Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category

An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (1)

April 13, 2017

What follows is notes for the first part of a talk for the Rochester Russell Forum scheduled at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13.

Neoliberalism is the philosophy that economic freedom is the primary freedom, economic growth is the primary goal of society and the for-profit corporation is the ideal form of organization.

It is the justification for privatization, deregulation and the economic austerity currently being imposed on governments by lenders.

Neoliberalism has its roots in classical liberalism, which arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Classic liberals said that the purpose of government is to protect human rights, including religious, intellectual, political and economic freedom.   They fought the absolute power of kings and the privileges of aristocrats and demanded the right of individuals to determine their own fates.

Classical liberalism came to be supplanted in the early 20th century by a belief that government regulation and welfare could, if well thought out, enhance human freedom by giving individuals more choices.   A graduate of a public school or university, for example, has more options than a person unable to afford an education, so taxing the public to pay for public schools and universities would be a form of liberation.

Neoliberalism is a backlash against social liberalism.  Neoliberalism affirms that freedom of enterprise is the only important freedom.   Its well-known adherents include Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman.

It came into widespread acceptance in the 1980s, as a reaction against the manifest failures of central economic planning and as a way to break the political gridlock of the welfare state.  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both strongly influenced by the neoliberals.

Neoliberalism’s strongest adherents are to be found among economists, journalists, financiers, Silicon Valley executives and right-of-center parties in the English-speaking world and western Europe, and in international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European Central Bank, which enforce neoliberal policies on debtor countries.

It is more of an implicit philosophy than a credo, a series of assumptions that has come to permeate our society.

What follows is my attempt to understand the logic behind these assumptions.

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Questions to be answered

March 16, 2016

I think that the United States and other Western countries are in a political and economic crisis.

I think that political leaders in the Western world must answer these questions.

authoritarianism9fd18cDoes the economic and political crisis mean that the system has failed?

If the system has failed, is this a failure of capitalism, a failure of democracy or both?

If the failure is a failure of capitalism, can the capitalistic system be fixed, or must it be replaced?

If the failure is a failure of democracy, can the democratic system be fixed, or is it doomed?

I don’t expect these questions to be addressed this year or the next, but I don’t think they can be evaded indefinitely.  I think there will be some sort of resolution, for good or for ill, within the next 10 years.

The return of right-wing populism

February 10, 2016

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people in Europe and North America turned to populist radical and left-wing parties, while many others turned to populist nationalist and racist parties.

The first group blamed their troubles on the wealthy elite and a failed capitalist system.  The second group blamed their troubles on foreigners, minorities and a failed democratic system.

There were exceptions and overlaps, but I think these broad distinctions apply.  Nationalism and racism are a way of diverting public discontent away from bankers and landlords.

We have the same two kinds of populism today.  In Europe, we see Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and, on the other hand, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary.

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The assumptions and logic of neoliberalism

November 14, 2015

There is no such thing as society.  There are only individuals, and their families.      ==Margaret Thatcher

∞∞∞

Neoliberalism is the philosophy that economic freedom is the primary freedom, economic growth is society’s primary goal and the for-profit corporation is the ideal form of organization.

It is the justification for privatization, deregulation and the economic austerity being imposed on governments by lending institutions.

What follows is my attempt to understand the thinking behind neoliberalism.  I welcome comments, especially from those who think I am wrong or unfair.

17149339-Abstract-word-cloud-for-Neoliberalism-with-related-tags-and-terms-Stock-PhotoGovernment is by definition coercive.  All governmental authority is ultimately backed by armed force.  The role of government should be limited to protection of life and property and enforcement of contracts.   

Private enterprise is by definition free choice.  Privatization by definition increases freedom.  All income deriving from the private sector, and not involving force or fraud, is earned income.

Most people are good judges of their individual self-interest and bad judges of the common good.   People generally make good decisions as consumers and poor decisions as voters.  Consumer choice is more meaningful than the right to vote.

Free markets, though the law of supply and demand, coordinate individual choices without the direction of any particular people or group of people.  The free market is more impartial and just than any system of planning or regulation could be.

A capitalist dictatorship that protects property rights is better than a socialist democracy that attacks property rights.

Economic growth is the key to increasing economic well-being.  Growth is produced by capital—that is, by investment in machines, factories and other human-made goods that generate new wealth.  

In a free enterprise economy, capital is invested by private individuals based on the law of supply and demand.  Whatever diminishes the ability of individuals to accumulate wealth or respond to the signals of the free market diminishes capital and retards economic growth.

Money spent on welfare and charity may temporarily alleviate distress, but it will not cure poverty.  Only capital investment and economic growth will do that. 

Capital investment and economic growth should take precedence over public education, public health, the environment and other so-called pubic goods, because they are the means of generating the wealth that pays for the public goods.

Banks, investment firms and financial markets are the key institutions of society.  They must be preserved in order to support investment and economic growth.

Monetary obligations are absolute.  Any person, organization or government that borrows money has an absolute obligation to pay it back, no matter what the sacrifice.  People who don’t repay their debts or fulfill their contracts are parasites on the system.

Inequality is a good thing.  To break up accumulations of wealth that have been acquired by legitimate means is not only unjust because it destroys the just reward for achievement.  It destroys the capital by which new jobs and wealth are created.

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The international record of neoliberalism

November 14, 2015

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My economic philosophy in a nutshell

October 6, 2015

When, lo, these many years ago, I studied economics in college, I learned that capital was the most important factor in a prosperous economy.

I still think this is true.  But that doesn’t mean that owners of financial assets are the most valuable members of society.

Standard economics teaches that three  are factors of production—land, labor and capital.  “Land” means all natural resources—everything of value not created by human beings.  “Labor” means all human effort, physical or mental.

 “Capital” is the most important of the three.  It means everything that increases the productivity of land and labor—railroads, machine tools, computers.  It is the force multiplier for land and labor.  It is what makes economic growth possible.

The problem is that “capital” also means also the financial resources available (but not necessarily used) to create these tangible resources.

