Daily Archives: June 25, 2020

How to Disguise Racism and Oligarchy: Use Economics

By Lynn Parramore – James McGill Buchanan is a name you will rarely hear unless you’ve taken several classes in economics. And if the Tennessee-born Nobel laureate were alive today, it would suit him just fine that most well-informed journalists, liberal politicians, and even many economics students have little understanding of his work.

The reason? Duke historian Nancy MacLean contends that his philosophy is so stark that even young libertarian acolytes are only introduced to it after they have accepted the relatively sunny perspective of Ayn Rand. (Yes, you read that correctly). If Americans really knew what Buchanan thought and promoted, and how destructively his vision is manifesting under their noses, it would dawn on them how close the country is to a transformation most would not even want to imagine, much less accept.

That is a dangerous blind spot, MacLean argues in a meticulously researched book, Democracy in Chains, a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. While Americans grapple with Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, we may be missing the key to changes that are taking place far beyond the level of mere politics. Once these changes are locked into place, there may be no going back.

MacLean’s book reads like an intellectual detective story. In 2010, she moved to North Carolina, where a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party got control of both houses of the state legislature and began pushing through a radical program to suppress voter rights, decimate public services, and slash taxes on the wealthy that shocked a state long a beacon of southern moderation. Up to this point, the figure of James Buchanan flickered in her peripheral vision, but as she began to study his work closely, the events in North Carolina and also Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker was leading assaults on collective bargaining rights, shifted her focus.

Could it be that this relatively obscure economist’s distinctive thought was being put forcefully into action in real time?

MacLean could not gain access to Buchanan’s papers to test her hypothesis until after his death in January 2013. That year, just as the government was being shut down by Ted Cruz & Co., she traveled to George Mason University in Virginia, where the economist’s papers lay willy-nilly across the offices of a building now abandoned by the Koch-funded faculty to a new, fancier center in Arlington.

MacLean was stunned. The archive of the man who had sought to stay under the radar had been left totally unsorted and unguarded. The historian plunged in, and she read through boxes and drawers full of papers that included personal correspondence between Buchanan and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. That’s when she had an amazing realization: here was the intellectual linchpin of a stealth revolution currently in progress.

Buchanan, a 1940 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University who later attended the University of Chicago for graduate study, started out as a conventional public finance economist. But he grew frustrated by the way in which economic theorists ignored the political process.

Buchanan began working on a description of power that started out as a critique of how institutions functioned in the relatively liberal 1950s and ‘60s, a time when economist John Maynard Keynes’s ideas about the need for government intervention in markets to protect people from flaws so clearly demonstrated in the Great Depression held sway. Buchanan, MacLean notes, was incensed at what he saw as a move toward socialism and deeply suspicious of any form of state action that channels resources to the public. Why should the increasingly powerful federal government be able to force the wealthy to pay for goods and programs that served ordinary citizens and the poor?

In thinking about how people make political decisions and choices, Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. In an interview cited by MacLean, the economist observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as “public choice.”

Buchanan’s view of human nature was distinctly dismal. more>

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Updates from McKinsey

Return: A new muscle, not just a plan
Return is not a phase; it’s a way of operating. A nerve center can help build the capabilities that businesses need in the “next normal.”
By Mihir Mysore, Bob Sternfels, and Matt Wilson – In less than four months, COVID-19 has upended almost all expectations for 2020. Beyond the loss of life and the fear caused by the pandemic, businesses around the world have faced disruptions at a speed and scale unprecedented in the modern era.

Companies everywhere are now wrestling with the question of how to reach the next normal safely. Many talk about a return to the workplace as a plan that needs to be implemented: a series of systematic steps to reach some kind of stable operating model, in a world where vaccines are adequately available or herd immunity has been reached. In many cases, these plans suggest a return to some relatable version of the past.

Yet the intrinsic uncertainties that might scupper such plans continue to mount. Executives readily admit, for instance, that it is tough to write a deterministic return plan because of the likelihood of a resurgence, discoveries about how the virus is transmitted and whom it affects, the nature and duration of immunity, and continued changes in the quality and availability of testing and contact tracing. The best possible plan today is merely a strawman that will need near-continuous recalibration and change.

Another critical uncertainty is the future of remote work. Some feel that recent events have driven a real productivity gain they do not want to lose. However, they recognize that a wholesale shift to remote work has had many false dawns. Silicon Valley has experimented with it most extensively, but after many attempts to implement telecommuting, our research found that at 15 top firms, only 8 percent of the employees work remotely. These companies do not want to try this again only to roll it back in a few years.

Customer behavior is a third unknown. Companies see the clear shift to digital among consumers and its inevitable impact: online shopping has expanded by up to 60 percent in some categories, and up to 20 percent of online consumers in the United States have switched at least some brands recently. But it’s unclear whether once the pandemic recedes, these customers will return to their old ways or if the pandemic will create new types of consumers.

Given these and other uncertainties and the need for experimentation and fast learning to navigate through them effectively, we believe that the next step in the response of businesses cannot be thought of as a phase at all. It will be open ended rather than fixed in time. A better mental model is to think about developing a new “muscle”: an enterprise-wide ability to absorb uncertainty and incorporate lessons into the operating model quickly. The muscle has to be a “fast-twitch” one, characterized by a willingness to change plans and base decisions on hypotheses about the future—supported by continually refreshed microdata about what’s happening, for example, in each retail location. And the muscle also needs some “slow-twitch” fibers to set long-term plans and manage through structural shifts. more>