Immigration, Migration, and Imbalances

The current fracas with regard to immigration through the southern border of the United States will die down in time, and another issue will replace it in the headlines, in breaking news announcements, in round-table discussions. There will not be a resolution any time soon. But what is important is to understand the underlying issues involved. The context is what we need to get a better idea of how to judge necessarily ephemeral events.

The first thing to understand is that at bottom, the motivation for these people movements is economic. For this reason, we can start our analysis by eliminating the category of refugees seeking asylum. The latter is not a function of economics but of justice and compassion. While this is important, it is dwarfed by the scale of economics-inspired movement.

We also need to distinguish immigration and migration. In the sense I intend, immigration concerns people going to the country of destination with the mindset of assimilating into that country. For example, hitherto when immigrants moved to the United States, they moved with the intention of becoming Americans, of leaving their home countries behind and entering into the civic compact that has defined the United States from its inception. Migration, on the other hand, is no so much concerned with assimilation, but rather with the maintenance of the original culture and religion in the midst of the new environment – the establishment of enclaves within a foreign culture, that while engaged, is not entirely received, and indeed is held at arm’s length. In this sense, migration is a form of colonialism. And indeed, contemporary migrations are looked upon, approvingly or otherwise, as a form of retribution for the centuries of colonial relations the West imposed upon the rest of the world: these foreign peoples are now returning the favor, colonizing, and extracting wealth from, the host nations.

In the current climate, and in this analysis, it is migration with which we are concerned.

Some economic principles to guide the discussion

Migration, then, is an aspect of a global confluence of factors mainly economic in character.

Certain basic economic concepts have to be grasped in order to get a proper view of this phenomenon.

First: the economy, whether viewed locally, nationally, or globally, is a circular flow of the production and consumption of goods and services. This is a reflection of Say’s Law: supply creates its own demand. Say’s Law, which was most effectively employed in the work of Joseph Schumpeter, from whom the phrase “circular flow” comes, helps us understand how economies function.

The circular flow of goods and services concerns is the so-called real economy.

Second: not only is there a circular flow of goods and services, there is also a circular flow of payment, credit and debt, which is generated together with the other circular flow. It is both the result of that flow, and affects that flow. This is the so-called financial economy.

The two impinge on each other and determine each other. They cannot be viewed in isolation but as two parts of the same coin. The trouble with much of modern economics is that it does not do that, but treats them in abstract separation.

These circular flows are firstly local, comprising a local economy. A larger economy is a composite of smaller economies, and so comprises a confluence of circular flows. For this reason the economy, especially in other languages like French, is also called the conjuncture. The broader economy is a conjuncture of smaller economies operating more or less in sync with each other.

The component sub-economies do not move in lockstep. Rather, they develop at varying paces, some experiencing boom periods, others bust periods, others more or less stagnating.

What happens, then, is that factors of production flow towards areas of greater productivity: that is where the jobs are, that is, where capital receives a better return.

Borders and exchange rates

Within a political unit, these flows can occur unhindered. Between political units, they are obstructed by borders. These borders are the product of law. Laws set up obstructions to the crossing of boundaries. Furthermore, currencies, which are the product of law, form hidden barriers. Because they fluctuate, they make it more difficult to judge relative values, such as wages, keeping investors and workers from making the move, especially if the move looks to be from a more valuable to a less valuable currency. But beyond all of this, language and culture form boundaries, so that even in the absence of legal or monetary hindrances, people are hindered from moving because of the difficulty in adapting to foreign conditions.

So how do adjustments occur between economies separated by boundaries? By adjustments in the exchange rate of the countries’ currencies, so that areas with expanding economic activity see their currencies appreciate, while those with relatively contracting activity see their currencies depreciate. This is reflected in the current account, which is the sum of a country’s economic activity as far as production of goods and services is concerned, as it relates to other countries. The current account is in surplus when exports exceed imports, and vice versa. And a current account surplus should result in an appreciating currency.

In a perfect world, this mechanism would proceed unhindered, and the balance between nations would be maintained, with current account surpluses and deficits continually issuing forth into currency shifts that automatically lead to their reversals. Outperforming countries would have more money to buy foreign goods and services, and underperforming countries would have relatively cheaper goods and services to offer. This would result in a reversal of flows, with the more expensive countries importing more (and producing less) and the less expensive countries exporting more (and consuming less). Wages would increase in step with the currency, allowing them to import more. This is not a static condition. Currency exchange rates would continue to shift, balancing flows through the fluctuations and reversals of economic conditions over time.

Short-circuiting the feedback mechanism

But here is where problems arise. Particular interests are favored at any particular time, on both sides of the equation. On the side of the exporting country, there is the interest of the export industry, while on the side of the importing country there is the interest of consumers. Or at least, consumers can be led to believe that it is in their interest to have cheap goods available, although there is a hidden cost to this, which we will discuss shortly.

This is the situation in our current regime of globalism. Cheap-production countries are looking to lock themselves into exchange-rate and regulatory conditions favorable to their continued exports, even though such a regime is unfavorable to their own domestic economies. In those countries, domestic consumers face high prices on imports and production geared to foreign markets; workers see their wages artificially suppressed, rather than automatically rising vis-à-vis foreign competitors, as they would if currency exchange rates moved in step.

The gainers in such a situation are mainly multinational corporations which have relocated to low-wage countries and use their former home markets as dumping grounds for cheaper production. Other gainers are governments in the exporting countries, which book revenues from those corporations and their exports. Controlling elites on both sides of the equation benefit financially and politically.

The result in the importing countries is cheaper imports, but likewise a drain of production capacity, leading to an economy heavy on service-sector jobs.

Is such an economy – one lacking in production capacity – sustainable? It would seem that, given the demands and requirements of modern welfare states and the generation of revenues they require, that such an economy is not sustainable – for ultimately it is production capacity that generates wealth, while services only redistribute pre-existing wealth. Not to mention the utterly redistributionist nature of entitlement and benefit payments, which generate no wealth whatsoever, and in fact entail a form of friction which erodes wealth.

The stubborn expansion of imbalances

In the event, such a regime generates what have come to be known as imbalances. And a lot of effort is expended to counter those imbalances without resolving them. For to resolve them would lead to favored parties – e.g., multinational corporations, exporting countries – losing their lucrative advantages.

One of the important consequences is reflected in money and banking. The regime of fixed or pegged exchange rates is realized by keeping currency exchange from taking place. Normally, cross-border trade is paralleled by currency exchange, which leads to shifts in exchange rates. But to keep those exchange rates stable, currency exchange has to be headed off at the pass, as it were. This is accomplished through what is known as “sterilization.” Central banks act to keep foreign currency earnings from being released into the domestic economy. This holds down purchasing power and so eases pressure on the domestic currency to appreciate against the foreign currency. But this also leads to bloat in the currency of the importing country. Under our current regime, in which the US dollar serves as the reserve currency for international trade – and in which the US, not coincidentally, serves as the “consumer of last resort”—this has led to the buildup of massive amounts of liquidity which circulate aimlessly on financial markets without touching ground in real markets. This leads to bubbles in markets that traditionally serve as havens for excess liquidity, such as real estate markets and stock markets. Such asset “bubbles,” when they burst, lead to massive failures in the banking system, as occurred in 2008–2009.

Migration as a rectification of imbalances

This is one way in which imbalances are generated, and how they, by hook or by crook, get resolved. But capital flows comprise only one of the factors that resolve cross-border imbalances. The other mobile factor of production – labor – will likewise be drawn by the magnetic attraction of richer countries, especially where 1) those economies are lopsided toward service jobs, which cannot be exported and therefore draw low-wage labor to them rather than going to where low-wage labor is, like manufacturing capacity can; and 2) those economies maintain more or less lavish welfare and benefit regimes which ipso facto exert an attraction on citizens of less prosperous countries.

Therefore, in a world of fixed or pegged exchange rates – or especially, in the case of the European Union, a single currency – imbalances are rectified globally in the same way they are internally within a domestic economy. For the effect of the current globalist regime is to turn the entire world economy into a single domestic economy.

It would seem that this is a driving force behind current policy decisions being taken by Western nations, both in North America and in Europe. In the United States, border control lapsed and the government introduced a range of measures to accommodate inward migration, rather than making an attempt to stifle it. This is a tacit acknowledgement that a regime of floating exchange rates, the counterpart of nations able exert to effective sovereignty, has been set aside for all practical purposes, and that the great dream of cosmopolitan liberals everywhere is at hand: a global regime of universal jurisdiction, of a police rather than a military force, of a global welfare state in which ostensibly universal human rights move from the category of “ostensible” to “actual,” and the entire globe is harnessed to a redistributionist regime in which equal rights for all becomes a reality, regardless of cost.

In the meantime, what this regime of more-or-less fixed exchange rates and open borders spells is mass migration. For able-bodied labor will move if it can move, and given the technical transportational possibilities that increasingly have become available to low-wage populations everywhere, this movement will only accelerate. This is even more the case where populations are stuck not only in low-wage situations but in crime-ridden or even war-ridden, dysfunctional countries. Muslim populations in particular seem to be caught inordinately in such situations. Not surprisingly, Muslim populations are on the move.

The problem with this solution

But this points up the profound danger involved in these movements, and the misgivings they give rise to among “receiving” populations. For we are not dealing here with interchangeable parts; we are dealing with human beings, with cultures, mores, religions, in addition to whatever wealth or lack of it, health or lack of it, they may already have. Add to this the migration-orientation as opposed to immigration-orientation of these peoples, and the problem becomes all too apparent.

With migration, nationhood itself becomes problematic; instead of these groups being encouraged to assimilate, they become treated as victims of nationalistic jingoism, and encouraged to become integral parts of the grievance coalition. Patriotism really does come to be seen as the last refuge of the scoundrel, at least for the idealist. Cosmopolitanism becomes de rigueur.

But that cosmopolitanism is only a façade covering over deep divisions. For example, to what degree is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? If Muslims ever were to become a majority, would they maintain Western liberal institutions, or would they impose the institutions peculiar to Islamic countries, such as Sharia law? These are questions that not only are interesting academic exercises, but which practice will answer unequivocally, sooner or later, and of which real people will feel the effects.

Another such question: to what degree can countries like the United States sustain influxes of low-wage labor for service jobs that already are under pressure from unemployed or underemployed citizens? How can revenues be generated to counter the massive amount of pressure being put on the health, education, and welfare systems these countries have built up over the years, especially given their aging populations? Is it not a form of collective suicide to allow these migrations to take place in the hope that the gravy train will continue to flow? For looked at purely in terms of economics, these flows look to be unsustainable.

The end game?

Perhaps that is what our contemporary global elites are after. The very destabilization of nations, the undermining of national sovereignty, only plays into the hands of those desiring to establish a global regime to replace, or at least gain dominance over, sovereign nations. Nationhood itself is at stake. Politicians seem to have placed the dream of universal jurisdiction and the realization of every human being’s inalienable rights to food, accommodation, livelihood, education, health care, and the rest of it, above the exigencies of national survival. Apparently, they will pick up the pieces left in the aftermath of conclusive national failure.

Indeed, this would seem to be end game of national leaders favoring and preferring foreign interests to those of their own nations (e.g., Barack Obama, Angela Merkel). They seem to be auditioning for leadership in the regime which is yet to come, a regime to supplement or even replace our current framework of internationalist institutions such as the United Nations. Will it ever come to that? Yet another of those questions that practice will answer. But it is looking increasingly likely.

But there is an alternative. The venerable tradition of national sovereignty, of laws and currencies which are the expression of that sovereignty, of national populations that determine their own destinies rather than having them determined by unaccountable elites at transnational levels – the infrastructure for this is still there. And the top priority to this end, quite simply, is floating exchange rates and maintenance of the institutions protective of national sovereignty. This is not rocket science. It is a simple choice. Nationhood, or globalism?

On the Road to Elysium When fiction approaches fact

The 2013 movie Elysium depicts a dystopian future of unremitting, jarring poverty juxtaposed with serene, detached wealth. Literally detached: wealth resides in a lavishly equipped, lebensraum-furnished space station, high above an impoverished, exhausted Earth. The planet is only useful as a source of provision and maintenance for the space station; its fruits have been extracted and depleted, while the population is mainly left to its own devices, an excess labor force without the capacity to sustain a decent standard of living, the only purpose of which is to serve the elite floating high above.

It is a haunting image, as it should be. And, admittedly, an extreme one. But it resonates – because in this day and age, the gap between rich and poor has been steadily widening, bringing the Elysium scenario within the realm of the plausible. The purpose of this article is to explore how this has come about.

For starters, the problem with the world system as currently configured is that it divorces consumption from production – a recipe for disaster. For consumption needs to be funded, and there are only two ways to do that. Either produce, or borrow. The modern world has chosen – or, our betters have chosen – for the latter.

In the ideal economy, production and consumption are in a circular flow; supply creates its own demand. Production is in equilibrium with consumption, and pays for consumption. There are neither gluts nor shortfalls.

Of course, this is unrealistic. No economy is a closed loop like this. First, as discussed in the accompanying course as well as in this article, the so-called “problem of saving” makes its appearance, and complicates matters. This leads to two markets, not one – the ordinary market of production and consumption, and the financial market of credit and debt. This two-market framework is a natural outgrowth of the money economy. There is no ultimate disconnect between production and consumption here: the monies that flow into the financial market eventually flow back to the ordinary market in one way or another, closing the production-consumption loop.

But in the modern world system the circular flow of production and consumption is purposely disrupted. This is the heart of what is wrong with the world economy today. It is the issue that urgently needs to be addressed, because it is producing a time bomb that eventually must go off, with unforeseen and unfathomable results.

The disruption of production and consumption is primarily visible in the balance of trade. Nowadays, trade relations are characterized by sustained, sizeable imbalances. The inevitable byproduct of these imbalances, and what makes these imbalances so lethal, is debt. In a previous article, I wrote: “Trade imbalances have to be ‘financed’: in other words, they are paid for by debt. When trade imbalances are incurred, the countries running trade surpluses are also exporting capital: this is called a capital deficit. What they are doing is exporting demand, by exporting excess savings. To put it bluntly: they are extending the credit to the consuming countries that these countries require to buy their production.”

These countries are exporting demand. What does this mean? It means they are seeking to sell production, not to their own, domestic consumers, but to foreign ones. They are disrupting the circular flow. In a normal situation, they would not be exporting demand; domestic demand would match supply; they would be buying what they sell. Of course there are always surpluses and deficits, because no economy is entirely closed. But the sustained effort, the policy decision, to “export demand,” which means to shift consumption abroad, would not exist.

How do they do this? By suppressing domestic consumption. In other words, domestic producers are not being allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The demand they otherwise would generate is being taken from them. Normally this would result in overproduction, a glut of goods and services, and prices would adjust accordingly, falling, bringing the unbalanced situation into equilibrium. But through various manipulations outlined here (under the rubric of currency manipulation), domestic production is put out of joint with domestic consumption, the producers are robbed of a portion of their earnings, and the shortfall is made up for by foreign consumption, which picks up the slack.

