Tag Archives: capitalism

More About Economic Systems

A comment posted to yesterday’s blog noted that I had not defined capitalism. Fair point.

The following description is from my last book, Talking Politics? What You Need To Know Before Opening Your Mouth, in which I included the following descriptions/comparison of capitalism and socialism.

Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. It is characterized by free markets, where the prices of goods and services are determined by supply and demand, rather than set by government. Economists often define the ideal of free trade as a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to that transaction.

Understanding the importance of free trade to capitalism is important, because it defines the proper role of government in a capitalist system—as an “umpire” or referee, ensuring that everyone plays by the rules. For example, Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that monopolies distort markets; if one company can dominate a market, that company can dictate prices and other terms with the result that those transactions will no longer be truly voluntary. If Manufacturer A can avoid the cost of disposing of the waste produced by his factory, by dumping it into the nearest river, he will be able to compete unfairly with Manufacturer B, who is following the rules governing proper waste disposal. If Chicken Farmer A is able to control his costs and gain market share by failing to keep his coops clean and his chickens free of disease, unwary consumers will become ill. Most economists agree that in order for markets to operate properly, government must act as an “umpire,” assuring a level playing field.

This need for government is a response to what economists call “market failure.” There are three situations in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work: when monopolies or corrupt practices replace competition; when so-called “externalities” like pollution harm people who aren’t party to the transaction (who are neither buyer nor seller); and when there are “information asymmetries,” that is, when buyers don’t have access to information they need to bargain in their own interest. Since markets don’t have built-in mechanisms for dealing with these situations, most economists argue that regulation is needed.

Economists and others often disagree about the need for particular regulations, but most do agree that an absence of all regulatory activity undermines capitalism. Unregulated markets can lead to a different system, sometimes called corporatism. In corporatist systems, government regulations favoring powerful corporate interests are the result of lobbying by corporate and monied special interests that stand to benefit from them. You might think of it as a football game where one side has paid the umpire to make calls favorable to that team.

Socialism is the collective provision of goods and services. The decision whether to pay for certain services collectively rather than leaving their production and consumption to the free market can be based upon a number of factors. First, there are some goods that free markets cannot or will not produce. Economists call them public goods, and define them as both “non-excludable” –meaning that individuals who haven’t paid for them cannot be effectively kept from using them—and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that use by one person does not reduce the availability of that good to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems and street lighting. If we are to have these goods, they must be supplied by the whole society, usually through government, and paid for with tax dollars.

Not all goods and services that we provide collectively are public goods. Policymakers have often based decisions to socialize services on other considerations: we socialize police and fire protection because doing so is generally more efficient and cost-effective, and because most of us believe that limiting such services only to people who can afford to pay for them would be immoral. We socialize garbage collection in more densely populated urban areas in order to enhance the livability of our cities and to prevent disease transmission.

Getting the “mix” right between goods that we provide collectively and those we leave to the free market is important, because too much socialism hampers economic health. Just as unrestrained capitalism can become corporatism, socializing the provision of goods that the market can supply reduces innovation and incentives to produce. During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement  socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results. Not only did economic productivity suffer, so did political freedom. (When governments have too much control over the means of production and distribution, they can easily become authoritarian.)

Virtually all countries today have mixed economies. The challenge is getting the right balance between socialized and free market provision of goods and services.

 

 

Labels Versus Definitions

Yesterday morning, I was on the treadmill listening to “Morning Joe.” Scarborough was interviewing the Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who is one of the thousands of Democrats running for President. (Okay, maybe thousands is an exaggeration…) Hickenlooper was a successful entrepreneur before becoming Mayor of Denver and then Governor, and Scarborough asked him if he considered himself a capitalist.

When Hickenlooper responded that he didn’t like labels–that he focused on solving problems–both Joe and one of his panelists repeatedly pressed Hickenlooper on the issue, since they both said– falling neatly into a semantic trap being set by Republicans–the Democratic Party is split between good old American capitalism and a “socialist” flank.

I wish Hickenlooper had been more artful in his response. He might have pointed out that all western democracies are what we call “mixed” economies. (He did note that Social Security was originally opposed for being “socialist,” which of course it is.) We need capitalism in those areas of the economy where it clearly works well, and state-sponsored systems in areas where markets fail.

He also might have made the point that Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly made: as a capitalist, she wants to rescue capitalism by reinstating the regulatory rules that mandate the level playing field that is essential if markets are to work. (As I have noted in previous posts, America no longer has a genuine market system–capitalism has devolved into corporatism.)

In our highly polarized politics today, words like Socialism, Fascism and Communism are used more as insults than descriptions. So let me offer a few definitions.

Socialism may be the least precise of these terms. It is generally applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden is correspondingly higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

When pundits take to the fainting couch over leftists who call themselves Democratic Socialists, they are (intentionally?) confusing socialism with communism. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t analyze and debate proposals to “socialize” added areas of the economy–but that analysis ought to rest on accurate definitions of the terms being used.

What about the other end of the political spectrum?

