Category Archives: Book review

Saving Capitalism from Inequality

Robust middle incomes deliver the demand that businesses need to produce.
By Robert Manduca – After decades of praise heaped on “job creators,” viewers today may find it disorienting to see the consumer—and a middle-income one at that—cast as the hero of the economy, instead of the investor or the entrepreneur.

Yet Fortune, which produced the video in 1956, was hardly an outlier. In the mid-twentieth century, advertising, popular press, and television bombarded Americans with the message that national prosperity depended on their personal spending. As LIFE proclaimed in 1947, “Family Status Must Improve: It Should Buy More For Itself to Better the Living of Others.”

This messaging was not simply an invention of clever marketers; it had behind it the full force of the best-regarded economic theory of the time, the one elaborated in John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). The key to full employment and economic growth, many at the time believed, was high levels of aggregate demand.

But high demand required mass consumption, which in turn required an equitable distribution of purchasing power. By ensuring sufficient income for less well-off consumers, the government could continually expand the markets for businesses and boost profits as well as wages.

Conversely, Keynes’s theory implied, growing income inequality would lead to lower demand and slower economic growth.

The basic Keynesian logic of demand-driven growth came to be accepted across U.S. society in large part due to significant postwar efforts to explain, communicate, and popularize it. Proponents of Keynesian thinking worked hard to educate the public about the new economic theory and the possibilities of abundance that it foretold. A particularly compelling example is the book Tomorrow Without Fear (1946). more>

The Battle for India’s Founding Ideals

By Madhav Khosla – These events come after much of India has been engulfed in protests over a new citizenship law that treats Muslims differently to those from other religions. These protests, which have seen tens of thousands march across the nation, began in universities. The government’s reaction was swift and brutal. It encompassed both prohibitory measures, such as Internet shutdowns and the prevention of public assembly, as well as reactive measures, which included detention and violence. In Uttar Pradesh, a state which is home to more Indians than any other, the tales of police brutality would send a shiver down any spine.

Sunday’s attack underscores two crucial changes taking place in the world’s largest democracy. The first is to the country’s formal legal architecture. India’s founders, as I have suggested in a new book, India’s Founding Moment, imagined citizenship to be unmediated by community affiliation. For them, to belong to the modern world was to belong to representative framework where each person was treated on free and equal terms.

Measures like the new citizenship law challenge and undermine this founding vision. The law enables “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” to become an Indian citizen, thereby explicitly excluding Muslims.

India’s Constitution guarantees the right to equal treatment. This right applies to all persons and not only to citizens. To pass muster, a law has to make an intelligible distinction between those that it includes and those that it excludes. Moreover, this distinction has to bear a rational connection to the law’s objective.

In this case, the stated objective is addressing the religious persecution of the enumerated classes. But the law does not capture this objective as it is both over- and under-inclusive. It does not provide protection to groups such as the Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan and it assumes that all those who enter India from the specified classes are persecuted. This presumption is revealed by the fact that the law has no provisions relating to religious persecution at all, thus eliminating any link between the distinctions drawn and the declared aim.

As India is thrown deeper and deeper into a cycle of extra-constitutional violence, we should fear that the state and citizens will struggle to manage the situation. In such scenarios, the disorder and horror often follows a logic of its own.

If India continues to unravel in this fashion, there will be unspeakable acts on either side, untold truths that are hidden in every quarter. Even the most terrifying moves will be justified, even the clearest forms of evidence will be challenged.

In a world where public institutions and social harmony have given way, we will live under a state that claims monopoly over the exercise of force but no longer quite enjoys it. The state will deploy and exploit its power in every possible way, but, as in the case of colonial rule, the idea of legitimate authority will cease to have meaning. more>

Capitalism’s Case for Abolishing Billionaires

Adam Smith wanted to keep the power of the rich in check.
By Linsey McGoey – Adam Smith is remembered as the patron saint of unregulated commerce, as the world’s greatest prophet of profit. His idea of the “invisible hand” has been used by countless economists and politicians to argue that capitalism works, despite its excesses and inequalities.

But this fairytale version is wrong. The actual Smith wrote of his dream for a more equal society, and condemned the rich for serving their own narrow interests at the expense of the wider public.

“The establishment of perfect justice, of perfect liberty, and of perfect equality,” he writes in Wealth of Nations, “is the very simple secret which most effectively secures the highest degree of prosperity to all the three classes.”

Today Smith’s call for “perfect equality” is either ignored or deliberately misrepresented.

