Is COVID-19 Capitalism’s Berlin Wall?

Salus rei publicae suprema lex
(the safety of the republic is the supreme law)

Cicero‘s De Legibus (book III, part III, sub. VIII)[1]

Mikhail Gorbachev had been pressing his perestroika (reform) agenda through a policy of glasnost (openness) and the Soviet fist was releasing its grip on Eastern Europe, setting the stage for Berliners to bring down their wall – which they did not because the Kremlin planned it, but because a flustered bureaucrat made up an answer to a question he wasn’t prepared for and a middle manager adlibbed a policy decision after senior management left him hanging.

“On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, Gunter Schabowski, an East German government official, made a surprising announcement at a press conference.

“‘Permanent relocations,’ he said, ‘can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR [East Germany] into the FRG [West Germany] or West Berlin.’ This news was set out as an incremental change in policy. But, after reporter Riccardo Ehrman asked when the regulations would take effect, Schabowski replied, ‘As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.’

“Schabowski’s press conference was the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night, at 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm, with the takeaway being that the Wall, while it still stood, was no longer the firm dividing line it had long been. Since the late 1950s, the two stations broadcast to nearly all of East Germany, and the programs appeared there as well. That night, anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed, ‘This 9 November is a historic day. The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.’

“This was all the East German populace needed to hear. Citizens flocked to the border en masse sometime around 9:00 pm and found that, after initial confusion, the border guards were indeed letting people cross. This was a crucial flashpoint in the history between the two sides, as the guards could have easily fired on the crowd. However, according to historian Mary Elise Sarotte in her book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, no one among the East German authorities wanted to take the personal authority of issuing orders leading to the use of lethal force.

“By 11:00 pm, Harald Jager, the commander of the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing, let the guards open the checkpoints, allowing people to pass without their identities checked.

“To Jager, it was obvious that the five dozen men guarding the border were grossly outnumbered. He repeatedly attempted to contact his superior, Rudi Ziegenhorn, in order to ascertain how to handle the increasingly chaotic situation, as more and more people gathered at the gates. He was unable to get any clear guidance on how to proceed, but a superior in the background called Jager a coward for being unable to handle the situation. After 25 years of loyal service to the regime, according to Sarotte, Jager felt insulted and pushed to his limit.

“Jager was instructed by his superiors to let the biggest troublemakers through on a one-way ticket. But many of these so-called troublemakers were students and other young individuals who briefly entered West Berlin and then returned to the checkpoint for re-entry into East Berlin. However, the GDR was serious in its warnings that this was a one-way ticket. Their angry parents began to plead with officials not to keep them separated from their children, and by that point Jager was unwilling to argue on behalf of his superiors. After Jager made an exception for the parents, others demanded the same treatment as well. Having gone that far, it was simply too late. Thousands of people were demanding that the gates be opened. He was facing a momentous decision — open fire on the civilians, or let them through.

“At 11:30 pm, Jager phoned his superior and reported his decision: he would open all the remaining gates and allow the crowds to stream across the border.

“West Berliners greeted their counterparts with music and champagne. Some citizens began to chip away at the physical barrier with sledgehammers and chisels. The crowd began to chant “Tor auf!”—Open the gate! By midnight, the checkpoints were completely overrun.”[2]

Schabowski and Jager made history: Berlin reunited, Germany reunited, the Soviet Union finished, Russia re-established as a sovereign nation, a whole raft of new independent Balkan states created, Soviet-style Communism struck down, the Cold War ended, and capitalism crowned the winner of the economic ideology derby.

Not a bad night for a couple middle managers.

Capitalism’s Berlin Wall?

These days, history is being made just as suddenly, accidentally, randomly, unpredictably, and overwhelmingly, thanks to a microscopic mutant that preys on the body’s natural metabolic processes, turning nucleic acid into poison. Its impact is not on a divided city but on a divided world, bringing a sudden halt to life and business as usual.

