Friday, January 7. 2011
I've been meaning to write about Maxine Udall's Company Store Redux post. It's based on a paper by Michael Kumhof and Romain Ranciere called "Inequality, Leverage, and Crises." As economists like to do, this builds its understanding around a simplified model, dividing the world into two income groups: workers and investors:
Udall goes on to describe mining company stores in terms that will be familiar to anyone who recalls Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" (actually a Merle Travis song, and worth seeking out in the original, although Ford's version is the one permanently etched in my mind, probably the most-played record I owned in the late 1950s). The key point is that when corporate control is so complete, wages just recycle back to the company in a closed loop -- kind of like the old joke about the bar that only rents you beer. The result:
That's a pretty bad situation, at least if you're a worker or a servant, but it also turns out to be unsustainable:
My emphasis there, because that's the point I want to make sure you all get. The so-called investor class has pretty much had free reign to run the world company store since the early 1980s. They've become ever more dominant, ever more powerful, and ever more exposed to the absurdity of their political chokehold on the economy. The crisis occurred because they extended debt to people who couldn't afford it and justified it by pointing to asset values inflated by their own excesses. This basic critique has been made now and then -- David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010, Oxford University Press) is pretty dry but gets it right. The important thing about this piece is that it's one of the very few pieces that zeroes in on the only viable solution. As Kumhof and Ranciere put it:
Udall added the emphasis in her quote. Nice to have some theory here, but this should also be clear from practical examples. The US economy grew much faster from 1945-70 when real working class incomes were on the rise than it has from 1980-2010 when real incomes have been stagnant at best, even while asset prices inflated even faster. Even today, when you look at economies that are actually growing at significant rates -- China, India, Brazil -- one thing they have in common is that they are places where workers' real incomes and standards of living are growing (regardless of how pitiful they may seem relative to US and Europe). Moreover, real investments -- that is, investments that actually bother to increase productive capability -- are most often made in economies where real wages are growing (as opposed to the US, a capitalist nation with an ever-dwindling capital resource base, because we don't have the political will to halt its erosion). As Udall concludes:
I've been trying to make this point all along, so let me reiterate: the only way to get the American economy going again -- seriously, the only way to save capitalism -- is to increase demand from the bottom of the economy up, and that can't be done without a redistribution of wealth and won't be done without a redistribution of political power. There are lots of ways to do this, and it doesn't have to result in perfect equality or anything close to it (although that would be nice), but it can't be faked (as it has through the extension of debt over the last twenty years). Still, we are a long ways from recognizing this truth, and will suffer mightily until we do.