Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Stiglitz et al's "Rewriting the Rules": How do we get from here to there?



Two of the left’s leading lights in terms of economic thinking have books that came out recently. I’m not sure what the order was, but Robert Reich blew up my Facebook timeline promoting his new book “Saving Capitalism from the Capitalist”. Stiglitz hits many of the same points here in “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy”.

This book has its roots in a report from the Roosevelt Institute, and its layout and overall tone belie the audience. It was written more towards policy makers and a popular audience than towards students of economics. It was a team effort too – they just slapped his name right up front because he’s the one with the Nobel Prize, and if you forget that they also put that on the cover too.

In terms of content, the stronger part is the first half, where Joe and company look at various issues facing the national economy today like increased monopoly power, and the idea of shareholder value, and low taxes for the rich all while marginalizing the worker and minorities. Structurally, this book is nice and symmetrical, as it is not one of those where 90% is problem and 10% is resolution. Fully half of the book is proposals on what needs to be done.

Basically, what needs to be done is to make the economy more like it was in the golden age of capitalism, but this time with less racism and sexism. The problem with both this book and Reich’s book is that there is no sense of a mechanism of how to do this. Of the people in my generation, we look and see that Capitalism has always been this way, so it doesn’t make sense to roll back some of the bad things when they will creep back when you’re not looking.

Both authors mention Gailbraith’s conception of the “Countervailing Powers” that are absent, and they remain away from the scene and political decisions that are happening right now are trying to make it such that workers lose their separate identities as workers and lose their ability to collectively bargain. The left only has one branch of the federal government, and they re-pick that every four years. What hits me is that Stiglitz doesn’t want anything new, but the economy in terms of what we do to create the GDP is vastly different than it was 70 years ago. At least Reich is looking at how to come to terms with a post scarcity sort of economy in the first world by proposing a basic income, but as much as I like Stiglitz, I was missing any sense of something new.

Even then, so many of the rollbacks would involve large political movements just on their own that they would have to have some sort of mass movement behind them to pull them through as a whole plan, like new New Deal. As it is, the political process is such that you have blood of children running in the street and nothing gets done because of partisan priorities. There’s money involved in stopping any rollbacks. I’m just not sure how we get from here to there, even at the margins.