Progressive Capitalism

torn dollar bill

Torn dollar bill image source and license.

We’ve been looking at economic winners and losers in the zero-sum economy — particularly in the context of higher education, where cultural belief in the importance of college and post-graduate degrees on upward mobility and success in the job market is driving behavior that harms both parents (the college admissions scandal) and the economic and mental health of their children (student loan debt, general anxiety disorder, depression, suicide).

This series of blog posts is now in its third year — throughout, we’ve seen how hyper-competitive capitalism and its staunch faith in the implicit justice of the “free” market is causing other economic loses. For example:

  • the stagnation of middle class real incomes;
  • the rise of the numbers of statistically poor people in the U.S.;
  • the dismantling of compassionate social safety nets in favor of expensive, counterproductive, and humiliating replacements;
  • the rise of the “rentier” economy in which formerly public benefits have been privatized, making them accessible only to those who can afford them through the payment of economic “rents”;
  • the end of the American ideal of upward social and economic mobility;
  • the high cost of housing and the death of the American dream of home ownership;
  • the elimination of “normal” jobs through off-shoring, outsourcing, and the delegation of productivity to intelligent machines;
  • the advent of the short-term, contract-based “gig economy” with its lack of fringe benefits and its precarious prospects for sustainable income;
  • economic inequality that favors the wealthiest of capitalists at the expense of the bottom 90% (or 99%, or 99.9%, depending on your data and point of view);
  • the creation instead of an insular top-level “meritocrat” socio-economic class;
  • the new state of “total work” and the “monetization” of goods and services;
  • rising rates of career burnout, mental illness, and suicide resulting from social isolation and the vain struggle to find meaning and purpose at work;
  • the rise of corporate nation-states with economic and policy-making power that dwarfs that of many governmental nation-states;
  • the private (non-democratic) social policy-making initiatives of the wealthiest elites;
  • and much, much more.

Nobody meant economic policy to do this, but it has, for roughly the past 30-40 years. Good intentions; unplanned results.

We’ve seen that both plutocrats and progressives advocate for systemic change, while status quo inertia weighs in on the side of those who don’t see what all the fuss is about, since capitalism is undeniably the best economic option and always has been, and besides it’s still working just fine, thank you very much. Instead of meaningful discourse, we have a predominant nostalgic, populist doubling down on the neoliberal socio-economic cultural ideology that jet-propelled post-WWII recovery but finished running its course in the 1970s, while the retrenchers and the media slap those who beg to differ with the kiss-of-death label “progressive.” As a result, we’re left with incessant lobbing from one end of the polarized spectrum to the other of ideological bombs that originate in data and analysis skewed by cognitive biases, intentional blindness, and fake news . Economic policy-making resembles WWI trench warfare — a tactical grinding down of the opposition and the numbing and dumbing of everyone else. It was a bad idea then, and it’s still a bad idea now.

I had no idea this is what I was getting into when I decided three years ago to research and write about the new economy and the future of work.

It’s in the context of this toxic environment that Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, offered his “progressive capitalism” alternative, based on “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). His article, like virtually all of the economics books and articles I read these days, begins with a long parade of evils and ends with a handful of policy ideas. His version of the former is by now quite familiar:

“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.

“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).

“Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities.

“Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.

“Politics has played a big role in the increase in corporate rent-seeking and the accompanying inequality.

“Markets don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to be structured by rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations must be enforced.

“We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.

“If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans.

“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.”

His point seems to be that merely reciting litanies of economic woes won’t bring about systemic relief — for that, we need to embrace an essential factor:

Paradigms only shift when culture  shifts:
new ideas require new culture to receive them,
and new culture requires new belief systems.

Systemic change requires cultural change — remodeled institutions and revised social contracts that tether ideas to real life. Trying to patch policy ideas into the existing socio-economic system is like what would happen if a firm were to abruptly change its products, services, and strategic and marketing plans without bothering to change its mission statement, values and beliefs, and firm culture.

Like that’s going to work.

Coming up, we’ll look beyond policy bombs to the higher ground of revised cultural beliefs, starting with next week’s search for the “public” that’s gone missing from the Republic.

“What Do You Do?”

Anybody else remember when “networking” was something you did at cocktail parties? That was before it became a fact of computerized life — see this pictorial history . The idea of old-style networking mostly gets eye rolls these days — too much objectifying, I’d guess — but it’s not dead yet:  as this promo for Social Media Marketing World 2020 makes clear.

The standard cocktail party question is, of course, “What do you do?” Turns out we’ve been asking and answering that question the same way for 114 years — ever since German sociologist and political economist Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[1]

“We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’. More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe.

“The idea that people were being ever more defined by the blinkered focus of their employment was one he regarded as profoundly modern and characteristic.

“The blinkered professional ethic was common to entrepreneurs and an increasingly high-wage, skilled labour force, and it was this combination that produced a situation where the ‘highest good’ was the making of money and ever more money, without any limit. This is what is most readily recognisable as the ‘spirit’ of capitalism

“It is an extremely powerful analysis, which tells us a great deal about the 20th-century West and a set of Western ideas and priorities that the rest of the world has been increasingly happy to take up since [the end of WWII and the advent of neoliberal economics].”

What Did Max Weber Mean By The ‘Spirit’ Of Capitalism? Aeon Magazine (June 12, 2018)

“What do you do?” was culturally relevant for most of the 20th Century, when jobs as we normally think of them were still around — but not so much today, especially for the new socio-economic lower class known as “the precariat.”

 “Globalization, neo-liberal policies, institutional changes and the technological revolution have combined to generate a new global class structure superimposed on preceding class structures. This consists of a tiny plutocracy (perhaps 0.001 per cent) atop a bigger elite, a ‘salariat’ (in relatively secure salaried jobs, ‘proficians’ (freelance professionals), a core working class, a precariat and a ‘lumpen precariat’ at the bottom.

