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Progressives and the Origins of the Economic "Consensus"

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There was a time when free market economists were some of the most highly praised intellectuals in the modern world. In the early twentieth century, Austrian economics was understood for what it truly is: a social science based on praxeology and human action. But from the mid-1900s through the 2000s, society replaced their appreciation for the Viennese method with a false claim that Austrian economics was an ideological, archaic pseudoscience used to justify libertarian and conservative ideas. And although the mainstream throws Chicagoan and even Austrian economists a bone from time to time, most academics have drifted toward the modern monetary theory (MMT) or some form of Keynesianism. But in order to understand why the mainstream is the way it is, we must first understand how the economic consensus came to be.

Origins of the Economic “Consensus”

The London School of Economics (LSE) played a crucial role in the shaping of modern academia. A little-known fact about the LSE is that the institution was largely built and supported by the Fabian Society, a socialist institute founded in 1884. In fact, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, two of the founders of the Fabian Society, were also the founders of the LSE.

In the Fabian Society’s infancy, it often constituted a small, tight-knit group of intellectuals who met to discuss Marxist ideas. But as the Fabian Society expanded to include the London School of Economics and the New Statesman magazine, its influence on economics underwent a sort of metamorphosis. The LSE’s reputation began to grow and few ever questioned its stances. To this day, the rapid spread of Keynesianism is largely a product of the London School of Economics and its ideologically similar neighbor, the University of Cambridge. John Maynard Keynes, after all, was an alumni of Cambridge and made notable contributions to institutions near and far, such as the LSE and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Bretton Woods system. The circulation of socialist and Keynesian philosophies between neighboring British institutions created a pseudo-intellectual echo chamber, in which the same ideas were debated over and over again among the same academics.

However, there was a major problem with Keynesianism. Many believed that the theories of demand-side economics sounded just and noble, but they were rarely backed by empirical evidence. Therefore, most schools of economics decided to abandon Keynes’s specific prescription of demand-side economics for a broader form of policy interventionism.

Paving the Way for Modern Macroeconomics

Thus, we turn from John Maynard Keynes and the Fabian Society to other significant influencers who paved the way for modern macroeconomics. The American Economic Association (AEA), one of the leading publishers of economic literature, was founded by politically progressive intellectuals such as Richard T. Ely, an activist and professor who advocated for greater government oversight and the implementation of desirable social policies. Based on his work, Ely’s views can best be summarized as moderately redistributive and highly interventionist. One of his books contains a chapter entitled “Taxation of Incomes,” in which he states the following:

It has already been stated…that all men of means should contribute to the support of government in proportion to their ability….It is universally, or almost universally, admitted that no [other] tax [than the income tax] is so just….[T]he income tax, unlike license charges, does not make it more difficult for a poor man to begin business or to continue business. Its social effects, on the contrary, are beneficial, because it places a heavy load only on strong shoulders.

Richard T. Ely was not the only interventionist who helped establish the AEA. Katharine Coman, a progressive activist who was highly critical of capitalism, also played a major role in forming the organization. Additionally, in appointing Alvin Hanson, one of the most influential Keynesians, to its presidency in 1922, the AEA is partly responsible for the rise of Keynesianism in America. To the American Economic Association’s credit, they have given similar positions to free market economists such as Herbert Joseph Davenport and Frank Fetter. But the bigger picture here is the AEA’s clear intent to draw an equivalency between Austrian intellectuals and progressive ideologues—as if the two were morally and intellectually comparable.

In later years, the American Economic Association would attempt to distance itself from the Austrian school altogether. The last time an Austrian economist was elected president was in 1966, with the appointment of Fritz Machlup. To put this into perspective, Jacob Marschak, an economist who worked with the Menshevist International Caucus, was scheduled to be appointed to the presidency in 1978. In other words, the American Economic Association would sooner elect a Soviet sympathizer president than an Austrian economist.

All in all, the impact of the anti-Austrian and, to some extent, the anti-Chicagoan biases of mainstream academia can be traced back to various instances of famous institutions either backing progressive thought leaders or dismissing certain kinds of economic methodology that fail to fit the interventionist narrative. 

