There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch — True or False?

free lunch - mIlton friedman

free lunch - steven hawking

We can assume that the pros and cons of a universal basic income (UBI) have been thoroughly researched and reasonably analyzed, and that each side holds its position with utmost conviction.

We can also assume that none of that reasonableness and conviction will convert anyone from one side to the other, or win over the uncommitted. Reason doesn’t move us:  we use it to justify what we already decided, based on what we believe. SeeWhy Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker (February 2017) and “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017).

History doesn’t guide us either — see Why We Refuse to Learn From History, from Big Think and Why Don’t We Learn From History, from military historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart. The latter is full of conventional wisdom:

“The most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.

“History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.

“There are two roads to the reformation for mankind— one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.

“I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.

Good advice maybe, but we’ve heard it before and besides, most of us would rather make our own mistakes.

If reasoned analysis and historical perspective don’t inform our responses to radically new ideas like UBI, then what does? Many things, but cultural belief is high on the list. Policy is rooted in culture, culture is rooted in shared beliefs, and beliefs are rooted in history. Cultural beliefs shape individual bias, and the whole belief system becomes sacred in the culture’s mythology. Try to subvert cultural beliefs, and the response is outrage and entrenchment.

All of which means that each of us probably had a quick true or false answer to the question in this week’s blog post title, and were ready to defend it with something that sounded reasonable. Our answer likely signals our knee jerk response to the idea of UBI. The “free lunch”– or, more accurately, “free money” — issue appears to be the UBI Great Divide:  get to that point, and you’re either pro or con, and there’s no neutral option. (See this for more about where the “no free lunch” phrase came from.[1])

The Great Divide is what tanked President Nixon’s UBI legislation. The plan, which would have paid a family of four $1,600/year (equivalent to $10,428 today) was set to launch in the midst of an outpouring of political self-congratulation and media endorsement, only to be scuttled by a memo from a White House staffer that described the failure of a British UBI experiment 150 years earlier. UBI apparently was in fact a free lunch, with no redeeming social purpose; thus its fate was sealed.

As it turns out, whether the experiment  failed or not was lost in a 19th Century fog of cultural belief which enabled opponents of the experiment to pounce on a bogus report about its impact to justify passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 — which is what they wanted to do anyway. The new Poor Law was that era’s version of workfare, and was generated by the worst kind of scarcity mentality applied to the worst kind of scarcity. Besides creating the backdrop to Charles Dickens’ writing, the new Poor Law’s philosophical roots still support today’s welfare system:

“The new Poor Law introduced perhaps the most heinous form of ‘public assistance’ that the world has ever witnessed. Believing the workhouses to be the only effective remedy against sloth and depravity, the Royal Commission forced the poor into senseless slave labor, from breaking stones to walking on treadmills….”

From “The Bizarre Tale Of President Nixon’s Basic Income Plan.”

If UBI is a free lunch, then it’s an affront to a culture that values self-sufficiency. If it isn’t, then it requires a vastly different cultural value system to support it. The former believes that doing something — “making a living” at a job — is how you earn your daily bread. The latter believes you’re entitled do sustenance if you are something:  i.e., a citizen or member of the nation, state, city, or other institution or community providing the UBI. The former is about activity, the latter is about identity. This Wired article captures the distinction:

“The idea [of UBI] is not exactly new—Thomas Paine proposed a form of basic income back in 1797—but in this country, aside from Social Security and Medicare, most government payouts are based on individual need rather than simply citizenship.”

UBI is about “simply citizenship.” It requires a cultural belief that everybody in the group shares its prosperity.  Cultural identity alone ensures basic sustenance — it’s a right, and that right makes Poor Laws and workfare obsolete.

The notion of cultural identity invites comparison between UBI and the “casino money” some Native American tribes pay their members. How’s that working? We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Yes, Milton Friedman did in fact say it, although he wasn’t the only one. And in a surprising twist, he has been criticized for advocating his own version of UBI.

