Reckoning With Competitive Capitalism [2]

President Kennedy address at Yale

 “President John F. Kennedy explained to Yale’s graduating class of 1962 that ‘the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest —  but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears…. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’”

The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019)

Adverse outcomes often aren’t the result of dishonesty, fraud, or conspiracy; it’s just that things don’t go as projected. The trick is to notice and make adjustments, but often we don’t, especially when the expected outcome has become a cultural myth. In that case, belief makes us blind, conviction replaces vigilance, and contrary data avoids analysis, until one day we find ourselves living in a distressing new normal and wonder how we got here. Often, it takes a crisis to wake us up.

We’ve seen this dynamic before when economic policy morphed into socio-economic ideology. Communism began with an intent to champion the working man but became brutal and imperialistic; the Cold War was “normal” until one day the wall came crashing down and the Soviet Union and its progeny were thrown at the mercy of  capitalism, their ideological rival. The American Industrial Revolution begun by the Robber Barons roared through the 20’s but then crashed into the Great Depression; the era of legal monopolies, unregulated stock speculation, and vast economic inequality was recast into the social programs of the New Deal.

And now we’re seeing the cycle again:  post-Cold War free market capitalism blazed through the past three decades, morphed into its current hyper-competitive version, but now its unfulfilled promise of universal prosperity is becoming too obvious to ignore and there are signs its day of reckoning may not be far off, if not already at hand. That, at least, is the message of a Time Magazine cover story on economic reckoning that ran last month. It begins this way:

“History is the story of conditions that long seem reasonable until they begin to seem ridiculous. So it is with America’s present manic hyper-capitalism.

 “Until recently, it seemed normal that a technological revolution that began with promises of leveled playing fields had culminated in an age of platform monopolies. Normal that businesspeople should try to make as much money as possible by paying as little as possible in taxes and wages, then donate a fraction of the spoils to PR-friendly social causes. Normal that economic security for most Americans was becoming a relic of the past.,,. Normal that bankers could shatter the world economy with their speculating, and that they would be among the few to be made whole after the crisis.”

How the Elites Lost Their Grip: in 2019, America’s 1% behaved badly and helped bring about a reckoning with capitalism, Time Magazine , Dec. 2-9, 2019.[1]

These aspects of “normal” weren’t intended, but they are how things turned out. Along the way, various individuals and movements were vigilant enough to have seen the trends. but their attempts at dissent fell on deaf ears on both sides of the political aisle.[2]

“For years, there have been voices trying to denormalize this state. There were protests in Seattle in 1999, there was Occupy in 2011, there was the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], there was the World Social Forum to rival the World Economic Forum, there was, eternally, Bernie Sanders saying the exact stuff he is still saying today, there were civic groups trying to organize workers and poor communities, there were outcasts in Silicon Valley warning that Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t really about human connection. But America was in the grips of the ideological consensus… Hyper-capitalism was the intellectual stadium in which the country played.”

Thus hyper-competitive, hyper-privatized, hyper-monetized capitalism became the cultural standard of the American Way as politicians and the public transferred their faith in Post-WWII neoliberal capitalism, which did indeed “float all boats,”  to the new Post-Cold War capitalism, which was supposed to have the same effect but didn’t. Instead of universal prosperity and opportunity, the new capitalism relegated the Public to the left behind, economic precarity and job insecurity took over the workplace, healthcare and other employment benefits were left up to consumers, upward mobility through higher education became the lifelong debtor of a newly nationalized student loan industry, incomprehensible wealth was increasingly concentrated in an incomprehensibly tiny percentage of capitalists, a new meritocratic social class arose… we’ve heard commentators recite the same litany of outcomes time and again in these blog posts.

But the days of complacency are over, the Time article declares:  the year 2019 brought us a wakeup call in the form of the one percenters “behaving badly” in such things as Amazon’s failed expansion in NYC, the college admissions scandal, and Facebook’s $5 Billion FTC fine.