The agent of change, of course, is COVID-19 –officially “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2” – the common cold gone bad, very bad.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold, in people. However, three times in the 21st century coronavirus outbreaks have emerged from animal reservoirs to cause severe disease and global transmission concerns.

“There are hundreds of coronaviruses, most of which circulate among animals including pigs, camels, bats and cats. Sometimes those viruses jump to humans—called a spillover event—and can cause disease. Seven coronaviruses are known to cause human disease, four of which are mild: viruses 229E, OC43, NL63 and HKU1. Three of the coronaviruses can have more serious outcomes in people, and those diseases are SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared by 2004; MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and remains in circulation in camels; and COVID-19, which emerged in December 2019 from China and a global effort is under way to contain its spread. COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.”[3]

Yes, this is a defining moment in human history. And no, things will never be the same. Some people think one of those things is capitalism;

“The wheels are rapidly coming off of capitalism’s runaway train, and we’re in a collective, televised race to repair it.

“A highly contagious virus is rapidly debilitating and killing some of the most vulnerable people in communities across the world.

“The problem is, stopping the spread means hitting the pause button on global capitalism while we repair its machinery. Unfortunately, the system was built without one. And that means that bringing it to an unceremonious, grinding halt now has catastrophic human and economic consequences.”[4]

The capitalism that’s been infected by COVID-19 is the free market strain, as practiced for the past four decades principally in the USA and UK. There are and have been other versions of capitalism – for example the Keynesian economics that bailed us out of the Great Depression.

Soviet Communism was an economic ideology that didn’t deliver what it promised, instead enslaving citizens to a callous and brutal elite. Free market capitalism has similarly failed the people who go to work every day, who were supposed to prosper along with the capitalists, but haven’t.

Moments like tearing down the Berlin Wall, storming of the Bastille, or breaching the Winter Palace involved mobs overrunning cultural icons – physical structures. But how do you overrun a virus? And who would do the overrunning? Amazingly, the people most damaged by free market capitalism – the working middle class and the poor – continue to staunchly support the politicians who perpetuate it. The mob is simply unwilling to form. How do you make a revolution out of inexplicable indifference?

“…having discussed already how Coronavirus exposes and reveals the need for global systems, a radically reimagined world economy, the response from the average Westerner has been…a kind of deafening silence…mixed with a baffled pause, combined…sometimes, with an outraged ‘What?!!’”[5]

The Public Welfare Goes Missing

Free market capitalism is vulnerable because it eliminated what is most needed in a pandemic: a commitment to public welfare – which, as we’ve seen previously,[6] has been systematically eliminated from economic policy-making.

“The pandemic was not unexpected. But reality always differs from expectations. This is not just a threat to health. It may also be a bigger economic threat than the financial crisis of 2008-09.

“Dealing with it will require strong and intelligent leadership. Central banks have made a good start. The onus now falls on governments. No event better demonstrates why a quality administrative state, led by people able to differentiate experts from charlatans, is so vital to the public.

“The pandemic risks creating a depression. Salus rei publicae suprema lex (the safety of the republic is the supreme law). In war, governments spend freely. Now, too, they must mobilise their resources to prevent a disaster. Think big. Act now. Together.”[7]

Looking Out For The Common Good

In contrast to the USA and the UK, there are countries whose economic systems are built on “the safety of the republic is the supreme law.” Norway, for example.

“Norway’s readiness for health emergencies comes from its choice, all along, to prioritize the well-being of the people as a whole.

“As someone who has lived and worked in Norway, I see several ways in which the Norwegians’ prompt and efficient response draws on the advantages of what economists call “the Nordic model”—a design much different from that of the U.S.

“Meanwhile in the U.S., a recent survey by the First National Bank of Omaha found that 49% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. What is to be done if those people can’t get to the jobs that keep them barely afloat? What does “self-quarantine” mean in that context? Or if employees receive no paid sick leave and can’t afford to stop working when they get sick? And what about the many who haven’t even had a job lately and find each day a struggle for food, including food-insecure college students whose colleges are closing?

