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)

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.

The Zero-Sum Economy [2]  Meet the Winners

The House Always Wins

We met the zero-sum economy losers last time. Let’s meet the winners this week.

The winners are the best of the best and have the best of the best in cultural, logistical, financial, and other kinds of support. They were tapped for economic competition before preschool. They’ve been groomed for it all their lives. But they pay a ridiculous price — the stress of training and competing is unreal. And when it’s time for college and beyond, only a handful stand on the podium. No wonder their ascent has been tainted with scandal

They’re the children of the new Meritocrats — the economic top 1%. They complete in the X Games of economic competition, and it’s killing them. That description is from Yale law professor Daniel Markovits — a Meritocrat himself, and the author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (just out, on Sept. 10, 2019).  Prof. Markovits previewed his book in a recent article that begins as follows:

“Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.

“Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud continue to give rich applicants corrupt advantages. But the dominant causes of this skew toward wealth can be traced to meritocracy. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores at Yale’s median. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges.

“Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity. According to one study, only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent. Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor. Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.

“Public anger over economic inequality frequently targets meritocratic institutions. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans believe that colleges and universities are bad for America, according to the Pew Research Center. The intense and widespread fury generated by the college-admissions scandal early this year tapped into a deep and broad well of resentment. This anger is warranted but also distorting. Outrage at nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

“But what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.

“No one should weep for the wealthy. But the harms that meritocracy imposes on them are both real and important. Diagnosing how meritocracy hurts elites kindles hope for a cure. We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone.”

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition:  Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out (The Atlantic, Sept. 2019).

The rest of the article details the lives of the winners, and is well worth reading. (For a long and thoughtful critique of the book, see this NewYorker article.)

Next time, we’ll look further into “escaping the meritocracy trap.”

The Zero Sum Economy

The House Always Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never thought I’d see the day.

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

Corporation Nation-States [3]: Competition is King

competition is king

We’ve seen that corporations and their CEO’s are increasingly implementing socio-economic policies deemed to be “good” for their constituents and for the world at large — combining the conventional roles of philanthropy and government. That sounds altruistic, but it’s entirely in line with conventional capitalist theory, which relies on competition to achieve both outcomes, and in return asks government to keep the marketplace free of anti-competitive barriers.

This theory was evident in an article that came out as I was writing this mini-series .  What Companies Are For:  Competition, Not Corporatism, Is The Answer To Capitalism’s Problems, The Economist (Aug 22, 2019). These excerpts speak for themselves:

“Across the West, capitalism is not working as well as it should. Jobs are plentiful, but growth is sluggish, inequality is too high and the environment is suffering. You might hope that governments would enact reforms to deal with this, but politics in many places is gridlocked or unstable.

“Who, then, is going to ride to the rescue? A growing number of people think the answer is to call on big business to help fix economic and social problems. Even America’s famously ruthless bosses agree. This week more than 180 of them, including the chiefs of Walmart and JPMorgan Chase, overturned three decades of orthodoxy to pledge that their firms’ purpose was no longer to serve their owners alone, but customers, staff, suppliers and communities, too.

“The CEOs’ motives are partly tactical. They hope to pre-empt attacks on big business from the left of the Democratic Party. But the shift is also part of an upheaval in attitudes towards business happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Younger staff want to work for firms that take a stand on the moral and political questions of the day.

“However well-meaning, this new form of collective capitalism will end up doing more harm than good. It risks entrenching a class of unaccountable CEOs who lack legitimacy. And it is a threat to long-term prosperity, which is the basic condition for capitalism to succeed.

“Ever since businesses were granted limited liability in Britain and France in the 19th century, there have been arguments about what society can expect in return. In the 1950s and 1960s America and Europe experimented with managerial capitalism, in which giant firms worked with the government and unions and offered workers job security and perks.

“It is this framework that is under assault. Part of the attack is about a perceived decline in business ethics, from bankers demanding bonuses and bail-outs both at the same time, to the sale of billions of opioid pills to addicts. But the main complaint is that shareholder value produces bad economic outcomes. Publicly listed firms are accused of a list of sins, from obsessing about short-term earnings to neglecting investment, exploiting staff, depressing wages and failing to pay for the catastrophic externalities they create, in particular pollution.

“The popular and intellectual backlash against shareholder value is already altering corporate decision-making. Bosses are endorsing social causes that are popular with customers and staff. Firms are deploying capital for reasons other than efficiency… this portends a system in which big business sets and pursues broad social goals, not its narrow self-interest.

“That sounds nice, but collective capitalism suffers from two pitfalls: a lack of accountability and a lack of dynamism. Consider accountability first. It is not clear how CEOs should know what “society” wants from their companies. The chances are that politicians, campaigning groups and the CEOs themselves will decide—and that ordinary people will not have a voice.

“The second problem is dynamism. Collective capitalism leans away from change. In a dynamic system firms have to forsake at least some stakeholders: a number need to shrink in order to reallocate capital and workers from obsolete industries to new ones.

“The way to make capitalism work better for all is not to limit accountability and dynamism, but to enhance them both. This requires that the purpose of companies should be set by their owners, not executives or campaigners.

“It also requires firms to adapt to society’s changing preferences. If consumers want fair-trade coffee, they should get it. If university graduates shun unethical companies, employers will have to shape up.

“Accountability works only if there is competition. This lowers prices, boosts productivity and ensures that firms cannot long sustain abnormally high profits. Moreover it encourages companies to anticipate the changing preferences of customers, workers and regulators—for fear that a rival will get there first.

“Unfortunately, since the 1990s, consolidation has left two-thirds of industries in America more concentrated. If you cast your eye down the list of the 180 American signatories this week, many are in industries that are oligopolies, including credit cards, cable tv, drug retailing and airlines, which overcharge consumers and have abysmal reputations for customer service. Unsurprisingly, none is keen on lowering barriers to entry.

“Of course a healthy, competitive economy requires an effective government—to enforce antitrust rules, to stamp out today’s excessive lobbying and cronyism, to tackle climate change. That well-functioning polity does not exist today, but empowering the bosses of big businesses to act as an expedient substitute is not the answer. The Western world needs innovation, widely spread ownership and diverse firms that adapt fast to society’s needs. That is the really enlightened kind of capitalism.”

Culturally sensitive or not, competition is “zero sum,” which means it’s a game with winners and losers. And anyone who wants to play should remember that the house always wins. More next time.