Landlords who receive rents contribute nothing to the wealth of nations.  Laborers who earn wages contribute a fixed amount.  Capitalists who make profits have—so I was taught—an incentive to direct their capital in a way that created the most value, and thus increase the total wealth of society.

Late in life I have come to read Karl Marx’s rebuttal.  Physical and intellectual capital is not created by capitalists, he noted.  Every railroad, every machine tool, every computer was created not by money, but by the mental and physical effort of human beings.

The increase in human wealth that physical capital generates does not go to those who created it.  It goes to those who own it.

Marx denied that the owners of capital are job creators.  He asserted that workers are capital creators.

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The passing scene – October 5, 2015

October 5, 2015

Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism, an interview of Michael Hudson, author of Kllling the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy, on Counterpunch Radio.  Highly recommended.

More Leisure, Less Capitalism, Thanks to Tech, an interview of Jacobin contributing editor Peter Frase for Truthout.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie’s Epistle to the Falwellites by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

How Steve Jobs Fleeced Carly Fiorina by Steven Levy for BackChannel.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The model minority is losing patience by The Economist.  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist)

The Second Amendment Is a Gun Control Amendment by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker.  (Hat tip to Bill Elwell)

Reviving Shinto: Prime Minister Abe tends a special place in Japan’s soul by Michael Holtz for The Christian Science Monitor.  (Hat tip to Jack)

AP Investigation: Are slaves catching the fish you buy? by Robin M. McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Naomi Klein’s new climate change book

October 22, 2014

Naomi KleinWe know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backwards; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society that we need.

==Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything

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Naomi Klein’s brilliant new book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs the Climate, underlines two important things I had not quite realized.

The first is that the built-in financial incentives of the fossil fuel corporations, or capitalism generally, make it impossible for corporate executives to do anything on their own that would limit the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change.

The second is that many seemingly unrelated struggles against abuses by fossil fuel companies, or abuses by corporations generally, tie in with fighting climate change.

hoax-cop15When native Americans fight to have Indian treaties recognized in law, when small towns in upstate New York pass ordinances against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, when ranchers and Indians protest the Keystone XL pipeline, when other protestors object to corporate trade treaties such as NAFTA, when Occupy Wall Street protesters advocate economic democracy—all these things help other people in danger from the increase in droughts, floods and violent storms.

I confess that I did not see these connections, or did not fully realize their significance, until I read this book.  I had thought of the question of climate change as primarily a question of how and how much I and other people are willing to reduce their material standard of living, or give up hope of increasing their material standard of living, so that future generations will have a decent planet to live on.

This is a real and important question, but it is not the only question.  As Naomi Klein points out, the well-being livelihoods of many people are threatened by continuing on the present course.   That is because the era of easily-available oil, gas and coal is long gone, and the methods of extracting them—deep water ocean drilling, tar sands, fracking, mountaintop removal—are increasingly costly, dangerous and destructive.

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Can workers own the means of production?

September 30, 2014

income distribution

The Marxist economist Richard D. Wolff thinks that a new form of economic organization, the worker self-directed enterprise, can gradually replace the for-profit corporation.

Richard D. Wolff

Richard D. Wolff

I hope he is right because the world needs something better than predatory corporations or oppressive government bureaucracies, which are the main choices on offer now.

But successful worker-owned enterprises have been around for a long time, and yet have never reached the critical mass that would enable them to become an important part of the economy.

Advocates of worker-owned businesses cite the example of the Mondragon Corporation, which originated in the Basque country in Spain in 1956 with a half dozen people and now is a federation of 257 businesses and co-ops employing 76,000 people in 31 countries.  But why is there only one Mondragon Corporation?  Why hasn’t it become a template for other successful efforts?

One of the things that limit worker-owned businesses, as I see it, is precisely this lack of critical mass.  There is a societal infrastructure of business schools, business services and business finance to serve the new for-profit business.  Worker-owners would have to learn as they go.  This takes a level of commitment of which many people aren’t capable, unless they are in dire straits.

One of Wolff’s ideas is to provide seed money for WSDEs by giving the unemployed their compensation in a lump sum rather than weekly checks.  This shows how he underestimates the difficulty of implementing his program.

To begin with, starting a successful small business is not something everybody can do, although many people think they can.  If you wanted a pool of people with the ability to succeed in business, you probably wouldn’t choose them from among the unemployed.  You’d be more likely to find them among people who have good jobs and money in the bank.

Then again, the American Dream is to own your own business.  Generally speaking, it is not to be part of a community of comrades who share and share alike.   We Americans think of ourselves as individualists, no matter how subservient to authority we may be in practice, and we only abandon the dream of self-sufficiency for compelling reasons.

Farmers’ marketing co-ops came into existence because farmers thought they were being cheated by middle-men.  Electric power co-ops came into existence because the investor-owned utilities weren’t interested in serving them.  Savings and loan associations, and later credit unions, were formed because people were dissatisfied with banks.

Workers have been known to take over factories from bankrupt employers and restart the businesses.  Some co-ops are formed around political and social movements, such as selling organic food.  But worker-owned and cooperative businesses are not the norm.  There has to be a compelling reason to commit to starting one.

The commitment tends to fade when the compelling reason fades.  Even the successful cooperatives tend to wither away, or be bought out, or to incorporate.  Even the successful utopian communities, the Oneida community in New York state and the Amana community in Iowa, wound up as corporations.

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Is economic democracy possible?

September 30, 2014

feed-with-gdp

Richard D. Wolff, a Marxist economist, wrote in his recent books that capitalism has failed, and that it is necessary to replace for-profit corporations as we know them with what he calls worker self-directed enterprises.

Democracy at WorkBut for-profit corporations aren’t going to go away, even if—which remains to be seen—worker-owned enterprises offer a better alternative.

If economic democracy is the only means by which workers can keep the value of what they produce, then it is going to be necessary to reform existing corporate structures.

