Social justice and economic performance: beyond the trade-offs?

workersThe subtitle of this blog refers to two of its key concerns when it comes to the application of our ‘dismal science’: economic progress and social justice. The third is individual liberty. It was John Maynard Keynes who in 1926 coined these three as part of the “political problem of mankind” (although he referred to efficiency rather than progress), and noted how difficult they are to reconcile.

A fourth, modern, concern might be sustainability, though this can be incorporated into them in the sense that without them, the economy and society cannot be sustained in the long run. This would include environmental concerns. Theories of sustainable development look at the interaction between the economy, society and environment and try to forge a path in which, being dependent on each other, they are balanced and, literally, sustainable and sustained!

A broad conception of economic progress would necessarily see it as sustainable. If, for example, a particular pattern of economic growth destroys the nature on which it depends, then it will be undermined. At the same time, modern economic growth, which is still part of what most economists consider to be ‘progress’, is a process of transformation, not least of nature, and of society. The task is to ensure that progress can be sustained and this may require that we adopt richer measures of development. For me this needs to include social justice and well-being.

This post explores some themes relevant to the achievement of social justice and economic progress in both developed and developing economies. Some economists consider there to be a trade-off between the two, but plenty of progressive thinkers reject this pessimistic outlook. Indeed they are, together, probably two of the essential ingredients of political stability and a sustainable democracy. Continue reading

The saving glut of the rich

800px-A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_MondayRobert Armstrong, US finance editor at the Financial Times, penned a helpful opinion piece in Tuesday’s paper, in which he tries to account for the disconnect between financial markets and the real economy in recent years, the Covid-19 correction notwithstanding. As he says:

“Until last Friday, it looked as if stock markets had lost all track of reality. In the world, we saw spiralling unemployment and political disarray. In the markets, especially the huge American market, exuberance.”

And:

“The market, however, is already acting like it is the fourth of July. The S&P 500 has risen to within 5 per cent of its all-time high.”

This is despite the fact that

“Covid-19 has put working- and middle-class people under immense strain, while the asset-owning classes have felt relatively little pain.”

which is a potential source of political unrest and, in the end, political and economic change.

He accounts for this by positing a self-reinforcing cycle between rising inequality and rising financial markets, in the US in particular, drawing on a recent working paper by Atif Mian, Ludwig Straub and Amir Sufi. It is quite a long and technical paper, so rather than go through it, I will quote from Armstrong’s article, in which he summarises the key points: Continue reading

Pandemic of inequality

The Levy Institute has just published a short paper on the inequalities associated with the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. It can be found here. A summary of the paper is below.

The costs of the COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of both the health risks and economic burdens—will be borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable segments of US society. In this public policy brief, Luiza Nassif-Pires, Laura de Lima Xavier, Thomas Masterson, Michalis Nikiforos, and Fernando Rios-Avila demonstrate that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen already-worrisome levels of income, racial, and gender inequality in the United States. Minority and low-income populations are more likely to develop severe infections that can lead to hospitalization and death due to COVID-19; they are also more likely to experience job losses and declines in their well-being.

The authors argue that our policy response to the COVID-19 crisis must target these unequally shared burdens—and that a failure to mitigate the regressive impact of the crisis will not only be unjust, it will prolong the pandemic and undermine any ensuing economic recovery efforts. As the authors note, we are in danger of falling victim to a vicious cycle: the pandemic and economic lockdown will worsen inequality; and these inequalities exacerbate the spread of the virus, not to mention further weaken the structure of the US economy.

The authors focus on the greater likelihood of ill health among the poorest in the population, and how they are more likely to suffer serious complications should they contract Covid-19.

They also repeat the case often made in papers from the Levy Institute, that high levels of inequality have weakened aggregate demand and growth, not least in the US. This has been associated with high levels of household and corporate debt, and played a major role in the historically weak recovery from the 2008 crisis. If steps are not made to reduce inequality, not least in access to healthcare, the US economy is likely to continue to perform poorly over the long term. This will be in addition to the shocks resulting from the response to the pandemic itself.