Why do they do this? Why engage in a conspiracy against the domestic economy in order to promote exports? Back in the late 1800s, the British economist John Hobson already had an answer. For him, British imperialism was a net loss, costing the country far more than it provided in terms of income or revenue. Not only was it prohibitively expensive, but it disadvantaged a broad swathe of domestic producers. Why engage in it then? His conclusion was that it provided an advantage to various vested interests – particular interests, as opposed to the common good – which in turn were able to influence policy in their favor. In other words, imperialism and colonialism subordinated the national interest to particular interests.

The same thing is happening today. Certain countries are pushing exports, generating massive trade surpluses year after year; while certain other countries are living beyond their means, running the mirror image of trade deficits, year after year. The usual mantra we then hear is that the exporting countries are virtuous, disciplined, hard-working, while the importing countries are lazy, decadent, improvident – but it would be more accurate to characterize each as victims of a regime, which exploits both ends of the trade equation.

The transnational capitalist class (TCC – of which more here), composed of various manifestations of “Davos Man,” is the ultimate beneficiary. By engaging in this debt-funded, imbalance-riddled economic system, it is able to funnel the surplus value generated by forced savings into its own pockets, while allowing various debt mechanisms to provide for the indispensable consumption that enables this gravy train to keep going.

In other words, a significant portion of the ever-burgeoning global debt burden is simply the flip side of an equally significant sum of profits disappearing straight into the pockets of our modern-day benefactors, the global corporate elite, along with their cronies, facilitators, and enablers in their various support roles in government, politics, academia, the entertainment industry, and the news media. The tab will be paid by future generations, when those various debt instruments come due. Après nous, le déluge.

This is the source of the widening gap between rich and poor worldwide. This is the road to Elysium.

How is this debt-funded consumption sustained? Let the reader understand: this is the key to the modern political scene. This arrangement, this racket, runs through a political system revolving around identity politics. This is what makes the gimcrack mechanism go. Identity politics, as I outline here, serves to defuse and divert opposition to the global capitalist regime. It deflects leftist agitation away from its home base, the class struggle, toward the safe – for hegemonic capitalism – alternative of identity politics. In fact, it serves as a key brick in the edifice of this hegemonic capitalism, for identity politics dovetails precisely with the culture-ideology of consumerism that locks peoples and nations into their economic roles within the system.

It turns out that identity politics provides the justification, under the guise of “human rights,” for never-ending deficit spending on entitlements. In other words, not only does it foster the ideology of consumerism, it also provides the legitimation for debt-financed consumption, which is the key to maintaining the gravy train of profits into the pockets of Davos Man.

In this age, respect for human rights is considered the sine qua non of civilized society. But what are human rights really? An understanding of their origin sheds light on their conflicted character. They came along during the “Age of Enlightenment” of the 18th century, to take the place of religion as the source of law. As I wrote back in 1995:

Religion was relegated to the privacy of one’s own conscience. It was therefore also removed from any influence on public life. What replaced it, in early liberalism, was a focus on property rights; when that produced alienation, the focus shifted to collective property redistribution. These are modernism’s first principles, and they are Epicurean, materialist, consumerist. Both foci, property and redistribution, have at their core the consumerist individual. It is consumption – appetite – which this society worships. Human rights mean that each individual has the inalienable right to satisfy those appetites. To deny one such a right is to violate one’s integrity as a human being. When a conflict of appetites arises, or when appetite conflicts with a real right (such as with abortion), the strongest (i.e., the one with the best legal representation or the most effective propaganda machine) wins.

Hence, consumerism is not simply a function of households spending beyond their means. It is also a function of entitlements, as currently defined and implemented by welfare states. In his scathing indictment of rights-as-entitlements, P.J. O’Rourke was not far from the mark: “Freedom is not … entitlement. An entitlement is what people on welfare get, and how free are they? It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the ‘right’ to education, the ‘right’ to health care, the ‘right’ to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.” If this sounds harsh and unfair, think about it. These are the rations of a peculiar form of slavery – to an unseen hegemonic power holding the nations in its sway. We are satisfied to eat the crumbs falling from the table of the TCC.

Government-financed “discretionary spending” keeps the boat floating, even when jobs are scarce and salaries are stagnant, and households have maxed out their credit cards. The economies of the consumer countries have for years had their production capacity hollowed out as with numbing regularity jobs have been shipped overseas. This has had the inevitable effect of producing a structural shortfall in purchasing power. This shortfall was first made up for with the real estate bubble of the early 2000s, but since the crash, it has been maintained by massive deficit spending on the part of the Obama administration.

How the pie is divided up, and who gets a seat at the table, now turns out to be a crucial factor behind the identity politics agenda. The government now plays the role of benefactor to various disadvantaged groups, which are encouraged to develop and maintain an identity precisely as disadvantaged groups, in order to form a consumption-based coalition to 1) maintain the power of the ruling elite (in other words, deflect and coopt the class struggle), and 2) maintain demand for below-market global production, thus keeping the gravy train going.

In the current US political constellation, African-Americans are perhaps the key members to be mollified in terms of this “coalition management.” African-Americans have been whipped up into a frenzy of anti-authoritarianism (mainly against the police, but also against the white majority generally) which seemed a bit odd to those of us who thought that the worst aspects of racism were behind us, but who now have almost been led to believe that racism has never been worse. The plot thickens when one realizes that groups like the Ford Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation have contributed tens, if not hundreds, of millions to the major front group for this movement, Black Lives Matter. Knowing what we now know, it would appear that this is yet another effort to shunt a disgruntled voting bloc away from dangerous activity (such as voting for a presidential candidate who wishes to confront the system as presently constructed, rather than maintain it) and back into the safe confines of identity politics, in which factions vie with each other for favors, rather than with the central power for justice.

The timing of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement lends credence to the notion that this agitation has been part of a strategy of coalition management. The death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 can be seen as a watershed in this emergence, for it was soon after that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag first made its appearance. But it wasn’t until the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 that things became heated. This was followed by the incidents involving Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York. By now this has generated an all-out attack on policing specifically and the allegedly racist character of white society generally, with incidents of attacks on both becoming a drearily repeating spectacle.

What is curious about this, again, is the timing. For the so-called “new wave” of immigration began at roughly the same time. Reports of this “new wave” began trickling in in 2013. This new wave of immigrants, bolstered by a massive influx of children (itself spurred by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama’s 2012 initiative to provide illegal immigrant minors), produced a surge in numbers of new immigrants, both legal and illegal, in 2014 and 2015.

In terms of coalition management, this influx creates problems. The two groups, illegal or unauthorized immigrants and African-Americans, compete for the same jobs and the same benefits from government. That the administration and the Democratic Party is promoting and indeed sponsoring the wave of immigration has the potential to not sit well with existing coalition members like African-Americans, or the working class generally. Therefore, it would seem entirely plausible that, to deflect attention from this conflict, the African-American community has been stoked with allegations of rampant racism, making use of every plausible such incident to reinforce a general narrative that the enemy is not a competing coalition member, viz., immigrants, but the Other, those outside the Democrat coalition, or in other words, whites, conservatives, the police, Christians. This is a matter of speculation; perhaps Wikileaks emails will shed more light on the decision-making process.

Regardless, this is what coalition management  in the age of identity politics looks like.

There is one more aspect that deserves highlighting, and it is connected with the need to maintain consumption levels in Western countries. The phenomenon of mass migration, encompassing both immigration and the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, runs contrary to the national interest of the target countries, and the widespread opposition to the scale with which it is being conducted has fed massive unrest against the ruling class. What is being missed in all of this is that these newly imported populations constitute fresh sources of consumption, regardless of whether employment and thus purchasing power is available for them or not. For in the age of human rights and the welfare state, consumption will be maintained, whether by production or, as we have learned, simply by mortgaging the future through deficit spending to maintain entitlements. All of these migrants can consume much more of that below-market production if they are ensconced in the rich Western countries than if they remained in their countries of origin. In this manner the gravy train keeps chugging along.

This is how we have embarked on the road to Elysium. Debt-funded consumption is combined with structurally low-wage, low-regulation, environmentally-unfriendly production. It is a massive engagement in transactions of decline which unchecked will lead to a situation in which the Elysium of science fiction will increasingly approach reality.

Carrying the Water The Role of the Left in the Neoliberal Order

I am struck with disbelief with the apparently unlimited extent of their smug arrogance. It is these very men (and yes, they are mostly men!) who are singularly responsible for the mess we are in. Blair and Clinton in particular presided over the massive accumulation of debt, reckless deregulation and disproportionate and unbalanced boom in our economy which brought us to the precipice. That they and their ilk imagine that they should now be ‘sorting things out’ is cause for worry. In another time they might have been thrown in the dungeon.[1]

All power tends to coopt and absolute power coopts absolutely.[2]

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.[3]

“Neoliberalism” is the term used to refer to the most recent form capitalism has taken in the modern world. It is shorthand for the new order gestating since the 1970s, characterized by “extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy,” as the Wikipedia entry has it. Such characteristics are explanation enough as to why neoliberalism has become a veritable swearword among left-leaning thinkers.

An article by George Monbiot published in The Guardian succinctly summarizes the left’s case against this Novus Ordo Seclorum. The title says it all: “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” Neoliberalism is responsible for everything from the 2008 credit crisis to the epidemic of loneliness to the collapse of ecosystems. At its heart is the unfettered individual in competition with other such individuals, wherein “neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency… Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty.”

Although it rose to ascendancy in the 1970s, as an agenda neoliberalism was first put on the map back in 1938 by the throwback Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, in the face of a Keynesian onslaught that carried all before it. They and like-minded thinkers, holding fast to the old-school ideal of limited government and free markets, kept to their belief even when it seemed a lost cause. But their perseverance was repaid. With the collapse of the Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, their ideas gained a new lease on life, and with the ascent to power of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, they became the new political-economic orthodoxy.

Then came the harvest. As Monbiot relates: “massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services.” And not only in these countries but across the globe: “Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world.”

The “freedom” neoliberalism promises resembles the “equality” pilloried by Anatole France in The Red Lily (“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread”). For what does it entail? In Mobiot’s words, “freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.”

And where such freedom is restricted in rich countries, it is transferred to poor ones, “through trade treaties incorporating ‘investor-state dispute settlement’: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections.”

Essentially, neoliberalism has gutted the state, privatized its services to the detriment of all but the owners, reduced through austerity the transfer payments that “lifts people out of poverty,” and legitimized the destruction of the environment.

Martinez and Garcia provide an additional summary of the neoliberal agenda: 1) the rule of the market, 2) cutting public expenditure for social services, 3) deregulation, 4) privatization, and 5) eliminating the concept of the “public good” or “community.” Here deregulation is added to the list of failures, while the eradication of the pursuit of the public good and community parallel Monbiot’s mention of the epidemic of loneliness.

The roster of witnesses could be multiplied, but without adding much. It is a rather bleak and somber picture that the critics of neoliberalism paint. But things are perhaps even worse than they think they are. For in their critique, they advance hardly any new notions beyond the traditional critiques of capitalism that have been leveled since the emergence of the “social question” in the 19th century. It is rather too easy simply to put the blame for the failures and dysfunctionalities of the modern world system at the feet of traditional free-market capitalism. This enemy has been long defeated; things have progressed far beyond such simplicities. Might there be a reason that precisely this obsolete bogeyman is so energetically pressed as the root of all evil? Might it be that such a critique obscures what is really going on, and hides from us the true problem?

For there are realities to the new “neoliberal” order that this critique does not take into account. This is a form of intellectual blindness. And it is being exploited precisely in favor of neoliberalism.

Is neoliberalism simply old-fashioned classical liberalism (i.e., modern conservatism)? To argue as much is to lose sight of some extremely important factoids. One such, as was documented here, is that budget deficits and spending on social programs are not down, but up. Especially in the wake of the credit crisis of 2008, governments in both the United States and Europe have increased deficit spending, not decreased it. Another is that the developed countries still exhibit high, some would consider crippling, levels of regulation. Spending is therefore not going down, and the regulatory state so decried by conservatives shows no sign of being dismantled.

The critique of neoliberalism proffered by Monbiot et al. is quite simply outmoded. It is based on an exclusive focus on the nation-state as the locus of economic and political activity, supplemented by a likewise outdated center-periphery construct of the relations between nations, whereby e.g. the rich Northern nations exploit the poor Southern nations. But that explanatory framework only obscures the true dynamics of the globalist economic system.[4]

We have explored this system in some detail in previous posts (go here for a catalogue of articles). The important thing to glean from those treatments is that the center-periphery framework of exploitation has been superseded by a transnational corporate arrangement that stands over and outside of specific national constrictions and allegiances.

Sklair provides a succinct summary of this arrangement. “[It] is based on the concept of transnational practices, practices that cross state boundaries but do not necessarily originate with state agencies or actors. Analytically, they operate in three spheres: the economic, the political and the cultural-ideological. The whole is what I mean by ‘the global system’…. The building blocks of the theory are the transnational corporation [TNC], [which is] the characteristic institutional form of economic transnational practices, a still-evolving transnational capitalist class (TCC) in the political sphere, and the culture-ideology of consumerism in the culture-ideology sphere.”[5]

At the heart of this system is, then, the TCC, the transnational capitalist class. This group is the major extractor of surplus value in the modern world. In previous posts we have explored the skewed relationships of nations in the current economic framework, characterized by trade deficits run by some countries and trade surpluses by others. We have noted that this arrangement has to be financed by continuous indebtedness, for every trade imbalance has to be financed, and we have asked the question, why allow these imbalances to continue? Who benefits from this deficit consumerism whereby debt piles up with no end in sight? As I put it here:

Qui bono? Not the workers, neither in the exporting nor in the consuming countries. Rather, it is our familiar friend, [Fernand] Braudel’s “shadowy zone” of behind-the-scenes capitalist power brokers, which benefits from its “commanding position at the pinnacle of the trading community” to steer the profits in its direction and the losses to both ends of the trading network. In this arrangement, there is no core and no periphery – there are only regions of exploitation. The difference is in the form the exploitation takes.

