Weekend reading - Grantham on Capitalism  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

If you've got some free time I'd recommend these 2 articles:

The destruction of job security and financial prospects in the western world for workers without in-demand skills had created a generation of recluses living on the internet - Trump is their revenge on reality. "Trump’s younger supporters know he’s an incompetent joke; in fact, that’s why they support him." - 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump.

Jeremy Grantham has a different look at the same problem in his latest newsletter: "The question now is: what for will the struggle take ?" - Grantham: ‘Twas capitalism that killed capitalism.

The data on rising inequality also led me to check what others had thought and written on this issue and made me realize that a self-destructive streak in capitalism had been well-noted in the past. A particular surprise to me was Schumpeter – he of “creative destruction fame” – who believed capitalism in its current form would eventually fail through overreaching, using its increasing power to dispense with regulations designed to protect the public good (that has a painful echo today doesn’t it?) until pushback FDR style (or Teddy Roosevelt style) results in a more controlled mix, which Schumpeter called socialism. There was also a suggestion in his work and that of Keynes that excessive corporate power would weaken the demand from ordinary workers and hence weaken the economy. This last point is also emphasized more recently by Mancur Olson, who argued that “Parochial cartels and lobbies tend to accumulate over time until they begin to sap a country’s vitality. A war or some other catastrophe sweeps away the choking undergrowth of pressure groups,” as The Economist rather eloquently summarized his thinking in his obituary of March 1998.

To promote a pushback against excessive corporatism (and elements of oligarchy) one needs first of all to recognize the problem. Given the rather apathetic response from what used to be called “the workers” to the last 30 years of relative slide, there appears to have been no such recognition. But then on the eve of the election I realized that the point had finally been made. For an astonishing 75% of those first 9,000 polled agreed that, yes, we did indeed need to be saved from the rich and powerful. From now on, in my opinion, we live in a different world from the one we grew up in. A world in which a degree of economic struggle between the financial elite, perhaps 10% but more likely 1%, and all the rest is finally recognized. The wimpy phase is probably over. The question now is which path will this struggle take? Will it be a broad societal effort through established political means to move things back to the 1950s to 1960s when a CEO’s pay was 40x his average employee’s pay and not today’s over 300x; when corporations never dreamt of leaving the US merely to save money; when investment banks set the standard (and a very high one) of ethical behavior? Or do we try to do it through the other historically well-used method, and a much more dangerous one – that of resorting to a “strong leader?” Strong leaders work out just fine if we end up with a Marcus Aurelius, the mostly benevolent and wisest of Roman Emperors. But when things go wrong, as they often do, we could more easily end up with Caligula. ...

I felt the pain from the “strong leader” bit because, like almost all in my age cohort, I am fanatically well-disposed to democracy. We were born, after all, at a time that overlapped the trio of nightmarish, strong leaders of the 1930s and 1940s, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. But I believe this fanaticism has weakened in other age cohorts born less close to these three as they have receded steadily into history. A recent report5 captured this decline: Of those born, as I was, in the 1930s, fully 75% gave a 10 out of 10 for extreme support for democracy. But each younger cohort felt less enthusiastic: 62%, 57%, 50%, and 43% for each younger cohort by decade until by the time we get to those born in the 1970s, the 40-year-olds, extreme support is down to 32%! And this is not the worst of it. The same report listed those who were actually against democracy as a “bad” or “very bad” way to “run this country.” Shockingly, in the period from 1995 to 2011, the percent of each age group agreeing to that proposition doubled. From 5.5% to 12% for those over 65 rising to a frightening 24%, up from 12.5% for the 16- to 24-year-olds. ...

The real challenge in promoting less inequality is to increase the share of GDP going to labor. Almost certainly, for any given increase in their share of GDP there must be a decline in the share going to corporate profits. How does the program of the new strong leader stack up on this one? He is surrounded by capitalists and billionaires who, to further advantage corporations and the super rich, are apparently prepared to wage war on the already sadly diminished regulations that defend ordinary people (and, yes, with no regulations corporations would make more money). The war would also include direct tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which would further increase the share of the pie going to corporations. This is a strategy that if successful in the long-run – despite its current market appeal – could not possibly be worse for the workers if he tried. Perhaps they, the workers, will feel betrayed as their share drops in order to further fatten corporations. Perhaps they will be bamboozled enough not to notice the betrayal. For bamboozlement of the working poor has become an art form in the last 30 years, with bamboozlement defined as an ability to persuade people to vote against their own economic interest for one reason or another. For example, 62% of voters do not like the sound of “death tax,” which in the form of estate tax is paid by only 1-2% of American families. An astonishing 35% of those earning less than $10,000 a year do not approve of increasing taxes on the rich. Does it get any richer than that? It has been called the Homer Simpson effect,6 whereby the poor voter reacts negatively to the idea of tax, which like death has little appeal, but does not get the point that a tax decrease for the rich has unpleasant implications for them. But, the gods willing, you probably can’t bamboozle enough of the people enough of the time. And the Reuters/Ipsos poll clearly shows that the worms have turned. The lack of class war or economic war in the US has always been a fiction, but it has been mostly hidden, and deliberately so, by the side so completely winning the undeclared war. Perhaps the 74% vote was indeed a public declaration that the war is now official.

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