State, market – and community

Raghuram Rajan is best known for publicly warning of an impending financial crisis in August 2005, at the annual Jackson Hole conference, for which he was mocked by some of the big names present. He then wrote one of the best books about the underlying causes of the crisis, Fault Lines, still well worth reading. Subsequently he was the highly respected central bank governor of India. Not surprisingly, I was very much looking forward to his new book, The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind. The subtitle says it all, and I couldn’t agree more. There is a false dichotomy in much public debate, the claim that organising the economy is a matter of either the state or the market, whereas it is impossible to disentangle the two. But more than this, other non-market, non-state institutions are part of the economic system too. This includes businesses – as Herb Simon once pointed out – but also the kind of institutions Rajan considers in this book, civic and above all local organisations responding to specific local need.

He opens by stating: “In my adult life, I have never been more concerned about the direction our leaders are taking us than I am today.” Surely this sense that capitalism and liberal democracy are fundamentally broken is widespread. The argument here is that part of the solution is to recognise the importance of the neighbourhood and include it as part of the balance of a mixed economy. In a sense community and market are at different ends of a spectrum – from personal relationships to anonymity, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Rajan argues for some decisions to be taken at the level of the community, rather than the remoter processes of market and state.

The first part of the book is a concise historical survey looking at the emergence of the state and the market. The second part turns to the context of modern capitalism, driven toward the goal of shareholder value maximisation, and fuelled by technological innovation and automation. Rajan is highly critical of the shareholder value mantra – and it’s interesting to see a growing chorus of criticism of Milton Friedman’s toxic contribution to capitalism, such as Colin Mayer’s recent Prosperity. Rajan points out: “When an enormous source of independent power, the private sector, is passive or, worse, rendered suspect in the eyes of the community because its every action has to be in pursuit of corporate profits, there are fewer checks on the arbitrary power of the state.” He argues that the “enormous gamble” states took in the early years of the 21st century – that borrowing in deregulated financial markets would be the source of broad-based sustainable growth – utterly failed. Populism is thus the legacy of the financial crisis.

The book then considers some of the manifestations of the failed gamble, and this echoes a now sadly all too familiary genre studying the decline of communities around all the western economies, such as Janesville and The Unwinding. Rajan advocates the devolution of power, “from the international sphere to nations, and within nations from the federal to the regional to the community level.” The Third Pillar needs to be reinvigorated. There needs to be more scope for people to fill in gaps left by formal economic structures, to experiment with structures of political and economic governance, to create meaningful, non-market local work. I agree with this, again, but the book wisely accepts that this is not easy and local success will be slow. There is a bootstrapping process to get localities onto a virtous circle.

Rajan does not offer specific proposals, and in a way could not because it’s in the nature of local solutions not to be easy to generalise. It would be well worth trying to understand more systematically what kinds of decisions are best taken at what level of governance – as far as I know there is relatively little social science on this, although it’s easy enough to see that, say, climate change policy or digital competition policy needs international co-operation, whereas public services could be far more devolved and differentiated. The issue of Victorian institutional innovation also intrigues me: among the responses to the Industrial Revolution were the emergence of trade unions, mutual savings societies, working men’s literary and philosophical clubs, co-operatives…. is there any comparable social innovation today, and is anybody tracking it and sharing the lessons?

The Third Pillar is published in a couple of weeks, available for pre-order now. It’s author was very right in 2007. He’s very right again now.

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The future of capitalism?

The Future of Capitalism, Paul Collier’s new book, is not a small subject. In fact, the first half of the book is largely retrospective, looking at how capitalism got into today’s mess. There is a particular focus on the loss of moral compass in the organising structures of collective life – the family, the firm, the state. This echoes a number of authors identifying growing individualism, fed by the ideology of ‘the market’, as a corrosive force progressively undermining the conditions that enable it – Bell’s phrase ‘the cultural contradictions of capitalism‘ encapsulates it neatly.

Collier – a distinguished economist whose career has centred on developing economies –  expresses this critique with eloquence and conviction. He has a particular focus on the role of economic theory in validating self-serving behaviours such as bosses paying themselves hundreds of times more than their workers, and sketches an alternative approach to economics which embeds social norms and social influences on preferences. He blames the utilitarian and Rawlsian approaches to ethics, and advocates the communitarian alternative. I’m not persuaded by communitarianism, but surely you have to be pretty obtuse – a banker, maybe – to disagree with the diagnosis. Nobody thinks capitalism is doing just great at the moment.

It is of course harder to address the challenges than to diagnose them, and in a short book like this you can’t expect a detailed policy agenda. The book identifies three divides to be tackled: between successful global cities and ‘left behind’ places (although he deoesn’t use this term); between the skilled, well-paid, globe-trotting elite and the rest; between the rich and poor countries. It ends with the observation that capitalism is the only economic order capable of creating mass prosperity, but that it has not worked to do so since the 1945-70 period. This skates over the evident failings of postwar capitalism, which created the conditions for the ideological turn of the 1970s: inflation, shoddy nationalised industries, insider-outside labour markets and so on. Still, the suggestion here is that what’s needed is a combination of a rediscovery of ethics by political leaders (I’m not holding my breath on this front) and the shaping of identity around a shared sense of belonging to a place (rather than the more abstract ‘nation’ or identity-politics groupings).