The USA needs legislation to curb abuses in corporate management, such as leverage buyouts, in which slick financial operators can gain control of a company with borrowed money and then milk it for their own benefit, regardless of its impact on the company.  We need enforcement of anti-trust laws and prosecution of corporate and financial fraud.

Beyond that, the USA needs to build up labor unions as a countervailing power.  Congress should enact the Employee Free Choice Act, aka Card Check, in which employees get the right to bargain collectively when a majority sign up to join a union.  It should repeal or reform the Taft-Hartley Act and Landrum Griffin Act.

But all of this falls short of true economic democracy.  True economic democracy would mean something like Germany’s co-determination system, in which employees of firms are represented on the board of directors.  I think this should be required of all companies whose stock is publicly traded.  If an entrepreneur doesn’t want to share control of a company,  then don’t sell its shares on the open market.

Economic democracy also would mean letting workers share in day-to-day management of the company, along the lines suggested by W. Edwards Deming.  Knowledge in any institution is widely distributed.  No small group has a monopoly on useful information.  I think a company will be better managed when workers and managers have the same information available.

Banking and finance are a separate issue.  There can be no economic democracy when financiers have a veto over democratic decisions.  Banks should be regulated utilities.  Bankers should be servants of the people, not masters of the universe.

When and if these things can be achieved, there will be a favorable environment for Wolff’s worker-self-directed enterprises.  The government would give them the same kind of support across the board that rural electric co-ops got in the 1930s and 1940s.  Otherwise, probably not.

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Is there a better way than capitalism?

September 30, 2014

20120314-graph-the-1-percents-jobless-recovery-01Marxists say that the trouble with the capitalist economy is that workers don’t get the full value of what they produce.  Whether or not that’s true as a general principle, it is a good description of the current direction of the U.S. economy.

capitalismhitsthefan_The Marxist solution is that the workers themselves should own the means of production.  A Marxist economist, Richard D. Wolff, said that where socialists and Communists have gone wrong is in promoting government ownership rather than worker ownership.

I recently read Wolff’s three latest books.  His view of the current economic crisis is the same as mine.   In the 1970s, overall American wages stopped growing.  Working people tried to maintain their material standard of living by putting in longer hours and having more family members in the work force.   When that reached a limit, they kept up their spending levels by borrowing.

Now the spending power of ordinary Americans has reached a limit.  Most Americans are either broke, nearby broke or paying down their debts.  That’s why the government has failed to stimulate the economy through spending or lower interest rates.

occupytheeconomy0The solution, according to Wolff, is the creation of WSDEs – worker self-directed enterprises – in which the workers themselves are the ultimate deciders of what is done with the profits (in Marxist lingo, the “surplus”).

A WSDE would be more than worker participation in management, where corporate ownership remains the same.  And it would be more than a worker-owned business, where board of directors and the rest of the corporate management structure remains in place.   And it would be more than just a co-operative, which can be organized to serve the interests of any group, not just employees.

This would not necessarily solve all problems, Wolff wrote, but it would make other problems easier to solve.  A WSDE wouldn’t lay off workers or reduce wages merely to increase the income of managers and stockholders.  Employees wouldn’t feel alienated from their work.  A worker-owned business would be less likely to be willing to pollute the community in which they live than would a board of directors responsible to stockholders who live far away.

Democracy at WorkI am in favor of more worker-owned businesses, but I think Wolff greatly underestimates the opposition to his proposed program.   Does he think the interests that engineered the sale of the Postal Service’s assets to private businesses (such as Nancy Pelosi’s husband) or advocate replacing public schools with for-profit businesses (aka charters)—does he think these interests are going to sit still and allow Wolff’s WSDEs to push them aside?

Back in the New Deal era, the federal government fostered electric power co-operatives, which provided electricity at lower rates than the for-profit corporations.  But they did not displace the for-profit corporations, nor become a model for how to operate electric utilities.

Instead the electric power industry successfully pushed for deregulation of the industry, in which competition between electric power providers was supposed to keep rates low.  Deregulation also abolished a requirement that an electric utility have enough reserve generating capacity to prevent future blackouts and brownouts.  Nobody is responsible for keeping the lights on now.

 The fact that something is economically feasible and socially desirable does not mean that it will be politically successful.   There is no substitute for political power.

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The new normal: Links & comments 7/29/14

July 29, 2014

Soak the Rich: An exchange on capital, debt and the future by David Graeber and Thomas Piketty, translated and reprinted by The Baffler.

David Graeber is an anthropologist and radical anarchist known for his book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, which looks at the origins of money, taxes and debt.   Thomas Piketty is a politically moderate economist known for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, which looks at the persistence of gross inequality during the past few centuries.

I admire them for their opposite virtues—Graeber for his bold and original speculation, Piketty for his research and his refusal to assert anything that can’t be backed up by data.

Graeber believes the capitalist system is doomed.  Once it goes away, people will have a chance to create a new system without fear of bosses or police, and Graber does not see any point in trying to describe the specifics of what that new system will be.

Piketty says history indicates that capitalism has proved amazingly resilient in the face of change, and that there is no reason to think this time is different.  Furthermore, he said, any society has a need for capital, the means to invest accumulated wealth into the means of creating new wealth.  (This is a different definition of capital from the one in his book).  His attitude toward capitalism is: Mend it, don’t end it.

One thing they do agree on is the centuries-old tendency for wealth to be concentrated in a few hands, and the danger this poses to a democratic society.

On the Causes of Investment Decline in the U.S. Economy by Dr. Jack Rasmus, the Green Party’s shadow Federal Reserve chair.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

I have long thought that increasing the earning power of average Americans would make many things fall into place.  If people had more money to buy stuff, merchants would sell more stuff and manufacturers would make more stuff, and this would be to everybody’s benefit.

Jack Rasmus suggests that maybe this isn’t so.  Maybe getting people into debt and putting the squeeze on them is more profitable that creating useful goods and services.  If that’s so, we can’t look to private enterprise to recreate a high-wage, full-employment economy.