“In response to these scandals and outrages, many in the business world declared themselves newly interested in reform. The most prominent and heralded instance this past year was a statement by the Business Roundtable, an umbrella organization whose members are the chief executives of many of America’s largest companies. For decades, the roundtable has clung to a particular interpretation of the purpose of a business—that it is solely to make money for shareholders. With its new statement, issued in August, the roundtable updated its view.”[3]

“It was inspiring, limited stuff,” the Time article says of these developments, but “what it really revealed was how hard it will be for the old-guard capitalists to change at all.” As JFK told the Yale Class of ’62, allegiance to cultural myths dies hard and, all evidence to the contrary, free market capitalism’s ideological lynchpin remains in place:  what Reaganomics called “trickle down” — the belief that free market capitalism is win-win, that’s what’s good for the elites will be good for the commons.[4]

“If a single cultural idea has upheld the disproportionate power of [capitalism’s winners], it has been the idea of the “win-win.” They could get rich and then “give back” to you: win-win. They could run a fund that made them sizable returns and offered you social returns too: win-win. They could sell sugary drinks to children in schools and work on public-private partnerships to improve children’s health: win-win. They could build cutthroat technology monopolies and get credit for serving to connect humanity and foster community: win-win.

“As this seductive idea fizzles out, it raises the possibility that this age of capital, in which money was the ultimate organizing principle of American life, could actually end.

“The choice facing Americans is whether we want to be a society organized around money’s thirsts, a playground for the whims of billionaires, or whether we wish to be a democracy. The second Gilded Age will end at some point. The question is what comes next.”

Just how that question will be answered remains to be seen.

[1] All quotes in this post are all taken from this article.

[2] Left and right are polarized on various social issues, but beginning with the Clinton administration have been united in their economic free market ideology.

[3] We’ve previously looked at the Business Roundtable’s “Statement of the Purpose of a Corporation” that promotes “an economy that serves all Americans.”

[4] See “Winners Take All” – a combative short video thank debunks the trickle down theory.

The Zero Sum Economy

The House Always Wins

“Zero sum” in game theory means somebody wins and somebody loses. Some people think that describes the economy.

This article chronicles current economic trends that only shift dollars from here to there, without adding value to the whole — for example workers job-hopping or companies e automating production. There are as many losers as winners, and nothing is gained.

Thomas Piketty’s classic Capital in the 21st Century extensively detailed how current economic practice is creating economic inequality at a record pace. Inequality means a tiny few at the top are the big winners while everybody else loses.

On the other hand, this explanation from Investopedia asserts that economic transactions are generally “positive sum”:

“When applied specifically to economics, there are multiple factors to consider when understanding a zero-sum game. Zero-sum game assumes a version of perfect competition and perfect information; that is, both opponents in the model have all the relevant information to make an informed decision. To take a step back, most transactions or trades are inherently non zero-sum games because when two parties agree to trade they do so with the understanding that the goods or services they are receiving are more valuable than the goods or services they are trading for it, after transaction costs. This is called positive-sum, and most transactions fall under this category.”

Similarly, this writer has an ideological bone to pick with the zero-summers — he’s frustrated that people just don’t get that every economic transaction is win-win and makes the pie bigger for everybody.

Meanwhile, this article first carefully describes the zero sum concept, then explains why you don’t want to win a zero-sum trade war.

And on it goes.

One thing is evident from all points of view:  there is no such thing as capitalism in the abstract; instead, capitalism is what economic policy makes it. As Investopedia explains:

“Nearly every proponent of capitalism supports some level of government influence in the economy. The only exceptions are anarcho-capitalists, who believe that all of the functions of the state can and should be privatized and exposed to market forces. Classical liberals, libertarians and minarchists argue that capitalism is the best system of distributing resources, but that the government must exist in order to protect private property rights through the military, police and courts.

“In the United States, most economists are identified as Keynesian, Chicago-school or classical liberal. Keynesian economists believe that capitalism largely works, but macroeconomic forces within the business cycle require government intervention to help smooth it out. They support fiscal and monetary policy, as well as other regulations on certain business activities. Chicago-school economists tend to support a mild use of monetary policy and a lower level of regulation.”

What Role Does The Government Play In Capitalism? Investopedia (June 26, 2019)

Therefore if the economy is zero sum, it’s not capitalism’s fault, it’s the capitalists’ fault. And if it’s positive sum, they should get the credit.

This article skips the debate and focuses on what the author sees as today’s biggest economic losers:

“For Millennials and the Gen Z who come after them, there are many disturbing signs of a transition to a new society, one based on wage stagnation, high debt to income levels and rising wealth inequality characterizing a capitalism that’s breaking down social economic mobility and the American dream at its core.

“It could be argued the middle class is being disrupted and the pain points of Millennials mean each subsequent generation of young Americans will feel these pains.