Already in 1977 Goldfrank noted the incipient formation of this new group that would become the TCC:

There is growing evidence that the owners and managers of multinational enterprises are coming to constitute themselves as a powerful social class beyond their role behavior: forming interest groups, engaging in common educational and recreational activity, attempting to include top economic managers in the socialist countries (with which trade and joint investments are increasing rapidly), and working out an ideology in which the world is truly their oyster.[6]

Since then, the literature exploring the TCC has burgeoned. One of the leading proponents of this explanatory framework is Leslie Sklair, now professor emeritus of sociology at the London School of Economics. In the article cited (note 5 above), one of the many he has dedicated to the subject, he provides a succinct outline of the characteristics of the TCC (pp. 521ff.):

  1. Outward-oriented, global perspective. “The growing TNC and World Bank emphasis on ‘free trade’ and the shift from import-substitution to export-promotion strategies of most developing countries over the last decade or two have been driven by members of the TCC.” This is accompanied by a globalist orientation in the training of business managers: “There is now a huge literature in the popular and academic business press on the ‘making of the global manager’ and the ‘globalization of business and management’ … confirming that this is a real phenomenon and not simply the creation of a few ‘globaloney’ myth makers.”
  2. Cosmopolitan “citizens of the world.”
  3. Shared lifestyle, including education and consumption patterns (“luxury goods and services”). Members of the TCC enjoy “exclusive clubs and restaurants, ultra-expensive resorts in all continents, ‘the right places to see and be seen’, private as opposed to mass forms of travel and entertainment and, ominously, increasing residential segregation of the very rich secured by armed guards and electronic surveillance, from Los Angeles to Moscow and from Manila to Beijing.”

As a class the TCC is held together by these elements, oriented about a common goal: the exploitation of the possibilities provided by global consumption. “The culture-ideology of global capitalist consumerism is the fundamental value system that keeps the system intact” (p. 523). And so it behooves this global elite to maintain and foster this state of affairs. Sklair refers to this as the siege mentality of capitalism: “The siege mentality entails the view that social systems are always potentially vulnerable to attack, no less from inside than from outside. Approval, and reward for behaviour which sustains it, must be maintained to ensure the persistence of the system” (p. 517).

This is the imperative: the TCC needs to foster the ideology of global capitalist consumption in order to maintain its hegemony. Thus far, it has been quite successful doing so. “The practical ‘politics’ of this hegemony is the everyday life of consumer society and the promise that it is a global reality for most of the world’s peoples. This is certainly the most persistent image projected by television and the mass media in general. In one sense, therefore, shopping is the most successful social movement, product advertising in its many forms the most successful message, consumerism the most successful ideology of all time” (p. 531).

The success of the TCC in propagating this universal ideology meets us at every turn. The question then is, how in blazes have they done it? It is at this point that our argument takes a curious turn. For we have to proceed beyond the usual consumption critiques revolving around the deleterious effects of advertising (manipulation, subliminal messaging), wastefulness (the throwaway society), and the like. There is an added dimension to this newfangled globalist consumerism, the understanding of which unravels many a mystery.

This added dimension was first referenced (to the author’s knowledge) by David Rieff in a celebrated article published in the August 1993 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Entitled “Multiculturalism’s Silent Partner,” it laid bare a hitherto (and still) unrecognized, because improbable, correlation: the “newly globalized consumer economy” has its flip side in multiculturalism.

Rieff begins his analysis with a tantalizing assertion. In the face of universal agreement that Marxism had died with the Soviet Union, he argues that precisely a Marxist hermeneutic explains the current climate of opinion and practice, which by that time was being dominated by the notion of multiculturalism. “For an application if not of the methods of ‘vulgar’ Marxism then at least of those (related) modes of understanding that are to be found on the business pages of the better newspapers might produce a rather more grounded sense of what we are talking about when we talk and talk about multiculturalism. Despite the denials and mystifications of the intelligentsia, multiculturalism is a phenomenon with a silent partner: the broad and radical change now taking place within world capitalism” (p. 62).

The debate about multiculturalism had given the sense that ideas mattered, that what the intelligentsia of either the right or the left, for or against, had to say on the matter would prove decisive to the social order. Rieff pours cold water on the notion. It is not ideas that are driving this debate, he says; rather, it is the new reality of an emergent global capitalist order.

“Reality is elsewhere,” says Rieff.

Can conservatives really believe that a few curriculum changes will undermine a system that could not be weakened by the Comintern or the Soviet Black Sea fleet? As for our campus revolutionaries: How can they insist on the emancipatory power of multiculturalism when during the 1980s – the very decade in which multiculturalism became the dominant intellectual current in elite sectors of academia – the conditions of the poor, of working-class women, and of America’s non-white citizens deteriorated dramatically? If multiculturalism is what its proponents claim it is, why has its moment seen the richest 1 percent of Americans grow richer and the deunionization of the American workplace? There is something wrong with this picture (p. 63).

There is a new game in town, he writes, and multiculturalism is simply an epiphenomenon thereof. “The curiousness of the situation is that both sides have misconstrued the power of multiculturalism in precisely the same way: as a threat to the capitalist system. In reality, it is nothing of the sort, as becomes clear the moment one stops looking at multiculturalism in ideologized, millenarian terms – as if it were some kind of pure, homegrown manifestation of the Zeitgeist – and instead sees it as perhaps the most salient cultural epiphenomenon of an increasingly globalized capitalist system” (p. 63).

To perceive this is to hold in one’s hand the key to understanding some otherwise puzzling phenomena. For instance, the increasingly incongruous nature of university curricula. “Behind the embrace of multiculturalism among college administrators is the belief that there is no incongruity in simultaneously subsidizing an English department made up of feminists and poststructuralists, a physics department that is up to its eye balls in research grants from the federal government, and an enormous (and enormously profitable) quasi-professional sports establishment, complete with athletes who are students only in the technical sense.” The point is, the mentality has changed: “Once administrators have decided that the university will be a kind of department store, then each new course offering becomes little more than another product line, and department chairpersons begin to act like the store’s buyers” (p. 63).

Far from undermining the detested capitalist system, the presuppositions of multiculturalism turn out to dovetail nicely with those of the new corporate mentality. “The multiculturalist mode is what any smart businessman would prefer. For if all art is deemed as good as all other art, and, for that matter, if the point of art is not greatness but the production of works of art that reflect the culture and aspirations of various ethnic, sexual, or racial subgroups within a society, then one is in a position to increase supply almost at will in order to meet increases in demand” (p. 64). Indeed, culture becomes something of a bazaar; and is that not what makes for good business as well?

Instead of being a rare and costly thing, culture becomes simultaneously a product, like a car – something that can be made new every few years – and an abundant resource, like, well, people. The result is that the consumption of culture can increasingly come to resemble the consumption of goods. After all, just as one cannot say that a preference for Pepsi is superior to a preference for Dr Pepper, what is euphemistically known as “cultural pluralism” permits a similar abdication of judgment in matters of artistic taste. The rules of the market are soon in full control. If students want to read Alice Walker in a literature class instead of the Iliad, fine. The publishing industry certainly has no qualms. It knows it can market Walker more savvily than it can market the Greeks. At any rate, it is not a case, as conservatives allege, of the student as barbarian. Rather, it is a case of the student as customer. And in our society – and, increasingly, most societies – the customer is always right (pp. 64-66).

It is not only students and department heads that are affected by this; professors are as well. The radicals turn out to have found a comfort zone in the new material order, even if that clashes with their professed beliefs.

For all their writings on power, hegemony, and oppression, the campus multiculturalists seem indifferent to the question of where they fit into the material scheme of things. Perhaps it’s tenure, with its way of shielding the senior staff from the rigors of someone else’s bottom-line thinking. Working for an institution in which neither pay nor promotion is connected to performance, job security is guaranteed (after tenure is attained), and pension arrangements are probably the finest in any industry in the country – no wonder a poststructuralist can easily believe that words are deeds. She or he can afford to (p. 66).

Indeed, words offer another telltale sign of confluence. Rieff cites an article by “new historicist” professor Janet Nedelsky in which she writes of the need to do away with boundaries because boundaries indicate, in her words, “a separation and opposition that does not capture the complex, fertile, and tension-laden interconnection between self and others.” But isn’t it curious that this viewpoint regarding boundaries coincides with e.g. Larry Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore writing in the Harvard Business Review about the new ideal: the “corporation without boundaries.” Why is the one radical and the other not? In fact, they are equally so.

The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world. Far from standing in implacable intellectual opposition to each other, both groups see the same racial and gender transformations in the demographic makeup of the United States and of the American work force…. [B]oth CEOs and Ph.D.’s insist more and more that it is no longer possible to speak in terms of the United States as some fixed, sovereign entity. The world has moved on; capital and labor are mobile; and with each passing year national borders, not to speak of national identities, become less relevant either to consciousness or to commerce (pp. 67-68).

Rieff goes so far as to say that it is business, not the radicals, that is having the more practical effect implementing a multicultural agenda. “The multiculturalists may pride themselves on posing a fundamental threat to what Professor Henry Giroux has called ‘the hegemonic notion that Eurocentric culture is superior to other cultures and traditions by virtue of its canonical status as a universal measure of Western civilization.’ But the reality is that no serious player in the business world has anything but the most vestigial or sentimental interest in Western civilization, as it is roughly understood by campus radicals and conservatives alike.” When everything is submitted to the market for valuation, then all values become relative. The business community has embraced this relativity. “The market economy, now global in scale, is by its nature corrosive of all established hierarchies and certainties…. If any group has embraced the rallying cry ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go,’ it is the world business elite” (p. 69).

The result may not be what the idealists had in mind. The brave new world of global consumerism is a far cry from visions of egalitarian, environmentally friendly utopia. “The collapse of borders, far from being the liberating event that the academic multiculturalists have envisaged, has brought about the multiculturalism of the market, not the multiculturalism of justice. And if there is a mystery about all this, it is that so many people could have expected a different, more ‘enlightened’ outcome” (p. 70). Nevertheless, it is the reality of the borderless world in which we have landed.

What is revealing is how academics, the proponents of a supposed anti-capitalist alternative, have fallen so easily into line with this “multiculturalism of the market,” ruled as it is by the corporate business world.

Campus radicalism is awfully selective anyway. Its talk is long on race and gender, short on class. And that is probably just as well, since the market economy, ready though it may be to admit blacks and women, is hardly likely to sign its own death warrant by accepting a radical revision of class relations. Were such proposals to be seriously advanced, on campus or elsewhere, the multiculturalists would soon discover just how tough capitalism can be when its real, as opposed to its sentimental, interests are threatened (p. 71).

Indeed, it is in their economic interest to do so. “That is the beauty of the academic multiculturalists’ approach: they can appear to be radical and can feel themselves to be radical, but they can advance a program that, stripped of its adorning rhetoric, is little more than a demand for inclusion, for a piece of the capitalist pie” (p. 71).

This is more than just coincidence. There is more than just a correlation between multiculturalism and globalist corporate capitalism, between the corporate elite and the academic elite. There is in fact the “Marxist” connection to which Rieff refers in his article: the illusion clung to by the left and its intelligentsia that it calls the shots in this culture war, when in reality it is only carrying the water for the global corporate regime.

Rieff makes this clear with a pertinent comparison.

The rise of multicultural capitalism is comparable to abolitionism: the slaves were freed when the abolitionists could count on the support of economic interests in the North, for which an economy based on slavery was an impediment to the future economic well-being of the United States. It was industrial civilization, not justice, that the hardheaded plutocrats of New York and New England were interested in furthering. And until they were convinced that their own interests were at stake, all the oratory of Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and their colleagues was for naught. After they were convinced, this same oratory seemed to sweep all before it (pp. 70-71).

“Seemed to.” It is all so quintessentially Marxian. The economic is the “base,” the intellectual is the “superstructure,” a framework that, “for all their professed respect for the Marxist tradition,” is “out of favor” with the multicultural intellectuals. As well one might expect, given the underlying reality.

This economic base is more than just an abstraction, a Marxian construct. It is the source of funding for the entire academic enterprise, and not only that, for the myriad of activities that impinge upon and determine the direction of the broader culture.

Here we hear echoes of Sklair’s contention that the TCC exerts great effort in gaining and maintaining its hegemony. In fact, we see looming before us one of the ways in which it concretely does so. Another article from the 1990s, in another leading journal of opinion, the New Republic,[7] sheds light on this.

In this article, David Samuels charts a peculiar shift in orientation on the part of the leading foundations. Now foundations are the number one vehicle by which the wealthy influence public policy and the direction of “civil society.” Beginning with the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, they have had great influence on the development of law, politics, education, and culture. But Samuels notes a shift in foundations’ emphasis, away from broad cultural initiatives and towards narrow advocacy. “Where the Ford Foundation of the 1950s and ’60s spent its money on efforts to promote writing and scholarship at major universities and on symphony orchestras and ballet companies in dozens of American cities, Ford today spends its money on arts projects designed to ‘promote tolerance and social understanding’ and ensure ‘access and equity.’… In the past twenty-five years … a startling shift in foundation funding has occurred, away from research and toward the support of advocacy groups.” This narrow focus has been bolstered by an uncritical atmosphere in which foundation leadership, itself wedded to a multiculturalist agenda, no longer pursues a broad agenda of what once was known as the public interest. It has become a narrow world of its own, without critical openness. “Over the past twenty-five years, the men and women who staff America’s major foundations have become a tight-knit world unto themselves…. The preponderance of foundation grants to advocacy groups … suggests that foundations are less devoted to the reasoned pursuit of the public good than to the multiculturalist dogmas propounded by their staff.”

What could be behind such a shift? Is it that foundations, and the corporate interests behind them, have become wedded to this form of idealism? Are they selflessly pursuing the agenda of “inclusion” and “diversity”? Or is this an expression of Rieff’s base-superstructure relation?

Another critic of foundations and their influence, Joan Roelofs, sheds light on the motivation behind the corporate interest’s advocacy of this agenda. Her critique is rather to the point. “Almost all progressive organizations look to corporations and foundations for funding…. These liberal foundations are closely tied to political and economic elites. Their original founders were wealthy capitalists, and their current trustees and senior staff have close ties to the corporate world. Furthermore, their investments are in the usual high earning corporations…. We are not arguing that foundations are ‘all powerful,’ but rather that their power is enormous, and rarely revealed by scholars, journalists, or activists….”[8]

Foundations, as mentioned earlier, are a prime vehicle through which the corporate elite exercises hegemony. They are used to deflect, defuse, and coopt otherwise dangerously subversive or even revolutionary movements. “Foundations are not opposed to social change, but regard it as necessary and do not see it forthcoming from the political process…. The liberal foundations seek to direct change in a way that will not disturb the wealth and power of corporate elites and the hegemony of the United States” (p. 658). They do so in a myriad of ways. “They are gatekeepers for academics in all fields…. Foundations exert even more direct influence by co-opting activists and their organizations…. The radical activism of the 1960s and 1970s was often transformed, by grants and technical assistance from liberal foundations, into fragmented and local organizations subject to elite control” (p. 662).

As it turns out, multiculturalism, identity politics, and the emphasis on diversity and inclusion are rather convenient ways to attain this end. “Dissidence is fragmented through the creation of organizations for blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, the disabled, Native Americans, and even poor people, who are considered just another minority in need of rights. Foundations have created and funded litigation organizations…. In the early 1970s, the Ford Foundation began to fund women’s studies research centers and academic programs; similar efforts resulted in institutions for other disadvantaged groups. Social movement activists are thereby transformed into researchers, managers, and litigators; and movements are fragmented into ‘identity politics.’”[9]

The strategy of splintering potentially disruptive populations into isolated identity-groups with accreditation in the political process serves to shunt these groups toward the relatively harmless activity of demands for “inclusion,” as Rieff put it, “a piece of the capitalist pie.” Because this does not bring the system itself into question – something which used to be the left’s raison-de-être.