His solution is a massive public works program, which I agree is needed, but doesn’t address the problem he describes.

Defending Trade Unions While the Justices Are Away by David Coates.  Hat tip to Labor News in Rochester, NY.

Labor unions helped maintain American prosperity in the mid-20th century by fighting for good wages and job security.  But the union movement is handicapped by laws and court decisions that increasingly restrict unions while freeing corporations of responsibility.

In Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court ruled that home health-care workers in Illinois could not be required to pay dues the Service Employees International Union, but they were still entitled the benefits of the SEIU contract and to SEIU representation.  It is as if the Supreme Court ruled that I could not be required to pay my Rochester Gas and Electric bill, but RG&E is still obligated to supply me with gas and electricity.

Chris Dodd Warns of Coalition Between Populist Democrats and Republicans by Zach Carter for the Huffington Post.

Ex-Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, gave a speech warning against trying to strengthen the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.   He said in a speech to the Bipartisan Policy Center that opening up the bill to amendments would open a “Pandora’s box” that would be dangerous the financial services industry.

He said warned against right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats teaming up against Wall Street.   He probably was thinking of a bill co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-Louisiana) to break up the “too big to fail” banks, an unacceptable type of bipartisanship.  Dodd said breaking up big banks is unnecessary.

As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying the Price by Joseph Shapiro for National Public Radio.

The criminalization of poverty by Radley Balko for the Washington Post.

A majority of U.S. states have recreated the equivalent of debtors’ prisons.  They are trying to make their criminal justice system self-financing by charging fees for public defenders, the cost of a jury trial, room and board for jail and prison time, and parole and probation costs.   Poor people who can’t pay these fees go to jail, even though this has been ruled unconstitutional.

 

What capitalism can dispense with

June 23, 2014

Capitalism can dispense with democracy more easily than with profits.  A question for the century ahead is how far it will minimize the former in seeking to maximize the latter.

via Benjamin Kunkel · LRB.

Thomas Piketty on democracy and capitalism

May 16, 2014


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Sustainability, ZPG and Piketty’s equation

May 1, 2014

If environmentalists achieve their dream of a sustainable, steady state economy and zero population growth, and if nothing else changes, then wealth will become more and more concentrated in a tiny wealthy elite.

populationgrowthoriginal

Source: Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

That’s a logical conclusion from Thomas Piketty’s formula of r > g in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  His simple but powerful idea is that if the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth, then an ever-higher percentage of income will go to investors and a ever-less percentage to workers.  At some point this wold level off, but it could be at high levels of inequality, just as in the past.

Now what is economic growth?  It is the product of the increase in output per person and the increase in the population.  Birth rates are falling in many parts of the world, including North America, Europe and China, and the rate of economic growth can be expected to fall to the extent that high growth in the past has been based on cheap coal, oil and natural gas.  If through all this the rate of return on investment remains at historic averages, then the rich will get richer at a faster rate than the economy grows (if it grows at all) and increasing amounts of wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.

piketty12growthrate

Source: Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

Now this could play out in a number of ways.  There could be a sudden collapse, wiping out investments in the fossil fuel industry and the industries dependent on it (such as the auto industry).  Another Great Depression would be a very bad thing, but, like the previous Great Depression, it would be an example of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”.  By wiping out capital invested in obsolete or declining industries, it would open the way for new industry.

Unfortunately the known sustainable energy technologies are capital intensive.  That is to say, it is relatively cheap, for example, to build an oil-fired or natural gas-fired electrical generating plant, but the fuel itself is expensive.  With hydroelectric generating plants, windmills or solar energy, the source of energy is virtually free, but it costs a lot to make the equipment, and this requires capital.

Then again, maybe high technology will not be feasible.  Maybe a sustainable economy will be based on earlier types of technology.  If so, this will not necessarily mean less inequality.  Inequality in ancient and medieval Europe was greater than it is now.

A bleak equation.  But there are answers.  I’ve mentioned some of them in a previous post.  A more radical solution would be a redistribution of property so that return on investment would benefit everyone and not just a few.  There might not be a role for limited-liability, for-profit corporations in a slow-growth or no-growth economy.  Credit unions, consumer-owned cooperatives, employee-owned corporations or other forms of organization might work better.  As the Bible says, new wine belongs in new bottles.

Environmentalists will have to face up to this one way or another.  If birth rates fall to a zero population growth rate, this will mean an increase in the elderly population relative to the working-age population.  This can only work if there is an increase in the productivity of the working-age population, and this would have to be accomplished without technologies that burn up fossil fuels at a faster rate.

I don’t pretend to know the future, and I don’t pretend to know what a sustainable economy would be like.  Maybe some miracle technology will be invented that will resolve this issues, and all these concerns will have been for naught.  I wouldn’t count on it

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Protecting wealth vs. promoting growth

April 30, 2014

piketty,mattbors5_n

There’s no single principle that explains everything, but there is great explanatory power inn the French economist Thomas Piketty’s idea that inequality always increases whenever the rate of return on investment exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, that is, when r > g.

piketty-saez-top10aThis is not something that results from impersonal economic forces.  During the past 30 years, the policy of the U.S. government, and of governments that follow the U.S. lead, has been to prioritize return on investment over economic growth.

The U.S. Congress and many state governments are in the process of cutting back scientific research, education, maintenance of public works and other things that are needed for our nation’s economic future, in order to keep tax rates low for corporations and upper bracket taxpayers.

These are the same “austerity” policies being enforced by the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and European Central Government on vulnerable governments, which are forced to sacrifice the well-being of their citizens in order to satisfy powerful financial institutions.   In both cases, there is a tradeoff to sacrifice economic growth in order to maintain returns on investment.

top1%sharechart-02One part of austerity is to sell off government property at bargain rates and delegate public services to corporations.  Most of the time this amounts to a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to well-connected business owners, who have no financial incentive to maximize service.