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” but it differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Three elements commonly identified with Fascism are 1) a national identity fused with racial/ethnic identity and concepts of racial superiority; 2) rejection of civil liberties and democracy in favor of authoritarian government; and 3) aggressive militarism. (Sound familiar?)

If Hickenlooper’s appearance on Morning Joe is any indication, Americans are in for two years of empty posturing over economic terminology bullshit.

Maybe I can just hide under my bed until 2020 is over…..

 

 

What’s In A Name?

Paul Krugman’s recent column in the New York Times was titled “Trump versus the Socialist Menace,” and the tag line beneath the title warned that commies were coming for your pick-up truck.

The title alluded to Trump’s most recent effort to generate fear in his base. Krugman reminded us that we’ve seen this movie before, when the horrible threat of Medicare was looming, and the AMA hatched a plan to defeat it.

Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.

Obviously the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.

It sure does. It’s fed by America’s bipolar, “either-or” approach to policy and ignorance of economic systems.

In the real world, there are very few countries where either socialism or capitalism characterizes the entire economy. Virtually all democratic nations have a mixed economy, meaning that certain things are socialized (i.e., provided communally, through government and paid for by taxes) and others are left to the market.

The actual question facing policymakers is which approach is appropriate in a given situation.

America already “socializes” police and fire protection. Most cities “socialize” garbage collection. Our streets and sidewalks–and interstate highways–are “socialized.” (In a recent Facebook post, a friend warned that a “socialist snowplow” was coming down his street.)

One way to think about this (although “thinking” is apparently a difficult assignment for many folks) is that government is a mechanism through which societies provide infrastructure. Some of that infrastructure is physical–bridges, roads, etc.–and some of it is social. Police and firefighters, Social Security and Medicare and a variety of social welfare programs are part of the social infrastructure.

Market capitalism, properly regulated, is incredibly successful in providing goods and services when buyers and sellers are operating on relatively equal terms. Economists tell us that markets work well when there is 1) a willing buyer and a willing seller both of whom are in possession of all relevant information, and 2) government has ensured a level playing field.

Quite obviously, there are areas of the economy in which markets don’t work. (Utilities come to mind–when did you last take bids from companies wanting to supply your water or sewer?) In those areas, government gets involved, either through stringent regulation or –gasp!–by socializing the service.

It is perfectly reasonable to debate whether a given service or economic area should be left to the market or provided communally–and if the latter, how that should be done. It is both unreasonable and dishonest to pretend that every decision to socialize a service is a step toward totalitarian communism, but as Krugman says, that’s this administration’s rhetoric.

You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isn’t a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy report on socialism that Trump’s economists released last fall; that’s pretty much how its argument goes.

Ironically, these hysterical descriptions have actually made the word “socialism” less off-putting. Recent polls show a significant number of voters approving of socialism (including a majority of those under 30). They’ve evidently accepted conservative labeling that “describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, “Well, in that case I’m a socialist.””

When words are used as invective, they no longer communicate anything of substance. I think that’s where we are with both capitalism and socialism, and that really impedes rational policymaking.

 

 

 

This Isn’t Capitalism

A number of people who comment on this site are consistently critical of capitalism. I, on the other hand, am a committed capitalist, provided that economic system is properly defined and provided it is limited to economic areas in which competitive markets work.

The system in America today–the system that pisses off so many contemporary Americans– isn’t capitalism. It’s corporatism.

In a capitalist system, it is true that some people will do better than others. There is nothing wrong with that; the promise of a bigger reward for building a better mousetrap spurs innovation and benefits us all. It’s only when the rewards are disproportionate to the value of the activity involved– and  especially when those rewards become disconnected from actual economic productivity– that capitalism devolves into corporatism, and things get seriously out of whack.

Competitive markets have numerous advantages in the areas where they work. Unfortunately, in the United States, we have insisted on “competition” in areas where markets are demonstrably inappropriate. From health care to education to prisons, we have pursued a privatization agenda that benefits the entitled and well-connected without delivering any of the benefits of a true market.

That may be crony capitalism, but it sure isn’t the real deal. As I wrote a few years ago,

When what people make is a reflection of their connections and/or the success of their lobbyists, it’s time to consider whether we still have a capitalist system, or whether what America  currently has is corporatism–a system where power is exercised through large organizations in pursuit of their own economic agendas, to the detriment of the common good.

Capitalism creates opportunity; corporatism keeps it “all in the family,” exacerbating inequality.

If you have any doubt that the United States no longer practices capitalism, take a look at the recent, high-profile (arguably obscene) “competition” for Amazon’s second headquarters. As the Intercept recently reported,

Amazon’s announcement thisweek that it will open its new headquarters in New York City and northern Virginia came with the mind-boggling revelation that the corporate giant will rake in $2.1 billion in local government subsidies. But an analysisby the nation’s leading tracker of corporate subsidies finds that the government handouts will actually amount to at least $4.6 billion.