The Flaws of Mainstream Economics

Much of our understanding of mainstream economics is derived from econometrics—the use of mathematical modeling to predict economic outcomes. It is arguably true that econometrics is the reason why economics as a field is suffering from an identity crisis. On the one hand, economics deals with human behavior and is therefore a social science. On the other, econometrics and similar methods of study result in a field that resembles mathematics and cold calculation rather than behavioral science or the study of human action.

It should be no surprise that econometrics has become quite popular in the mainstream. After all, the aforementioned Jacob Marschak was one of the fathers of econometrics and made an undeniable impact on universities such as Yale and UCLA before catching the attention of the American Economic Association. Since its inception, econometrics has become a sort of “industry standard” for mainstream academics. However, the fatal flaw of econometrics lies in its failure to understand praxeology. In the words of Frank Shostak in his 2002 article entitled “What is Wrong with Econometrics?”:

There are no constant standards for measuring the minds, the values, and the ideas of men. Valuation is the means by which a conscious purposeful individual assesses the given facts of reality.

As for the Keynesian and post-Keynesian schools, far too much can be said about their flaws. Little empirical evidence exists that stimulus packages are particularly effective, and the idea that Say’s law ought to be completely discarded for a demand-driven approach to the economy is nonsensical. Henry Hazlitt’s The Failure of the “New Economics” provides a full perspective on the shortcomings of Keynesianism.



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Economy

IPA’s weekly links

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Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

Professor Lisa Cook explains that black and white inventors put in equivalent numbers of patent applications once in 1899, and never again. 

  • First, a great webinar by Professor Lisa Cook, former economic advisor to President Obama, among many other accomplishments, on how lynchings, violence, and discrimination caused African-American inventions (measured by patent applications) to peak in 1899 and never recover. Here’s the video and slides, but for a fast summary, I did my best to live tweet it. She covered a lot of ground, but some parts that stuck with me in particular:
    • The number of “missing” patents never filed because of the decreased numbers is on the order of the contribution of a medium-sized European country. It’s hard to imagine what innovations and prosperity we’ve all missed out on.
    • Prof Cook mentioned in passing that a cousin helped found a town in North Carolina intended as a safe place for African-Americans to live and prosper without harassment. The story of Soul City, NC is fascinating.
    • The most compelling part of the story wasn’t even in the webinar. It was her decade-long uphill battle to get the paper published, and what it tells us about the field of economics, which she explains to Planet Money’s The Indicator (Apple).
  • The NYTimes has a piece explaining the problems with the culture of economics, and Dania Francis & Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman offer three tips for the field in Newsweek
  • The Sadie Collective has recommendations for what institutions and individuals in the field can do better.
  • The best piece I’ve read on how subtle assumptions about race get absorbed into economists’ reasoning is this from Professor William Spriggs.
  • How the field got to be the way it is is a bit easier to understand if you read this horrible piece by George Stigler in 1962: The Problem of the Negro.

If you haven’t seen it yet, this was a great explanation for the general US culture:

  • Kimberly Jones’ Monopoly game metaphor reminds me of this Howard French brilliant deconstruction of a UK historian’s book (gated, sorry) about African history.  French shows that Europeans destroyed sophisticated civilizations and hollowed out countries’ populations for hundreds of years by dragging away the workforce, and today cast about for roundabout theories for why they’re “underdeveloped” 
  • I’m side-eyeing historians, but also hard to ignore the asymmetry in where development economists’ ideas come from, and the assumption that countries where the rich people are also must know how to get rich.
    Along those lines, here’s a great piece by Francesco Loiacono, Mariajose Silva-Vargas, & Apollo Tumusiime (written before the pandemic) about how research designs can be more sensitive and less biased by the views of the researchers (better informed consent, for example, and not assuming their programs happen in a vacuum, or realizing that local politicians may swoop in and take credit for cash transfers). (h/t David McKenzie’s links)
  • Today, I learned that the UK’s abolition of slavery was accomplished through paying the slaveowners for their lost “property,” to the tune of today’s $17 Billion (and requiring an additional 5 years of unpaid labor, which I feel like there’s a name for…) British taxpayers just finished paying back that borrowed money in 2015, which means that descendants of slaves have been paying back their own ancestors’ slavemasters.
  • Jennifer Doleac put together a series of flash webinars on policing research, more info here.
  • A series of simple police reform ideas in this article and tweet thread on how to fix many policing problems by looking at financial incentives, moving the benefit of the “taxes” levied disproportionally on the poor by the criminal justice system away from the local municipalities (revenues from fines, seized assets, and the like) and redistributing them at the state level, prioritizing the poor.

