions selling us M&Ms, Snickers, and countless other Halloween treats for a century now. But when it comes to paying tax, the Mars family seems to be all tricks and no treats.

In fact, the family’s latest tax trick may have cost the U.S. Treasury a whopping $10 billion. What could $10 billion do? That’s the cost of delivering prenatal care to hundreds of thousands of expectant moms under Medicaid, an essential program that President Trump and the GOP Congress plan to cut by up to $1 trillion.

According to the current U.S. tax code, any American worth $25 billion can expect 40 percent of that, or $10 billion, to go to Uncle Sam in estate tax, the federal levy on the personal fortunes of deep pockets who kick the bucket. Forrest Mars Jr. had a $25-billion fortune when he died in July 2016. But the Mars family has apparently been able to avoid estate tax on that entire $25 billion.

How do we know? Researchers at Forbes and Bloomberg, the two business publications that track America’s billionaire wealth, have some fascinating numbers for us.

Forest Jr. and his two siblings started 2016 with personal fortunes in the vicinity of $25 billion. Now if Forrest’s fortune had been subject to a significant estate tax after he passed on, the collective wealth of his four daughters in 2017 would be substantially less than that $25 billion.

The just-released 2017 Forbes list of America’s 400 richest shows otherwise. Forbes puts the wealth of each of Forest’s four daughters at $6.3 billion, for a total of $25.2 billion. That’s almost identical to the 2017 fortunes of their Aunt Jacqueline and their Uncle John, each at $25.5 billion. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index reports similar numbers.

Should any of this surprise us? Not really. We’re seeing Mars family history repeat itself. Eighteen years ago, Forrest Mars Sr., the original Mars family billionaire, died. The Forbes 400 lists from the years surrounding 1999 show that the Mars family lost no wealth to estate tax back then either.

But the Mars family must at least be paying oodles of income tax, right? Nope. How could that be? This particular tax-avoidance story starts over a century ago, when Frank Mars incorporated his candy business.

Back then, the value of the stock in Mars Inc. had only minimal value. But over the years the stock appreciated considerably in value. By 1988, that appreciation had made the Mars family the wealthiest clan in America. The Mars billionaires still rank as one of America’s wealthiest families, in no small part because none of the gains in the value of the family’s Mars stock have ever been subject to income tax.

Is the Mars family content with its current level of tax savings? Apparently not. The family has joined with 17 other billionaire families and collectively spent $500 million lobbying Congress for reduced taxes on billionaires and the companies they run.

These companies face corporate income tax on their profits. Mars, Inc. has had to pay these taxes over the years. Unlike Mars family members as individuals, the Mars company hasn’t been able to sidestep its tax bills. But the Mars and other billionaire families have found a friend in President Trump and the current Republican-led Congress. The pending Trump-GOP tax plan would take a meat axe to corporate tax rates.

The resulting corporate tax savings, if this plan gets adopted, will likely translate into a multi-billion-dollar tax savings for Mars, Inc. — and a corresponding bump in the net worth of Mars family members.

The real prize for the Mars in the Trump tax plan? That may be in the elimination of the estate tax that the Trump White House is now pushing. Wait, what? How would the repeal of the federal estate tax help a family that’s already avoiding the estate tax?

For America’s ultra-wealthy, repealing the estate tax turns out to be more about the federal income than the federal estate tax. As Mars family history makes painfully clear, tax avoidance vehicles available under current law allow even billionaires to zero out their estate tax.

But billionaires, under current law, do pay an appreciable income tax price for their estate tax avoidance. Assets on which estate tax is avoided carry an offsetting income tax disadvantage. That disadvantage would vanish in a simple estate tax repeal.

What does that mean? Let’s say we have a billionaire who paid $10 million for stock now worth $100 million and does nothing to avoid estate tax on that stock The billionaire never has to pay income tax on that gain. Those who inherit that stock from the billionaire’s taxable estate can sell it for $100 million and not pay any income tax on the gain either.

But if that billionaire stashed that stock into a trust to avoid estate tax, he would forfeit that income tax advantage. The untaxed gain associated with the stock would be passed to the trust beneficiaries. These beneficiaries would face an income tax on the previously untaxed gain when they sell the stock.

If the Trump-GOP estate tax repeal takes the same final form as the estate tax repeal bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 2015, wealthy Americans will get to have it both ways: zero estate tax and the elimination of any untaxed gain at death.