Deregulation can damage your wealth – supply-side labour market reforms and productivity

Deregulated and flexible labour markets promote economic efficiency. That has been something of a conventional wisdom in mainstream economics, and an article of faith among proponents of the so-called free market since the 1970s. The examples of the US and the UK, and to a lesser and more variable extent Western Europe, have apparently proven that labour market regulations and the power and influence of trade unions should be curtailed as far as possible, the results being greater efficiency in the form of faster growth in productivity and lower unemployment.

An interesting corrective to these tenets of neoclassical economics, particularly its free market variant, can be found in the March issue of the heterodox and usually fairly leftist Cambridge Journal of Economics. A paper by Alfred Kleinknecht provides a commentary on the links between supply-side labour market reforms and lower productivity growth since 2005, in the US, Japan and Western Europe. Continue reading

Some (political economy) thoughts on the response to Covid-19 – capitalism, socialism and the role of the state

The big state is back with a vengeance, if it ever went away. The apparent suddenness and rapid escalation of the spread of the coronavirus has called forth an almost equally rapid increase in the scope of state intervention in many nations. Countries that had spurned a move to state capitalism have suddenly found themselves having to embrace it.

Authoritarian state capitalist, though ostensibly communist, China, took a while to respond to the outbreak, but once it did, it acted forcibly and, for now at least, it seems to have stemmed the tide. But democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan seem also to have responded relatively effectively to the outbreak, at least compared with many other countries.

The UK government has so far pledged a massive fiscal programme of stimulus, including wage subsidies, bridging loans for firms, and at the time of writing is about to announce support for the self-employed as well. Private sector rail company franchises have been suspended in the wake of collapsing ticket sales. The health service has been promised whatever it needs financially to deal with the virus. Private firms are being asked to switch production to medical supplies as fast as possible. The post-crash decade of austerity was already somewhat at an end, but now it has been dramatically, inevitably put into reverse gear. Continue reading

What sort of big government? Corporate welfare versus the common good in the US

For me, the argument is over. Big government is all-pervasive and inevitable in today’s democratic capitalism. Markets and states are or should be complements, not alternatives, in any society which is both wealthy and continuing to develop and improve the lives of its citizens in the widest possible sense.

This is not an argument for socialism, although there are some on the right who see big government as an evil leading inevitably to a totalitarian and repressive state. This remains a possibility, but it was big government that saved a system on the edge of collapse during the financial crisis, however imperfectly. Crises may be inevitable under capitalism, but it remains the job of government to improve economic and social performance by harnessing the dynamic potential of markets so as to serve the common good.

In today’s US, an unlikely president is unashamedly trying to subvert and dominate the system for his own ends. The process may seem incoherent, but perhaps it mostly boils down to serving a thirst for power and attempting to fill what some have called an ’emptiness’ at the heart of the man.

If one takes Trump’s recent State of the Union address as an accurate description of his political achievements and the state of the US, rather than analysing what he has actually done, one could be forgiven for thinking that all is well there. It is not.

This post is not an analysis of Trump’s achievements in office, rather a discussion based on three books which take a critical view of US capitalism and society, reaching beyond the current political cycle. Although each takes a slightly different perspective and more or less covers a different period in US history, the thread which links them is the idea that its economy and society are being held back by an excessive concentration of power. Continue reading

An abundance of wealth and a scarcity of capital: resolving the paradox

One of the major economic phenomena of our time seems to be an enormous accumulation of elite wealth amidst rising inequality within nations, even while output and productivity growth, particularly since the Great Recession, have been mediocre across much of the world.

In his book Capitalism without Capital, Alan Shipman draws together a wealth of economic ideas, from the theory of the global savings glut and the Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital to Thomas Piketty’s writings on inequality, to argue that we are living in an era of abundant ‘wealth’ alongside a shortage of real productive capital assets. It is growth in the latter which remains the driver of rising living standards for the majority. Continue reading

Heiner Flassbeck on the global economy: the problem of Europe

In the video below from the Real News Network, former economist at UNCTAD, Heiner Flassbeck, discusses some of the problems besetting today’s global economy and claims that they have deep historical roots. Germany may be heading for a recession due to shrinking exports linked to the ongoing US-China trade war and weak demand in Europe.