The post IPA’s weekly links appeared first on Chris Blattman.



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Monopoly Mayhem: Corporations Win, Workers LoseWhy do big…

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Monopoly Mayhem: Corporations Win, Workers Lose

Why do big corporations continue to win while workers get shafted? It all comes down to power: who has it, and who doesn’t.    

Big corporations have become so dominant that workers and consumers have fewer options and have to accept the wages and prices these giant corporations offer. This has become even worse now that thousands of small businesses have had to close as a result of the pandemic, while mammoth corporations are being bailed out.  

At the same time, worker bargaining power has declined as fewer workers are unionized and technologies have made outsourcing easy, allowing corporations to get the labor they need for cheap.    

These two changes in bargaining power didn’t happen by accident. As corporations have gained power, they’ve been able to gut anti-monopoly laws, allowing them to grow even more dominant. At the same time, fewer workers have joined unions because corporations have undermined the nation’s labor laws, and many state legislatures – under intense corporate lobbying – have enacted laws making it harder to form unions.

Because of these deliberate power shifts, even before the pandemic, a steadily larger portion of corporate revenues have been siphoned off to profits, and a shrinking portion allocated to wages.

Once the economy tanked, the stock market retained much of its value while millions of workers lost jobs and the unemployment rate soared to Great Depression-era levels.

To understand the current concentration of corporate power we need to go back in time. 

In the late nineteenth century, corporate power was a central concern. “Robber barons,” like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, amassed unprecedented wealth for themselves by crushing labor unions, driving competitors out of business, and making their employees work long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. 

As wealth accumulated at the top, so too did power: Politicians of the era put corporate interests ahead of workers, even sending state militias to violently suppress striking workers. By 1890, public anger at the unchecked greed of the robber barons culminated in the creation of America’s first anti-monopoly law, the Sherman Antitrust Act. 

In the following years, antitrust enforcement waxed or waned depending on the administration in office; but after 1980, it virtually disappeared. The new view was that large corporations produced economies of scale, which were good for consumers, and anything that was good for consumers was good for America. Power, the argument went, was no longer at issue. America’s emerging corporate oligarchy used this faulty academic analysis to justify killing off antitrust.

As the federal government all but abandoned antitrust enforcement in the 1980s, American industry grew more and more concentrated. The government green-lighted Wall Street’s consolidation into five giant banks. It okayed airline mergers, bringing the total number of American carriers down from twelve in 1980 to just four today. Three giant cable companies came to dominate broadband. A handful of drug companies control the pharmaceutical industry.

Today, just five giant corporations preside over key, high-tech platforms, together comprising more than a quarter of the value of the entire U.S. stock market. Facebook and Google are the first stops for many Americans seeking news. Apple dominates smartphones and laptop computers. Amazon is now the first stop for a third of all American consumers seeking to buy anything.

The monopolies of yesteryear are back with a vengeance.

Thanks to the abandonment of antitrust, we’re now living in a new Gilded Age, as consolidation has inflated corporate profits, suppressed worker pay, supercharged economic inequality, and stifled innovation.

Meanwhile, big investors have made bundles of money off the growing concentration of American industry. Warren Buffett, one of America’s wealthiest men, has been considered the conscience of American capitalism because he wants the rich to pay higher taxes. But Buffett has made his fortune by investing in monopolies that keep out competitors.

– The sky-high profits at Wall Street banks have come from their being too big to fail and their political power to keep regulators at bay.

– The high profits the four remaining airlines enjoyed before the pandemic came from inflated prices, overcrowded planes, overbooked flights, and weak unions.