“Such conditions are nearly inconceivable in Norway, where the social safety net is intact. A century ago, poverty was widespread but mass movements waged a successful nonviolent revolution in the 1920s and ’30s. By the time I got there, 1959, poverty had already been nearly eradicated, with everyone’s basic needs being met.”[8]

The missing public in the USA and UK is principally composed of capitalism’s key source of fuel: the people who go to work every day. Those workers both produce and consume, which makes them indispensable to both supply and demand.

Supply Side: Production

On the supply side,

“The primary issue is that late capitalism is not designed to be stopped, ever. In fact, the spectacular success of capitalist economics has only ever traditionally been measured by one north-star metric — growth —which is essentially just another term for infinite ‘value’ extraction— and in a general sense, it’s designed to self-organise, resource and innovate at a pace that requires machine-like commitment from a biologically volatile primary resource — human beings.

“In late capitalism’s fundamental design flaw, it is absolutely critical that the relative poor — the workers that create the value and deliver the results — remain healthy and active in order to hold the pieces together, because there is so little built-in redundancy for widespread personal crisis. This form of capitalism assumes that there will never be an unravelling serious enough to threaten it, which is why it’s got no proper killswitch….

“And at the back-end of 40 years of neoliberal, free-market economics, some of the world’s most ‘advanced’ political environments have either removed, privatised or hollowed out the basement machinery needed to stabilise capital markets by providing comprehensive, not-for-profit health, welfare and social services that step in to take the weight when crisis strikes.

“The loss of the working class is capitalism’s great nightmare. Alongside a terrible human cost, we’re watching entire industries that previously seemed indestructible falter – food service, hospitality, aviation and retail expecting massive state support in order to keep afloat — let alone make a profit. But the people are sick, and all dominos fall together, eventually.”[9]

Demand Side: Consumption

And on the demand side.

“Consumer sentiment, as measured by the University of Michigan’s monthly survey, saw its sharpest drop since October 2008 during the Great Recession.

“And even then, analysts said, the current decline significantly understated the coronavirus toll as two-thirds of the survey interviews were conducted before lock-down and physical distancing orders in mid-March shut down hundreds of thousands of shops, restaurants, offices and other large parts of the American economy.

“‘The economics of fear are now in plain sight,’ said Oxford Economics, a British economic research firm, noting that the pandemic ‘is dealing a major blow to confidence that will lead to a sharp retrenchment in consumer spending ‘

“That is especially worrisome because high levels of consumer confidence have consistently buoyed the U.S. economy in recent years, despite scant growth in spending power for most Americans.

“Some 70% of total U.S. economic output, or gross domestic product, is tied directly to consumer spending.”[10]

The Rentier Economy Takes The Hit

Particularly squeezed by the loss of a healthy and economically robust working class is the newly dominant “rentier economy” (a topic we’ve looked at before[11]), which drives prosperity to corporations and wealthy individuals through the extraction of rents from assets made artificially scarce by economic policy – affordable housing, for example.[12].

“It’s the end of the month, the rent is due, and a government-issued ban on going to work means a chunk of Britain is already broke, and another chunk is on borrowed time. If thousands aren’t running on fumes by the end of this month, they will be within weeks, and as the layoffs accelerate (which has its very own curve), it’ll be even worse by May.

“This is problematic for reasons commonly known as ‘maths’ — particularly given how the lower/middle access their income. The vast proportion of people’s access to money is through the kaleidoscope of an economy whose leadership won’t stop talking about how ‘wealth is zero sum’ but don’t address that wealth is not income, wages of which are a subtraction on a business’s finite cash reserve.

“This does not favour the working poor in an economy designed, incentivised and explicitly rewarded for its ability to maximise the return on everything. Personal wealth is a pipe dream in a world where the cost of living is always slightly too high, and personal income is slightly too low, and in the gig, self-employment or services economy, unstable, too.

