Peter Dorman at Econospeak has an excellent post on the real challenges facing the U.S. today. It’s the political economy that must change. It no longer serves the interests of the vast majority of Americans. We need more discussion and action at these levels>
It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!, by Peter Dorman: Sometimes living in the world of ideas makes it harder to understand the real one. If you happen to be an economist, and the time is now, that is true in spades. Take Paul Krugman, for instance. After bemoaning the terrible policy choices of the last two years, he writes, “I’m still trying to make sense of this global intellectual failure.” It’s as if the core problem is that political leaders didn’t learn their macroeconomics well enough.
But Keynes was wrong about the power of “academic scribblers”. Idea-smiths provide language, narratives and tools for those in control, but the broad contours of policy depend on who the controllers happen to be. We are not living through an epoch of intellectual failure, but one in which there is no available mechanism to oust a political-economic elite whose interests have become incompatible with ours.
This is not some sudden development, much less a coup d’etat as is sometimes claimed. No, the accretion of power by the rentiers has been systematic, structural and the outcome of a decades-long process. It is deeply rooted in modern capitalist economies due to the transformation of corporations into tradable, recombinant portfolios of assets, increasing concentration of and returns to ownership, and the failure of regulation to keep pace with technology and transnational scale. Those who sit at the pinnacle of wealth for the most part no longer think about production, nor do they worry very much about who the ultimate consumers will be; they take financial positions and demand policies that will see to it that these positions are profitable.
The rapid and robust global restoration of profits post-2008 was not an accident. Public funds were used to bail out exposed creditors and shore up asset values, while the crisis was used to suppress wages and postpone meaningful regulatory reform. Indeed, I can predict with some confidence that many of the profits, particularly in the financial sector, that have been reported in official filings and blessed by the accounting firms will later be found to be illusory—but not before those who have claims on the revenues have cashed in to their own personal advantage. The institutions will be decimated, but those who owned, lent to or bet on them will be rich. This is not a failure, at least not for them.
You could make a case that, collectively, the interests of the financially endowed ultimately require a rescue of the real, nonfinancial global economy. Surely, when we take our painful plunge into the second dip of the Great Recession, their wealth will be at risk. But the ability to see it at a system level presupposes either a system-level organization of the class or the existence of individual interests that are transparently systemic. Neither appears to be the case today. From what we (you and me) can see from our vantage point, the ruling demands are to make sure my bonds are serviced, my counterparties pony up, the markets I invest in stay liquid, and expenditures for public welfare (i.e. the losers and chiselers) are slashed.
The first principle of political economy is that the scope of democracy depends on the range of views and interests (typically tightly linked) of the owning and controlling class. Genuine public debate and decision-making extends only to those issues on which the elites are divided. In what country today is there a significant division among political-economic elites over core economic questions? How would our situation be different if Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy et al. had been on the losing side of their elections?
So, the current mess is not the result of a failure by intellectuals—although clearer, less ideologically-driven thinking by economists would certainly be a good thing and might make a small dent at the margin. As long as there are even a few economists who proclaim the virtues of austerity and deregulation, however, their views will dominate. They haven’t won a battle of ideas; they are simply the ones who have been handed the microphone.
The real problem is political, and it is profound. Unless we can unseat the class that sees the world only through its portfolios, they may well take us all the way down. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clue how such a revolution can be engineered in a modern, complex, transnational economy.
There were also some excellent comments in the discussion:
I’m a historian, and I think the past confirms your assessment of elite behavior and priorities, not only in the last 2 centuries of mass-based polities, but since the rise of large-scale states altogether. Political contention is almost always limited to a narrow range of issues on which those with power disagree, meaning that significant change (and there has been significant change in the political sphere, as well as the economic one) generally results from elite conflicts, not from ‘popular’ pressure. In fairness, elite contention does open gaps for genuinely ‘progressive’ change, and that’s an important lever for intellectuals to remember…but as you say, academics, thinkers, et al. are as a rule never in a position to have more than a marginal effect.