This left me feeling a bit depressed. I can’t shake the feeling, despite only listening to the news while hiding behind the sofa these days, that it will take some cataclysmic event to reset current political dynamics. Another aspect of the turn to individualism in the 1970s was the existence of an intellectual framework on which to hang the political transformation, and I don’t see as yet a sufficiently broad and consistent alternative to the isolated individual, self-interested, rational choice model. Something for us economists to work on – as indeed Collier and others have started to do.

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Morals and economics

Every time I read something about Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation – and it’s in vogue now – I go back to my copy and confirm how much it annoys me. It’s the over-statement or pomposity that does it, rather than the broad outlines: markets mean inevitable cataclysm. “Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.” He goes on to argue that the social crises and conflicts of the early 20th century were caused by the disruption to the market and economy caused by the reactions to the market forces leading to social annihilation.

Similar arguments have been made by many others, from Daniel Bell (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism) to any number of left-leaning authors. The Moral Economists by Tim Rogan puts Polanyi in the context of a succession of critics of capitalism, preceded by R.H.Tawney and succeeded by E.P.Thompson, whose common territory was a rejection of utilitarianism: “The moral economists argued that the solidarities they found in Lancashire, Red Vienna and Yorkshire harbored unique promise: here social interaction was more meaningful than utilitarian analyses allowed, without becoming regimented in the way of so many contemporary social experiments.” They shared a more rounded sense of human personality than homo economicus in the utilitarian analyses, as well as a conviction about the role of social interaction and solidarity in economic outcomes. Tawney, for instance, opposed Fabian socialism because of its dry utilitarianism.

Rogan gives Polanyi a sympathetic reading, noting that he regarded Adam Smith as a moral economist, with the decline into ‘economism’ coming later – this is a reading of Smith, and emphasis on The Moral Sentiments, that has become more prominent in the past decade or so. The Moral Economists argues that the Tawney/Polanyi intellectual agenda was stymied, however, by the postwar turn away from religion in particular and traditional moralism in general. For this reason, it argues, E.P.Thompson was unable to reinvigorate the moral critique of capitalism. However, Rogan asks, surely the critics of contemporary capitalism need to restore a role for morality or virtue in a secular world?

The book ends with a section on the inadequacy of modern welfare economics based on the Pareto optimality idea, and is sympathetic to Sen’s approach. I agree about this. Rogan ends: “Politics pervades commercial societies, frustrating technocratic visionaries of the 21st century [Bell would agree about this too] just as it confounded the goat-and-greyhound utilitarians of the 19th century. … In an age of extremes, the moral economists discovered in their midst the elements of humane, solidaristic, low-key and non-authoritarian politics of reform.” Can we do the same in today’s context of extremes and the all-too-apparent flaws of the current version of capitalism?

It’s an interesting book, and I agreed with much of the argument about putting virtue back into economics, although I find ‘capitalism’ (without further explanation) an unhelpful abstraction looking across such a long and eventful timespan.

(But I’m still not going to change my mind about Polanyi.)

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There is no alternative?

Is Capitalism Obsolete by Giacomo Corneo is framed as an exploration of alternatives to capitalism by an economics professor father to his idealistic daughter. The Prologue is an email exchange between them, in which she writes: “Your economic system is wasteful, unjust and alienating. And wastefulness, injustive and alienation are not the result of some natural law. They are the result of particular social rules, the rules of capitalism. And keep in mind that the capitalist economic system is the product of a relatively short period in history. Just as it once emerged, it will one day decline and be replaced with a better set of rules.”

Set up in this way, the book explores some of the alternative models posited at various times, from Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia through anarchism and socialist planning to modern variants including ‘shareholder socialism’ (state ownership of key industries) and the currently fashionable cure-all, Universal Basic Income. At the end of this journey, the economist concludes: “There is, at present, not really much else on offer.” However unfair, wasteful etc capitalism is, there is no convincingly superior alternative. Instead, the author proposes a range of reforms – cracking down on cross-border tax avoidance/evasion, investing in infrastructure & public services etc – concluding, “A pluralist market economy with an effective and generous welfare state represents the best economic system that is currently available to us.” An appendix contains a more detailed specific reform proposal, the idea that the state should invest in quoted companies to build up a socially responsible sovereign wealth fund paying a social dividend to citizens.

I have never found the abstraction ‘capitalism’ a helpful term when it encompasses societies as contrasting as Norway and the United States, and have always quite liked the slightly out-of-fashion ‘varieties of capitalism‘ approach. Even if you think the term useful, though, looking at the news this past week, Corneo is surely rather optimistic here in seeing any possibility for reform. Capitalism might be declining, as the daughter asserts, but it looks more likely to be replaced by something worse, call it plutocracy, than by something better.