– High profits of Big Tech have come from wanton invasions of personal privacy, the weaponizing of false information, and disproportionate power that prevents innovative startups from entering the market.

If Buffett really wanted to be the conscience of American capitalism, he’d be a crusader for breaking up large concentrations of economic power and creating incentives for startups to enter the marketplace and increase competition.

This mega-concentration of American industry has also made the entire economy more fragile – and susceptible to deep downturns. Even before the coronavirus, it was harder for newer firms to gain footholds. The rate at which new businesses formed had already been halved from the pace in 1980. And the coronavirus has exacerbated this trend even more, bringing new business formations to a standstill with no rescue plan in sight.

And it’s brought workers to their knees. There’s no way an economy can fully recover unless working people have enough money in their pockets to spend. Consumer spending is two-thirds of this economy.

Perhaps the worst consequence of monopolization is that as wealth accumulates at the top, so too does political power.

These massive corporations provide significant campaign contributions; they have platoons of lobbyists and lawyers and directly employ many voters. So items they want included in legislation are inserted; those they don’t want are scrapped. 

They get tax cuts, tax loopholes, subsidies, bailouts, and regulatory exemptions. When the government is handing out money to stimulate the economy, these giant corporations are first in line. When they’ve gone so deep into debt to buy back their shares of stock that they might not be able to repay their creditors, what happens? They get bailed out. It’s the same old story.

The financial returns on their political investments are sky-high.

Take Amazon – the richest corporation in America. It paid nothing in federal taxes in 2018. Meanwhile, it held a national auction to extort billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies from cities eager to house its second headquarters. It also forced Seattle, its home headquarters, to back away from a tax on big corporations, like Amazon, to pay for homeless shelters for a growing population that can’t afford the city’s sky-high rents, caused in part by Amazon!

And throughout this pandemic, Amazon has raked in record profits thanks to its monopoly of online marketplaces, even as it refuses to provide its essential workers with robust paid sick leave and has fired multiple workers for speaking out against the company’s safety issues.

While corporations are monopolizing, power has shifted in exactly the opposite direction for workers. 

In the mid-1950s, 35 percent of all private-sector workers in the United States were unionized. Today, 6.2 percent of them are.

Since the 1980s, corporations have fought to bust unions and keep workers’ wages low. They’ve campaigned against union votes, warning workers that unions will make them less “competitive” and threaten their jobs. They fired workers who try to organize, a move that’s illegal under the National Labor Relations Act but happens all the time because the penalty for doing so is minor compared to the profits that come from discouraging unionization. 

Corporations have replaced striking workers with non-union workers. Under shareholder capitalism, striking workers often lose their jobs forever. You can guess the kind of chilling effect that has on workers’ incentives to take a stand against poor conditions.

As a result of this power shift, workers have less choice of whom to work for. This also keeps their wages low. Corporations have imposed non-compete, anti-poaching, and mandatory arbitration agreements, further narrowing workers’ alternatives. 

Corporations have used their increased power to move jobs overseas if workers don’t agree to pay cuts. In 1988, General Electric threatened to close a factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana that made electrical motors and to relocate it abroad unless workers agreed to a 12 percent pay cut. The Fort Wayne workers eventually agreed to the cut. One of the factory’s union leaders remarked, “It used to be that companies had an allegiance to the worker and the country. Today, companies have an allegiance to the corporate shareholder. Period.”

Meanwhile, as unions have shrunk, so too has their political power. In 2009, even with a Democratic president and Democrats in control of Congress, unions could not muster enough votes to enact a simple reform that would have made it easier for workplaces to unionize.

All the while, corporations have been getting states to enact so-called “right-to-work” laws barring unions from requiring dues from workers they represent. Since worker representation costs money, these laws effectively gut the unions by not requiring workers to pay dues. In 2018, the Supreme Court, in an opinion delivered by the court’s five Republican appointees, extended “right-to-work” to public employees.

This great shift in bargaining power from workers to corporate shareholders has created an increasingly angry working class vulnerable to demagogues peddling authoritarianism, racism, and xenophobia. Trump took full advantage.