Foundation ideology attributed the radical protests to defects in pluralism. The pluralist ideology holds that any interest is free to organize and to obtain benefits from the system, through peaceful processes of compromise. Disadvantaged groups… needed help in obtaining their rights. Grant money would enable them to participate in the interest group process on an equal basis with the more advantaged groups, and then they would no longer waste their energies in futile disruptive actions…. Poverty, militarism, racism, and environmental degradation are not by-products of the economic system or related to each other. They are merely defects to be corrected through the pluralist political process (p. 31).

What we have here is an ongoing, full-court press, which has been pushing the multicultural agenda during precisely the identical time-frame that the globalist corporate system was being established and expanded – which is, since the 1970s, and especially the 1980s. This is more than coincidence. As Brandt points out, “The Ford Foundation began supporting feminist groups and women’s studies programs in the early 1970s. Just ten years earlier they were busy training Indonesian elites (using Berkeley professors as instructors) to take over from Sukarno, which occurred soon after a CIA-sponsored coup in 1965 that led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. Did the folks at Ford Foundation have a bleeding change of heart, or are they continuing the same battle on another front? It would appear to be the latter.”[10]

No, it is not a change of heart, but a change of plan. The TCC means business, and it has for a long time. And its strategy is astoundingly effective. “The ruling elite are experts at manipulating their own interests; they know how to divide and conquer, which is why they continue to rule. As inequality becomes increasingly obvious, those who are less equal begin to see society in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The dominant culture shades this definition by using the mass media to emphasize our differences at every opportunity. Conventional wisdom becomes articulated within narrow parameters, which is another way of saying that the questions offered for public debate are rigged.”[11]

We are being played, not in the interests of “U.S. hegemony,” as Roelofs supposes, but transnational hegemony, TCC hegemony. We are being splintered into antagonistic identity groups, the better to control us. “The objective is to define ‘us’ and ‘them’ in ways that do not threaten the established order. Today everyone can see that there is more Balkanization on campus, and more racism in society, than there was when affirmative action began over twenty years ago. And for twenty years now one can hardly get through the day without being reminded that race is something that matters, from TV sitcoms all the way down to common application forms (it would have been unthinkable to ask about one’s race on an application form in the 1960s). We are not fighting the system anymore, we’re fighting each other.”[12]

But our problem is not so much discrimination, racism, and the like, but lack of opportunity generally, the byproduct of a system that wishes to hide that very fact. We are being pitted against each other in order to obscure this fundamental underlying reality. That lack is the result of a globalized economy structured in such a way as to squeeze genuine economic opportunity even as it proffers the consolation prize of limited redistribution of wealth and opportunity.

“Transnational accumulation” is what it’s all about; for the rest, let them eat cake. For “none of these dire trends are of any concern to the ruling elites who have the power to address them. They are citizens of the world, and no one – now not even the Soviet bloc – stands in their way. They have no need for borders; free trade is what they want and what they will eventually get. Many on Wall Street prefer unrestricted immigration, which would drive down wages and fold up our few remaining unions. For ruling elites, private security provides insulation and ‘social decay’ is just an irrelevant phrase.”[13]

Does that sound like it was written during the election cycle of 2016? It does – but it dates from 1993! This has been going on for quite a while – and we haven’t even been aware of it. And in this context, the notion of La Trahison des Clercs takes on a whole new meaning. “The campus left speaks of equality, and then forgets about justice by ignoring economic and class distinctions. This failure is so fundamental that multiculturalists should no longer be considered ‘leftists.’ As long as they claim this description, some of us – those who still feel that elites ought to be accountable – are beginning to feel more comfortable as ‘populists.’”[14]

Speaking of the election cycle, it did at last seem as if the left had regained some of its lost resolve, its sense of mission. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders provided a rallying point about which the critics of the system could gather. And there was no shortage of criticism of the leading candidate for the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, precisely in terms of a critique of neoliberalism. For Clinton was viewed as the candidate of the ruling class.

In their article entitled “Hillary Clinton’s Empowerment”[15] (subtitled “Hillary Clinton isn’t a champion of women’s rights. She’s the embodiment of corporate feminism”), Kevin Young & Diana C. Sierra Becerra explore the Clinton candidacy in the light of Clinton’s close ties to the corporate business world.

As first lady, Clinton had a significant impact on policy. “Clinton became perhaps the most active first lady in history. While it would be unfair to hold her responsible for all of her husband’s policies, she did play a significant role in shaping and justifying many of them. In Living History she boasts of her role in gutting US welfare: ‘By the time Bill and I left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent’ — and not because poverty had dropped. Women and children, the main recipients of welfare, have been the primary victims.” President Clinton’s crime bill was similarly eye-popping from a progressive perspective. “Clinton also lobbied Congress to pass her husband’s deeply racist crime bill, which, Michelle Alexander observes in The New Jim Crow, ‘escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives had imagined possible,’ expanding mass incarceration and the death penalty.”

Of course now Mrs. Clinton is campaigning as if both welfare reform and a tough-on-crime policy were uniquely Republican (racist! sexist!) policy positions. What she does not point out is her own role in putting them in place.

But the real criticism focuses on her years as senator from New York (2001-2009) and secretary of state (2009-2013), during which “her promotion of US corporate profit-making and her aggressive assertion of the US government’s right to intervene in foreign countries” were the two defining features. Young and Becerra quote Bloomberg Businessweek’s assertion that “Clinton turned the State Department into a machine for promoting U.S. business,” seeking “to install herself as the government’s highest-ranking business lobbyist.” They cite her article in Foreign Policy in 2011 which “speaks at length about the objective of ‘opening new markets for American businesses,’ containing no fewer than ten uses of the phrases ‘open markets,’ ‘open trade,’ and permutations thereof.” In that article Clinton champions the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): “Like Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal is intended to further empower multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment in all countries involved. Lower wages and increased rates of displacement, detention, and physical violence for female and LGBT populations are among the likely consequences, given the results of existing ‘free trade’ agreements.”

They further detail her penchant for militaristic intervention in foreign countries, and cite “neoconservative” Robert Kagan as to her likely policies should she be elected. “‘I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,’ Kagan told the New York Times last June. Asked what to expect from a Hillary Clinton presidency, Kagan predicted that ‘if she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon.’ But, he added, ‘clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.’”

Actually, they call it “experience and exposure,” or as Michelle Obama recently put it, “No one in our lifetime has ever had as much experience and exposure to the presidency, not Barack, not Bill, nobody…. And yes, she happens to be a woman.” (Appeal to gender – check!)

Young and Becerra quote Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes, that while “‘Hillary Clinton has been more outspoken than any previous Secretary of State regarding the rights of women and sexual minorities,’ this position is ‘more rhetoric than reality.’”

Given Clinton’s backing of neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas . . . may have actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same way that the Bush administration’s “democracy-promotion” agenda was a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy. . . .

Hillary Clinton’s call for greater respect for women’s rights in Muslim countries never had much credibility while US-manufactured ordinance is blowing up women in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The bottom line is, Clinton is a representative of what we have now come to recognize as the TCC. The Clinton Foundation and its various branch activities has ensconced the Clintons firmly in the world of “philanthrocapitalism” with its hegemonic functionality within the global system. The influence peddling which seems to be at the heart of the Clinton email controversy should be seen in the context of this brokerage functionality, mediating relations between the TCC and government. Similarly, the $21 million earned by giving speeches to various corporate, banking, and Wall Street entities since leaving the State Department, and the $153 million total for speechmaking since 2001, are part and parcel of this linchpin functionality within the global system. As I noted in a previous article, Hillary Clinton is the “poster child” of that system.

And what of her opponent in the current election? Whatever one may say of Donald Trump, no one has said that he represents the corporate elite. Quite the opposite. Of course, reality may be otherwise. Were he to be elected, he might turn out to be cooptable as well.

Be that as it may, one thing has become clear. The culture war may have been won by the left, but it was won because the corporate world got behind it and indeed coopted it. This means that progressives should recognize their role within the global system. For given this understanding, the categories “right” and “left” have lost all meaning.

The tragedy in all of this: it is not a matter of right versus left, but top versus bottom. “The ruling elite that finds diversity useful is an elite operating at a level which transcends right and left…. Nothing shows this better than the fact that this ideological right has always been as concerned as the left over the real source of power, the elite globalists…. It’s not a right-left problem, but rather a top-bottom problem.”[16]

And yet the left is so easily egged on to do the dirty work: vituperate conservatives and champion the poster child of the TCC simply because she, as her husband before her, has mastered the art of shifting the blame for all ills to unpopular political opponents. This seems to be the role the left plays within this neoliberal order.

That is why I used the word “role” in the title of this article. To have a role to play is to be put into a particular position in order to perform a particular, scripted, function. It is allocated by whoever is in control of the situation. In other words, the left plays the role set for it by the powers that be, in this case the TCC. And as can be seen in this election cycle, it does so with alacrity, as if the surface phenomenon of a left-versus-right confrontation were the only reality. When the real reality is that this is only an epiphenomenon. The real reality determining the roles and the dance is that of a transnational capitalist hegemony that is busy turning the world into a surplus value yielding colony. The multiculturalist, diversity-oriented agenda in the end turns out to be just another brick in the wall.


 

  1. Rodney Schwartz, “Philanthrocapitalism and Davos make Me Sick!”, ClearlySo Social Business Blog, 5 February 2009.  
  2. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 19842), p. 109.
  3. Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), “Another Brick in the Wall,” The Wall, 1979.
  4. For a concise criticism of this construct, see William I. Robinson, “The transnational state and the BRICS: a global capitalism perspective,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 36 No. 1, 2015, pp. 1-21.
  5. Leslie Sklair, “Social movements for global capitalism: the transnational capitalist class in action,” Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 4 No. 3, 1997, p. 520.
  6. Goldfrank, W., “Who rules the world? Class formation at the international level,” Quarterly Journal of Ideology, Vol. 1 No. 2, 1977, p. 35.
  7. “Philanthropical Correctness: The Failure of American Foundations,” The New Republic (September 18 and 25, 1995), pp. 28-36.
  8. Joan Roelofs, “How Foundations Exercise Power,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 74, No. 4 (September, 2015), pp. 655, 657, 658.
  9. Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 25.
  10. Daniel Brandt, “Multiculturalism and the Ruling Elite,” NameBase NewsLine, No. 3, October-December 1993.
  11. Brandt, “Multiculturalism and the Ruling Elite.”
  12. Brandt, “Multiculturalism and the Ruling Elite.”
  13. Brandt, “Multiculturalism and the Ruling Elite.”
  14. Brandt, “Multiculturalism and the Ruling Elite.”
  15. In Jacobin, March 9, 2015. Available here.
  16. Brandt, “Multiculturalism and the Ruling Elite.”

Prospects for the US Economy

THE WORLD ECONOMY IN RÉSUMÉ

In the previous post we outlined the structural condition of the world economy, and in particular the structural flaws it contains.

The main flaw is the divorce between production and consumption.

Prior to the establishment of this new macroeconomic structure, supply and demand were roughly in balance in the domestic economy.

We can see this by taking a look at the balance of trade of the United States between 1950 and 1980. In that period, the US economy was the major trading partner for the rest of the world – not to mention that the dollar was then, as it is now, the currency in which world trade is conducted – so that its trade data can serve as a useful proxy for the development of the broader world economy.

United States Balance of Trade

During most of this period, the US balance of trade was roughly in balance. Only towards the end of the period did it begin displaying the sharp divergences that would characterize the period since then, albeit here the magnitude of the imbalances is still very small. As we shall see, they have since taken on major proportions.

During this earlier period, some countries did indeed display trade imbalances. Where this was the case, it was the byproduct of colonialist relationships, such as with “banana republics” the role of which was to produce bananas; the same was true of sugar or rubber or oil. These commodities were produced for export, and the economies depending upon such exports were thus at the mercy of the whims of the world market.[1]

So this lack of balance between supply and demand was an exception to the rule. But since the establishment of the new macroeconomic order, that balance in domestic economies has been rudely disrupted by a new way of linking production and consumption.

In the new structure, the world has been parceled out into various supply and demand regions. Low-wage, developing countries have been designated as supply regions. They are used as sources of raw materials and production. The rich, developed countries have been designated as giant piggy banks. They have been allocated the role of consuming this production.

All of this is orchestrated from the top by the global corporate elite, which uses politicians, the media, the entertainment industry, and academia to further this “bread and circuses” New World Order of universal colonialism. The world is, indeed, their oyster.

This new order no longer balances production and consumption in a symbiotic circular flow within domestic economies. Instead, massive trade imbalances are created, each of which has to be financed. This means that it is debt, not production, that is paying for consumption. The system mortgages the future in favor of the present.

The magnitude of the new order’s collective trade imbalance, and thus dependence on debt, is indicated in the following graph:

The graph shows the current account balance for the world, the advanced economies, and developing economies over the period 1980-2016. The current account balance is a bit different from the balance of trade, as it includes income payments and transfer payments between countries. But these latter are relatively negligible as compared with trade in goods and services. So the two measures are roughly comparable.

What the graph shows is that the changes in the world economy in evidence since the late 1970s accelerated towards the end of the 1990s. Developing countries began generating an enormous collective current account surplus, in line with their role as the world’s producers; while advanced economies developed an enormous current account deficit. This persisted until 2010. With the credit crisis (actually the “debt-funding” crisis) the situation has since reversed somewhat: debt financing has since become hard to come by.

The upshot is that current account (and trade) imbalances became the norm for the world economy during this period, and since these imbalances had to be financed, they have left behind a mountain of debt that at some point will have to be paid off.

Within this framework, the United States has occupied the central role; it is the “consumer of last resort.”

The question now is, has anything changed with regard to the functioning of the US economy to indicate that it has broken with this structurally flawed global economic mechanism? Our conclusion in the previous post was very summary; we opined, with Palley, that stagnation was the direction the economy was headed, given the lack of any sign of a break with this failed model. Let’s look in more detail at the developments in the US economy since the crash.

WHAT THE STIMULUS DID TO PROMOTE ECONOMIC RECOVERY

Prior to the 2008 credit crisis, the US financed its consumption-oriented trade deficit via the housing bubble. This unsustainable method led to the crash. Since then, the US has turned to various schemes, in order to continue to finance this consumption.

The main such policy has been a return to good old-fashioned Keynesian deficit spending. Barack Obama justified this policy back in 2009:

Economists on both the left and the right agree that the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending. You see, when this recession began, many families sat around the kitchen table and tried to figure out where they could cut back. And so have many businesses. And this is a completely reasonable and understandable reaction. But if everybody — if everybody — if every family in America, if every business in America cuts back all at once, then no one is spending any money, which means there are no customers, which means there are more layoffs, which means the economy gets even worse. That’s why the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand.