Some other ways that government policy fosters investor income at the expense of economic growth are (1) bailing out banks that have failed due to reckless financial speculation, (2) refusal to prosecute financial fraud by the “too big to fail” banks or claw back profits due to fraud, (3) expansion of patent and copyright monopolies, (4) failure to regulate cable and telecommunications laws, (5) failure to enforce antitrust laws, (6) the ban on student loan refinancing or bankruptcy …. The list goes on.

Increasingly corporate management seeks profit not by increasing the size of the economic pie, but by giving investors and executives a larger part of the pie — through financial manipulation and excess fees in the case of banks, through driving down wages and increasing executive compensation in the case of corporations in general.  I don’t say all corporate managers behave in this way.  I say that this has become common and acceptable.

the-top-01-of-americans-get-a-near-record-amount-of-income-at-around-10The result has been a concentration of wealth and income in a tiny minority of the population, and economic stagnation for everybody else.   So the first step in reducing inequality is to stop promoting it.

Piketty’s preferred solution to undue concentration of wealth is a progressive tax on capital, sufficient to prevent the wealth of the economic elite from expanding at a faster rate than the economy as a whole, along with progressive taxes on income and inheritance.  I don’t object to any of these, but higher taxes on the rich do not, in and of themselves, benefit the middle class, wage-earners or the poor.   I think it is more important to  strengthen labor unions, raise the minimum wage, maintain essential public services and invest in the future.

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Defenders of wealth push back against Piketty

April 29, 2014
piketty12growthrate

Source: Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

If things go on as they are now, there’s nothing to prevent wealth from becoming more and more concentrated and economic inequality returning to the levels of England and France 200 years ago, according to French economist Thomas Piketty in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

But many economists say this is not a problem.  They say concentration of wealth is a good thing, not a bad thing, and benefits us all in the long run, not just a tiny elite.   In this post, I will consider this argument, and state it as fairly as I can, then explain what I think the argument leaves out.

Concentrations of wealth are necessary to a capitalist free-enterprise economy.  They provide the means to invest in machinery, technology, education and the other things that increase society’s total wealth.   Capitalism has generated more economic growth than any alternative system and, without capital, there is no capitalism.

The chart above is illlustrates Piketty’s conclusion, based on his research,  that, most of the time, r > g – that is, the rate of return on investment exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, which, as a matter of logic, means that the income of investors grows faster than the income of wage-earners.

Now the chart should be read with discretion.  The parts prior to 1820 are no more than an educated guess; the parts from 1820 to the present are blends of different national economies; the future projection is possibility, not a prediction.  That’s no criticism of Piketty.  He did the best he could with the data available, and what he shows is reasonable.

According to the chart, r > g by a great deal on average prior to 1913.   Nevertheless there was an increasing rate of economic growth.  Inequality was just as extreme in 1913 in France and Britain and more extreme in the USA compared to 1820 or 1700, but that doesn’t mean the average person got no benefit from that growth.  It just meant there was just as much of a gap between rich people and the rest of us.

Not all rich people did things that promote economic growth, but the famous economist Friedrich Hayek argued that an idle rich class is of benefit to society.  They are pioneers in consumption, he said.   Once automobiles were a luxury for the upper class, for example, but now almost every family in North America owns one.  If rich people hadn’t provided an initial market, automobiles would never have developed.   Medical treatments which once were affordable only to rich people are now available to the general public.

Rich philanthropists finance good works, including, as economist Tyler Cowen pointed out, Belknap Press of Harvard University, publisher of the English translation of Piketty’s book.

A final argument is that the problem of excessive returns on capital is self-correcting.  When you have too much capital, the rate of return on capital falls.  If too many houses are built, rent falls.  If capitalists invest too much in building railroads or making personal computers, railroad tickets or computers become a glut on the market, and profits fall.  The economist Joseph Schumpeter called this “creative destruction,” and he said this is how the capitalist system renews itself.

I don’t think these arguments are completely wrong, but they leave a lot out.   Let me explain.

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The Nazis were good for business (until the end)

April 25, 2014

Nazi is an abbreviation for “National Socialist” which is a short form of “National Socialist German Workers Party,” but they were not, in fact, a left-wing or socialist party under any reasonable definition.

The Nazis were opponents of free enterprise.  They did not believe in the unregulated free market.  But they were not opponents of capitalism.   The capitalists did very well under the Nazi regime.

Source: The Wages of Destruction, by Adam Tooz.  Click to enlarge

Source: The Wages of Destruction, by Adam Tooze.   Click to enlarge

I have read The Wages of Destruction, and it refutes the notion that Hitler was a madman — evil, yes, but not without reasons for what he did.  Hitler’s idea was that Germany could be a great nation only if it had access to resources equal to the great continental nations, the United States and Soviet Russia, or the great overseas empires, Britain and France.

To accomplish this, after coming to power in 1933, he planned to conquer and depopulate Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia in order to create “living space” for the Germans.  Ukrainians and Poles were starved so that the German population could be fed.  Even Hitler’s anti-Semitism, even though it didn’t have an economic motive, served an economic purpose.  Confiscation of Jewish property helped to finance the Nazi regime.

Click to enlarge,

Source: Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century.   Click to enlarge,

This chart shows that, in Germany under Hitler, holders of financial assets received about a third of the national income, while in the United States under the New Deal, they received less than one-fourth.   Piketty’s statistics only go through 1938, but the German capitalists did very well in the early days of the war, when they were able to buy up property and companies in conquered countries at bargain rates.

Of course in the end the Hitler regime ended disastrously for everybody, including the Nazis themselves.   Germany later achieved prosperity and a dominant position in Europe in the way it always could have done — but developing its industry and its human resources.

The Hitler and Stalin regimes were both one-party dictatorships exercising absolute power, and both were among history’s greatest mass killers.  But instead of being regarded as two examples of the same thing, they have been regarded as opposite extremes, both in their time and the present.

The explanation is in the charts.   Under Lenin and Stalin, capitalist wealth was confiscated.  Under Mussolini and Hitler, the capitalists lost their power, but continued to enjoy their incomes and affluent ways of life.  That is the difference.