“The profound explosion in UK housing prices in the last 15 years has created a rental market that now props up ownership as an exclusive club, and one that is often (but not always) only accessible via certain personal circumstance or privilege. It’s not uncommon for renters, particularly young, city-based renters (where the majority of the work is) to have to pay out more than half of their income in rent — before factoring in other arbitrary fees or securities. This significant, artificial increase in major, fixed costs against wages, means breaking out of the rental cycle is either a very long, very slow grind — or impossible.”

Although written specifically about the U.K., this analysis is applicable in the U.S. as well.

What’s next for capitalism?

About a year ago, economics Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, offered a “progressive capitalism” alternative based on “the power of the market to serve society.”[13]

“The United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.

“We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking).

“The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society.

“Progressive capitalism is based on a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.

“Part of this new social contract is an expanded public option for many programs now provided by private entities or not at all

“This new social contract will enable most Americans to once again have a middle-class life.

“The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest.

“America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people.”

A year after Stiglitz’s article, we have the COVID-19 lockdown. Will politicians act to restore the missing public welfare to economic policy-making, as Stiglitz urges? And, if they don’t, is the electorate willing to storm and overthrow the economic status quo ? Paradigms only shift when culture does, and a new economic paradigm requires more of a global perspective than we had before worldwide populist movements retrenched to aggressive nationalism. This trend leads one commentator to doubt voters will respond to the global pandemic with a newly expanded globalism.[14]

Changing the world means…changing the world. That might sound like a cliche. I assure you it’s not. The average white American liberal is concerned with a thing, maybe, if they’re really caring and intelligent, like healthcare for some of their society. But even that’s not nearly big enough. Without actually changing the world, the world doesn’t change. Westerners attempt to change their broken societies, without really grasping the fact that they need to put the world first.

“That means: without building global systems, nothing much will change. Every single existential threat of now, from pandemic to climate change to inequality to fascism, will simply rage on and continue. But you yourself probably think building global systems is either foolish, idealistic, unnecessary, or dangerous. You yourself are the thing stopping the world from changing — as much as you imagine you want to change the world. That’s true of almost every Western intellectual I can think of, and it’s true of most people, too.

“Our first task this century is therefore building a global consciousness. Teaching the world, especially the rich West, to care about the world. Why does that hedge funder live a better life than that poor Chinese dude, by sheer privilege of birth, because of a long history of violence and exploitation by one’s side against the other? Equality, freedom, justice, truth, selfhood — these notions have no meaning whatsoever at the global level yet in human history.”

“Surveillance Capitalism”

If we’re not willing to “think globally, act locally,” then what will fill the void? Some thinkers have suggested a much more chilling outcome: “surveillance capitalism” or the “surveillance economy.”[15] As bestselling author Uval Hoah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) explained in an article last week, the same technology that supports capitalism has been supercharged to fight the Plague. [16]

“In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this. One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks.

“In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.

“You might argue that there is nothing new about all this. In recent years both governments and corporations have been using ever more sophisticated technologies to track, monitor and manipulate people. Yet if we are not careful, the epidemic might nevertheless mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance. Not only because it might normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it signifies a dramatic transition from ‘over the skin’ to ‘under the skin’ surveillance.

“Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”

Few would argue that using state-of-the-art technology to slow an international pandemic is a bad thing, but the implications for expanded future use on consumers are deeply disturbing.

But it’s too easy to assume the worst.

It’s possible that the pandemic will catalyze economic reform, demanded by the neglected working class.[17]

“As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock ‘more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.’ About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections.

“Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. ‘This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’ says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University.

“Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.”

As the lead to Prof. Harari’s article says, “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.”

And some of us, at least, will live to see it.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] The Gates in the Wall Stand Open Wide.’ What Happened the Day the Berlin Wall Fell. Time, November 9 2019. See also this article from the History Channel.:

[3] Coronaviruses, National Institutes of Health/ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

[4] Thomas K R, Coronavirus : How a global pandemic is single-handedly unravelling capitalist economics, Medium (Mar. 19, 2020).