Old Dog, Old Trick, New Showtime

old dog new trick

Blockchain consultant and futurist Michael Spencer called it a conspiracy by the 0.01 percenters to enslave the rest of us for good.[1] A growing number of those 0.01 percenters have already supported it, but they’re not alone:  this poll conducted shortly after the 2016 election showed that half of Americans supported it as well. A parade of think tanks (here’s one) and other professional skeptics (more than I can cite with hyperlinks in a single sentence) have given it a thorough vetting and mostly concluded something along the lines of “yeah well okay maybe it’s worth a try.”

What is “it”? This idea:  give the poor what they lack — money. Ensure everyone a livable income while getting rid of the expensive and draconian welfare system. And just to be fair, go ahead and give everyone else money, too, even the billionaires.

The idea mostly goes by the name “universal basic income” (UBI). It’s rooted in the futuristic fear that technology will eventually put humans out of work. That’s not an old fear:  UBI is “far from a new idea,” says Martin Ford, another Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a popular TED talker, in his New York Times Bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

“In the context of the contemporary American political landscape… a guaranteed income is likely to be disparaged as ‘socialism’ and a massive expansion of the welfare state. The idea’s historical origins, however, suggest something quite different. While a basic income has been embraced by economists and intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum, the idea has been advocated especially forcefully by conservatives and libertarians.

“Friedrich Hayek, who has become an iconic figure among today’s conservatives, was a strong proponent of the idea. In his three-volume work. Law, Legislation and  Liberty, published between 1973 and 1979, Hayek suggested that a guaranteed income would be a legitimate government policy designed to provide against adversity, and that the need for this type of safety net is the direct result of the transition to a more open and mobile society where many individuals can no longer rely on traditional support systems:

‘There is, however, yet another class of common risks with regard to which the need for government action has until recently not been generally admitted…. The problem here is chiefly the fate of those who for various reasons cannot make their living in the market… that is, all people suffering from adverse conditions which may affect anyone and against which most individuals cannot alone make adequate protection but in which a society that has reached a certain level of wealth can afford to provide for all.’”

LBJ foresaw the possibility of massive technological unemployment back in the 60’s, and appointed an “Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” to study the topic. The Committee included co-Nobel Prize winners Friedrich Hayek and Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.[2] Rise of the Robots describes the Committee’s findings:

‘Cybernation’ (or automation) would soon result in an economy where ‘potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.’ The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.

“The Ad Hoc Committee went on to propose a radical solution:  the eventual implementation of a guaranteed minimum income made possible by the ‘economy of abundance’ such widespread automation would create, and which would ‘take the place of the patchwork of welfare measures’ that were then in place to address poverty.

“The Triple Revolution report was released to the media and sent to President Johnson, the secretary of labor, and congressional leaders in March 1964. An accompanying cover letter warned ominously that if something akin to the report’s proposed solutions was not implemented, ‘the nation will be thrown into unprecedented economic and social disorder.’ A front-page story with extensive quotations from the report appeared in the next day’s New York Times, and numerous other newspapers and magazines ran stories and editorials (most of which were critical), in some cases even printing the entire text of the report.

“The Triple Revolution marked what was perhaps the crest of a wave of worry about the impact of automation that had arisen following World War II. The specter of mass joblessness as machines displaced workers had incited fear many times in the past — going all the way back to Britain’s Luddite uprising in 1812 — but in the 1950s the ‘60s, the concern was especially acute and was articulated by some of the United States’ most prominent and intellectually capable individuals.

“Four months after the Johnson administration received the Triple Revolution report, the president signed a bill creating the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. In his remarks at the bills signing ceremony, Johnson said that ‘automation can be the ally of our prosperity if we will just look ahead, if we will understand what is to come, and if we will set our course wisely after  proper planning for the future.’ The newly formed Commission then … quickly faded into obscurity.”

A few years later, Richard Nixon introduced UBI legislation that he called “The most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” That legislation also faded into obscurity– more on that another time.