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I took the charts from this post and this post on Corey Robin’s web log.

Free enterprise vs. capitalism

April 12, 2014
Adam Smith

Adam Smith

I define “free enterprise” as the “system of natural liberty” advocated by Adam Smith, in which people are free to pursue their own goals in their own way, “subject only to the law of justice.”

I define “capitalism” in the same way as Karl Marx, who coined the word — a system in which political and economic power is in the hands of owners of financial assets

By these definitions, free enterprise is not necessary to capitalism, nor vice versa.  What’s necessary for capitalism is institutions that allow great concentrations of wealth, such as limited liability corporations, lending at compound interest and the power of banks to create money.  Government-protected monopolies help, too.

In the same way, capitalism is not necessary to free enterprise.  The Phoenician traders in the ancient world, who traveled from the eastern Mediterranean to Britain to buy tin, were not capitalists in the way that J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller were capitalists, but they certainly had the entrepreneurial spirit.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Adam Smith, the great economist and philosopher, did not particularly admire capitalists.  He saw economic competition as a means to hold their power in check.

As for myself, I am not an opponent of either free enterprise nor capitalism, although I am a critic of both, especially the latter.  I think the working of the free market is a more effective way to coordinate economic activity than central planning, provided that it is, as Smith said, “subject to the law of justice” — unlike Milton Friedman and others, who thought a free market could be a substitute for the law of justice.

Likewise, I see a benefit to being able to create concentrations of wealth and use them to create new sources of wealth for the benefit of society.   American capitalists made it possible to create a U.S. steel industry, a computer industry and all the other industries.  Maybe this could have been done in some other way, but this is the way it happened. 

The problem is how to prevent mere possession of wealth from enabling its owners to monopolize the fruits of the economic system, which is what is happening now and which Marx thought was the inevitable result of capitalist ownership.

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Why the rich will probably get richer

April 2, 2014

changingUSwealthc

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Thomas Piketty (2013) translated by Arthur Goldhammer (2014)

Thomas Piketty of the University of Paris is the world’s foremost authority on income distribution and the super-rich. All the charts you see how income is being redistributed upward to the top 1 percent of income owners are based on work by him and his collaborators. In this new book, based on 20 years’ work, he concluded that it is not an aberration that ever-greater shares of income go to a tiny elite. Piketty said this is the natural working of a market system.

According to Piketty, the higher you go on the income scale, the larger the amount of income comes from investments rather than work. When the economic grows at a higher percentage rate than the average rate of return on investment, income becomes more widely distributed. When the average rate of return on investment is greater than the rate of economic growth, the owners of economic assets gain at the expense of everybody else.

His research is based on 200 years of data on income and wealth distribution in France, the UK, the USA and other countries, which now can be analyzed and processed with computer technology. His book would be a good supplement to David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years, whichi is sketchy on precisely the past two centuries.

Piketty concluded that the average rate of economic growth since 1800 is about 1 percent a year for the countries he studied, and the average rate of return on investment is about 4 to 5 percent a year. Unless something happens to change one or the other figures, a wealthy elite will grow richer and richer at the expense of everyone else, until there is nothing left to invest in.

pikettybookcover00Piketty defines “capital” as anything you can own that will generate income. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, capital (by his definition) consisted mainly of agricultural land and government bonds. Now it consists mainly of housing, industrial machinery and stocks and bonds of private corporations. Few economists would define “capital” in so broad a way, but if all you’re interested in is income distribution, it doesn’t matter what form “capital” takes.

If you read English and French novels set in the early 19th century, the characters consist mainly of members of what Piketty calls the “dominant” class, which are the 1 percent of the population who receive 30 to 60 times the average income, and the “well-to-do”, who consist of the next 9 percent. Characters in Balzac and Jane Austen seek wealth through inheritance, marriage and patronage of wealthier and more powerful people. Nobody in those novels thinks that wealth is acquired through hard work and superior talents. Piketty said there is nothing to prevent a reversion to this kind of world, although the difference between wealth and poverty wouldn’t be quite so extreme.

The reason the history of the 20th century was different, he wrote, is the great destruction of capital during the two world wars and the Great Depression. This cleared the deck for the great surge in prosperity of 1945-1975, which benefited all segments of the population. Since then, according to Piketty, the growth in income has been sucked up by the dominant and well-to-do classes.

Now I don’t think that someone born in 1900 would have thought the prosperity of 1945-1975 justified the catastrophes of 1915-1945. This points to an important limitation of Piketty’s book. It is full of fascinating information, drawn from a wide variety of sources, ranging from centuries of income and property tax records to social history, economic theory, literature and financial

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty

journalism. But when it comes right down to it, he deals with only one subject, the income share of the super-rich. He doesn’t have theories on how to eliminate poverty, promote economic growth, set priorities for public investment or any other important objective. This is not a criticism. It is just a description of what the book is and isn’t about.

His one subject – which is important – is the economic elite and how, short of violent revolution, to prevent from sucking up an undue share of society’s wealth and income. But as the experience of 1915-1945 shows, destroying the power of capital does not, in and of itself, make things better for everyone.

Piketty focuses on data from France and the UK because the United States is, in good and bad ways, exceptional compared to the rest of the world. During the past 200 years, the boundaries of France remained roughly the same and population grew from 30 million to 60 million. During the same period, the United States expanded from a narrow strip along the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and its population grew from 5 million to 300 million.

Income distribution in the United States historically has been more equal than in Europe, he noted, at least for white men in the Northern states. The chief form of capital in the early United States was agricultural land, and this was very cheap compared to Europe. Early settlers and immigrants brought little wealth with them. What they created was the fruit of their labor. A great deal of the capital for building U.S. factories and railroads came from European investors. The great American hereditary fortunes did not emerge until the dawn of the 20th century.