It’s not a promising situation now, structurally: a series of positive feedback loops in the political sphere are actually concentrating the influence of what I am forced to call a “reactionary clique”, at a time when the policies pursued by that clique are, at least on a larger time-frame, seriously destabilizing. But the narcotic effects of power are such that those who drive the dynamics of elite conflict rarely see the larger picture — behave, for all practical purposes. as though they were incapable of seeing the larger picture (call it, if you like, discursive hegemony), and those who believe they see a larger picture are structurally excluded from bringing about changes in response to their perception.
Re-Considering …. said…
Thanks for the very well thought out reasoning in you post.
While you correctly identify the problem and its solution (current “ruling class” and its unseating), you are shy in suggesting how a solution might come about. While I do not advocate violence, history has shown us that fundamentally there are two ways by which subjugated classes improve their position. A traumatic way and less traumatic one.
Revolutions (most egregious examples are the French, Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions), whereby the ruling class, along with its interests, are eliminated by the subjugated classes. A traumatic event indeed, but, in my opinion, not sustainable in the long run unless the entire world adopts those political and economic paradigms.
Less traumatic and, more sustainable in the long term, are the outcomes of strong labor and student movements like the ones that took place in Europe in the 60s and 70s. Those movements made sure to convey to the ruling classes the message that a more equitable wealth distribution and effective social safety net were needed to avoid the extremes and dispossession that a revolution would involve. Reluctantly, the ruling class complied and the social safety nets and income distributions typical of Western Europe emerged.
In the same light, one must interpret the recent unrests in Western European countries (UK, Greece, France) (and most recently in Israel) as a response to the austerity measures taken by conservative governments of these countries to protect rentiers and capitalists. The austerity movement is trying to undo at least some (ideally, all) of the achievements of the 60s and 70s and redistribute wealth away from the “ruled classes”, when it is clearly the “ruling class” that should bear most of the cost of its disastrous, reckless, and self-serving policies. While the current message in Western Europe is still not of the same intensity of the 60s and 70s due to a current better wealth distribution than that of the 60s, the message is similar in content and direction. Its intensity may increase if the rentiers and capitalists will insist with their policies.
So, why the US labor and student movements do not materialize or are active to the same extent of the ones in Europe? The answer is very simple… while in Europe the “ruled classes” realized a long time ago that there will never be cooperation between them and the “ruling class”, in the US people still believe and pursue the American dream, which is fueled by the once in a while admission of few “mortals” on Mount Olympus. Let’s also not forget that constant sense of guilt passed on by the Pilgrims that, somewhat, it is exclusively the individual’s fault if his/her life is not better… and, maybe, the Pilgrims they were right given that US citizens keep electing the same (type of) people over and over to lead them. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a beer with a nice guy from Texas or Hawaii than protesting in some square?
I stand fittingly chastised for my indictment of the economists.
The Tea Party may well have hit upon a method to overcome the current problems. A constitutional convention to propose particular modifications to federal government structure might seem to be the way out. But that is a holdover from the time when people rode a horse to the nation’s capital in order to be seated in the discussion chamber. The problem is best resolved buy an incorruptible on line polling system of direct democracy in which various policies are proposed and tested for consensus. I do not trust the pollsters and I do not feel that they ask the right questions. At present we have the “super committee” approach which goes in the wrong direction totally. This election of Dems or Pugs who then decide what is the best way to maintain their own power has got to go.
I know that the public is easy to fool. The Republicans prove it every day. Yet there is no acceptable substitute for self governance. When we look at the polls we find that taxing the rich is the majority opinion and that social welfare is a high priority. Yet there is no way to act upon this consensus because the rich own the government. That must change, and it cannot change from the top. Surely there must be a peaceful means of revolution.
If a policy and polling system can be created that is impervious to tampering and corruption then it is entirely possible to supplant the current system or to dramatically improve the current system’s performance. I see no other way.