That speech blames the banks for the crisis, while explaining also why the banks needed to be propped up and bailed out. Only a politician could argue both of these in the same speech and be applauded for it.

The problem with this kind of thinking, as we stressed in the previous post and shall further elaborate below, is that it does nothing to address the underlying structural economic framework that had the crash as its inevitable consequence.

The stimulus came in the form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Predictably, the ARRA did not lead to economic recovery. How could it, when it did not even begin to address the underlying problem of debt-financed consumption? The only change was that the government was taking on the debt, rather than consumers directly.

The ARRA set a precedent for deficit spending which has continued, albeit in more muted form, since then. The US has been running record budget deficits in every year since, as can be seen from the following graph:

As can be seen here, the Obama administration has been running deficits that dwarf those even of the George W. Bush administration, which used to take the prize for this dubious distinction.

This has led to a near-doubling of government debt as a percentage of GDP during the Obama administration’s term of office:

United States Government Debt to GDP

All of this deficit spending might be considered beneficial in the long term if it went to funding investment as opposed to consumption – in other words, if it went to addressing the structural flaw of the divorce between production and consumption. Was it being used to finance investment in productive capacity, so as to restore the “virtuous circle?” Borrowing to finance investment is borrowing to finance growth; borrowing to finance consumption, on the other hand, is simply selling the future out to the present.

This is the criterion. So then, what kind of spending has the federal government been engaging in? In the main, it is consumption as opposed to investment spending, as the following pie chart suggests:

Data is for the 2015 federal budget. Source: Politifact.com

Items such as Health (Medicare and Medicaid) and Social Security are not investment but consumption. Other items on the list can be viewed as partly one and partly the other. In particular, social welfare payments and salaries to civil servants/military personnel qualify as consumption.

Therefore, much of this spending is money distributed to citizens to fund consumption. Which means that much of the federal deficit and federal debt goes toward consumption spending. The same holds true for state and local levels of government.

In other words, most of the burgeoning deficit and debt have gone toward picking up the slack left by the bursting of the housing bubble.

This means that Keynesian deficit spending has not been addressing not economic recovery or restoration, but simply maintaining the status quo that gave us the housing bubble in the first place!

Structurally, nothing has changed.

This is evident from an examination of the US trade deficit during the course of the first 16 years of the 21st century, thus both prior to the crash and posterior to it.

The deficit peaked during the artificial boom years prior to the crash. But – and this is the point – since then, although the magnitude of the deficit has decreased, it is still running at nearly $500 billion per annum.

The thing to understand about the trade deficit is that it, too, has to be financed. In other words, the trade deficit has as its flip side, increased debt. How much of that debt ultimately is owed by the federal government, through its deficit spending agenda, is difficult to say. But what we can say it is this: the trade deficit continues unabated, while government deficit spending has grown enormously. The conclusion can be drawn, then, that government spending has picked up at least part of the slack left by the bursting of the housing bubble.

In other words, the structural flaws of the world economy as outlined in the previous post have not been addressed; only different means have been found to keep the system going as it is currently structured, precisely without addressing its structural flaws, because to do so would harm the interests that are profiting from the current arrangement.

WILL FUTURE ECONOMIC POLICY ADDRESS THE STRUCTURAL ISSUE?

The question remains, is there any prospect of this issue being addressed? As we saw in the previous post, Palley had no confidence that it would be with the Obama administration, and his prediction proved to be correct. But what now? With the 2016 elections we are facing a changing of the guard. Can the candidates’ positions shed any light on this?

One thing is for sure, the latest trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is on both candidates’ bad list. This despite the fact that President Obama is continuing to push the deal, attempting to get the appropriate legislation passed by Congress before his term of office expires. Clinton’s opposition does appear to have been forced by both Sanders’ and Trump’s vociferous opposition, and many expect a Clinton administration to include among its priorities the passage of this bill, perhaps with minor modifications.

In a nutshell, the problem with this bill is that it sets up further machinery to arrange trade, not in the interests of the particular countries involved, nor to restore the virtuous circle of domestic economies, but to maintain and perpetuate the production/consumption divorce.

What more might we expect from a Clinton administration? Conveniently, we have a major address on economic policy to work with, given by Hillary Clinton on August 11th. Its key proposal is a renewed stimulus plan that ostensibly will provide the greatest investment in “good-paying jobs” since World War II: “We will put Americans to work, building and modernizing our roads, our bridges, our tunnels, our railways, our ports, our airports. We are way overdue for this, my friends. We are living off the investments that were made by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.”

The problem here, of course, is that this is precisely what Obama promised. ARRA was supposed to provide a major boost to employment, while also renovating the country’s infrastructure. But as the Wall Street Journal put it in a post-mortem (Obama’s Stimulus, Five Years Later),

The federal government poured billions into the government and education sectors, where unemployment was low, but spent only about 10% on promised infrastructure, though the unemployment rate in construction was running in double digits. And some of the individual projects funded by the law were truly appalling. $783,000 was spent on a study of why young people consume malt liquor and marijuana. $92,000 went to the Army Corps of Engineers for costumes for mascots like Bobber the Water Safety Dog. $219,000 funded a study of college “hookups.”

In the main, the money went not to infrastructure, nor even to productive investment generally, but to the maintenance of existing favored activities in “the government and education sectors,” – thus, essentially, as favors to groups largely supportive of Democratic Party politics.

Will it be any different this time around? In terms of dollar amount, Obama’s stimulus dwarfed Hillary’s $275 billion. Donald Trump has also proposed spending on infrastructure. As The Atlantic points out, “Trump, a builder by blood, has pledged to double that figure, at least. He has called for spending up to $1 trillion on new roads, bridges, broadband, and more.”

If that were all that was to it, then we wouldn’t have much to look forward to as far as structural change is concerned. But Trump has made other proposals as well, which are well worth delving into. We defer that analysis to a later date.


 

  1. For an example of the vulnerability of such export-dependent economies, see Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), ch. 4, “Supply Regions,” which uses the example of Uruguay as a country that was totally dependent upon the cattle industry for exports (meat, leather), which got rich from this trade, but which went into steep decline after that trade collapsed in the 1950s.

What This Election is Really All About

The Economics of the 2016 Election Cycle

The current election cycle in the United States is like none other in recent memory. At least in terms of vitriol, it is no contest. But beyond the partisan slams back and forth lies a deeper fundamental reality which really lies at the heart of the contest.

In fact, despite surface appearances, this is not a typical Democrat versus Republican, left-wing versus right-wing, liberal versus conservative, election. It goes far deeper than that.

My own wish is that partisans on both sides would suspend judgement for a moment, follow me through a rather involved analysis of the economics underlying the current political situation, and think through the implications. In advance, the author thanks you for your attention.


Vantage points are everything. We have a good one provided us by the Keynesian economist, Thomas Palley. Palley’s leftist credentials are impeccable, as might be expected from a former Assistant Director of Public Policy for the AFL-CIO. As such, the following exposition can make the claim, at any rate, to being something other than a mere partisan discussion. The hope is that we get beyond the left-right divide as it has manifested itself in the current political landscape, to the underlying realities that transcend that divide as currently manifested.

Back in 2009, Palley wrote a significant article[1] outlining the real underlying causes of the financial meltdown and credit crisis of 2008. In the course of explaining that catastrophic course of events, Palley ends up providing a succinct summation of the condition of the world economy generally, that retains its applicability to this day.

As Palley has it, the standard explanations of market failure do not go nearly far enough, which is a significant admission by a left-leaning economist. For the usual explanation of economic problems provided by economists of this persuasion puts the blame precisely on market failure. This time is different. “Most commentary has … focused on market failure in the housing and credit markets. But what if the house price bubble developed because the economy needed a bubble to ensure continued growth? In that case the real cause of the crisis would be the economy’s underlying macroeconomic structure” (p. 1).

In other words, the housing bubble was not an unfortunate unforeseen occurrence: it was fostered by deliberate, albeit blind, policy. How and why such a situation would actively be pursued, is the burden of Palley’s article.

The roots of the said macroeconomic arrangement actually go back decades. Palley traces them to the onset of the Reagan administration of 1980. “Before 1980, economic policy was designed to achieve full employment, and the economy was characterized by a system in which wages grew with productivity. This configuration created a virtuous circle of growth …. After 1980, with the advent of the new growth model, the commitment to full employment was abandoned as inflationary, with the result that the link between productivity growth and wages was severed. In place of wage growth as the engine of demand growth, the new model substituted borrowing and asset price inflation” (p. 2).

We must register a quibble with the timing of events here. 1980 did not happen in a vacuum. The hyperinflation of the 1970s is what discredited these Keynesian policies and the Reagan policy responses were the fairly obvious policy response. Anyone who lived through that period knows just how helpless everyone felt at the inability to tame the inflation dragon. In that regard, the Reagan response was inevitable and welcomed.

What really precipitated the new macroeconomic arrangement was the abandonment of the previous such arrangement, the post-war Bretton Woods currency and trade setup. This occurred not in 1980, but in 1971, with President Nixon’s abandonment of the dollar-gold link. What this meant was a switch from fixed to floating exchange rates, which together with the advent of OPEC and skyrocketing oil prices, deranged a hitherto relatively stable situation currency and trade situation.

A graph provided in another of Palley’s articles[2] suggests the same correlation:

Productivity and real average hourly wage and compensation of US non-supervisory workers, 1947-2009. Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Productivity and real average hourly wage and compensation of US non-supervisory workers, 1947-2009. Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

As can be seen in the accompanying figure, the divergence between productivity and compensation/wages begins in the early 1970s, corresponding with the breakup of Bretton Woods. So, it was the early 1970s and not 1980 that saw the change in fortunes of which we are speaking.

The new arrangement was characterized by a new priority: globalization. The preference for globalization expressed itself in a new attitude toward trade deficits. “Under the earlier economic model, policymakers viewed trade deficits as cause for concern because they represented a leakage of aggregate demand that undermined the virtuous circle of growth. However, under the post-1980 model, trade deficits came to be viewed as semi-virtuous because they helped to control inflation and because they reflected the choices of consumers and business in the marketplace” (p. 5).

This is a crucially important statement. It provides the kernel of what has been happening over the last 40 years. “The virtuous circle of growth” is Palley’s way of formulating what we in our own model (as described in the accompanying course) refer to as the circular flow of the economy. In essence, all economies are local, then regional, then national, and only then international. A “virtuous circle of growth” is what we understand as the domestic economy. But arrangements can be made that discombobulate this order. What we then have is the domestic economy subordinated to supranational interests. In essence, it is a form of colonialism. And that is what Palley is referring to when he speaks of a “leakage of aggregate demand.” The circular flow is disrupted; supply and demand are disconnected from each other in the domestic economy, diverted toward an international economy characterized by trade deficits and surpluses, the ineluctable by-products of these “leakages.”

This arrangement is papered over by appeals to free-market principles. Hence the epithet “neoliberalism.” These trade deficits do indeed help to control inflation, but at a steep price. And they may reflect “the choices of consumers and business in the marketplace,” but without consumers and business realizing that there is a flip side to these cheap imports, and that is the loss of employment and productive capacity.

For what do these trade deficits actually represent? For one thing, the systematic suppression of wages on both sides of the trade equation. “American workers are increasingly competing with lower-paid foreign workers.” This is obvious and well-known. What is less well-known is what is going on with these foreign workers: “That pressure is further increased by the fact that foreign workers are themselves under pressure owing to the so-called Washington Consensus development policy, sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which forces them into the same neoliberal box as American workers.” They are both being disadvantaged; they are being played against each other. For the loss of purchasing power on the part of American workers is not compensated for by increased demand from abroad, for foreign workers likewise are deprived of purchasing power, despite the fact that they are on the receiving end of the job-offshoring program. “Neoliberal policies not only undermine demand in advanced countries, they fail to compensate for this by creating adequate demand in developing countries” (p. 7; emphasis added).

This is the double bind in which workers find themselves, both in developed and developing countries.

In developed countries this arrangement has hit the manufacturing sector particularly hard. The idea has been spread abroad that in the US the decline of the manufacturing sector is the result of inevitable trends, in particular, increased productivity. But this does not explain the loss of jobs: “A smooth long run declining employment share brought about investment and innovation that creates a more efficient manufacturing sector is a fundamentally different proposition from decline caused by adoption of a policy paradigm that dismantles the manufacturing sector by encouraging off-shoring and undermining competitiveness” (p. 4). It is the latter, not the former, that explains the loss of manufacturing jobs. That is to say, the new macroeconomic arrangement with its leakage of production to low-wage countries is the real reason.

Accompanying the loss of manufacturing jobs has been a steady divergence in income share. “Between 1979 and 2006, the income share of the bottom 40 percent of U.S. households decreased significantly, while the income share of the top 20 percent increased dramatically. Moreover, a disproportionate part of that increase went to the 5 percent of families at the very top of income distribution rankings” (p. 6). Palley also points to increased labor market flexibility and the abandonment of full employment as a policy objective as factors behind widening income inequality, but the obvious driver of the process is the pressure on the job market brought on by the offshoring of jobs.

All of this has displaced what Palley terms the “stable virtuous circle growth model based on full employment and wages tied to productivity growth” (p. 9). What has taken its place? The new arrangement “based on rising indebtedness and asset price inflation.” These two, not productive activity, generate the income to fund consumption.

In the new arrangement, production takes place in developing countries, while consumption takes place in developed countries. Production has been divorced from consumption. This is the reality behind the ever-present trade imbalances characterizing the modern global economy.

In the old model, in line with Say’s Law, production funds consumption and consumption, production. This is the circular flow of the domestic economy, Palley’s “virtuous circle growth model.” The new model divorces production from consumption. Production no longer pays for consumption: the producers in developing countries have their wages suppressed, and so cannot provide increased demand, while the consumers in developed countries are not producing and selling enough to pay for their consumption. The shortfall is paid for by taking on debt: in terms of economic jargon, this is known as “financing the trade deficit.”

This in turn leads to asset bubbles. “Since 1980, each U.S. business cycle has seen successively higher debt/income ratios at end of expansions, and the economy has become increasingly dependent on asset price inflation to spur the growth of aggregate demand” (p. 9). Various asset markets have done duty to generate this asset inflation and thus artificial prosperity, yielding the dot.com bubble, stock market bubbles, and housing market bubbles. These bubbles are self-feeding phenomena: increases in asset prices spur borrowing based on those asset prices, which in turn encourages further spending leading to further increases in asset prices. But they also provide income to sustain standards of living that essentially are beyond the means of the underlying wealth-producing capacity of the economy.