The South was different from the North because the economic elite possessed enormous capital in the form of enslaved human beings. Piketty estimated that in the 1770-1810 period, the economic value of slaves in the South exceeded the value of all land, housing and other forms of wealth, and also exceeded the total wealth of the North. The result was a high concentration of wealth, and a large gap between rich and poor white people, which persists to this day.

Differences in earned income, while great in all countries, have seldom been as important as differences in income from wealth. The exception is the surge in corporate compensation in the United States and other English-speaking countries in the last generation. Piketty showed, by means of international comparisons, that the current size of executive compensation cannot be justified on the basis of merit or results. It is the result of executives being able to influence their own pay, and the lack of standards as to how much is enough.

The disturbing fact about investment income is that the more you have of it, the higher your rate of return. Piketty compared the returns on endowment funds of American universities, which are a public record, by size categories. The larger the fund category, the higher the percentage return, with Harvard by far outpacing all the rest.

This is because the larger the fund, the more the owner can afford to get expert investment advice, and the better able the owner is to invest small amounts in high risk, high return investments. Also, unlike an individual who has saved for retirement, the super-wealthy person or institution does not have to take out a significant percentage to live on.

The implication is that once you reach a certain level of wealth, your wealth becomes self-sustaining. A Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs can simply coast. He not longer needs the entrepreneurial drive that brought him success in the first place. Piketty’s analysis of the Forbes 400 list indicates that inherited wealth is at least as important as entrepreneurial wealth, and he thinks Forbes vastly underestimates income from passive investments because of lack of access to tax havens.

Piketty’s solution is a tax on capital – which, remember, is by his definition any form of income-producing property – sufficient to bring the average return on investments down to the expected rate of economic growth. He pointed out that some forms of wealth, such as real estate and buildings, already are taxed. In principle, taxing stock portfolios is no different.

Since the average rate of return is greater for greater wealth, his proposed tax would be graduated, with a zero or 0.1 percent rate for fortunes below 1 million euros and perhaps rising as high as 2 percent above 5 million. These don’t seem high, but they are high compared to expected rates of return. He also favors continuation of the graduated income tax and inheritance taxes. His purpose is not to prevent people from getting rich. It is to prevent the rich as a group from getting richer at a faster rate than the economy is growing.

The revenue from the wealth tax should be spent in reducing government debt, which Piketty sees as a transfer of income from taxpayers to wealthy holders of government bonds. It is better to tax the rich than borrow from them, he said.

Piketty’s proposals require much better information about wealth and income than we have now. The first step would be for the international community to require reporting of financial information from places such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands that act as tax havens.

The 577-page book and the 76 pages of notes are crammed with information of interest even to those who don’t accept his basic argument. It is not written in technical language, which is part of the reason it is so long; Piketty, like the late Isaac Asimov, explains everything from the groun up.  If you don’t have time to read the whole book, his core argument can be found in the Introduction or Conclusion.  Or click on some of the links below.

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Free enterprise and the failure of feedback

February 7, 2014

The advantage of a free market economy over a centrally planned one is the feedback provided by the law of supply and demand.  If the supply of something decreases, the price increases and demand (at the increased price) decreases until the increased price brings forth an increased supply.  This admittedly is a crude system, but it is superior to central planning because it is impersonal.  It does not require a genius to make it work.

Ian Welsh, in a recent post, pointed out that one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet economy was lack of feedback.  In a command economy, the planners need correct information.  I question whether any relatively small group of people could assimilate the information needed to direct a large and complicated economy.  Welsh, on the contrary, said the Soviet economy actually was successful for a time, but broke down when the feedback system failed.  Too many people within the system found it to their advantage to manipulate information for their own advantage.

The present-day U.S. economy is not all that different.  Our big corporations and financial institutions have become little miniature Soviet Unions, in which feedback does not work, either internally or externally

The advantage of capitalism v. central planning, is that information is sent through prices, supply and demand.  This information feedback, however, is still game-able by power blocs.  The exact strategies are different than in a command economy, but the end result is the same.  The West and America are currently undergoing this exact problem.

The entire financial crisis was about inaccurate feedback, and broken feedback loops: it was about the financial and housing industries deliberately damaging the feedback system.   Then, when it finally went off a cliff, they destroyed the capitalistic feedback system, which when properly operating, makes companies go bankrupt, by obtaining bailouts due to owning western governments.

There are myriad other problems with feedback in the developed world right now, from massive subsidies of corn and oil, to oligopolistic practices rife through telecom and insurance, to the runaway printing of money by banks, to the concealment of losses by mark to fantasy on bank books, to the complete inability and unwillingness to price in the effects of pollution and climate change.

via Ian Welsh on The Fall of the USSR.

Here is how lack of feedback plays out in an individual firm.

This company is being managed by the quarter. We have executives who have no vested interest in Walmart. All they care about is their salary and bonus. So when they make poor decisions, for example this Christmas when they had a One Hour Guarantee for multiple items. This was a complete [financial] disaster but yet the executive praise what a big success it was. […]

You know what direction us managers were given to do in January? Remember Walmart’s fiscal year ends January 31st. You guess it, cut hours. For the poor decision made by executives at Walmart who could care less where the company is at in 10 or 20 years, we had to cut hours. 

Not only that we had to cut all expenses. Home office put a hold on all our ordering of supplies and try explaining to customers you don’t have toilet paper for the rest rooms. We had to cut all our part-time associates from 32 hours to 25.5 hours. All our full-time associates had their hours cut too. […]

Do you know how hard it is to go to someone that make $8.85 an hour and tell him, sorry but I have to cut you down to 25.5 hours. These people can barely pay their rent as it is and with no notice we cut their hours.

via Decades of Greed: Behind the Scenes With An Angry Walmart Manager.

I don’t have a good answer to this.  It is a moral problem as much as or more than it is a structural problem.  I don’t see how any complicated economic or political structure can function unless there is a critical mass of people who care about the truth, and care about the common good, especially but not only at the top.

