I’m not apologizing for it, but by now I’d hope it would be obvious to regular readers that not every post represents 100% original content. The late, great Issac Asimov would often claim anthologies of others’ work that he edited as part of his Opera (that’s the correct plural of Opus in Latin, in English the more common term is Opuses) and he was right to do that. It’s a lot of damn work reading through enough material to gain a grasp of the existing literature and then select those pieces worthy of highlighting.
I like to think I’m drawing your attention to something you might otherwise not notice.
Anyway I’ve been aware of Ed Walker’s work on topics of a mostly Economic nature since he was masaccio (only the coolest writers use all lower case) over at Firedoglake and now he’s serially published what amounts to a non-Fiction book on the decline of Neoliberalism over at emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler’s place, with a supplement at Naked Capitalism where Lambert Strether and Yves Smith hang out.
I’ve been following this series since October but I’ve obviously missed a part or two (hey, what about busy is not understood?) and it’s reached it’s conclusion, so if you’re interested in leisurely read this weekend (or over Thanksgiving) you might take a look.
The questions I started with were 1. How did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse; 2. Was there an alternative; and 3. How can we move to some other form of discourse.
I started with the premise that the neoliberal project has two prongs, a theory of the person in society and an economic theory.
The person in society is as a rational actor whose only important role is to get a job producing stuff which provides money to buy stuff based solely on a rational calculation of utility. The work part doesn’t apply to people with money. They just rationally concentrate on getting more money. People with no money and no job are subject to discipline by the carceral state. It doesn’t matter why they don’t have jobs. No work, no money, no freedom.
The economic theory is based on neoclassical economics, with its roots in 19th Century morality and the idea that everything can be stated mathematically. The morality is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, with a strong dose of Calvinism evidenced by the phrase “the lash of hunger”.
Economists created a group of sayings which they put in their introductory textbooks and teach as laws and principles to their students at all levels. For example, N. Gregory Mankiw, economics professor at Harvard, starts his introductory economics textbook Principles of Macroeconomics with a list of ten Principles he claims almost all economists agree are true. Any thoughtful person reading this list will see that these ten statements are either tautological (you can’t do two things at once) or are mere rules of thumb. The idea that you could build a positivist science on this foundation is absurd. But Mankiw disagrees, and so does everyone who took Econ 101 and stopped, and especially so do the elites from our top schools.
It’s not surprising, then, that this version of economics is failing. It cannot perform the basic goal of a scientific theory, making accurate predictions. Economic models have failed and will continue to fail to predict disasters; and there isn’t much hope that they will ever be able to predict anything of interest.
I’ll stop here to note that Mankiw is an ignorant hack and sold out opportunist and if you can’t be bothered to read a seminal work like John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money at least get yourself a good textbook like Nordhaus and Samuelson’s Economics.
For many economists, the Phillips Curve is structural. But why would you think so? It seems more likely that the relationship holds in a certain set of social conditions, including legislation and regulation, power conditions, and people’s attitudes. A logical use of the data is to work out the conditions that must exist to make it so. That’s how Piketty approaches his inequality data.
It’s a mistake to use a coincidence to predict the future. It seems to be a particular problem in economics. Even people who seem to know better continue to believe in the Phillips Curve.
This part is a little wonky and contains what passes for Math in Economics, equal parts of substituting symbols for assumptions and rattle shaking Shamanism fitted around a carefully curated data set designed to prove the formula instead of reflect reality, which is too noisy for our dignified academic tastes.
The next piece, designated 3A by Ed Walker, covers much of the same ground but is more accessible to non-Economists. It was published at Naked Capitalism.
The Phillips Curve says that there is an inverse relation between unemployment and inflation. Low unemployment is correlated with a rise in inflation. It’s an article of faith to economists of all stripes. It’s listed in the popular introductory economics textbook by N. Gregory Mankiw as one of the Ten Things All Economists agree on. It’s especially loved by the Fed, which raises or lowers interest rates depending in part on its predictions. Its critics point out that its predictions are poor.
In this post, I discuss the derivation of the Phillips Curve, its adaption by Samuleson and Solow to manage the economy, its breakdown in the 1970s, exploitation by neoliberals of that breakdown to replace Keynesian demand-based economics with monetarism and supply-side economics, its rejuvenation, and the evidence that it doesn’t make accurate predictions.