But with 1% of the world’s population now owning half its wealth, that belief is being forcefully called into question. There are growing calls to abolish billionaires and their privileges, including preferential tax treatment, handouts to corporations, and grossly inflated executive salaries that are often subsidized by taxpayers.

Smith was scathingly critical of the wealthy’s disproportionate power over government policymaking. He complained about the tendency of the rich to shirk tax obligations, unfairly passing tax burdens on to poor workers. He heaped scorn on government bailouts of the East India Company. He thought dirty money in politics was akin to bribery, and that it undermined the duty to govern impartiality. He wasn’t alone.

The reality is that the historical case for abolishing billionaire privileges has a long heritage, stretching to enlightenment thinkers and the revolutionaries they inspired, including countless enslaved and working-class people in forgotten graves. more>

Why the idea that the world is in terminal decline is so dangerous

By Jeremy Adelman – From all sides, the message is coming in: the world as we know it is on the verge of something really bad. From the Right, we hear that ‘West’ and ‘Judeo-Christian Civilization’ are in the pincers of foreign infidels and native, hooded extremists. Left-wing declinism buzzes about coups, surveillance regimes, and the inevitable – if elusive – collapse of capitalism.

In fact, the idea of decline is one thing the extremes of Left and Right agree upon. Rome’s decline looms large as the precedent. So, world historians have played their part as doomsayers.

It is almost part of the modern condition to expect the party to be over sooner rather than later. What varies is how the end will come. Will it be a Biblical cataclysm, a great leveler? Or will it be more gradual, like Malthusian hunger or a moralist slump?

Our declinist age is noteworthy in one important way. It’s not just the Westerns who are in trouble; thanks to globalization, it’s the Resterners too. In fact, we are all, as a species, in this mess; our world supply chains and climate change have ensured that we are poised before a sixth mass extinction together. We should worry less about our lifestyle and more about life itself.

One dissenting voice in the 1970s was Albert O Hirschman’s. He worried about the lure of doomsaying. Dire predictions, he warned, can blind big-picture observers to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. There is a reason why: declinists confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. Declinism misses the possibility that behind the downsizing old ways there might be new ones poking through. more>

Project and system

There are two ways of seeing order in the world: as a spontaneous system or as an intentional project. Which way lies freedom?
By Paul Kahn – Once we are alert to the distinction of ‘project’ and ‘system’, we see that it is by no means unique to law. These two pictures dominate our accounts of order. Traditionally, those accounts extended into the natural order: is nature God’s project or a spontaneous system? Today, the duck/rabbit problem of ‘project’ and ‘system’ presents itself whenever we give an account of the human world, from the individual to the society. Do we make ourselves according to an idea or do we realize an inner truth of ourselves?

The social sciences approach society as system; the regulatory state imagines it as project.

The picture of a project offers the simplest explanation of the origin of order. Projects can extend from an individual artisan to a creator god; they can involve objects in the world (eg, a house) or social structures (eg, a corporation).

A legislature has law-creation as its project; a people can take up the project of creating a constitution. A project has a beginning in the action of a free subject. That subject explains his project by referring to his intentions. Those intentions can reflect a well-thought-out theory or simply the agent’s interests.

Projects are the way in which a free agent occupies the world. An animal will look for food, but it will not plan its dinner. A bird might build a nest, but that is not a project because the bird could not have decided to experiment with a new design. It could not have been other than it is. That ‘might have been’ is critical to projects and thus to freedom.

In a world of projects, we are always thinking of what we might do, what we might have done, and what we might do better. Projects are successful when they meet their goals; they are redesigned when they fail. Projects then, whether of law or anything else, put at stake not just an idea of order, but also an idea of freedom. Freedom ends where projects end.

Systems have the capacity for maintenance and some ability of repair. An injured organism can heal itself; a market in disequilibrium can return to equilibrium. Of course, some systemic disturbances are beyond these capacities: systems do die.

Projects, though, ordinarily have no such capacities of repair. When a watch breaks, we take it to the watchmaker for repair. When legislation fails, we go back to the legislature for a new plan. Today, artificial intelligence is challenging that distinction precisely to the degree that we can teach machines to learn and to respond. more>

There is No Economics without Politics

Every economic model is built on political assumptions
By Anat Admati – There is absolutely no way to understand events before, during, and since the financial crisis of 2007-2009 while ignoring the powerful political forces that have shaped them. Yet, remarkably, much of the economics and finance literature about financial crises focuses on studying unspecified “shocks” to a system that it largely accepts as inevitable while ignoring critical governance frictions and failures. Removing blind spots would offer economists and other academics rich opportunities to leverage their expertise to benefit society.