And that would allow the next generation of Mars family members to avoid income tax on over a century’s worth of economic gain. Quite a trick, huh?

So enjoy the candy, America. The Mars family will keep the cash.

Happy Halloween!

[Robert J. Lord, a tax lawyer in Phoenix, Arizona and former Congressional candidate, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.]

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 3 The Phillips Curve and Critical Theory

Part 1.
Part 2.

I described attacks on the Phillips Curve in Part 2. This part discusses the history of the Phillips Curve in detail, and concludes with a discussion of the problems revealed by the failure. The Observations are the fun part if this is too long.

History of the Phillips Curve

This section is based on parts 1-3 of The History of the Phillips Curve: Consensus and Bifurcation by Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern, published in the 2008 in the journal Economica at p. 10 et seq. (behind paywall, but available online through your local library). In 1958, William Phillips published a paper which as Gordon puts it,

… replaced discontinuous and qualitative descriptions by a quantitative hypothesis based on an unusually long history of evidence. Since 1861 there had been a regular negative relationship in Britain between the unemployment rate and the growth rate of the nominal wage rate. P. 12.

Phillips fitted a curve to data from the period 1861-1913, and plotted data for the remaining periods, through 1957 against that curve to find disagreements. Phillips found that his curve was close across the entire time except for a couple of years that he explains away. Here’s the curve Phillips fitted to his data:

1) wt = -.90 + 9.64U-1.39

Gordon says “… the inflation rate would be expected to equal the growth rate of wages minus the long-term growth rate of productivity.” P. 12.

1a) p = w – k

For some reason p is inflation and k is productivity. Upper case letters are levels and lower case letters are rates of change. So equation 1 can be written

2) p = -.90 + 9.64U-1.39 – k.

Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow discussed the Phillips results in the US context in a 1960 article. They found no similar data for the US, but they did some estimates and suggested that the PC doesn’t fit their data for several periods, and that it can shift up and down. Phillips estimated that an unemployment rate of about 2.5% was consistent with zero-inflation, while Samuelson and Solow think it might have been 3% pre-World War II and was about 5-6% in the early 60s.

With this seal of approval, the idea was incorporated into econometric models in two equations. In one, the PC was embodied and other variables were added, including demand, unemployment, the rate of change of unemployment, taxes, expected inflation and others in different combinations. This result was fed into an equation that calculates inflation based on wage levels, price levels and trend productivity. Gordon explains that

The reduced form of this approach implied that the inflation rate depended on the level and rate of change of unemployment, perhaps other measures of demand, and lagged inflation.

This is followed by a long discussion of the views of the Chicago School, which Gordon dismisses as utter failures. Moving along to 1975, Gordon turns to efforts to modify the Phillips Curve by adding supply and demand shocks. The price of oil shot up in 1973 because of OPEC. The demand for oil doesn’t decrease quickly in the short run, so people spend more on oil and less on other things. The Phillips Curve didn’t predict the results. Gordon says

The required condition for continued full employment is the opening of a gap between the growth rate of nominal GDP and the growth rate of the nominal wage to make room for the increased nominal spending on oil. P. 21, cite omitted.

That means wages must fall, Gordon says, or we have to add money to the economy, but the latter would lead to inflation. What we actually did, he says, was wage rigidity, increased unemployment, and some nominal (meaning not adjusted for inflation) GDP growth. Gordon then developed and published this version of the Phillips Curve:

3. pt = Ept + b(Ut – UtN) + zt + et

The second U term is the “natural” rate of unemployment, which I’m not going to take up. The z term represents cost-push pressure from unions and supply monopolies. The e term is apparently a constant but it seems odd that it might vary over time. Gordon explains that this version incorporates inertia, the idea that if there’s inflation in one period, there will be inflation in the next. It also reflects supply and demand issues, like wage and price rigidity.

Gordon then mentions in passing that the wage equation (Equation 1a) is only valid if labor’s share of the GDP is fixed, but it isn’t. Here’s a chart from FRED

That problem, says Gordon, is “fruitfully ignored”. We don’t need to consider wages, we just look at prices. With these changes, we can understand the past by explaining away variations with negative or “beneficial supply shocks” and other variables. Gordon says that Equation 3 is foundation of the mainstream model. There is a related model, the New Keynesian Phillips Curve which is similar except that it incorporates future expectations of inflation, and makes no specific provision for supply and demand shocks. I assume these in some combination are the models used by the Fed, and heavily criticized as discussed in Part 2.