UBI is an old idea responding to an old fear:  how do we make a living if we can’t work for it? A half century after LBJ and Nixon, that fear is all too real, and lots of people think it might be time for the historical UBI solution to make its appearance.

But not everyone is jumping on the UBI bandwagon. The very thought that jobs might not be the source of our sustenance is the rallying cry of UBI’s most strident opponents.

More on UBI next time.

[1] Spencer followed with a similarly scathing assessment in this article.

[2] Myrdal’s study of race relations was influential in Brown v. Board of Education. He was also an architect of the Swedish social democratic welfare state. Hayek and Myrdal were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.

Fireflies and Algorithms

fireflies

We’ve been looking at workfare — the legislated link between jobs and the social safety net. An article published last week  — Fireflies And Algorithms — The Coming Explosion Of Companies[1] brought the specter of workfare to the legal profession.

Reading it, my life flashed before my eyes, beginning with one particular memory:  me, a newly-hired associate, resplendent in my three-piece gray pinstripe suit, joining the 4:30 queue at the Secretary of State’s office, clutching hot-off-the-word-processor Articles of Incorporation and a firm check for the filing fee, fretting whether I’d get my copy time-stamped by closing time. We always had to file today, for reasons I don’t remember.

Entity choice and creation spanned transactional practice:  corporate, securities, mergers and acquisitions, franchising, tax, intellectual property, real property, commercial leasing….  The practice enjoyed its glory days when LLC’s were invented, and when a raft of new entity hybrids followed… well, that was an embarrassment of riches.

It was a big deal to set up a new entity and get it just right — make sure the correct ABC acquired the correct XYZ, draw the whole thing up in x’s and o’s, and finance it with somebody else’s money. To do all that required strategic alliances with brokers, planners, agents, promoters, accountants, investment bankers, financiers…. Important people initiated the process, and there was a sense of substantiality and permanence about it, with overtones of mahogany and leather, brandy and cigars. These were entities that would create and engage whole communities of real people doing real jobs to deliver real goods and services to real consumers. Dissolving an entity was an equally big deal, requiring somber evaluation and critical reluctance, not to mention more time-stamped paperwork.

Fireflies And Algorithms sweeps it all away — whoosh! just like that!– and describes its replacement:  an inhuman world of here-and-gone entities created and dissolved without the intent of all those important people or all that help from all those people in the law and allied businesses. (How many jobs are we talking about, I wonder — tens, maybe hundreds of thousands?) The new entities will do to choice of entity practice what automated trading did to the stock market, as described in this UCLA Law Review article:

“Modern finance is becoming an industry in which the main players are no longer entirely human. Instead, the key players are now cyborgs: part machine, part human. Modern finance is transforming into what this Article calls cyborg finance.”

In that “cyborg finance” world,

“[The “enhanced velocity” of automated, algorithmic trading] has shortened the timeline of finance from days to hours, to minutes, to seconds, to nanoseconds. The accelerated velocity means not only faster trade executions but also faster investment turnovers. “At the end of World War II, the average holding period for a stock was four years. By 2000, it was eight months. By 2008, it was two months. And by 2011 it was twenty-two seconds….

Fireflies And Algorithms says the business entity world is in for the same dynamic, and therefore we can expect:

“… what we’re calling ‘firefly companies’ — the blink-and-you-miss-it scenario brought about by ultra-short-life companies, combined with registers that remove records once a company has been dissolved, meaning that effectively they are invisible.”

Firefly companies are formed by algorithms, not by human initiative. Each is created for a single transaction — one contract, one sale, one span of ownership. They’re peer-reviewed, digitally secure, self-executing, self-policing, and trans-jurisdictional — all for free or minimal cost. And all of that is memorialized not in SOS or SEC filings but in blockchain.

“So what does all this mean?” the article asks:

“How do we make sense of a world where companies — which are, remember, artificial legal constructs created out of thin air to have legal personality — can come into existence for brief periods of time, like fireflies in the night, perform or collaborate on an act, and then disappear? Where there are perhaps not 300 million companies, but 1 billion, or 10 billion?”