I conclude with some observations based on an important paper by Simcha Barkai that challenges the core beliefs of neoliberalism. It suggests we can raise wages substantially without causing inflation by lowering corporate profits.
Still has some of that Voodoo Math though, but it’s easier to identify as crap.
Now, all of that is what I call above “gain(ing) a grasp of the existing literature” and in academia “review of existing literature” (it’s an important part of every paper, it proves you’ve read your opponent before you rip them to shreds). Now we get to answering our three questions.
In this post, I take up the nature of the person in neoliberal theory and neoliberal society. I begin by describing the nature of the person in theory, and then apply it to elites. In a separate post I will discuss the nature of the average person in neoliberal theory and society. Then I will try to put this in a general context, based on my initial readings on Critical Theory.
The neoliberal theory of the person is the basis of the economics most of the elites learn as undergrads, and in business schools. Lawyers are taught neoliberal principles in anti-trust classes and in the jurisprudential aspects of other courses, through the impact of the law and economics movement. When elites get jobs in business or law or government, they are surrounded by others who are deeply enmeshed in neoliberalism, even if they can’t name it. They believe that the market, whatever that is, is a wonderful, if occasionally erratic, judge of worth. They earn what they make because the market rewards the productive, and everyone finds their level in that system of rewards, based on their personal merit and their productivity. As they rise in pay and prestige, that opinion is cemented. It’s like Calvinism, with the market substituted for the Almighty. And if the market rewards the productive and dumps on the “non-productive”, then that is right and just.
The farther elites get from the productive work of businesses, the more they come to regard employees as cogs in a machine, not fully human, merely factors of production. The ease with which they fire people is the result of their belief that elites are productive and the rest tools. Lawyers and politicians may see their employees as humans, if weak versions, but the rest of the working world vanishes, except when needed. In brief, the elites operationalize Karl Polanyi’s concept of labor as a fictitious commodity.
And how does this work out for the lesser people? They are forced to live and work in the neoliberal world.
It’s fairly easy to criticize neoliberalism from the inside, just based on its incoherence and its failure to deliver good outcomes to most of us. The Barkai Paper discussed in parts 3 and 3A, and the Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers make it obvious that the benefits of neoliberalism flow to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, whose wages are largely stagnant and have been for decades, and whose share of overall wealth has fallen.
Neoliberalism can also be criticized from the outside as a form of capitalism, and that seems to me to be more revealing. The constricted logic of capitalism leads directly to domination by the few in business and society generally.
Somehow many people think billionaires as just like the rest of us. They aren’t, and the vulgar braggart in the White House is a perfect exemplar. But far too many of us are willing to accept rule by the rich. One of the central influences that led to this sorry situation is the Law and Economics movement, with its single-minded focus on economic efficiency. Economic efficiency: who could object that? Of course we should be efficient.
Once courts decided that the most important part of justice is insuring economic efficiency, they began to eat away at the laws and theories that enabled the majority to control the rich and powerful. Ideals like the importance of fairness, or social equality, or recognizing and correcting power imbalances through legislation, withered and vanished. Gradually we lost the ability to govern by majority rule. Our Supreme Court feels no compunction in overruling the will of the majority on health care, on voting rights, even on actual elections.
That is the result of the same kind of logic that drives capitalism, the logic of economic efficiency applied to every area of life. A somewhat simple idea that might be useful in limited settings becomes the overall mindset, the formula for decision-making that jumps from the tiny number of cases in which it might be a useful to the absurd idea that it works in every area of law.
Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, said that the profit motive has always been a form of the power motive. It just gets dressed up in fancy reductive logic by the likes of Posner and Bork for public consumption. Regardless of their motives, they are no different from Frank Luntz, who uses the tools of rhetoric to hide the ugly transformations sought by the rich.
All these changes start small, and require something that seems like a justification, but eventually, it’s just the whim of the elites. That’s how Trump acts, and that’s how the more effective members of his cabinet and his other appointees act. Rex Tillerson is destroying our capacity to engage in diplomacy. Scott Pruitt is destroying our ability to protect ourselves from climate change and pollution. Jeff Sessions is wrecking the Justice Department. All this was foreshadowed by the destruction of the SEC under Shad.
When government is dismantled, how does a society work? The rich take over and run things according to their fancies.
That’s the logic of capitalism. Control the capitalists or they control you.
You can see why I like him.