Observations

The concept is replaced by the formula, the cause by rules and
probability. Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno,p. 3.

1. Phillips was working off empirical data when he fitted his curve, data about inflation and the rate of growth of wages. There are some theoretical issues in the preparation of that data. But the only abstract theory he adds to his data is Equation 1a, which Gordon says has a solid base in intuition. At the time he was writing, Phillips would only have seen data supporting that theory. We have new information:

As it happens, and perhaps not surprisingly, Phillips’ Equation 1 doesn’t work on US data. Gordon himself and others start adding things to make the Philips Curve work. They are convinced that there is a link between unemployment and inflation, and that they just need to add the relevant variables from their theoretical arsenal to get it to come out. Some focus on expectations, others on supply and demand shocks, and others add taxes or something else. Once they get those pesky variables set up, it’s just a matter of solving for constants. The point is to fit a curve to the actual data, not to use the actual data to see what’s happening. The concept connected to the real world is gone, replaced by the formula. The cause is replaced by the rules of economics.

2. If we set inflation at 0 in Equation 1a, the rate of wage growth is equal to the rate of productivity growth. As the above chart shows, this relationship broke about 50 years ago. If all the gains from productivity are not going to labor, they are going to capital. Of course, capital takes several forms, for example, housing, agricultural land and other domestic capital. See, Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Figure 4.6. When you think about it, it seems almost impossible that some of the gains from productivity weren’t going to capital all along. But in the current economy, it’s obvious that companies like Facebook can provide vastly more services with disproportionally fewer additional employees, few of whom are well paid, so that most of the gains from increased sales go to capital. Or, suppose that manufacturing is outsourced, reducing labor costs. Some of the gains might go to cutting prices but surely some go to capital. Let’s rewrite Equation 1a to reflect this, using γ for the growth rate capital.

1b) p = w + γ – k.

Using Equation 1b instead of 1a, we would have this instead of Equation 2:

4) p = -.90 + 9.64U-1.39 + γ – k.

This equation focuses attention on the changes in the return to capital. That issue never seems to trouble most economists, but the rate of return to capital is the central focus of Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century. This chart from the Center on Budget and Political Priorities shows that top wealth started on its climb at the same time wages diverged from productivity, which supports the idea that gains from productivity are going to capital:

It also calls attention to the fact that nowhere in Gordon’s paper is there a mention of power, market power, political power, or social power, all of which Piketty talks about. Actually, hidden away in Gordon’s article is a backhanded reference to power. Equation 3 (Equation 7 in Gordon’s paper) includes a term “…zt to represent ‘cost-push pressure by unions, oil sheiks, or bauxite barons’”. P. 22. Obviously Gordon understands that the power to control the price of goods and services could create a negative supply shock, and the loss of control could produce a beneficial supply shock. P. 25. However, this is not explicit, and it certainly doesn’t deal with our current economy, in which almost all goods and services are dominated by a small number of gigantic companies exercising a significant degree of price control.

The tweaking Gordon describes might work for a while, but as the degree of price control through monopoly and oligopoly power increases, and γ becomes a bigger factor, the tweaks quit working.

3. Let’s put this in a larger context. For many economists, the Phillips Curve is structural. But why would you think so? It seems more likely that the relationship holds in a certain set of social conditions, including legislation and regulation, power conditions, and people’s attitudes. A logical use of the data is to work out the conditions that must exist to make it so. That’s how Piketty approaches his inequality data.

It’s a mistake to use a coincidence to predict the future. It seems to be a particular problem in economics. Even people who seem to know better continue to believe in the Phillips Curve. Here’s the President of the Boston Fed, Eric Rosengren:

A number of papers at the conference highlighted that some of the economic relationships that are frequently assumed to be stable over time have proven to be not so stable as we have come out of the financial crisis. These structural changes mean that if you tried to have a model that was fairly invariant to these changes, or a process that was invariant to these changes, there would start being big misses in monetary policy.

He goes on to explain that we have to raise interest rates because maybe not the Phillips Curve, but when employment goes up, inflation goes up. Rosengren knows there’s a problem, but he doesn’t have any idea of how to cope, so he keeps doing what he thinks he knows is right. It’s another example of Horkheimer and Adorno’s statement in action.

Updated to define γ more exactly.