Steve Jobs was a real-life Ayn Rand hero

January 23, 2014

steve-jobs-book-covers

Steve Jobs comes as close as anyone I know to being an Ayn Rand hero in real life.  As depicted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs, a semi-authorized biography, Jobs was utterly selfish and had no consideration of anyone or anything except his personal vision and obsessions.  At the same time he was a genius who created a great company and transformed the personal computer, digital animation, the telephone, photography and much else.

Many Occupy Wall Street protestors, who hated most of the “1 percent”, nevertheless mourned the death of Steve Jobs because, unlike crooked Wall Street financiers, he actually accomplished something.   Walter Isaacson wrote he was the most important American industrialist since Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

I find it easy to mock those who, as Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, once put it, were born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple.  A great many of our so-called meritocracy contribute little or nothing or mainly harmful things to society.  But it is more difficult to decide what I think a total egotist who accomplished great things.

This is nothing in Isaacson’s book to indicate that Steve Jobs ever read the works of Ayn Rand or gave a thought about her philosophy.  His intellectual interests, such as they were, were in Zen Buddhism, New Age teaching and rock and roll.

Buddhism contributed to his keen aesthetic sense, based on simplicity and elegance.  But he evidently did not take to heart the Buddhist teaching that the ego is an illusion and you should not make yourself unhappy if you don’t get your way.  Quite the contrary.

Steve Jobs’ great talent was in industrial design.   He brought art and technology together.  As has often been pointed out, all the basic features of the Macintosh computer – the mouse, clickable icons and so on – were developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory, and hijacked by Jobs.  But it was Jobs, not Xerox management, who understood what to do with these concepts.  The Macintosh was historic.  Xerox’s own Star computer is forgotten.

As an artist, he was a perfectionist.  He made big changes at the last minute rather than allow a flawed (in his eyes) product go on the market.  I can easily imagine him, like Ayn Rand’s fictional architect Howard Roark, destroying something he created rather than let someone else spoil it.

He was not easy to work with.  He had no patience with the merely adequate.  He was quick to classify people as geniuses or bozos, based on hasty impressions.  But at the same time he respected people who stood up to him—provided they proved to be right.  He was a charismatic personality, famous for his “reality distortion field,” who was able to impose his ideas on other people almost in spite of themselves.  His insistence on getting his own way drove his people to achieve more than they ever thought they could.

stevejobs.reincarnationI use Apple products and I enjoy Pixar animation (which he did not create but fostered).  At the same time I am glad that I never met Steve Jobs, and I do not recommend him as a role model.  He treated those closest to him badly, including his loving and self-sacrificial foster parents, the mother of his first child and his loyal friend Steve Wozniak.  He cared little for anyone he did not regard as a fellow genius.  He did not practice nor believe in economic democracy.  When a visitor asked about working conditions in Apple factories, his reaction was anger and contempt.

I’m glad Steve Jobs lived.  I respect his achievement, and the passion that fueled his achievement.  I would not subtract anything from his wealth or honors.  At the same time I would not want to live in a society dominated by people like Steve Jobs or, worse still, people with Steve Jobs’ attitude toward life but not his talent.   The world benefits from obsessive hard-driving geniuses, but that does not mean that ordinary people, who do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, count for nothing.

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For more, click on Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale by Ben Austen for Wired.

What if the era of economic growth is over?

January 6, 2014

Economic-Growth

The justification for capitalism is that no other economic system has been so successful in generating economic growth.   While economic growth does not in itself create mass prosperity, it creates the conditions in which mass prosperity is possible.

I’ve written many posts about the era when most Americans shared in the benefits of economic growth.  But an economist named Raul Ilarji Meijer asks:  What if growth is gone for good?

Every single proposal to deal with our weakened economies, whether they address housing markets, budget deficits, overall federal and personal debt, or pensions systems, is geared towards the same idea: a return to growth. It doesn’t seem to matter how real or likely it is, we all simply accept it as a given: there will be growth. It is as close to a religion as most of us get.

And while it may be true that in finance and politics the arsonists are running the fire station and the lunatics the asylum, we too are arsonists and loonies as long as we have eyes for growth only.  That doesn’t mean we should let Jamie Dimon [CEO of JP Morgan Chase] and his ilk continue what they do with impunity, it means that dealing with them will not solve the bigger issue: our own illusions and expectations.

We allow the decisions for our future to be made by those people who have the present system to thank for their leading positions in our societies, and we should really not expect them to bite the hand that has fed them their positions.

But that does mean that we, and our children, are not being prepared for the future; we’re only being prepared, through media and education systems, for a sequel of the past, or at best the present. That might work if the future were just an extrapolation of the past, but not if it’s substantially different.

If there is less wealth to go around, much less wealth, in the future, what do we do?  How do we, and how do our children, organize our societies, our private lives, and our dealings with other societies?  Whom amongst us is prepared to deal with a situation like that?  Whom amongst our children is today being educated to deal with it?  The answer to either question is never absolute zero, but it certainly does approach it.

[snip]

All we’ve really done in the new millennium is seek ways to hide our debts instead of restructuring them.  You can throw a few thousand people out of their homes, but if you label the by far biggest debtors, the banks, as too big to fail, and hence untouchable, nothing significant is restructured.  But that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away by itself, the by far biggest debt in the history of mankind.  At some point it must hit us in the form of a massive steamroller of dissolving and disappearing credit.  In a world that can’t function without it.

The question is to what degree our economic growth depends on burning up fossil fuels at an ever-faster rate, and what happens when what’s left of those fuels becomes prohibitively expensive.  Can we find a way to increase, or even maintain, our economic well-being by using human labor and other renewable resources more intelligently?

If our current capitalist system has outlived its usefulness, what would a new and better system be like?  If capitalism is the best system for economic growth, what system would be best for a steady-state economy?  It goes without saying that it would not be like the failed Soviet system!

This is why I am interested in learning more about anarchist philosophy.

What do you think?

Click on All The Plans We Make For Our Futures Are Delusions for Ilarji’s full post on The Automatic Earth web log.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.