[5] Hague, Umair, Will Coronavirus (Really) Change the World? Medium (Mar. 31, 2020)

[6] We previously explored this topic in this blog — see Free Market Capitalism’s Assault on the Public Good.

[7] The Virus Is An Economic Emergency Too, Financial Times (Mar. 17, 2020)

[8] The Nordic Secret to Battling Coronavirus: Trust, Yes! Magazine (March 17, 2020)

[9] Thomas, Coronavirus, op cit.

[10] American Consumers, Once Bulwark Of Economy, Are Rapidly Losing Confidence, MSN Monery (Mar. 27, 2020)

[11] For an introduction, see here and here.

[12] Thomas, K R, The Rent’s Due, but Britain’s Broke, Medium (Mar. 22, 2020)

[13] Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron: We can save our broken economic system from itself, New York Times (April 19, 2019).

[14] Hague, Umair, op. cit.

[15] For an introduction to this topic, see The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff Review, The Guardian (Feb. 2, 2019).

[16] Harari, Yuval Noah: The World After Coronavirus, Financial Times (Mar. 20, 2020)

[17] How the Pandemic Will End, The Atlantic (Mar. 25, 2020)

Belief in the Free Market

Mammon

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammon

We saw last time that Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the Chicago School of Economics promoted the free market with fundamentalist zeal — an approach to economics that Joseph Stiglitz said was based on “religious belief.” Turns out that using religious-sounding language to talk about believing in capitalism isn’t as farfetched as it sounds on first hearing.

In the history of ideas, the “Disenchantment” refers to the idea that the Enlightenment ushered in an era when scientific knowledge would displace religious and philosophical belief. Reason, rationality, and objectivity would make the world less magical, spiritual, and subjective, and therefore “disenchanted.” You don’t need to know much history to know the Disenchantment never really played out — at least, certainly not in America.

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

“Why are we like this?

“The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)[1]

Villanova professor Eugene McCarraher makes the case that capitalism stepped up to fill the belief void created by Disenchantment enthusiasts, and became the new world religion.

Mammon book“Perhaps the grandest tale of capitalist modernity is entitled ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Crystallised in the work of Max Weber but eloquently anticipated by Karl Marx, the story goes something like this: before the advent of capitalism, people believed that the world was enchanted, pervaded by mysterious, incalculable forces that ruled and animated the cosmos. Gods, spirits and other supernatural beings infused the material world, anchoring the most sublime and ultimate values in the ontological architecture of the Universe.

“In premodern Europe, Catholic Christianity epitomised enchantment in its sacramental cosmology and rituals, in which matter could serve as a conduit or mediator of God’s immeasurable grace. But as Calvinism, science and especially capitalism eroded this sacramental worldview, matter became nothing more than dumb, inert and manipulable stuff, disenchanted raw material open to the discovery of scientists, the mastery of technicians, and the exploitation of merchants and industrialists.

“Discredited in the course of enlightenment, the enchanted cosmos either withered into historical oblivion or went into the exile of private belief in liberal democracies…. With slight variations, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ is the orthodox account of the birth and denouement of modernity, certified not only by secular intellectuals but by the religious intelligentsia as well.”

Mammon:  Far from representing rationality and logic, capitalism is modernity’s most beguiling and dangerous form of enchantment, Aeon Magazine (Oct. 22, 2019)

Prof. McCarraher develops his ideas further in his book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (2019). This is from the Amazon book blurb:

“If socialists and Wall Street bankers can agree on anything, it is the extreme rationalism of capital. At least since Max Weber, capitalism has been understood as part of the “disenchantment” of the world, stripping material objects and social relations of their mystery and sacredness. Ignoring the motive force of the spirit, capitalism rejects the awe-inspiring divine for the economics of supply and demand.