All of this has pushed a larger portion of national income into profits and a lower portion into wages than at any time since World War II. 

That’s true even during a severe downturn. For the last decade, most profits have been going into stock buybacks and higher executive pay rather than new investment.

The declining share of total U.S. income going to the bottom 90 percent over the last four decades correlates directly with the decline in unionization. Most of the increasing value of the stock market has come directly out of the pockets of American workers. Shareholders have gained because workers stopped sharing the gains.

So, what can be done to restore bargaining power to workers and narrow the widening gap between corporate profits and wages?

For one, make stock buybacks illegal, as they were before the SEC legalized them under Ronald Reagan. This would prevent corporate juggernauts from siphoning profits into buybacks, and instead direct profits towards economic investment.

Another solution: Enact a national ban on “right-to-work” laws, thereby restoring power to unions and the workers they represent.

Require greater worker representation on corporate boards, as Germany has done through its “employee co-determination” system.

Break up monopolies. Break up any bank that’s “too big to fail”, and expand the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to find monopolies and review and halt anti-competitive mergers. Designate large technology platforms as “utilities” whose prices are regulated in the public interest and require that services like Amazon Marketplace and Google Search be spun off from their respective companies.

Above all, antitrust laws must stop mergers that harm workers, stifle competition, or result in unfair pricing.

This is all about power. The good news is that rebalancing the power of workers and corporations can create an economy and a democracy that works for all, not just a privileged few.



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Economy

MiB: Bill Miller of Miller Value Partners

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This week on our Masters in Business interview, Bill Miller of Miller Value Partners, which manages $2 billion in client assets. Miller is best known for running Legg Mason’s Capital Management Value Trust, whose after-fees returns beat the S&P 500 index for 15 consecutive years from 1991 through 2005.

He explains some of the difference between the current environment versus the 1990s. The day traders are “trivial” relative to daily market volumes versus an era where day traders where everywhere, with a much greater impact on markets. He owns many of the big cap tech stocks, which are “radically cheaper” than they were in the 1990s.

Miller discusses when and how “Value” beats “Growth” — and vice versa. Since the Market bottomed in March, Value has beaten growth. Over the relatively short term, coming out of the 2020 recession, he thinks value will beat growth for a year or two, before growth reasserts itself. Low nominal growth rates and low inflation are more challenging for Value stocks, and make Growth stocks look cheap.

He also finds bonds pricey and uniquely unattractive.

We discussed the rise of passing indexing in our 2016 MiB conversation — Miller still believes that “Active management is in secular decline.” He adds that most active managers “don’t add value, are closet indexers, and are too expensive.” He expects active mutual funds to continue hemorrhaging capital. Another investment vehicle that is looking at looming Hedge funds have also dropped into a similar liquidation mode in an era of low rates and meager trading profits, 2% + 20% no longer makes sense. He believes hedge funds will also see outflows similar to active mutual funds.

He was a buyer of Bitcoin when it was $200-$400 dollars, and at one time was one of the top 100 holders of BTC. He thinks blockchain technology will find all sorts of new applications int he future. One of the things that makes Bitcoin so different form equities is that the higher the price goes, the more legitimacy Bitcoin gets. Stocks become more precarious under similar circumstances.

A long list of his favorite books are here; A transcript of our conversation is available here Monday.

You can stream and download our full conversation, including the podcast extras on iTunes, Spotify, Overcast, Google, Bloomberg, and Stitcher. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.

Be sure to check out our Masters in Business next week with Martin Franklin of Mariposa Capital. Franklin is an entrepreneur who founded 7 companies, notably: Jarden Corp., Nomad Foods Ltd. and Element Solutions, Inc. and is credited with successfully reviving the use of SPACs, or blank check companies, as public vehicles for long term M&A.

 

 

 

Bill Miller’s Favorite Books

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers by Cheryl Misak

Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

Essays in Experimental Logic by John Dewey

Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation: Volume 2 by Arthur Schopenhauer

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefèvre

John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman by Robert Skidelsky

The post MiB: Bill Miller of Miller Value Partners appeared first on The Big Picture.



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