“These are some of the meta-trends that come to mind:

  • Wage stagnation
  • Student debt crisis
  • Part time and gig economy work imprisonment (like a glass ceiling for the lower middle class)
  • Rising costsof housing, healthcare and the affordability of the next milestone (home ownership, marriage, children)
  • Mental health issues surrounding technological addiction
  • Finding the right life-work balance while developing a career path that’s both economically and morally fulfilling
  • Loneliness epidemicwith isolation and unsubstantial support systems in place

“We are living in an era where an entire generation are ‘late bloomers’ by default, in a system that hasn’t just not just protected and empowered young people — but of a generation that suffer major disadvantages the youth of other generations didn’t even experience.

  • The affordability crisis millennials are dealing with is impacting their mental health at a time when they lack social support.
  • The affordability crisis and career uncertainty has made Millennials subject to dangerous combinations of vulnerability.
  • Financial struggles and ruthless capitalism has meant many Millennials have no hope of bettering their circumstances.
  • It’s scary but accurate to say ‘deaths of despair’ are increasing among young Americans.”

The  article has much more to say, and frankly it’s not the most carefully constructed piece of the hundreds (maybe thousands) I’ve reviewed in the past two and a half years, but I cite it because it captures the desperation of the “precariat” — a term economist Guy Standing applies to “millions of people obliged to accept a life of unstable labour and living, without an occupational identity or corporate narrative to give to their lives.”

My kids are members of the precariat, which makes them economic losers. So are their friends.

Never thought I’d see the day.

We’ll look more at the zero sum economy next time.

Corporation Nation-States

british east india company

dutch east india company

The first thing you learn about corporations in law school is the principle of limited liability:  the state trades the benefits of corporate business activities for letting investors off the hook if things run off the rails. The British and Dutch used this concept to colonize the world.

“Back in the seventeenth century, when the British and Dutch were first learning to exploit their overseas colonies, a problem emerged:  people were afraid to finance expeditions because they face jail if something went wrong and they couldn’t repay their loans. The solution these governments came up with was a corporate charter, which limited investors’ liability to the amount of their investment and nothing more.”

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by  Jeremy Lent (2017). (Except where indicated otherwise, the quotes in this article are from this book.)

Technology hadn’t shrunk  the world yet, so the British and Dutch East India Companies (their flags are above) were granted autonomy to exercise state-like powers, such as the right to impose and collect tax, make treaties, wage war, take prisoners, and carry out the death penalty.

“Before long, though, it became clear that these legal charters created incentive to take inappropriate risks because the potential growth was greater than the downside. In England, after a series of spectacular frauds and a market crash, corporations were banned in 1720. The ban was eventually lifted when the Industrial Revolution generated demand for new investments in railways and other infrastructure.”

Corporate Republic, Wikipedia

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic,

“The political leaders of the United States, aware of the English experience, were suspicious of corporations. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1815, ‘I hope we shall take warning from the [English] example and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trail of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.’ Accordingly, corporations in America were given limited charters with tightly constrained powers.”

In time, though, American skepticism gave way to the need to finance war and reconstruction, and to carry out the USA’s own industrial expansion. Opportunists again turned to the corporation — much to Abraham Lincoln’s chagrin:

“During the turmoil of the Civil War, industrialists took advantage of the disarray, leveraging widespread political corruption to expand their influence.

“Shortly before his death, Abraham Lincoln lamented what he saw happening with a resounding prophecy: ‘Corporations have been enthroned…. An era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people… until wealth is aggregated in a few hands…. and the Republic is destroyed.’”

President Hayes later joined Lincoln in this lament:

“As the nation reconstructed itself, it increasingly fell under the sway of corporate power. ‘This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations,’ lamented Rutherford B. Hayes, who became president in 1877.

“Corporations took full advantage of their newfound dominance, influencing state legislatures to permit charters to be issued in perpetuity that gave them the right to do anything not explicitly prohibited by law. A crucial moment occurred in 1886, when the Supreme Court designated corporations as ‘persons’ entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

From these contested beginnings came the corporation-nation states which — just as Jefferson predicted — have since gained enough political and economic power to challenge national governments “to a trial of strength” and “bid defiance to the laws” of their countries of origin.

“Around the globe, more and more corporations are beginning to act like governments.

“They negotiate with guerrilla leaders, build roads, and set up schools. Increasingly, they’re setting labor standards in places where nations can’t or won’t.

“There’s only one problem.

“By accepting more social responsibility, they’re taking on more power just as a small but growing backlash against rising corporate power is taking hold in the United States.