Flassbeck argues that the cause of sluggish global demand lies in the weakness of corporate investment compared to corporate saving alongside stagnant wages and the insufficient response of governments in Europe to counter this with more expansionary fiscal policy.

This has been brewing since the 1970s. The US under Reagan, Bush junior and most recently Trump has on a number of occasions responded to sluggish growth with higher fiscal deficits. The exception came under Clinton, when a booming economy and fiscal tightening produced several years of budget surpluses, which ultimately proved unsustainable.

In contrast, many European economies have remained wedded to tighter fiscal policies and austerity in the run-up to the creation of the euro. Since 2000 Germany has relied on foreign demand to drive growth, and now runs, in absolute terms, the largest current account surplus in the world.

Corporate surpluses are also excessively large in Japan, but the government continues to run a moderately large budget deficit which absorbs some of these savings and sustains aggregate demand to a degree. The German government is now running a budget surplus, which withdraws demand from the economy, leaving net exports as the driver of growth.

Ideally, corporations would use more of their retained earnings for investment, rather than running up surpluses as they are doing at the moment, particularly in Germany. This would increase spending on the demand side, and the capital stock on the supply side, boosting growth in output and some combination of employment and productivity.

In the absence of strong corporate investment growth, sufficient demand to support economic growth has to come from household consumption, net exports, or from the government. With insufficient household income growth, Germany has relied excessively on growth in exports enabled by sluggish wage increases for twenty years. In a weakening global economy, it is now suffering again and could be on the brink of recession.

A more sustainable return to healthy economic growth and fuller employment with rising living standards would see household incomes rising for the majority through significant wage increases, stimulating consumption and providing greater incentives for companies to increase investment in new capacity and employment. Also needed is some degree of fiscal expansion which includes public investment in necessary infrastructure and support for those on the lowest incomes.

The corporate sector surplus (the excess of savings over investment) in a number of large economies needs to shrink as wages and household incomes rise alongside corporate investment. This would lessen the need to rely on large and persistent fiscal deficits, which have supported demand in Japan on and off for well over two decades but have not by themselves created the conditions for a return to more balanced economic growth over the longer term. It would also lessen the need for consumption to be excessively dependent on rising debt, as in the UK and US.

More balanced global growth and reduced inequality within countries which have seen the latter soar since the end of the 1970s can be achieved together.

Flassbeck does not really discuss the reasons behind excessive corporate savings relative to investment, aside from a brief reference to neoliberalism, and he ignores the problem of private debt in China, but the interview is interesting and worth a watch.

Where to Invade Next – social progress and a productive economy

WhereToInvadeNextI have ‘enjoyed’ (if that is the appropriate word) much of the work of US filmmaker Michael Moore. He tirelessly aims through this work and beyond it to campaign for a more progressive society and politics. He tries to entertain, inform and persuade. I often get the feeling when watching his films that he is preaching to the converted, but I still find myself learning something new.

His 2015 offering Where to Invade Next sees him visiting various countries around the world, mainly in Europe but also elsewhere, exploring aspects of their culture which as an American ‘liberal’ he admires more than the home-grown alternative. For each aspect, he plants the stars and stripes, indicating his ‘invasion’, and vows to steal the particular idea and take it back to the US. Continue reading

Robert Reich: the four biggest right-wing lies about inequality

I like Robert Reich’s short, entertaining and informative videos. While some of the ideas he presents are simplified, perhaps this is necessary to communicate them to a wider audience.

This one makes a good case that we don’t have to accept today’s levels of inequality as a price to pay for future prosperity. In fact, for ordinary workers in the US, real wages are barely higher than they were forty years ago, while since 1980 incomes and wealth at the top have soared. At the same time, investment and growth rates have fallen, apart from a brief revival in the late 1990s. It has been prosperity for some, but not for most.