But even that figure, which accounts for state and local perks, doesn’t take into account a gift that Amazon will also enjoy from the federal government, a testament to the old adage that in Washington, bad ideas never die.

Enterprise Zones, one of those ideas that the Intercept characterizes as “bad,” has been resurrected in the GOP’s 2017 “gift to rich people” tax bill.

Under the tax overhaul signed by President Donald Trump last year, investors in opportunity zones can defer paymentsof capital gains taxes until 2026, and if they hold them for seven years, they can exclude 15 percent of the gains from taxation. If investors carry the opportunity zone investment for 10 years, they eliminate taxes on future appreciation entirely. Investment managers have been salivatingat the chance to take advantage of opportunity zones. Special funds have been built to cater to people holding unrealized capital gains — such as Amazon employees with large holdings of company stock.

The article details the goodies taxpayers are providing one of the most successful companies in the country, and notes that  Amazon has already received $1.6 billion in state and local subsidies for its warehouses and data centers.

On the same day as the New York and Virginia announcements, Amazon also announced a new “Operations Center of Excellence” in Nashville, Tennessee, a 5,000-worker facility for which the city gave Amazon $102 million in subsidies.

The report notes that these cash handouts don’t take into account “regulatory leniency and accelerated permitting” that Amazon projects routinely get.

We can quibble over what we should call an economy in which there is nothing remotely like a level playing field; an economy that enriches the already well-to-do at the expense of the rest of us and routinely socializes risks and privatizes profits, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of calling it capitalism.

 

Stakeholders Versus Shareholders

Several people who regularly comment on this blog are extremely critical of capitalism. That’s understandable, given the distorted version currently practiced in the U.S., but I would caution that broad-brush diatribes against a market economy and calls to abolish the entire system are misplaced.

The culprits that have led to what we actually have–a “system” more accurately described as “corporatism” or “crony capitalism” are twofold: a lack of understanding of  where markets work and where they don’t–and public policies based both on that misunderstanding and on the outsized influence of monied interests.

A good deal has been written about the lax enforcement of anti-trust laws, and the concentration of economic power, but there has been less attention paid to structural problems that provide perverse incentives.

Earlier this month, Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill intended to address those problems. Titled The Accountable Capitalism Act, Warren’s plan “starts from the premise that corporations that claim the legal rights of personhood should be legally required to accept the moral obligations of personhood.” Warren has described herself as a “huge” proponent of capitalism, whose goal is to make the system work properly for all stakeholders.

And “stakeholder” is the operative word.

Shareholder primacy—the belief that everything a corporation does must be for the benefit of shareholders (who should extract as much wealth from the company as possible) and no one else—is the dominant legal framework operating within firms today…. Ignoring the contributions of all stakeholders to corporate success, the shareholder primacy model has driven the deep-rooted economic inequality that we live with in America today.

The linked discussion from the Roosevelt Institute traces the origin of this focus on shareholders to the detriment of others who have important interests in the operation and health of the corporation.

Part of the problem is that in the U.S., states charter corporations. As any corporate lawyer will confirm, larger enterprises “shop” for states in which to incorporate by looking to see which states have laws that are most beneficial (i.e., least restrictive). States woo new businesses, and so corporate law has become a race to the bottom (which is Delaware).

Warren’s bill would require large corporations–those with revenues over one billion– to be chartered by the federal government.

Under current law, corporate boards are elected by, and represent, shareholders. The consequences are predictable:

Board members who want to hold onto their seats are going to do what they can to please short-term oriented shareholders. And chief executives are now largely compensated in ways that are tied to the price of shares, so they have an additional incentive to steer the board towards decisions that push up short-term share prices. The existing shareholder primacy model means that boards focus too much on increasing their share price. That’s why Goldman Sachs estimated that American corporations are on track to spend $1 trillion dollars in 2018 on stock buybacks,essentially propping up the entire stock market by repurchasing their own stock.

Stakeholder governance would recognize that many different groups contribute to a corporation’s success. Employees, customers, even the public, have a stake in that success along with the shareholders, and they all should play some role in the corporation’s decision-making, as they do in a number of other countries.

This means that employees have real representation on corporate boards, so that decision-making is shared among stakeholders, instead of shareholders electing all board members. Accountability to stakeholders also means that the board has to consider all of the company’s stakeholders when making decisions, including customers, suppliers, and the broader public.

The focus on shareholder returns to the exclusion of all else hasn’t always been a part of corporate behavior, as Vox points out. That single-minded focus has come to mean that

for executives to set aside shareholder profits in pursuit of some other goal like environmental protection, racial justice, community stability, or simple common decency would be a form of theft. If reformulating your product to be more addictive or less healthy increases sales, then it’s not only permissible but actually required to do so. If closing a profitable plant and outsourcing the work to a low-wage country could make your company even more profitable, then it’s the right thing to do.

There is nothing about market competition that requires government to allow rapacious business behaviors. For that matter, markets only work properly when government works properly– insuring a level playing field and requiring obedience to laws and regulations.

When government fails to work, capitalism devolves into what we see around us.