Palley speaks in particular of the “the systemic role of house price inflation in driving economic expansions.” He points out that “Over the last 20 years, the economy has tended to expand when house price inflation has exceeded CPI (consumer price index) inflation.” This is true for the Reagan expansion, the Clinton expansion, and the Bush-Cheney expansion, and so is “indicative of the significance of asset price inflation in driving demand under the neo-liberal model” (p. 10), which has truly been a bipartisan affair.

Of course, “The problem with the model is that it is unsustainable.” It requires continued excessive borrowing and continued reductions in savings rates, which can only be sustained by ever-expanding asset inflation, which eventually must come to an end.

This dynamic lay behind the credit crisis of 2008, only this time things were different. Mainly, the degree of indebtedness, the breadth of participation in it – as might be expected from a bubble generated by the broader housing market – far exceeded previous instances and precipitated the enormous blow to the real economy, not to mention the carnage wrought to the financial economy.


Behind this macroeconomic structure lay the disruption of the production-consumption linkage of the domestic economy. It was this that made necessary the generation of artificial prosperity to maintain a standard of living, a level of consumption, without any connection to the level of production.

This macroeconomic structure was supported by trade policy. Palley points to the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the establishment of the “strong dollar” policy after the East Asian financial crisis of 1997, and permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China in 2000, as the “most critical elements” of the global economic arrangement. These were “implemented by the Clinton administration under the guidance of Treasury secretaries [sic] Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers.” The measures “cemented the model of globalization that had been lobbied for by corporations and their Washington think-tank allies” (pp. 12-13).

The upshot was a global economic arrangement featuring a “triple hemorrhage:” leakage of spending on imports, leakage of jobs overseas, and leakage of investment overseas.

We gained a new economic arrangement in which trade deficits became the rule and the world became the production zone for US corporations, which could turn around and sell this production to compatriot consumers. “At the bidding of corporate interests, the United States joined itself at the hip to the global economy, opening its borders to an inflow of goods and exposing its manufacturing base. This was done without safeguards to address the problems of exchange rate misalignment and systemic trade deficits, or the mercantilist policies of trading partners” (p. 14).

This created a “widening hole” in the economy “undermining domestic production, employment, and investment.”

NAFTA in particular ushered in a new era of exchange-rate policy. “Before, exchange rates mattered for trade and the exchange of goods. Now, they mattered for the location of production” (p. 15). This worked to the advantage, of course, of multinational corporations, enabling them to pursue the policy of producing in low-wage markets and selling the production in developed markets. This in turn led to a strong dollar policy, likewise pushed by multinationals. “This reversed their commercial interest,” as US corporations previously favored a weak dollar, for obvious reasons.

The collapse of the peso in 1994 was a direct result of this new policy. In the new arrangement, the cheap peso was a boon to US corporations producing in Mexico and exporting to the US. “The effects of NAFTA and the peso devaluation were immediately felt in the U.S. manufacturing sector in the form of job loss; diversion of investment; firms using the threat of relocation to repress wages; and an explosion in the goods trade deficit with Mexico …. Whereas prior to the implementation of the NAFTA agreement the United States was running a goods trade surplus with Mexico, immediately afterward the balance turned massively negative and kept growing more negative up to 2007.”

The strong dollar policy was further implemented during the series of financial crises in the late 1990s, starting in East Asia. “In response to these crises, Treasury Secretaries Rubin and Summers adopted the same policy that was used to deal with the 1994 peso crisis, thereby creating a new global system that replicated the pattern of economic integration established with Mexico” (p. 16). The strong dollar increased the purchasing power of the US consumers: “critical because the U.S. consumer was now the lynchpin of the global economy, becoming the buyer of first and last resort.”

One result of this policy was that “manufacturing job growth was negative over the entirety of the Clinton expansion, a first in U.S. business cycle history” (p. 18). Positive business cycle conditions obscured the underlying trends; to add insult to injury, “the Clinton administration dismissed concerns about the long-term dangers of manufacturing job loss. Instead, the official interpretation was that the U.S. economy was experiencing—in the words of senior Clinton economic policy advisers Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen—a ‘fabulous decade’ significantly driven by policy.” Janet Yellen is, of course, the current Chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

The final step in this process was taken when China was granted the status of PNTR and then admitted to the World Trade Organization. “Once again the results were predictable and similar to the pattern established by NAFTA—though the scale was far larger.”

Hence, all the pieces were put in place during the 1980s and 1990s, but they did not come to full fruition until the crisis of 2008. “From that standpoint, the Bush-Cheney administration is not responsible for the financial crisis. Its economic policies … represented a continuation of the policy paradigm already in place. The financial crisis therefore represents the exhaustion of that paradigm rather than being the result of specific policy failures on the part of the Bush-Cheney administration” (p. 21).


Given the above, it is obvious that the credit crisis of 2008 was not the result of the usual suspects, deregulation of financial institutions and banks pushing excessive lending for no other reason but greed. The excessive lending was built into the structure; the entire world economy depended on it, for only through this asset-inflation-induced debt could US consumption, the driving force of economic growth in developing countries, be paid for.

So what is needed is paradigm change. And in this context, Palley, writing in 2009, makes a prophetic statement.

The case for paradigm change has yet to be taken up politically. Those who built the neoliberal system remain in charge of economic policy. Among mainstream economists who have justified the neoliberal system, there has been some change in thinking when it comes to regulation, but there has been no change in thinking regarding the prevailing economic paradigm. This is starkly illustrated in the debate in the United States over globalization, where the evidence of failure is compelling. Yet, any suggestion that the United States should reshape its model of global economic engagement is brushed aside as “protectionism. [sic]”, which avoids the real issue and shuts down debate (p. 25).

“Shuts down debate,” indeed. In the intervening period between 2009 and 2016, the topics of trade deficits, currency arrangements, and multilateral trade deals, have consistently been dismissed as matters of concern, denigrated as unworthy of debate; while proponents of such a re-evaluation have been routinely dismissed as cranks undeserving of serious attention.

As it happens, two candidates for the office of President have put this issue on the table, despite the bile they have received for it: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The concerns of both have been dismissed out of hand by regnant opinion-makers. This should not come as a surprise. After all, “The neoliberal growth model has benefitted the wealthy, while the model of global economic engagement has benefitted large multinational corporations. That gives these powerful political interests, with their money and well-funded captive think tanks, an incentive to block change” (p. 26). Furthermore, “Judging by its top economics personnel, the Obama administration has decided to maintain the system rather than change it,” and subsequent history confirms this. In fact, at the time of writing, President Obama is promoting the latest iteration of this neoliberal arrangement, in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

It is not only the Obama administration that continues to push this arrangement. The entire Washington establishment, both Democrat and Republican, is fully behind the continuation of this unsustainable model. Given this intransigence, what is the logical next step? Palley points to it, and subsequent history has only confirmed it: “stagnation is the logical next stage of the existing paradigm” (p. 27). Ever-burgeoning debt that only gets rolled over and never repaid, leads, as the example of Japan teaches, only to economic stagnation, the so-called zombie economy.

Where does Hillary Clinton stand on this issue? Recent statements indicate softening in the direction of Sanders’ position, including announced opposition to TPP. Besides the pronounced skepticism with which such proclamations have been greeted by the left wing of the Democratic Party, there is the little matter of track record. After all, it was during her husband’s administration that all the pieces of the neoliberal program were implemented, and on that, she was with him all the way. Nothing in her subsequent record either as Senator for New York, or as Secretary of State, would indicate otherwise. Quite obviously, her current registered opposition to TPP was driven by Sanders, Trump, and poll numbers.

But beyond this is her place within the framework of what has become the Clinton global network. This network is anchored by a range of institutions: the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Family Foundation, and the Clinton Global Initiative, among others. The Clinton Foundation was established in 1997 with the purpose to “strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence.” The Clinton Global Initiative is part of this entity, although between 2009 and 2013 it was hived off, presumably in connection with Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State, to avoid the appearance of conflict.

Articles such as this one from the Washington Post, providing The Inside Story of How the Clintons Built a $2 Billion Global Empire, yield a glimpse into the global reach the Clintons enjoy within the current neoliberal framework. In fact, one might paraphrase Palley’s characterization of the US by saying that indeed the Clintons are joined at the hip with the neoliberal framework. We might go so far as to say that Hillary Clinton is the poster child of this framework, which doubtless is part of reason she enjoys such favorable press despite the fact that she carries so much baggage, of the kind that would have eliminated just about any other candidate.

And so it can be argued that the globalist corporate elite, which props up, and benefits from, the neoliberal arrangement, is promoting the Democrats’ progressive agenda, using it, exploiting it, the better to ensure that this pernicious arrangement remains cemented in place. Hillary Clinton is certainly progressive on social issues. The question is, is she progressive on economics? Let the record speak for itself.

Notes
  1. Thomas I. Palley, “America’s Exhausted Paradigm: Macroeconomic Causes of the Financial Crisis and Great Recession,” IPE Working Papers 02/2009, Berlin School of Economics and Law, Institute for International Political Economy (IPE). Available at https://goo.gl/gRkfD7.
  2. “Making Finance Serve the Real Economy,” in Thomas I. Palley and Gustav A. Horn (eds.), Restoring Shared Prosperity: A Policy Agenda From Leading Keynesian Economists (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), p. 74. Available at http://goo.gl/1uJZv6.

Pettis on Brexit

Michael Pettis is one contemporary economist whose blog is worth reading. His books The Volatility Machine and The Great Rebalancing are required reading for those who would understand the workings of international trade relations, currency movements, and financial markets. His comments regarding the recent “Brexit” vote by the UK’s electorate are worth delving into.

“Last Friday’s Brexit turned out to be a far greater shock than most of us had expected,” he writes in his latest newsletter.[1]”I say this fully admitting that I was caught as flat-footed by the vote as anyone else, but not only was I wrong, my own work suggested that this was never as unlikely an outcome as I and most people thought.”

Indeed, anyone familiar with Pettis’s arguments regarding the serious problems facing the European Union should have been expecting such a result, and Pettis points out that followers of his work did just that.

I am glad to say that since the vote an American mutual fund and an Australian hedge fund have told me separately that although they did not expect the outcome, they did not think it was highly unlikely either, and had positioned themselves relatively well. They were both kind enough to tell me that they had done so largely because I had convinced them that the institutional rigidities in the euro zone would continue to undermine the economies of Europe and would cause nationalist and anti-immigrant parties to do extremely well. This would go on until either the European project broke down or the centrist parties radically changed their views.

Pettis goes on to point out that his economic analysis contradicted his own political analysis: “if I had had more confidence in the framework I use and less confidence in my ability to second guess public opinion, I would probably have expected that sooner or later there would be major ‘unexpected’ popular challenge to the European project.”

This happened to him once before, when he was intimately involved in financial constructions in Mexico, and is one reason he no longer seeks close relationships with government officials. In Mexico at the time, he got to know officials responsible for monetary policy intimately well. These officials assured him that Mexico would never devalue the peso, and Pettis, “deeply involved in trading and in arranging and structuring transactions in Latin American fixed income markets especially those of Mexico,” took their word for it. In the event, when Mexico did devalue, these officials were as shocked as he and everyone else. “My blunder was in not seeing the devaluation coming until October, when in retrospect it should have been obvious at least six months earlier.”

The same kind of considerations come into play now with regard to the European Union. In this sense, that economic analysis should not be clouded by official statements or even political wishful thinking. The European Union faces serious structural economic difficulties, and these should not be obscured by hopes regarding the desirability of the project.

To describe the situation Pettis uses the term “credibility Laffer curve.” In order to bolster credibility and assure markets that a country will maintain its exchange rate (e.g., Mexico in 1994) or, in the case of the euro today, that a country (e.g., one of the PIIGS) will stay in the euro, then that country will increase its debt as denominated in the pegged or fixed currency. This will show the world that it intends to stay in that arrangement, come what may. But Pettis argues for a “credibility Laffer curve,” as illustrated in the following graph:

From “Spain, Bankia and the Credibility Problem,” Financial Times, May 30, 2012. Available at http://goo.gl/sAEJqx.

Here, as “monetary severity” increases, credibility increases, but only to a point. After that, credibility begins decreasing again. The increased commitment evidenced in taking on more of this debt will encourage investors to put, or keep, their money in, e.g., Spanish debt; but at some point the amount of debt will reach a point where investors will lose confidence in the credibility of that commitment. And so money will begin ebbing away from that debt market, making the commitment ever less tenable (go here for more on this).

In the current situation, Pettis applies his insight as follows. “I think the ECB is itself now creating a kind of ‘credibility Laffer curve’ similar to that of Mexico, and I suspect I will find several occasions to discuss this concept in the future, but the key point in this particular case is that the great distortions imposed by the euro project, and the wider institutional distortions that have led to high levels of income inequality around the world, have not changed. That is why I should have assumed that any chance for a sharp gapping in public awareness, like the Brexit referendum, might surprise us.”

What is the choice for Europe, in the face of these seismic events in public opinion? “Europe must choose either a major reflation of demand in Germany that redresses the deep imbalances within Europe and reduces the growth of debt in peripheral Europe, although at the expense of more German debt and lower German ‘competitiveness’, or it will be forced to suffer high unemployment and an inexorably rising debt burden in peripheral Europe that will only end after many more years of suffering or with a break-up of the euro. So far it continues with the latter.”

The conclusion? “For this reason we should not be surprised by the continued migration of votes to the nationalist, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant camp. I have been writing about this process for five years and I should not have been shocked to see it happen in England.”

Indeed. Given the astounding reticence to put forward effective policy initiatives (quantitative easing? are you kidding?), these problems will continue to simmer, with responsibility for action continually put off by the current crop of politicians and policymakers, leaving it to the next set of politicians and policymakers to solve, and so on and so on. No amount of emotive appeals to European unity and the European “ideal” will make up for that fecklessness.


 

  1. “Monthly Report, June 29, 2016,” published by Global Source Partners. Pettis’s blog is accessible here.

Maggie’s Revenge

The British vote on June 23rd, 2016, to leave the European Union, is one of those events that will long be remembered. Yet there was another event involving Britain on the one hand and the European Union (then Community) on the other, that likewise came as a shock, and which likewise lives on in the memory, at least for those who, at the time, were political aware. I refer to Margaret Thatcher’s resignation of the prime ministry, exactly 25 years and seven months earlier, on November 23rd, 1990. Personally, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that bit of news over the radio.

Thatcher’s resignation resulted from her opposition to European union. She paid the price by being cashiered by her own party, not by the electorate. I wrote an article in 1991, discussing this event, its significance, and what I considered to be its historical relevance. In terms of the latter, the article was flawed in its diagnosis, but not in its recognition of that relevance. And today, I think that Margaret Thatcher is looking down with a sense of grim satisfaction.

To honor this event, I excerpt from that article, published in 1991.


It came so suddenly as to leave the world in a state of shock. Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” the fighter who would rather die than quit, did just that: she voluntarily resigned her position as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She did so as she reflected on what “a funny old world” it should be that a party leader never defeated in a general election, still commanding a majority of her own party, who had led that party to three successive election victories, who had spearheaded a thoroughgoing reformation of public policy whose very name was synonymous with that reformation, should be forced by her own party to resign her post. Truly these were rather funny goings-on.