“At the heart of this debate lies a simple question: Who should set society’s agenda – big business or big government? How Americans answer that could well determine the future of issues as diverse as campaign-finance reform and antitrust action.”

Rise Of The Corporate Nation-State, (Apr. 10, 2000).

The sheer size of today’s corporation nation states would have been incomprehensible to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Hayes. Consider, for example, this Business Insider article that compares the revenues of “25 giant companies” to the GDP of nations. It found that, in 2017,

  • Walmart’s revenues exceed Belgium’s GDP
  • Volkswagen’s revenues are greater than the GDP of Chile
  • Apple’s revenues in were higher than Portugal’s GDP
  • Amazon’s revenue exceeded Kuwait’s GDP
  • Facebook’s income was greater than Serbia’s GDP
  • Coca-Cola’s revenue was greater than Bolivia’s GDP
  • Visa made more than Bosnia’s GDP
  • Walt Disney’s takings exceeded Bulgaria’s GDP
  • Microsoft’s revenue surpassed Slovakia’s GDP

And so it goes. Even corporations like Netflix, Spotify, and Tesla make the bigger-than-countries list. That’s good for capitalism and capitalists, but it challenges the historical ideal that nation states ought to be in charge of running the world.

More next time.

Economic Storytelling [2]: Hail the Conquering Capitalist Comes

handel    hail the conquering

Handel wrote “See, the Conquering Hero Comes!” for his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, created to commemorate the Duke of Cumberland’s stomping out of the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Two hundred years later, hay fever stricken non-hero Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith rode a myth of his own heroism, fabricated by well-intentioned friends, to a public moment of truth in the 1944 film Hail the Conquering Hero. But that was Hollywood, and everybody was happy in the end as Woodrow lived out the popular “redemption” narrative that Silicon Valley loves, as we’ve seen previously. As for the Jacobites, their story became a cautionary tale — a more sobering narrative genre.

These two conquering hero stories illustrate why non-narrative economists think we’re better off leaving stories at the water cooler:  narratives contain too much subjectivity, interpretation, cognitive bias, self-deception, and wishful thinking to be trusted, and therefore add nothing to economic policy-making, which is all those things already. You can talk “normative” all you like, but narrative policy will end up being a matter of power, not plot.

Plus, narratives can have unexpected outcomes. This article chronicles the pendulum swings that have characterized political/economic narratives for the past century, and warns that popular narratives of economic doom can have catastrophic consequences because they’re forged in simplistic thinking to the exclusion of more complex analysis:

 “[Catastrophe narrative favor] the politics of the strong man glaring down the nation-doubters… It’s globalism or ‘nation first’, jobs or climate, friend or foe.

“The alternative is not to be wistful about flat-world narratives that find solace in technical panaceas and market fundamentalisms; the last thing we need is a return to the comforts of lean-in fairy tales that rely on facile responses to a complicated world.

“Nowadays, the chorus of catastrophe presents differences as intractable and incompatible, the choice between them zero-sum.

“We need to recover our command over complex storytelling, to think of tensions instead of incompatibilities, to allow choices and alternatives, mixtures and ambiguities, instability and learning, to counter the false certainties of the abyss.”

Why We Need To Be Wary Of Narratives Of Economic Catastrophe, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 22, 2019)

I.e., if we’re going to have economic narratives at all, they need to be complex, not simplistic, and take into account the full range of “positive” and “normative” ethical judgments, as well as both mathematical modeling and fundamental human behavior. Anything short of that promotes polarized thinking, which is not only the standard of the day, but might be inescapable as long as the human brain is in charge. Coach, consultant, and author Karl Albrecht wrote the following in Psychology Today iun 2010 — before discourse disappeared entirely from American public life:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’’

Albrecht goes on to say that “imagination, creativity, and innovation all thrive in the ‘twilight zone,’ not at the poles of opinion,” and offers these seven antidotes to the plague of silo-building:

  1. Have fewer opinions.
  2. Keep your opinions and conclusions on probation.
  3. Let go of the need to be certain about everything.
  4. Seek the “third hand”- and any other “hands” you can discover.
  5. Modify your language.Replace the word “but” with “and” as often as you can, even if it sounds weird at first.
  6. Remind yourself every day that your “truth” is not the same as any other person’s truth.
  7. Avoid head-butting contests with opinionated people.

Good advice no doubt, but storytelling or not, these days capitalists and capitalism are the conquering heroes making their grand entrances. In fact, they’re so powerful that they’re eclipsing the historic “nation-state” in size and influence.

We’ll look at that next time.