Think about it. And then — if it hasn’t happened yet — watch your life flash before your eyes.

Or if not your life, at least your job. Consider, for example, a widely-cited 2013 study that predicted 57% of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation. Even if that prediction is only half true, that’s still a lot of jobs. And consider a recent LawGeex contest, in which artificial intelligence absolutely smoked an elite group of transactional lawyers:

“In a landmark study, 20 top US corporate lawyers with decades of experience in corporate law and contract review were pitted against an AI. Their task was to spot issues in five Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), which are a contractual basis for most business deals.

“The study, carried out with leading legal academics and experts, saw the LawGeex AI achieve an average 94% accuracy rate, higher than the lawyers who achieved an average rate of 85%. It took the lawyers an average of 92 minutes to complete the NDA issue spotting, compared to 26 seconds for the LawGeex AI. The longest time taken by a lawyer to complete the test was 156 minutes, and the shortest time was 51 minutes.”

These developments significantly expand the pool of people potentially needing help through bad times. Currently, that means workfare. But how can you have workfare if technology is wiping out jobs?

More on that next time.

[1] The article was published by OpenCorporates, which according to its website is “the world’s largest open database of the corporate world and winner of the Open Data Business Award.”

The Success Delusion

poverty snareHow did the social safety net turn into a poverty trap? It was a victim of the success of the job as an economic force.

Psychologists call it “the success delusion.” You do something and get a result you like, so you keep doing it, expecting more of the same. It keeps working until one day it doesn’t. Do you try something new? No, you double down — it worked before, surely it will work again. You keep doubling down until you’ve made a mess.

You’re a victim of your own success. If you could listen, hindsight would tell you that there was more to it than what you were doing, that a lot of what happened was you being in the right place at the right time. You might believe that or not, but what matters now is that the times changed and you didn’t.

That’s what happened to social welfare. 40 years of post-WWII economic success positioned the steady job as the cornerstone of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Then, in the 80’s and 90’s, about the time the job was starting to lose its economic vitality, policy-makers doubled down on it:  work had raised the welfare of the whole world since the days of the telegraph and railroad, and surely it was still the best route out of poverty. So now we had workfare instead of welfare, and, as we saw last time, social welfare became “a system of suspicion and shame.”

get-a-job

Standin’ in line marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old lady’s eyes
Just for fun he says, “Get a job.”

That’s The Way It Is”
Bruce Hornsby and the Range

Rutger Bregman sums it up this way:

“We’re saddled with a welfare state from a bygone era when the breadwinners were still mostly men and people spent their whole lives working at the same company. The pension system and employment protection rules are still keyed to those fortunate to have a steady job, public assistance is rooted in the misconception that we can rely on the economy to generate enough jobs, and welfare benefits are often not a trampoline, but a trap.”

Utopia for Realists (2017)

Guy Standing explains it this way:

“The period from the nineteenth century to the 1970’s saw what Karl Polanyi, in his famous 1944 book, dubbed “The Great Transformation.”

“The essence of labourism was that labour rights — more correctly , entitlements — should be provided to those (mostly men) who performed labour and to their spouses and children.

“Those in full-time jobs obtained rising real wages, a growing array of ‘contributory’ non-wage benefits, and entitlements to social security for themselves and their family. As workers previously had little security, this was a progressive step.

“Labourism promoted the view that the more labour people did, the more privileged they should be, and the less they did the less privileged they should be. The ultimate fetishism was Lenin’s dictate, enshrined in the Soviet constitution, that anybody who did not labour should not eat.

“The labourist model frayed in the 1980’s, as labour markets became more flexible and increasing numbers of people moved from job to job and in and of employment.

“To defend labour-based welfare, social democratic governments turned to means testing, targeting benefits on those deemed the deserving poor.

“The shift to means testing was fatal. As previous generations of social democrats had understood, benefits designed only for the poor are invariably poor benefits and stand to lose support among the rest of society.