The history of financial economics is revealing in this regard. By the second half of the 20th century, when modern finance emerged as part of economics, the holistic approach of early thinkers such as Adam Smith—which combined economics, moral philosophy, and politics—was long gone. Narrow social-science disciplines replaced the holistic approach by the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, economists sought to make economics formal, precise, and elegant, similar to Newton’s 17th-century physics.

The focus in much of economics, particularly in finance, is on markets. Even when economists postulate a “social planner” and discuss policy, they rarely consider how this social planner gets to know what is needed or the process by which policy decisions are made and implemented. Collective action and politics are messy. Neat and elegant models are more fun and easier to market to editors and colleagues.

Lobbyists, who engage in “marketing” ideas to policymakers and to the public, are actually influential. They know how to work the system and can dismiss, take out of context, misquote, misuse, or promote research as needed. If policymakers or the public are unable or unwilling to evaluate the claims people make, lobbyists and others can create confusion and promote misleading narratives if it benefits them. In the real political economy, good ideas and worthy research can fail to gain traction while bad ideas and flawed research can succeed and have an impact.

Having observed governance and policy failures in banking, I realized that the focus on shareholder-manager conflicts is far too narrow and often misses the most important problems. We must also worry about the governance of the institutions that create and enforce the rules for all. How power structures and information asymmetries play out within and between institutions in the private and public sectors is critical. more>

Europe Wants ‘Strategic Autonomy,’ but That’s Much Easier Said Than Done

By Stewart M. Patrick – Strategic autonomy has obvious appeal to Europeans at a time of fraying trans-Atlantic bonds and deepening great-power competition. Aspiring to self-reliance is one thing, however. Achieving it will require much more from the European Union. The heterogeneous bloc will have to develop a coherent strategic culture and come to some agreement on a shared assessment of threats—and on how the EU should pursue its interests and promote its values internationally.

Europeans must also reassure the United States that any new EU military capabilities will complement rather than undermine NATO.

Europe’s strategic reappraisal is largely, though not entirely, a function of President Donald Trump. While his predecessors in Washington often pressed the Europeans to ramp up defense spending, Trump has upended the trans-Atlantic alliance in several ways. He has depicted it as obsolete, questioned America’s commitments to NATO’s mutual defense as outlined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and taken precipitous actions without consulting allies in Europe—such as his recent unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. Confronting such uncertainty, Europeans naturally want to hedge their bets. One way to do so is by developing autonomous military capabilities that permit them to act outside NATO, including with a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Washington’s own identification of China as America’s primary economic, technological and strategic adversary reinforces these instincts. Few Europeans share such a zero-sum assessment, seeking instead to pursue what Beijing terms “win-win” relations. While Americans seem bent on a new Cold War with China, Europeans must confront a more immediate military and political threat: an aggressive Russia under Vladimir Putin, right on their doorstep.

Beyond defense matters, Trump’s disruption of U.S. foreign policy has persuaded a growing number of Europeans that they need to pursue strategic autonomy across the board. America’s abdication of global leadership has thrust the EU into an unaccustomed role—that of chief defender of the rules-based, liberal international order. As Trump has embraced unilateralism and protectionism, cozied up to dictators and ignored climate change, the EU has become the primary champion of collective security, multilateralism, human rights and the preservation of the global commons. more>

The planet is burning

By Stephen J Pyne – From the Arctic to the Amazon, from California to Gran Canaria, from Borneo to India to Angola to Australia – the fires seem everywhere. Their smoke obscures subcontinents by day; their lights dapple continents at night, like a Milky Way of flame-stars. Rather than catalogue what is burning, one might more aptly ask: what isn’t? Where flames are not visible, the lights of cities and of gas flares are: combustion via the transubstantiation of coal and oil into electricity. To many observers, they appear as the pilot flames of an advancing apocalypse. Even Greenland is burning.

But the fires we see are only part of our disturbed pyrogeography. Of perhaps equal magnitude is a parallel world of lost, missing and sublimated fires. The landscapes that should have fire and don’t. The marinating of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. The sites where traditional flame has been replaced by combustion in machines. The Earth’s biota is disintegrating as much by tame fire’s absence as by feral fire’s outbreaks. The scene is not just about the bad burns that trash countrysides and crash into towns; it’s equally about the good fires that have vanished because they are suppressed or no longer lit. Looming over it all is a planetary warming from fossil-fuel combustion that acts as a performance enhancer on all aspects of fire on Earth.