“Eugene McCarraher challenges this conventional view. Capitalism, he argues, is full of sacrament, whether or not it is acknowledged. Capitalist enchantment first flowered in the fields and factories of England and was brought to America by Puritans and evangelicals whose doctrine made ample room for industry and profit. Later, the corporation was mystically animated with human personhood, to preside over the Fordist endeavor to build a heavenly city of mechanized production and communion. By the twenty-first century, capitalism has become thoroughly enchanted by the neoliberal deification of ‘the market.’”

Economic theories — capitalism, Marxism, socialism — are ideologies:  they’re based on ideas that can’t be proven scientifically; they require belief. The reason thinkers like Kurt Andersen and Eugene McCarraher both use the term “dangerous” in connection with economic belief is because of the fundamentalist dynamics that invariably accompany ideological belief, secular or otherwise. We’ll look at that next time.

[1] The book is another case of American history as we never learned it. For the shorter version, see this Atlantic article.

Economic Fundamentalism

We saw last time that the goal of Chicago School free market economics was to promote “noncontaminated capitalism,” which in turn would generate societal economic utopia:

“The market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017)

To the School’s free market advocates, these ideas were pure science:

“The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. If follows ineluctably that if something is wrong with a free-market economy — high inflation or soaring unemployment — it has to be because the market is not truly free.”

The Shock Doctrine

Scientific method requires that theories be falsifiable:  you have to be able to objectively prove them wrong.

“The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

But how do you prove an economic theory based on “uncontaminated capitalism” in an economically contaminated world?

“The challenge for Friedman and his colleagues was not to prove that a real work market could live up to their rapturous imaginings…. Friedman could not point to any living economy that proved if all ‘distortions’ were stripped away, what would be left would be a society in perfect health and bounteous, since no country in the world met the criteria for perfect laissez-faire. Unable to test their theories in central banks and ministries of trade, Friedman and his colleagues had to settle for elaborate and ingenious mathematical equations and computer models.”

The Shock Doctrine

Mathematical equations and computer models aren’t the same as empirical data collected in the real (“contaminated”) world. If falsifiability is what separates scientific knowledge from belief-based ideology, then Friedman’s free market theory is the latter. Some scientists are worried that this spin on scientific theorizing has become too prevalent nowadays:

 “In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all…. For me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.”

But Is It Science?

The Chicago School believed so ardently in the free market theory that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of belief-based indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”

The Shock Doctrine

This dynamic applies to every ideology that can’t be falsified — verified empirically. The ideology then becomes a fundamentalist belief system:

“Like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers a closed loop. The Chicago solution is always the same:  a stricter and more complete application of the fundamentals.:

The Shock Doctrine

Journalist Chris Hedges describes the dynamics of “secular fundamentalism” in I Don’t Believe in Atheists. (The book’s title is too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”)

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others…. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

Thus we have Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously saying, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself” — a statement entirely in keeping with the Mont Pelerin  Society’s idealistic Statement of Aims, which we looked at last time.

And thus we also have Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz countering with his thoughts about economics in a contaminated (“pathological”) world:

“The advocates of free markets in all their versions say that crises are rare events, though they have been happening with increasing frequency as we change the rules to reflect beliefs in perfect markets. I would argue that economists, like doctors, have much to learn from pathology. We see more clearly in these unusual events how the economy really functions. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, a peculiar doctrine came to be accepted, the so-called ‘neoclassical synthesis.’ It argued that once markets were restored to full employment, neoclassical principles would apply. The economy would be efficient. We should be clear: this was not a theorem but a religious belief.”

As we also saw last time, historical socialism and communism join free market capitalism in their fundamentalist zeal. In fact, some think that economics in general has become today’s dominant cultural form of belief-based thinking. More on that next time.