“Ironically, it was mainly social democratic parties that shifted policy towards workfare, requiring the unemployed to apply for non-existent or unsuitable jobs, or to do menial, dead-end jobs or phony training courses  in return for increasingly meagre benefits.

“Today, we are living in a Second Gilded Age — with one significant difference. In the first, which ended in the Great Crash of 1929, inequality grew sharply but wages on average rose as well. The Second Gilded Age has also involved growing inequality, but this time real wages on average have stagnated or fallen. Meanwhile, those relying on state benefits have fallen further behind, many pushed into homelessness, penury and dependence on inadequate private charity.

“Since the 1980s, the share of income going to labour has shrunk, globally and in most countries of economic significance… The labour share fell in the USA from 53 per cent in 1970 to 43.5 per cent in 2013. Most dramatically, it slid by over twenty percentage points in China and also dropped steeply in the rising industrial giant of South Korea.

“Besides falling wages, there has been an increase in wage differentials and a less-documented decline in the share of people receiving non-wage benefits, such as occupational pensions, paid holidays, sick leave or medical coverage. Thus worker compensation, in terms of ‘social income,’ has fallen by more than revealed by wages alone.

“As a consequence of these developments, ‘in-work poverty’ has rocketed. In some OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — 34 industrialized member countries], including Britain, the USA, Spain and Poland, a majority of those in poverty live in households where at least one person has a job.

“The mantra that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is simply false.”

The Corruption of Capitalism (2017)

Not only are jobs doing a poor job at social welfare — for both employed and unemployed alike — but they are themselves an endangered species. More to come…

Poverty Gets Personal

poverty

“In the sixties we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” – Ronald Reagan

Poverty is a “personality defect.” – Margaret Thatcher

The Gipper was referring to LBJ and his Great Society, but he got it wrong:  the Great Society failed to eliminate poverty because it never got all the way to dealing with it. Instead it took a more politically acceptable path focused on education and community involvement — not bad things, but there’s a difference. As for the Iron Lady, there’s actually some truth in what she said (we’ll look at that in a moment), but I suspect not in the way she probably meant it. She was more likely voicing the common attitude that the poor are intellectually impaired, morally flawed, prone to bad lifestyle choices, and criminally inclined, and therefore worthy of only the most grudging kind of help. That attitude and the Great Society’s reputed loss[1] in its War on Poverty explain a lot about today’s prevailing approach to poverty relief.

Rutger Bregman tackles this tough subject in his book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017):

“A world without poverty– it might be the oldest utopia around. But anybody who takes this dream seriously must inevitably face a few tough questions. Why are the poor more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?”

He continues with more tough questions:

“What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges [toward self-help and away from government assistance] only make the situation worse?”

He then profiles the work of Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, and Sendhill Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, who formulated a theory of poverty based on the concept of “scarcity mentality.” Their research shows that the chronic poor are really good at scrambling after short term solutions, but tend to be inept at sustainable long-term thinking. It’s a matter of mental bandwidth:  today’s urgency gets all the attention, leaving other matters to go begging (sometimes literally). In fact, their research estimates that poverty costs a person about 13-14 IQ points. In other words, living in a chronic state of being poor can eventually rewire the human brain to the point where clear thinking and prudent behavior are challenged.

Hence the grain of truth in Margaret Thatcher’s comment.

One problem with that attitude, though, is that it uses the terms “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably. But not everyone who’s poor is also impoverished. At the simplest level, the poor are poor because they lack money. But poverty goes further:  it’s a chronic condition that generates a specific outlook and way of approaching life. When that condition is shared, it  becomes a culture. You know it when you’re around poverty; you might not know it when you’re around poor.

Government assistance programs don’t make that distinction. As a result, as Bregman states, social welfare has “devolved into a behemoth of control and humiliation.”

“An army of social services workers is needed to guide people through the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures… The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame.”

Is it really that bad? Try applying for food stamps sometime.