To top it all, it was not any strictly domestic issue but “European unity” that brought all this about. To many, she was the champion of a by-gone era of national sovereignty and “Little England,” “the prim and condescending leader of a has-been empire bent on turning back the tide of history, a latter day King Canute who actually believed the sea would heed her.”(1) So it was portrayed: Thatcher versus Europe, isolation versus community, proud independence versus peaceful cooperation. And it turned out to be an Achilles’ heel which her opposition lost no time in exploiting as soon as opportunity presented itself.

Her enemies’ strategy worked. But to characterize Margaret Thatcher’s position with respect to the European Community (E.C.) in these terms is, at the very least, open to question. She regarded herself the most pro-European of them all; nevertheless her approach to and her concept of unity differed – fundamentally – from theirs.

Perhaps the key element of difference lay in the goal of monetary union. Thatcher remained to the end staunchly opposed to the formation of a pan-E.C. single currency administered by an independent central bank. Most others see such an arrangement as the indispensable core of a truly common market. Across Europe as a whole, the goal of monetary union commands broad support. Certainly it was this issue more than any other which isolated her from her peer heads of state and made her vulnerable to attack at home.

Such issues have not heretofore been the stuff of dramatic controversy, at least if one follows standard historical accounts. Most historically-conscious folks have a vague recollection, for example, that the establishment of a central bank in the United States was a very hot issue from time to time and was finally brought to pass with the Federal Reserve in 1913 (which isn’t really a true central bank but rather a “federally organized” group of regional banks). But they remain supremely indifferent to the subject and would much rather look into the accounts of politics or war or class struggles, or perhaps “social” histories of “everyday life” in such and such a period. The history of banking and monetary policy is definitely a subject for the specialist. And thus supremely boring.

Yet as contemporary events should insinuate, a long look needs to be taken especially at the history of monetary union. Upon further inquiry that history proves to be decisively important to understanding our present and certainly what Margaret Thatcher would consider our predicament. One has consequently to go back to its roots and see how and why it has become so fundamental – as it truly has – to modern society….

Mrs. Thatcher … faced opposition on two major points – domestically, the poll tax issue, and in external affairs, her position concerning the European Community. The poll tax weakened her position with respect to the electorate, enabling her opposition in the Conservative Party to gain ground on her. But in the final analysis the poll tax is not what felled her.

The timing of events leading to her fall is conclusive here. At the annual party conference in early October [1990], the Conservatives showed themselves lackluster, despondent, without much enthusiasm for the upcoming elections which they feared they might lose. More than anything else, it was the Europe issue that divided them. Many in the party were leaning toward a strong pro-Europe stance; Sir Geoffrey Howe, for instance, argued for full acceptance of monetary union, and Michael Heseltine preached pro-union to a well-attended side meeting. On the other side were the anti-union forces worried that Mrs. Thatcher, who had been showing herself conspicuously indeterminate in the last months, would be “led gently to monetary union, like some doddery old lady, with Mr Major and Mr Douglas Hurd… at either elbow.”(2)

Thatcher herself was then “ambushed” at the E.C. summit in Rome at the end of October. Italy’s prime minister Giulio Andreotti presented a proposal with definite dates for achieving monetary union, something which caught Mrs. Thatcher by surprise. This seems to have woken her from her lethargy. Back home she gave a rousing speech in the House of Commons against monetary union and giving over national sovereignty to Brussels. Her old followers were delighted. Others wondered how long she would last.

It was this speech and her renewed hard line which led to the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe from her cabinet. And it was his resignation speech which solidified the opposition against Mrs. Thatcher, prompting Michael Heseltine to run against her in the party election. Howe vociferated against her “anti-Europe” position, arguing that it jeopardized the future of the nation and its role in a united Europe. And then of course Heseltine gained enough votes on the first ballot to force a second one, after which Thatcher resigned.

It was, then, undoubtedly the Europe issue which brought Thatcher’s downfall. That much is clear. In the final analysis, however, not even the politicians were ultimately the cause. The powers-that-be want monetary union, and if anyone stands in their way, they will simply remove him, or her, to get it. The politicians know this and act accordingly if they know what is good for them. The people do not know any better than to accept this goal because it is proffered to them by every available media source from which they derive their opinions.


1. Newsweek, Dec. 3, 1990, p. 22.
2. The Economist, Oct. 31, 1990, p. 43.

The Trouble with Exchange Rates

Do floating exchange rates work? By which we mean, do floating exchange rates bring countries, national economies, into equilibrium? Equilibrium here means that trade between countries is in balance. Thus, exports and imports of goods and services, although in constant fluctuation as economies progress along divergent paths, balance each other over time.

With this we do not refer to the total global trade balance. By definition, this will always sum to zero. The problem of imbalances crops up when certain countries run persistent surpluses and/or deficits. Because then, precisely by virtue of the zero-sum condition, other countries will have to run the reverse, a persistent mirror image, whether surplus or deficit. And the question then is, how is this possible in an age of floating exchange rates? In terms of theory, at least, floating exchange rates should compensate for such imbalances. If a country is running a trade surplus, the currency should appreciate, and vice versa if it is running a deficit, and this should result in the trade surplus or deficit being eliminated. But we have countries that run persistent surpluses or deficits. So what is going on?

The current regime of floating exchange rates has been in place ever since President Nixon eliminated the link between the dollar and gold back in 1971. Prior to that, we had the Bretton Woods system, in which the dollar was linked to gold, and was established as the reserve currency for the world’s monetary systems. Since then, the dollar has still officially played the role of the world’s reserve currency, but no longer like it used to. Back in the day, it was the means by which countries could maintain their currencies at the agreed-upon fixed rate: they needed to hold a certain level of reserves to maintain that exchange rate of their currency. Nowadays, of course, not being obligated to maintain a particular exchange rate, the need to maintain dollar reserves falls away. Or so one would think.

The fact is, even in an age of floating exchange rates, the “float” can be undermined and even negated, precisely by making use of dollar reserves. Two questions: how does this work? And, why would a country want to do this?

The first question, as to how it works: by resorting to techniques that were originally developed during the days of the gold standard (in order to short-circuit it) and have since been fine-tuned.

Essentially, since the dollar is the currency in which international trade takes place, a currency’s exchange rate with the dollar can be depressed by keeping dollar earnings from being exchanged into that currency. This is done by “sterilization,” the process of diverting dollar earnings from being converted into the domestic currency and repatriated into the domestic economy. This keeps the domestic economy from being “inflated” – from feeling the effects of prosperity, and, crucially, from importing more, which would force up the exchange rate. Therefore, export prospects remain undiminished, but at the expense of household consumption. The export machine is maintained at the expense of domestic prosperity. This is referred to as “forced savings,” which is really forced underconsumption.

There are other ways to accomplish the same goal. One is to impose a consumption tax. What this does is reduce spending without reducing production. There is then a surplus of production over consumption, and the surplus production is exported. The exchange rate depreciates, not by any active central-bank intervention, but because demand for the domestic currency declines on foreign exchanges – despite the fact that the country is running a trade surplus. Tariffs work in a similar manner. “Tariffs and consumption taxes always … increase net exports by reducing the real value of disposable household income [vis-à-vis importable goods] and so, presumably, by reducing household consumption.”[1]

Another way is through what Michael Pettis refers to as financial repression. Pettis in fact writes that “financial repression matters to trade even more than undervalued currencies.” Financial repression occurs when countries control the banking system and treat it like a department of state. In that case, the central bank sets interest rates that banks are required to follow, and these interest rates are set at a below-market level. Since households and consumers have no other place to put their money, they are required to accept this below-market interest income. This constitutes a subsidy forcibly paid by households to borrowers – companies. Business borrows at below-market prices, while consumers have interest income taken from them. The result is reduced consumption, and the same effect as discussed above with the consumption tax.

The question then is, why would a country want to do this? After all, we have been conditioned to think that an appreciating currency is a strong currency and a strong currency is a desirable thing to have. The fact of the matter is, for an exporting country which has built its prosperity on maintaining a trade surplus, a weak currency is a must.

This strategy is a staple of the Asian Tiger model of economic development. Starting with Japan, the Asian Tiger economies have pursued policies by which trade surpluses could be maintained. The following graphs give an indication of the success these policies have had in helping these countries’ export industries:

South Korea Balance of Trade Taiwan Balance of Trade Japan Balance of Trade China Balance of Trade Singapore Balance of Trade

Similar things can be said about Germany. This country likewise resorts to consumption-repressing policies, although nothing so drastic as the financial repression characteristic of countries like China. And as far as currency manipulation is concerned, Germany is part of the European Monetary Union and so shares a common currency, the euro, with the other member countries, and so cannot engage in currency manipulation. But Germany runs consistent current account surpluses with other member countries of the EMU. How? By virtue of the fact that its exchange rate was locked in at an artificially low level while those other countries were locked in at an artificially high level, and by voluntarily constraining wage growth (via agreement between labor unions, businesses, and government). The result can be seen in this post I wrote a couple of years back.

All in all, pretty much the same thing can be said of floating exchange rates as has been said of humility, Biblical welfare, conservatism, capitalism, even love: it works every time it’s tried. The problem is, it isn’t tried, even in this age of ostensibly floating national currencies. But there are signs that the problem is being recognized, as witness the spate of books dealing with currency wars. Even politicians are getting into the act: Donald Trump pledges to confront China’s currency manipulation. How this will play out going forward is anyone’s guess. But it will most likely continue to remain a bone of contention and true obstacle to realizing a more prosperous and equitable global order.


 

  1. Michael Pettis, The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) , p. 30. Pettis is professor of finance and economics at Peking University.

Confessions of a Free Trade Advocate

Ever since I can remember I have been a proponent of free trade. It seemed the logical thing: why should the government restrict economic activity which in itself is legal and aboveboard? And when I began exploring economic theory, lo and behold, free trade was at the forefront of most every exposition. It was the natural, the logical position to hold, and arguments against it seemed forced and, in fact, unfair, as if a basic principle of justice was being violated.

My instincts received even more validation from historical, moral theology. Francisco Vitoria, the Spanish theologian who was the first to flesh out a recognizably modern theory of the international community and law of nations, made freedom of trade one of the pillars of such a world order. As I wrote in 1991, “Freedom of trade Vitoria also includes among these rights of natural communication. This is quite noteworthy: remember, these rights belong to the ‘primary’ law of nations and as such may never be denied! National governments may infringe the right of neither their own nor of foreign private citizens and subjects to freely engage in trade, so long as trade and business may be carried on without prejudicing the health and safety of the community.” Free trade seemed to be a categorical imperative.

I continued along these lines in a book I published in 1999 entitled A Common Law. There I articulated a twofold tradition in Western constitutional theory and practice, the common-law tradition and the civil-law tradition. Of these two, the common-law tradition espoused limited sovereignty and the primacy of private law over public law, while the civil-law tradition embraced absolute sovereignty and the subordination of private to public law. As an extension of this, I included freedom of trade versus restriction of trade as a dividing line between the two traditions. With regard to the unification of Germany’s disparate states in the 19th century, I wrote that “The roots of German unification lay firmly in the civil-law tradition. Customs union lay the basis for further political union: free trade was established within the customs union, tariff barriers between it and the rest of the world…. In the civil-law tradition, trade can only be securely established within an area controlled by the sovereign; the domestic economy is the only stable economy. In the common-law tradition, trade binds societies under law, a law which also binds sovereigns and commits them to enforce it. In the civil-law tradition, law is the servant of the sovereign; in the common-law tradition, the sovereign is the servant of law” (pp. 125-126). Here again, I made free trade a categorical imperative and one of the core elements of a “constitution of liberty.”

As a final example, I wrote this in 1992: “Today the world is faced with the choice between two kinds of democracy. One, liberal democracy, is the descendant of the theocratic jus gentium, upholding freedom of trade, open borders, restricted national sovereignty, and the primacy of the private sector, considering that human society at the level of private association basically furthers the harmony of interests of its members, and that coercive authority is necessary only to ensure that violations in this harmony are punished. The other, social democracy, is the descendant of divine right absolutism, championing economic nationalism, closed borders, absolute national sovereignty (unless that sovereignty can be transferred to a supranational body), and the primacy of the public sector to rectify the inherent conflict of interests which exists in human society.”

So my free trade bona fides are fairly impeccable. But what I didn’t realize through all these expositions was something I only later began to uncover. It is a principle that already was elucidated by Friedrich List, one of the first post-classical economists to critique the doctrine of freedom of trade. The principle is this: trade between individuals and private entities is not the same as trade between nations, because it is nations that establish the framework within which trade can even take place. In the words of Karl Polanyi, markets are embedded. And this is of crucial importance. Nations establish currencies, laws, markets; they embody cultures and mores that impinge directly on economic performance; they embrace religions that, as Max Weber among others has shown, likewise are of crucial importance to economic activity. The public interest and the common-wealth are real factors that transcend private economy. They condition all economic activity and they cannot be abstracted away as if irrelevant to economics. This is the besetting sin of the free-trade theories of classical and neo-classical economics.

“How!” questions List. “The wisdom of private economy is then the wisdom of public economy! Is it in the nature of an individual to be preoccupied with the business and the wants of the future, as it is in the nature of a nation and of a government?” Leaving everything to individual action could not possibly ensure that collective interests will be taken care of. “Consider only the building of an American city; each man left to himself would think only of his own wants, or, at the utmost, of those of his immediate descendants; the mass of individuals as united in society are not unmindful of the interests and advantages even of the remotest coming generations; the living generation, with that view, submits calmly to privations and sacrifices which no sensible man could expect from individuals in reference to the interests of the present, or from any other motives than those of patriotism or national considerations” (National System of Political Economy, trans. G.A. Matile, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1856, pp. 245-246).

The absence of an understanding of the role of nations, and the focus on individuals, led classical economics to consider the entire world as one great commonwealth, with no distinctions of nationality and sovereignty. This is what led it astray. Its basic principles are valid within the framework of the nation, in their own sphere; but they run aground when trade between nations is considered. “In representing free competition of producers as the surest means for developing the prosperity of mankind,” List writes on p. 261, “the School is perfectly right, considering the point of view from which it regards the subject. In the hypothesis of universal association, every restriction upon honest trade between different countries would seem unreasonable and injurious. But as long as some nations will persist in regarding their special interests as of greater value to them than the collective interests of humanity, it must be folly to speak of unrestricted competition between individuals of different nations.” List here speaks only of national interests, but elsewhere he discusses the whole range of relevant criteria by which nations are distinguished. And so, “The arguments of the School in favor of such competition are then applicable only to the relations between inhabitants of the same country. A great nation must consequently endeavor to form a complete whole, which may maintain relations with other similar unities within the limits which its particular interest as a society may prescribe.” The social, public interests which obtain between nations are divergent; they differ from private interests and cannot be treated equally with them. “Now these social interests are known to differ immensely from the private interests of all the individuals of a nation, if each individual be taken separately and not as a member of the national association, if, as with Smith and Say, individuals are regarded merely as producers and consumers, and not as citizens of a nation” (p. 261).