Economic Darwinism

social darwinism

The 19th Century’s Gilded Age of the Robber Barons came hot on the heels of The Origin of the Species. Little wonder that…

 “Soon, some sociologists and others were taking up words and ideas which Darwin had used to describe the biological world, and they were adopting them to their own ideas and theories about the human social world. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Social Darwinists took up the language of evolution to frame an understanding of the growing gulf between the rich and the poor as well as the many differences between cultures all over the world.

“The explanation they arrived at was that businessmen and others who were economically and socially successful were so because they were biologically and socially “naturally” the fittest. Conversely, they reasoned that the poor were “naturally” weak and unfit and it would be an error to allow the weak of the species to continue to breed. They believed that the dictum “survival of the fittest” (a term coined not by Charles Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) meant that only the fittest should survive.”

Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age, Kahn Academy

The result was Social Darwinism:

“The term ‘social Darwinism’ refers to the deterministic philosophy of Englishman Herbert Spencer that applied, to humans and markets, Darwinian biological and evolutionary concepts of natural selection.

“Spencer offered his philosophical defense of individualism and laissez faire in Social Statics (1851). He coined the term “survival of the fittest” in Principles of Biology (1867), arguing that human progress resulted from the triumph of superior individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors; poverty was evidence of inferiority.

“Anything that interfered with the self-improvement of superior individuals or markets was to be resisted. What came to be called “social Darwinism” was used to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the unfit poor. The state was not to hinder the strong or assist the weak, interceding only to protect individual freedom and rights. “

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Social Darwinism, National Association of Scholars

Social Darwinism has since been widely discredited in academia, but Pulitzer-prize winning economics columnist and professor of public affairs Steven Pearlstein was dismayed to find it alive and well in current hyper-competitive, zero-sum economic policy, as revealed in numerous studies showing that certain genetically inherited traits play “an outsized role in determining economic success.” The list includes intelligence, personality, height, and good lucks, all of which statistically affect income and likelihood of being favorably judged on leadership qualities. Add parental nurturing practices — such as those of the new “Meritocrat” economic class we’ve been looking at — and “whether it’s by way of the genes we inherit or the circumstances in which we are raised, the parental lottery is more important than ever in determining economic outcomes.” It’s Time To Abandon The Cruelty Of Meritocracy, The Guardian (Oct. 13, 2018).

Pearlstein concludes that the luck of the genetic and nurturing draw “must always play a significant role in who achieves economic success” and that “we must also acknowledge that there is a point beyond which the consequences of the parental lottery can never be overcome.” Disconcerted by his own findings, Pearlstein calls for remedial action:

“No matter how hard we might try to make it otherwise, there is a fundamental and irreducible level of unfairness to market competition, one that undermines the moral legitimacy of market outcomes and provides a justification for taking reasonable steps to make them more equal.

“Because of heritability and upbringing, there can never be genuine equality of opportunity. More socialist countries in Europe and Asia have gone a long way toward equalizing access to healthcare, education, nutrition, childcare and even disposable income, and yet they have not come close to eliminating the transmission of family advantage or disadvantage. Surely we should do more along those lines to equalize opportunity in the United States?”

It’s Time to Abandon the Cruelty of Meritocracy

Economics Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz offers an alternative to economic Darwinism which he calls “progressive capitalism.”

“Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.”

Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron: We can save our broken economic system from itself, New York Times (April 19, 2019)

More next time.

Monopoly: The Ultimate in Upward Mobility

monopoly

The Horatio Alger rags-to-riches ideal was born in the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons. A century and a half later, it remains an enduring icon of the American Dream and still makes for inspiring stump speeches.

If only it were true.

Truth is, something more powerful than pluck fueled the Robber Barons, and continues to fuel today’s Meristocrats and Robber Nerds. Yes, things like ingenuity, vision, determination, and hard work have had a lot to do with it, both historically and currently, but the essential element for creating mega-companies (sometimes whole new industries) and staggering personal wealth has been none other than government policy, which by definition favors selected economic activities over others.