Our bank account was thin after a business failure and some health issues. Following the advice of family. my wife applied for food stamps. Her experience was everything Bregman describes. Case in point: after two mandatory daylong job search classes (how to write a resume, set up a LinkedIn page, use the internet to check out online job postings…), she had to prove her willingness to work by reporting for 8 hours per week of wall-washing duty at a church community center. She washed the same walls every week — the same walls that other people were also washing every week — the cleanest walls in Denver. Washing walls — pointlessly, needlessly, endlessly — to prove you’re not a slacker.

Help with the grocery bill was bittersweet for a couple months, then we opted out. It’s easy to intellectualize and debate about “all the information and education” and “the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures.” It’s not so easy when they get personal. We were poor but not impoverished, and the system was just too demoralizing to continue. Maybe that was the point.

Plus, earning money reduces or eliminates benefits — a result which economist Guy Standing calculates is equivalent to the imposition of a 80% tax. The quandary is obvious:  earn money or opt out of the system– either way, you pay the tax. Most people — even the cognitively-impaired — wouldn’t agree to a deal like that.

How did “Brother, can you spare a dime?” turn into this? Curiously, the current welfare system derived from the same post-WWII economic surge that rewarded working people. We’ll look at how that happened next week. In the meantime, have a listen:

brother can you spare a dime

This week’s post uses portions of a LinkedIn Pulse article I wrote last year about poverty, crime, and homelessness. Next week’s post will also tap that source. You might like to jump ahead and read the article:  Why Don’t We Just solve Some Problems For a Change?

[1] Not everyone agrees that we lost the War on Poverty. See this article that considers both sides.

Archeconomics

archangelI made up the term “archeconomics.” I’m using “arch” in the sense of “first principles” — e.g., as in “archetype.” An “arch” is the larger version of the smaller expressions of itself — e.g., not just a villain but an arch-villain, not just an angel but an archangel. Life goes big when an arch-something is at work:  experience expands beyond circumstance, meaning magnifies, significance is exaggerated.

Archeconomics is therefore the larger story behind economics.

I ended last week’s post by referring to the larger story behind the rentier economy. As usually happens when I’m on a research trail, several commentaries have appeared in my various feeds lately that look beyond the usual opinionated mash of current events and instead address over-arching ideas and issues. All of them deal in one way or another with the current status and possible future of the liberal worldview — an arch-topic if there ever was one.

The term “liberal” in this context doesn’t refer to political liberal vs. conservative, but rather to historical liberalism, which among other things gave us post-WWII neo-liberal economics. Mega-bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari describes this kind of liberalism in his latest book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

“In Western political discourse the term “liberal” is sometimes used today in a much narrower sense, to denote those who support specific causes such as gay marriage, gun control, and abortion rights. Yet most so-called conservatives also embrace the broad liberal worldview.

“The liberal story cherishes human liberty as its number one value. It argues that all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans, as expressed in their feelings, desires, and choices. In politics, liberalism believes that the voter knows best. It therefore upholds democratic elections. In economics, liberalism maintains that the customer is always right. It therefore hails free-market principles. In personal matters, liberalism encourages people to listen to themselves, be true to themselves, and allow their hearts — as long as they do not infringe on the liberties of others. This personal freedom is enshrined in human rights.”

If you read Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus. you have a sense of what you’ll find in 21 Lessons, but I found it worth reading on its own terms. Two recent special magazine editions also take on the fate of liberalism:  Is Democracy Dying? from The Atlantic andA Manifesto for Renewing Liberalism” from The Economist. The titles speak for themselves, and both are offered by publications with nearly two centuries of liberal editorial perspectives.

Another historical liberal offering from a conservative political point of view is “How Trumpism Will Outlast Trump,” from Time Magazine. Here’s the article’s précis:

“These intellectuals are committed to a new economic nationalism … They’re looking past Trump … to assert a fundamental truth: whatever you think of him, Donald Trump has shown a major failing in the way America’s political parties have been serving their constituents. The future of Trump’s revolution may depend on whether this young group can help fix the economy.”

