Basic Income On The Res

life-on-an-indian-reservation-752x501

Thomas Sowell has a platinum resume:  Marine Corps war vet, bachelor’s Harvard, master’s Columbia, Ph.D. U of Chicago, professor at Cornell and UCLA, Urban Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, books, articles….  You get the point:  when he talks economic and social policy, people listen.

seneca casino

The people at The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) were listening when they published a blog post earlier this year entitled “What We Can Learn From Native Americans About a Universal Basic Income.” The article describes the Seneca tribe’s practice of distributing casino money to its members, and focuses on the particularly disastrous provisions pertaining to the money for minors:

“Half the money for children under 18 is given to their parents, and the other half is put into a trust. When a Seneca youth turns 18 and can show that he or she has graduated from high school or earned a GED, he or she receives a lump sum of $30,000. Those who don’t get a high-school degree have to wait until they’re 21 to receive the money.

“Government officials and other members of the nation tell me that the best thing most young adults do with this money is to buy a new truck. These are kids who have never had very much before; so when someone hands them a huge check, they clearly don’t know what to do. Store owners report that young people will come in to buy candy, handing $50 or $100 without expecting any change. These young people seem to have no concept of saving or investing.“

I used to practice estate planning, and need to point out that the Seneca approach to minor beneficiaries unfortunately borrows the worst kind of legislation drafting laziness from intestacy law, uniform gifts to minors acts, and similar laws involving minors and money. Their experience therefore has nothing to do with UBI specifically. Of course dropping a wad of cash on an unprepared 18 or 21 year-old is a dumb idea. Of course the kids “have no concept of saving or investing.” (Like the rest of us do.) Moving on, the article cites more disasters:

The money “is almost never saved for education.

“Despite a vast apparatus to help Seneca members set up businesses, almost no one starts one.

“Unless people are employed by the tribe (either through the casino or in tribal government), they are largely unemployed.

“Theft is also a problem. One official told me that they have had reports of elder abuse where children and grandchildren were stealing payments from older members of the tribe.

“The results of all this can be seen in the poverty rates for the Senecas, which have continued to rise. Their territory is divided into two reservations. As of 2011, the Allegany reservation poverty rate was 33.3 percent and the Cattaraugus reservation poverty rate was 64.9 percent, the highest in Cattaraugus County. During the first decade that the casino was operating, the poverty rate in Cattaraugus County, which includes part of the Seneca Territory, increased from 12.8 in 2000 to 18.7 in 2011.”

Finally, the article ends by citing Thomas Sowell:

“Writing about the concept of a Universal Basic Income last year, Thomas Sowell summed up the situation: ‘The track record of divorcing personal rewards from personal contributions hardly justifies more of the same, even when it is in a more sophisticated form. Sophisticated social disaster is still disaster—and we already have too much of that.’”

The Sowell article cited by the IFS blogger was “Is Personal Responsibility Obsolete?” (Investor’s Business Daily, June 6, 2016). It begins this way:

“Among the many disturbing signs of our times are conservatives and libertarians of high intelligence and high principles who are advocating government programs that relieve people of the necessity of working to provide their own livelihoods.

“Generations ago, both religious people and socialists were agreed on the proposition that ‘he who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ Both would come to the aid of those unable to work. But the idea that people who simply choose not to work should be supported by money taken from those who are working was rejected across the ideological spectrum.”

And so we see the standard anti-UBI fightin’ words:

“divorcing personal reward from personal contributions”

“government programs that relieve people of the necessity of working to provide their own livelihoods”

“people who simply choose not to work”

“money taken from those who are working”

I confess, I can’t help but wonder what people who say those things think they would do with UBI money. Again moving along….

Other tribes also distribute casino money. The following is from What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?”, published by The New York Times as part of a 2017 series on economic inequality called “The Great Divide.”

“Scientists interested in the link between poverty and mental health, however, often face a more fundamental problem: a relative dearth of experiments that test and compare potential interventions.