A trio of distinguished economics and political science professors[1] provide one of the more provocative summaries of this economic reality in their book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (2009). Harvard sociologist Steven Pinker described it this way: [2]

“The economists Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast argue that the most natural way for states to function, both in history and in many parts of the world today, is for elites to agree not to plunder and kill each other, in exchange for which they are awarded a fief, franchise, charter, monopoly, turf, or patronage network that allows them to control some sector of the economy and live off the rents (in the economist’s sense of income extracted from exclusive access to a resource).”

Medici

This practice is sometimes called the “Medici Cycle,” after the famous Florentines:

“In Towards a Political Theory of the Firm, [ Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business] theorizes that firms use their economic power to acquire political power. They then apply that political power to achieve greater economic gains, which in turn helps them acquire ever more political power. It’s a cycle Zingales likens to the Medici dynasty of 15th-century Florence, Italy. The Medicis leveraged their lending relationships with the Roman Catholic Church into considerable political influence in Renaissance Europe.”[3]

As an example, consider how Andrew Carnegie made his money:

“The competitive strategy of the steelmakers in 1875 was simple:  Collude and fix prices…. Carnegie was invited to join the newly formed Bessemer Steel Association. The association was a cartel, and in the days before antitrust laws, completely legal. Rather than compete tooth and nail for every bit of railroad business, it made far more sense for the steelmakers to establish quotas to limit the total supply in the market. By agreement, each firm was to produce its quota and sell into the market at agreed-upon prices.” [4]

The upside is that Medici Cycle government policies have supported all kinds of timely innovation and inventions, social and cultural trends, and quality of life improvements. The downside is what happens when monopolistic are allowed to go unchecked for too long. Researching this article, I came across several recent expressions of concern that this is happening on many levels in the current U.S. economy:

1)         In their book  The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality (2017), Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles[5] describe their concern with  “regressive regulation” — monopoly-perpetuating policies — especially these four types:

  • “subsidies for financial institutions that lead to too much risk-taking in both borrowing and lending;
  • excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law;
  • the protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; and
  • artificial housing scarcity created by land-use regulations.”

2)         Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute issued a 2015 report that lists numerous government policies that support or deter monopoly. You can download the full report here or read a Business Insider article published earlier this month that serves as a sort of executive summary of the report, and also brought it up to date:  Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz Says The US Has A Major Monopoly Problem.

3)         This recent article from The Institute For New Economic Thinking describes the derivative problem of “monopsony”:

“Center stage in the meeting of the Federal Research Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium in Jackson, Wyoming this August was a discussion of the repercussions of having a small number of companies dominating the labor markets where they hire workers–what economists call ‘monopsony.’”

In a nutshell, the problem with monopsony is that, “When a small group of companies can dominate a labor market, wages—and workers—suffer.”

4)         Finally, state-supported monopoly is also evident in the current “rentier economy,” which, as the Steven Pinker quote above indicates, is the result of government policy that grants “exclusive access to a resource.” This is another instance of “regressive regulation.”

We’ll be looking more at the rentier economy in the weeks to come. But first, next week we’ll find out about a surprising twist in the original version of the Monopoly board game. In the meantime, you might enjoy my latest LinkedIn Pulse article The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.

[1] Douglass C. North is co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. He is Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St Louis and Bartlett Burnap Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Barry R. Weingast is Ward C. Krebs Family Professor in the Department of Political Science and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. John Joseph Wallis is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

[2] As described in Enlightenment Now:  The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker (2018).

[3] From this post on the CFA Institute’s Enterprising Investor blog.

[4] From Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017). I’m not the only one who didn’t learn about this in my American history class. See this interview with the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

[5] The authors combine for one of the more unique economic collaborations I’ve come across in my research They’re a pair of political science professors at Johns Hopkins University who are also associated with the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. Brink Lindsey is a libertarian, so no surprise there, but Steven M. Teles is a liberal, and together they offer an mix of perspectives that provides heartening evidence that not everyone of conflicting persuasions is so entirely polarized that they can’t tlk to each other or agree about anything.