“The precariat, which ranks below the proletariat in income, consists of 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. Their employers come and go, or are expected to do so.

“Many in the precariat are over-qualified for the jobs they must accept; they also have a high ratio of unpaid ‘work’ in labour — looking and applying for jobs, training and retraining, queuing and form-filling, networking or just waiting around. They also rely mainly on money wages, which are often inadequate, volatile, and unpredictable. They lack access to rights-based state benefits and are losing civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights, making them supplicants if they need help to survive.”

The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2017)

I Googled “how to answer ‘what do you do?’” and got lots of articles about how to give your answer the right spin and turn the question into meaningful conversation — mostly directed at job applicants and people who hate their jobs — but the question’s relevance as an accurate reflection of Kultur is lost to the “gig economy” where the precariat hang out. It could be worse, though:  you could be a member of the “lumpen precariat.” Again from Guy Standing:

 “Below the precariat in the social spectrum is what might be called a ‘lumpen-precariat,’ an underclass of social victims relying on charity … Their numbers are rising remorselessly; they are a badge of shame on society.”

I’ve written before about how I made an ill-timed (at the height of the Great Recession) and otherwise disastrous exit from law practice for a new creative career that bombed,[2] while at the same time dealing with an as-yet-undiagnosed onset of “Primary Progressive MS” (the most degenerative kind you can get). During those years, I barely slowed down as I crashed through “precariat” on the way down from “salariat,” before ending up on the roles of the “disabled,”  a lumpen subclass. I did some awkward old-style networking during those years, and eventually developed my own Q&A. When asked “what do you do?” I would simply describe what I’d been doing that day. When it was my turn, I simply asked, “Who are you?”

Great conversation starters, as it turned out.

Photo is from Nimble Bar Co., re: how to throw an unforgettable party.

[1] Naturally there’s been lots of argument about whether the work ethic was Protestant or Catholic… and if Protestant, if it would be more properly “Calvinist” or “Puritan.” Sigh.

[2] For the full story, see my book Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download and on Amazon for cheap. It’s a short, quick read, I promise.

Race Against the Machine

For the past several years, two MIT big thinkers[1] have been the go-to authorities in the scramble to explain how robotics, artificial intelligence, and big data are revolutionizing the economy and the working world. Their two books were published four and six years ago — so yesterday in the world of technology — but they were remarkably prescient when written, and have not diminished in relevance. They are:

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (2012)

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014)

Click here for a chapter-by-chapter digest of The Second Machine Age, written by an all star cast of economic commentators. Among other things, they acknowledge the authors’ view that neoliberal capitalism has not fared well in its dealings with the technological juggernaut, but in the absence of a better alternative, we might as well continue to ride the horse in the direction it’s going.

While admitting that History (not human choice) is “littered with unintended… side effects of well-intentioned social and economic policies”, the authors cite Tim O’Reilly[2] in pushing forward with technology’s momentum rather than clinging to the past or present. They suggest that we should let the technologies do their work and just find ways to deal with it. They are “skeptical of efforts to come up with fundamental alternatives to capitalism.”

David Rotman, editor of the MIT Technology Review cites The Second Machine Age extensively in an excellent, longer article, “How Technology is Destroying Jobs.” Although the article is packed with contrary analysis and opinion, the following excepts emphasize what many might consider the shadowy  side of the street (compared to the sunny side we looked at in the past couple posts). I added the headings below to emphasize that many of the general economic themes we’ve been talking about also apply to the specific dynamics of the job market.

It used to be that economic growth — including wealth creation — also created more jobs. It doesn’t work that way any more. 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.

A rising economic tide no longer floats all boats. The result is a skewed allocation of the rewards of growth away from jobs — i.e., economic inequality. The contention that automation and digital technologies are partly responsible for today’s lack of jobs has obviously touched a raw nerve for many worried about their own employment. But this is only one consequence of what ­Brynjolfsson and McAfee see as a broader trend. The rapid acceleration of technological progress, they say, has greatly widened the gap between economic winners and losers—the income inequalities that many economists have worried about for decades..

“[S]teadily rising productivity raised all boats for much of the 20th century,” [Brynjolfsson] says. “Many people, especially economists, jumped to the conclusion that was just the way the world worked. I used to say that if we took care of productivity, everything else would take care of itself; it was the single most important economic statistic. But that’s no longer true.” He adds, “It’s one of the dirty secrets of economics: technology progress does grow the economy and create wealth, but there is no economic law that says everyone will benefit.” In other words, in the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose.

That robots, automation, and software can replace people might seem obvious to anyone who’s worked in automotive manufacturing or as a travel agent. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s claim is more troubling and controversial. They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States.

Meanwhile, technology is taking over the jobs that are left– blue collar, white collar, and even the professions. [I]mpressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous for workers, the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.

Technologies like the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, and improved analytics—all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity—are automating many routine tasks. Countless traditional white-collar jobs, such as many in the post office and in customer service, have disappeared.

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected.

We’ll visit the shadowy side of the street again next time.

[1] Erik Brynjolfsson is director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee is a principal research scientist at MIT who studies how digital technologies are changing business, the economy, and society.

[2] According to his official bio on his website, Tim O’Reilly “is the founder and CEO of  O’Reilly Media, Inc. His original business plan was simply ‘interesting work for interesting people,’ and that’s worked out pretty well. O’Reilly Media delivers online learning, publishes books, runs conferences, urges companies to create more value than they capture, and tries to change the world by spreading and amplifying the knowledge of innovators.”