“So when, in 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains opened a casino, Jane Costello, an epidemiologist at Duke University Medical School, saw an opportunity. The tribe elected to distribute a proportion of the profits equally among its 8,000 members. Professor Costello wondered whether the extra money would change psychiatric outcomes among poor Cherokee families.”

Same idea, different tribe. How’d they do? We’ll find out next time.

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.

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.

The Rentier Economy — Primer Part 1

rise of the rentiers

As we saw last week, the original Monopoly game — then known as The Landlord’s Game — offered a choice of two different games, one played under “Prosperity” rules and the other under “Monopoly” rules. The post-WWII economic surge was a real-life Prosperity game:  it generated a rising tide of economic benefit that floated all boats across all social classes. The surge peaked in the 1970’s, and since then the Monopoly rules have increasingly asserted themselves, resulting in, among other things, stagnant employee compensation (except for the top 10%) and rising returns to capital owners — the lion’s share paid in the form of rents. The latter reflects the rise of a “rentier economy.”

First, we need to define “rent”:

Economists use the term ‘rent’ in a special way. For them, rent refers… to the excess payment made to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital) due to scarcity.

The scarcity factor that gives rise to rents can be natural, as with the case of land.

But rents can also arise from artificial scarcity — in particular, government policies that confer special advantages on favored market participants.

The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles (2017).

And “rentier”:

A rentier is someone who gains income from possession of assets, rather than from labour. A rentier corporation is a firm that gains much of its revenue from rental income rather than from production of goods and services., notably from financial assets or intellectual property. A rentier state has institutions and policies that favour the interests of rentiers. A rentier economy is one that receives a large share of income in the form of rent.

The Corruption of Capitalism, Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2016)

Economists didn’t see the rentier economy coming. They especially didn’t foresee how government policy would create it. The following is from The Corruption of  Capitalism:

John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the mid-twentieth century, famously dismissed the rentier as the ‘functionless investor’ who gained income solely from ownership of capital, exploiting its ‘scarcity value.’ He concluded in his epochal General Theory that, as capitalism spread, it would mean the “euthanasia of the rentier,” and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity value of capital:

“Whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital… I see, therefore, the rentier aspect of capitalism as a transitional phase which will disappear when it has done its work.”

Keynes was mistaken because he did not foresee how the neoliberal framework built since the 1980’s would allow individuals and firms to generate ‘contrived scarcity’ of assets from which to gain rental income. Nor did he foresee how the modern ‘competitiveness’ agenda would give asset owners power to extract rental subsidies from the state.

Eighty years later, the rentier is anything but dead; rentiers have become the main beneficiaries of capitalism’s emerging income distribution system.

The old income distribution system that tied income to jobs has disintegrated.

And this is from The Captured Economy:

The last few decades have been a perplexing time in American economic life. Following a temporary spike during the Internet boom of the 1990’s, rates of economic growth have been exceptionally sluggish. At the same time, incomes at the very top have exploded while those further down have stagnated.

As a technical matter, rent is a morally neutral concept. ,,, Nevertheless, the term ‘rent’ is most commonly used in a moralized sense to refer specifically to bad rents. In particular, the expression ‘rent-seeking’ refers to business activity that seeks to increase profits without creating anything of value through distortions to market processes, such as constraints on the entry of new firms.

Those advantages can also take the form of subsidies or rules that impose extra burdens on both existing and potential competitors. The rents enjoyed through government favoritism not only misallocate resources in the short term but they also discourage dynamism and growth over the long term. Their existence encourages an ongoing negative-sum scramble for more favors instead of innovation and the diffusion of good ideas.

Economists have had an explanation for the latter trend, which is that returns to skill have increased dramatically, largely because of globalization and information technology. There is clearly something to this explanation, but why should the more efficient operation of markets be accompanied by a decline in economic growth?

Our answer is that increasing returns to skill and other market-based drivers of rising inequality are only part of the story. Yes, in some ways the US economy has certainly grown more open to the free play of market forces during the course of the past few decades. But in other ways, economic returns are now determined much more by success in the political arena and less by the forces of market competition. By suppressing and distorting markets, the proliferation of regulatory rents has also led to less wealth for everyone.

To be continued.