So what does List propose as an alternative? Protectionism. This is his great failing. Because of this, his book has been neglected by those who realize the shortcomings of that doctrine, among whom I include myself. As I knew and still know, protectionism has its own set of problems.

Recall that “the School,” as List refers to the classical school of Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, advocated a commodity-money regime, which in effect harnessed the nations to a single currency. Because of this, if a nation wished to effectuate some sort of insulation of the domestic economy, it could only resort to protectionism as a fall-back.

The United States pursued a protectionist policy throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The problems to which this led were given powerful expression at the crackup of the commodity-money regime in 1931, by James Harvey Rogers. Rogers placed a good deal of the blame for the bleak situation on the regime of tariffs obstructing trade.

The prominent part played by our high protective tariff in the present disastrous situation is beyond serious question. Aside from the political corruption which it has engendered in our national politics throughout more than a hundred years of our history, and aside, too, from the glaring domestic injustices which, since its inception, it has created and maintained; on it can now be laid the blame for a very important part in the extraordinary maldistribution of the money metal, in the recent drastic and rapid decline of prices, and therefore in the world-wide depression (America Weighs Her Gold, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931, p. 193).

Of course this would have to be the case. Tariff walls short-circuit the functioning of a commodity-money regime. The attempt to eliminate trade imbalances through what effectively is a single currency run up against the shoals of that irreducible datum, the national economy. Domestic interests, in particular labor interests, simply will not pay the inflation/deflation whipsaw price to be paid to keep that system running. And so came the inevitable resort to trade barriers, and the eventual collapse of the system.

It is unfortunate that List’s exposition is known only for its advocacy of protectionism. Underneath that veneer lies a trenchant critique of the “cosmopolitan” system which is what unrestricted free trade embodies, which is valid now, as it was then. A common-law understanding of economics, which is what underlies List’s work, recognizes that nationhood and national sovereignty entail a framework of laws and institutions that delimit all economic activity and set up “natural” trade barriers that schemes like free trade and commodity money cannot overcome. A truly “natural” economic framework understands that currency is a function of sovereignty, and that floating exchange rates will provide the balancing mechanism that nations need to conduct trade relations with each other.

So how do we save freedom of trade? Not by eliminating nations, national sovereignty, national boundaries, and the like, but by embracing them within a framework that recognizes rather than undermines national sovereignty. Free-floating currencies are one crucial aspect of such a regime; after all, this is nothing else than free trade in currencies. Another is the adoption of domestic fiscal and monetary policies that do not promote the advantage of one nation over another. This is what happens when, for example, countries like Germany and China inflict forced-savings regimes on their own citizenry, punishing consumption and promoting production. What then in fact happens is that other countries are forced to take on board their excess production, as Michael Pettis has demonstrated in his book The Great Rebalancing. It is here that international efforts need to be conducted, not in imposing transnational regimes that undermine and displace national sovereignty altogether, and make a farce of even the pretense of democratic rule.

National Economy?

At first glance the notion of a national economy would seem to be self-evident. After all, the lion’s share of economic data comes in the form of “national accounts,” which treat the nation as a self-contained economic entity, like a business. And the talk, when it comes to the economy, is always of how the nation is doing, or how other nations or countries are doing. Likewise, history revolves around the nations and their economic progress, as with the US and its “manifest destiny.”

But the idea of a national economy does not extend to the level of theoretical category. Economic theory does not take it into consideration. It comes into play because of political, not economic, considerations. The fact of the matter is, because politics is concentrated at the national level, so also is fiscal and monetary policy. And this factual state of affairs determines the subject matter. It is at the national level that both fiscal and monetary policy takes place; it is the level at which results from these policies are expected.

Economic theory, however, is not discussed in terms of the nation but in terms of abstractions: the “market,” “business,” “consumers,” etc. This is, or at least it used to be, referred to as “microeconomics.” Then we have “macroeconomics,” which is essentially the economic role of the state with its aforementioned fiscal and monetary policies; in this way we smuggle the nation in through the back door, as it were.

But the nation never functions as a subject of economic theory in its own right. Economic practice, of course, cannot avoid it – the sovereign democratic state is the way things are, it delimits the subject matter at the “macro” level.

The unexamined presupposition in all of this is, what is the locus of the economy? It is actually a question of the utmost importance, because only in this way can we come to grips with crucially important notions – and realities that, like it or not, we have to deal with – like the “global” economy.

One person who, thankfully, did not leave this presupposition unexamined is Jane Jacobs. In her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations,[1] she puts the notion of a national economy, which she takes to be the reigning doctrine, squarely in the cross-hairs. In her view, such an economy is an artificial imposition: the real economy is city-oriented. Cities, not nations, form the watersheds of an economy. Which is to say, cities are the focus of integrated, mixed economies, involving all major sectors from agriculture to industry to finance. Within the city and its supply regions, a stable and integral economy is maintained.[2]

Therefore exporting and importing takes place between cities, not nations. By extension, cities perform the vital economic function of import-replacing: the replacement of imported goods with goods of their own making. In Jacobs’ model, it is this import-replacing function that is the basic motor of economic growth.[3]

Jacobs adds to this import/export functionality the logical corollary: currencies. Currencies function as feedback mechanisms: they provide economies with information with respect to their productivity vis-a-vis other economies. A rise in an economy’s currency indicates that it is more productive than other economies the currencies of which are falling in relative terms, while a fall indicates the reverse condition.

So then Jacobs draws the obvious conclusion. Since cities are the basic units of import and export, currencies, in order to best perform their function, should be geared to the city economy itself; their rise and fall would thus trigger the appropriate response in the city economy, because this currency fluctuation acts as both tariff barrier and export subsidy (a falling currency acts as an export subsidy, a rising currency as a tariff barrier). Cities should maintain their own currencies.[4]

This also indicates a problem with this entity known as the national economy. A larger political unit such as a nation-state, when it imposes a common currency on a multiplicity of cities, short-circuits this feedback function of currencies. It favors the economies of some cities at the expense of others. Since cities not only import and export to foreign nations but also to sister cities in the same nation,[5] the automatic feedback information provided by the currency does nothing to allow cities within the range of the currency to adjust their economies to each other. They receive none of the feedback information that a city-based currency would provide them. Therefore, the cities whose economic position is favored by the national currency continue to grow, while the others stagnate.[6]

Clearly Jacobs is no friend of the nation-state. “Virtually all national governments, it seems fair to say, and most citizens would sooner decline and decay unified, true to the sacrifices by which their unity was won, than prosper and develop in division.”[7] And she takes classical economics, especially as exemplified in Adam Smith’s tellingly titled Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to task for this. Smith “accepted without comment the mercantilist tautology that nations are the salient entities for understanding the structure of economic life. As far as one can tell from his writings, he gave that point no thought but took it so much for granted that he used it as his point of departure.”[8] Smith’s unthinking assumption of this assumption was subsequently passed from generation to generation without any further thought on the matter. “Ever since, that same notion has continued to be taken for granted. How strange; surely no other body of scholars or scientists in the modern world has remained as credulous as economists, for so long a time, about the merit of their subject matter’s most formative and venerable assumption.”[9]

So Jacobs agrees with us that the locus of the economy is an unexamined proposition. Nevertheless, her thesis that the nation was the focal point of classical economic theory is debatable. In fact, it is contradicted by an early proponent of “The National System of Political Economy,” Friedrich List.[10] List certainly does not figure as an unthinking follower of Adam Smith. His description of Smith’s school is telling: he calls it “the Cosmopolitical System.” By which he means that, pace Jacobs, it is the antithesis of a “national system” of economics.

In line with the influential vision of “Perpetual Peace” put forward in the late 18th century by the celebrated Abbé St. Pierre, this “cosmopolitical system” of economics presupposes harmony and peace between the nations. In such a situation, nations per se have no interests; the human race is joined together as one; and for this reason, “for the most part the measures of governments for the promotion of public prosperity are useless; and that to raise a State from the lowest degree of barbarism to the highest state of opulence, three things only are necessary, moderate taxation, a good administration of justice, and peace.[11] Free trade is then the norm, and indeed, can only truly be implemented under the auspices of such a universal peace. But, argues List, this is to confuse a hypothetical goal toward which the nations should work, with a standing condition already attained.

The [classical] School has admitted as realized[,] a state of things to come. It presupposes the existence of universal association and perpetual peace, and from it infers the great benefits of free trade. It confounds thus the effect and the cause. A perpetual peace exists among provinces and states already associated; it is from that association that their commercial union is derived : they owe to perpetual peace in the place they occupy, the benefits which it has procured them. History proves that political union always precedes commercial union. It does not furnish an instance where the latter has had the precedence. In the actual state of the world, free trade would bring forth, instead of a community of nations, the universal subjection of nations to the supremacy of the greater powers in manufactures, commerce, and navigation. [12]

While Smith and the other proponents of the classical school did recognize the existence of nations and national interests, List correctly assesses the basic orientation of the system. Much of this was inchoate; Lists’s strictures served to stir up debate, generate criticism, and give rise to critical schools of economic theory, such as the so-called Historical School.

This is evident not only in the advocacy of free trade generally as panacea for all economic ills, but also, importantly, in the advocacy of free trade in the area of currency. As we explored in this earlier post, leaving currency to the free market is a key element in a cosmopolitan system that deemphasizes nations as economic actors and subjugates sovereignty, in order to establish a “center-periphery” system of exploitation. And Adam Smith’s classical system established commodity money as a cornerstone of its economic order. As such, in its essentials List’s construct holds true.

List is correct to point out that mercantilism, the target of the classical school’s vituperation, took the nation to be the focus of economics. The system of commodity money, established to overcome mercantilism, is thus a product of the cosmopolitan system. Indeed, the latter found its justification in the fact that it overcame mercantilism, with its supposed framework of conflict of interests and the struggle between nations.

The system of commodity money came to be embodied in the gold standard. As I have argued elsewhere (Follow the Money, ch. 14: “The Great Transformation”), that system ended up in the shipwreck of two world wars and a great depression. As such, it is forever a thing of the past.

Since then, we have had national currencies; and since 1971, ostensibly free-floating national currencies. Jacobs’ polemic against the current system of national currencies has this to say for it, that it understands the role of currencies as feedback mechanisms. Furthermore, the understanding of economies as things that are city-oriented and city-generated. Where Jacobs goes astray is in her exclusive focus on currencies as the only way imbalances are rectified.

As I outline in the accompanying course, economic regions within national boundaries, which thus share the same currency, adapt to each other and resolve imbalances between each other by changes in wages and prices. These changes trigger flows between the economic regions, which are called factor flows: flows of mobile factors of production. Two such factors are labor and capital. They flow back and forth between economic regions, depending on such things as wage levels, price levels, and interest rates.

In the cosmopolitan system, these flows take place not only within countries but between countries. The world is then viewed as a unified, universal jurisdiction of provinces, with the free flow of mobile factors of production settling up regional imbalances.

The problem with this system is, of course, that it does not take nations into account as inescapable realities with inescapable, differentiated, often conflicting characteristics. Nations have different cultures, languages, religions, mores, values, levels of material development, and certainly different approaches to and attitudes towards getting and spending. This leads to evident differentials in things like rates of economic growth.

There is more. Nations have an unsettling penchant: inner drive to establish sovereignty. This was one of the great insights of the German Calvinist statesman and political philosopher Johannes Althusius (1563-1638). At the time, the doctrine of sovereignty was for the first time being fully developed in its modern form as the power that cannot be gainsaid, the power that stands above all other human institutions and authorities and “speaks the law” to them in a final manner. The Frenchman Jean Bodin (1530-1596), coincidentally one of the forerunners of the theory of commodity money, was also the developer of this new theory of sovereignty, which he located squarely in the ruler, whether king or national assembly of whatever sort.

Althusius accepted Bodin’s doctrine of sovereignty but turned it on its head, as it were. It was not the ruler, but the nation as a whole which was the bearer and locus of sovereignty. The ruler was simply the administrator thereof, who exercised its power in the name of and in trust to the true sovereign, the people or nation.

I have attributed the rights of sovereignty, as they are called, not to the supreme magistrate, but to the commonwealth or universal association. Many jurists and political scientists assign them as proper only to the prince and supreme magistrate to the extent that if these rights are granted and communicated to the people or commonwealth, they thereby perish and are no more. A few others and I hold to the contrary, namely, that they are proper to the symbiotic body of the universal association to such an extent that they give it spirit, soul, and heart. And this body, as I have said, perishes if they are taken away from it. I recognize the prince as the administrator, overseer, and governor of these rights of sovereignty. But the owner and usufructuary of sovereignty is none other than the total people associated in one symbiotic body from many smaller associations. These rights of sovereignty are so proper to this association, in my judgment, that even if it wishes to renounce them, to transfer them to another, and to alienate them, it would by no means be able to do so, any more than a man is able to give the life he enjoys to another. For these rights of sovereignty constitute and conserve the universal association.[13]

This key consideration is something that Jacobs and economists in general overlook. Sovereignty is a legal and political doctrine that fixes economic reality in a determinate and conclusive manner. It transcends economics while also acting as a basic datum that real-world economics must take into consideration. And it is nations that exercise sovereignty. As such, it is nations that establish and maintain a common law, the determiner of economic reality: hence, common-law economics. Currency, for one thing, is a function of this common law. No nations, no sovereignty; and no sovereignty, no common law. As this piece is already long enough, I will spare the reader any further elucidations. But this on-site article can serve to fill the gap.


[1] Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life (New York: Random House, 1984).

[2] Ibid., ch. 2.

[3] “Whenever a city replaces imports with its own production, other settlements, mostly other cities, lose sales accordingly. However, these other settlements – either the same ones which have lost export sales or different ones – gain an equivalent value of new export work. This is because an import-replacing city does not, upon replacing former imports, import less than it otherwise would, but shifts to other purchases in lieu of what it no longer needs from outside. Economic life as a whole has expanded to the extent that the import-replacing city has everything it formerly had, plus its complement of new and different imports. Indeed, as far as I can see, city import-replacing is in this way at the root of all economic expansion.” Ibid., p. 42.

[4] Ibid., ch. 11.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

[6] Ibid., ch. 11.

[7] ch. 13; the quotes are from pp. 212, 215-16.

[8] Ibid., p. 30.

[9] Ibid., p. 31.

[10] As elaborated in his book The National System of Political Economy,  first published in German in 1841. The English translation was first published in 1856.

[11] National System of Political Economy (1856 ed.), p. 191.

[12] Ibid., p. 200.

[13] Frederick S. Carney (trans. and ed.), The Politics of Johannes Althusius (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965), p. 10. Emphasis added.