This is a slighly odd book. I guess it’s meant to be pedagogical, taking students on a tour of historical thinking about economic systems, but this makes the framing material about the current day rather perfunctory, and then the actual reform proposal is stuck in an appendix. Although a mildly diverting read, I’m not sure it works well either as a history of thought book or as a current affairs one.

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Things and Beyond

I’ve been reading Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th century to the 21st, which has taken a while as it’s 600+ pages. It has been an enjoyable read but with two flaws – more on these later.

The book does what it says in the subtitle, drawing on a major research programme, and is truly impressive in its scope and detail. It traces global (and genuinely so although with a strong tilt to the West) trends in consumption through the long sweep of history. It links these trends in behaviour to trends in thought about personal and social ethics, and the individual in the family and in society. It addresses the entire chain of production and consumption from resources to waste. It draws on a wide array of disciplinary knowledge, including philosophy, history, sociology and even some economics.

The book sets up a tension through all of this material: “The view that being and having are opposites … has a very long history. But so has an alternative trajectory that sees people as only becoming human through the use of things.” Among other forces, technology keeps this tension alive over time, as new things keep on appearing. And it’s interesting to see that certain things are particularly compelling – stockings for one. The 17th century knitting framemade better, cheaper stockings possible, and the early national accountant Gregory King estimated in 1688 that 10 million pairs a year were purchased. This reminded me of the tidal wave of nylon stockings sold by Dupont – 800,000 pairs on 15 May 1940, the first day of sale, alone.

Consumption clearly depended on rising incomes, and the book traces a switch to “the creation of value through consumption, not just production” from the 19th century – it argues that consumer society has its roots in the Industrial Revolution rather than as is often argued the post-war boom. There’s an interesting couple of sections – in the light of the way technology is currently blurring the previously sharp consumption/production divide – on the role of consumer durables. I disagree with Trentmann’s suggestion that, “The appeal of goods such as the automatic washing machine was far from self-evident.” He notes that the aggregate time spent on household work was not reduced significantly by such consumer durables – and then observes in passing and ignores the class distinctions. Middle class women were decreasingly likely to have servants and did more of their own housework. Working class women – like my mother and Hans Rosling’s – were truly given hours of time by automatic washing machines. John Kenneth Galbraith (I’m sure he never did an iota of laundry in his life) said consumer durables enslaved women; but even if – as he argued – easier washing meant more washing to have cleaner clothes, why is this not a better outcome?

Turning back to that original tension – does our relationship with things dehumanize us or the opposite? Is consumerism basically bad or good? – I’m with Hume. As Trentmann describes the Humean view: “An encounter with a new object was one way in which intelligence and feeling were inspired and strengthened.” (And isn’t this one of the big questions about AI and consciousness – can intelligences without sense perceptions become conscious?)

The modern no-growther’s disdain for consumption seems to me to be of a piece with the instinct in the past that gave us sumptuary laws. Rich folk thought poor folk should stay in their place, dressing up the restrictions on the purchases the masses were allowed to make in moralising garb. But as Adam Smith put it, it was, “[T]he highest impertinence and presumption for kings and ministers to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exceptions, the greatest spendthrifts in society.” Of course we need to pay far greater attention to resource use and to waste, but it is the affluent who are cavalier about the importance of growing real incomes and consumption – Janan Ganesh in his column today describes them as ‘too-rich-to-care bohemians’.

There is lots to enjoy in Empire of Things, therefore; I’m exactly the kind of reader who likes detail of the sort its pages are packed with.

I would have liked more economics, and more figures. There is a nice section on the mutual interaction of prices and tastes, as with the switch in British taste from coffee to tea in the later 1700s: a chart of tea and coffee prices would have been nice. But I have two bigger criticisms. One is that the book seriously needed an edit. The argument gets swamped in detail and it should have been 25% shorter. Some sections, especially those on non-western trends, fall between two stools – insufficiently detailed in themselves but enough to distract from the flow.

The biggest issue I have, however, is that the book never addresses the distinction between material and non-material consumption. It puts really a great deal of emphasis on the physical nature of consumer goods – and then skips to a discussion of some non-material aspect of consumption such as public health measures or public education, or leisure activities like the cinema. The issue of increased expenditure on services and intangibles is dismissed in just over two separate pages (out of 690), by saying that spending on housing, transport and food combined accounts for the same proportion of the household budget in 2007 as in 1958; and that in the OECD as a whole material consumption rhas continued to rise. Yet people are spending a growing proportion of their incomes on warmth, space, travel, variety, quality, entertainment as they grow richer. The immaterial is embedded in the material, and there is absolutely no reason to be complacent about the environmental footpring of the global economy; but (even knowing I may be biased about this) it is surely a significant development in the history of consumption (albeit a transition of affluence) that value is being created largely by the non-material now? (The forthcoming Capitalism without Capital by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake addresses this.)

Still, it’s probably a good sign when a huge book leaves you more inclined to ask for more rather than wishing there had been less, and the balance tips that way for me despite it being in need of a blue pencil in parts.

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