Finally, here’s a trio of offerings that invoke environmental economics — the impact  of the global ecology on global economics being another archeconomics topic. The first is a scientific study published last week that predicted significant environmental degradation within a surprisingly short time. Second is an article about the study that wants to know “Why We Keep Ignoring Even the Most Dire Climate Change Warnings.” Third is last week’s announcement that the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics is an environmental economist.

Some or all of those titles should satisfy if you’re in the mood for some arch- reading.

Next time, we’ll return to plain old economics, with a look at how the low income social strata is faring in all the dust-up over rentiers and economic inequality, robotcs and machine learning, and the sagging paycheck going to human labor.

The Rentier Economy: A Primer (Part 2)

My plan for this week’s post was to present further data about the extent of the rentier economy and then provide a digest of articles for further reading.

Turns out that wasn’t so easy. The data is there, but it’s mostly buried in categories like corporate capitalization, profits, and market concentration. Extracting it into blog post sized nuggets wasn’t going to be that easy.

Further, the data was generally only footnoted in a maelstrom of worldwide commentary. Economists and journalists treated it as a given, barely worthy of note, and were much more interested in revealing, analyzing, and debating what it means. The resulting discourse spans the globe — north to south, east to west, and all around the middle — and there is widespread agreement on the basics:

  • Economic thinking has traditionally focused on income from profits generated from the sale of goods and services produced by human labor. In this model, as profits rise, so do wages.
  • Beginning in the 1980’s, globalization began moving production to cheap labor offshore.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, artificial intelligence and robotics have eliminated jobs in the developed world at a pace slowed only by the comparative costs of technology vs. human labor.
  • As a result, lower per unit costs of production have generated soaring profits while wages have stagnated in the developed world. I.e., the link between higher profits and higher wages no longer holds.

Let’s pause for a moment, because that point is huge. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, wrote about it in their widely cited book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014). The following is from a chapter-by-chapter digest  written by an all-star cast of economists:

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress.

On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Okay, point made. Let’s move on to the rest of the rentier story:

  • These trends have been going on the past four decades, but increased in velocity since the 2007-2009 Recession. The result has been a shift to a new kind of job market characterized by part-time, on-demand, contractual freelance positions that pay less and don’t offer fringe benefits. Those who still hold conventional jobs with salaries and benefits are a dying breed, and probably don’t even realize it.
  • As non-wage earner production has soared, so have profits, resulting in a surplus of corporate cash. Low labor costs and technology have created a boom in corporate investment in patents and other rentable IT assets.
  • Rent-seeking behavior has been increasingly supported by government policy — such as the “regressive regulation” and other “legalized monopoly” dynamics we’ve been looking at in the past few weeks.
  • The combination of long-term wage stagnation and spiraling rentier profits has driven economic inequality to levels rivaled only by pre-revolutionary France, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.
  • Further, because the rentier economy depends on government policy, it is particularly susceptible to plutocracies, oligarchies, “crony-capitalism,” and other forms of corruption, leading to public mistrust in big business, government, and the social/economic elite.
  • These developments have put globalization on the defensive, resulting in reactionary politics such as populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and trade protectionism.

As you see, my attempt to put some numbers to the terms “rent” and “rentier” led me straight into some neighborhoods I’ve been trying to stay out of in this series. Finding myself there reminded me of my first encounter with the rentier economy nine years ago, when of course I had no idea that’s what I’d run into. I was at a conference of entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, life coaches, and other optimistic types. We started by introducing ourselves from the microphone at the front of the room. Success story followed success story, then one guy blew up the room by telling how back in the earliest days of the internet, he and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz spent $250K buying up domain names for the biggest corporations and brand names. Last year, he said, he made $76 Million from selling or renting them back.

He was a rentier, and I was in the wrong room. When it was my turn at the mic, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Welcome to the real world, my idealistic friend.

As it turns out, following the rentier pathway eventually leads us all the way through the opinionated commentary and current headlines to a much bigger worldwide issue. We’ll go there next time.