So dire is the picture that some observers argue that the past is irrelevant. We are headed into a no-narrative, no-analogue future. So immense and unimaginable are the coming upheavals that the arc of inherited knowledge that joins us to the past has broken. There is no precedent for what we are about to experience, no means by which to triangulate from accumulated human wisdom into a future unlike anything we have known before. more>

War once helped build nations, now it destroys them

By Mark Kukis – Organized violence – the term war boils down to – has long been a unifier of peoples. Archaeological evidence shows that nearly half those who lived during the last part of the Stone Age in Nubia, an area along the southern reaches of the Nile River, died violent deaths. Many other tribal societies through the ages have shared this mortality pattern, which suggests large-scale mobilization for killing rather than widespread random violence.

Cooperation, mutual dependence, trust – even in killing others – are building blocks of political order, the foundational elements of states.

The advent of agriculture was a prerequisite to long-term human settlements – cities – of any significant size. It gave rise to larger societies, capable of bigger and more elaborate wars. For the dynasties of ancient China, the empires of Mesopotamia and, centuries later, the kingdoms of Europe, waging war was one of their reasons for being.

Frederick William founded and built Prussia to wage war against its many hostile neighbors. Prussia’s clashes with regional rivals during the 17th and 18th centuries made the nation we know today as Germany.

Across this long history from the Stone Age to the modern era, the basic political formula remained the same. Disparate elements of a society learned to cooperate outside familial structures in order to arm themselves for plunder, defense – or both. They formed hierarchies, bureaucracies and institutions that endured and evolved. For emerging nations, the aftermath of the wars imparted important shared experiences too. Defeat could be even more unifying than victory.

The last major nation-building war came in 1980, when Iraq under Saddam Hussein attacked Iran following the Iranian Revolution. When Hussein launched a ferocious assault reminiscent of fighting from the First World War, Iran was woefully unprepared. The Iranian revolutionaries drew on religious commitments to help galvanize legions of fighters. Iranian men young and old flung themselves against Iraqi tank attacks, again and again, until Iraq’s advance ground to a halt.

For Iran, it is difficult to overstate the legitimacy this achievement gave the new regime, and the cohesion the war imparted to Iran. Iranian society cohered around grief, fear and a renewed sense of Persian identity in response to Arab invaders, both Sunni and Shiite.

Since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), wars have tended to be mainly destructive forces for nations. more>

New Microeconomics: How Evolution Explains Resource Distribution

By Blair Fix – Through years of schooling, mainstream economists are trained to ignore the obvious facts about human nature. The theories that economists learn make it impossible for them to understand human sociality.

Economists are trained that humans are asocial ‘globules of desire’. This is Thorstein Veblen’s satirical term for ‘homo economicus’, the economic model of man.

As Veblen makes clear, economists’ model of human behavior is bizarre. Indeed, the assumptions are so far-fetched that one wonders how this ‘theory’ ever gained acceptance. I’ve spent years trying to make sense of homo economicus as a scientific theory. I’ve concluded that this is a waste of time. Economists’ selfish model of humanity is best treated not as science, but as ideology.

Unlike scientific theories, ideologies are not about the search for ‘truth’. Instead, they are about rationalizing a certain worldview — usually the worldview of the powerful. Economists’ selfish model of humanity is a textbook example.

The discipline of economics emerged during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. During this period of social upheaval, business owners battled to wrench power from the landed aristocracy. To supplant the aristocracy, business owners needed to frame their power as legitimate (and the power of aristocrats as illegitimate). Their solution was devilishly clever. The new business class appealed to autonomy — the mirror opposite of the ideals of feudalism.

Feudalism was based on ideals of servitude and obligation. Serfs were obligated to perform free work for feudal lords. And these lords, in return, were obligated to protect serfs from outside attackers. This web of obligation was rationalized by religion — it was a natural order ordained by God.

To upend this order, business owners championed the ideals of autonomy and freedom. Business owners claimed to want nothing but to be left alone — to pursue profit unfettered by government or aristocratic power. From this world view, the autonomous model of man was born. It had nothing to do with how humans actually behaved. It was about rationalizing the goals of business owners. They wanted power, but they framed it as the pursuit of freedom and autonomy. “Power in the name of freedom” is how Jonathan Nitzan puts it. more>