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Goosing the corporate goose (2 graphs)

October 17, 2018 1 comment

from David Ruccio

No, the stock market is not predictable. And no one knows the exact causes of last week’s carnage on Wall Street—with the Dow down 4.2 percent, the S&P 4.1 percent and the Nasdaq 3.7 percent, representing their worst weekly performances since March.

But the precipitous fall in all major indices, which many analysts blamed at least in part on the earnings blackout period, did serve to highlight one of the factors that has been driving the bull market: corporations purchasing their own stock.

As Matt Phillips explained,

When companies have more cash than they believe they can use productively, they typically return it to shareholders either with cash payments—known as dividends—or by repurchasing shares in the market. Buybacks raise demand, putting upward pressure on share prices.

Such repurchases have boomed this year as the strong economy—and steep cuts in corporate tax rates—have left American companies flush with profits. Companies including Apple, Cisco Systems and Amgen have returned billions in cash to shareholders by buying back shares. Apple is responsible for the largest sum, spending nearly $64 billion on buybacks in the 12 months ending in June 2018, the last period for which full data is available, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Read more…

Stiglitz vs. Summers

October 10, 2018 34 comments

from David Ruccio

Two giants of mainstream economics—Joseph Stiglitz and Lawrence Summers—have been engaged in an acrimonious, titanic battle in recent weeks. The question is, what’s it all about? And, even more important, what’s at stake in this debate?

At first glance, the intense, even personal back-and-forth between Stiglitz and Summers seems a bit odd. Both economists are firmly in the liberal wing of mainstream economics and politics—as against, for example, Gene Epstein (an Austrian economist, who accuses Stiglitz of regularly siding with left-wing populists like Hugo Chávez) or John Taylor (a committed supply-sider, who has long been suspicious of “demand-side discretionary stimulus packages”). Both Stiglitz and Summers have pointed out the limitations of monetary policy, especially in the midst of deep economic recessions, and have favored relatively large fiscal-policy interventions, a hallmark of mainstream liberal economic policy.

One might be tempted to see it as merely a clash of outsized egos, which of course is not at all rare among mainstream economists. Their exaggerated sense of self-importance and intellectual arrogance are legion. Neither Stiglitz nor Summers has ever been accused of being a shrinking-violet when it comes to debates in the many academic and policy-related positions they’ve held.* And there’s certainly a degree of personal animus behind the current debate. Apparently, Summers [ht: bn] successfully lobbied in 2000 for Stiglitz’s removal from the World Bank, reportedly as a condition of the reappointment of Jim Wolfensohn as President of the World Bank. And, in 2013, Stiglitz came out strongly in favor of Janet Yellen, over Summers, for head of the Federal Reserve.**

That’s certainly part of the story. And the personal attacks and evident animosity from both sides have attracted a great deal attention of onlookers. But I think much more is at stake.   Read more…

Socialism, economics, and the Left

September 28, 2018 34 comments

from David Ruccio

Last month, Alexander Beunder, the editor of Socialist Economist, asked a handful of “expert economists from around the world”—including Johanna Bockman, Prabhat Patnaik, Andrew Kliman, and myself—two key questions concerning the problems and prospects for socialism, economics, and the Left in the world today. Beunder requested that we keep our answers to two hundred words.

Our answers are now posted on-line, which can be read by clicking on the links below. Here are mine:

What economic obstacles is the Left facing in the 21st Century? 

The spectacular failures of capitalism in the United States have provided fertile ground for a renewed interest in socialism. These include the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression, the lopsided nature of the current recovery, and a decades-old trend of obscene and still-rising inequality. In addition, the increasing indebtedness associated with higher education, the high cost and limited access to healthcare, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left working-class Americans, especially young workers, with gnawing financial insecurity — and growing support for socialism. However, the U.S. Left currently faces two main economic obstacles: the decline in labor unions and an attempt to regulate capitalism. During the postwar Golden Age, union representation peaked at almost 35%. Now, it is down to 11.1% — and only 6.6% in the private sector. At least in part as a result, the Left has shifted its focus more to regulating capitalism, often by invoking a nostalgia for manufacturing and using the theoretical lens of Keynesian economics, and moving away from criticizing capitalism, especially its class dimensions (particularly the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed, as Marxists and other socialists understand them). Read more…

Utopia and climate change

September 17, 2018 3 comments

from David Ruccio

The warnings about the consequences of global warming are becoming increasingly dire. And with good reason.

F1.large

Just last month, a report by a multidisciplinary research team published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences made the case that even fairly modest future carbon dioxide emissions could set off a cascade of catastrophic effects, with melting permafrost releasing methane to ratchet up global temperatures enough to drive much of the Amazon to die off, and so on in a chain reaction around the world that pushes Earth into a terrifying new hothouse state from which there is no return. Civilization as we know it would surely not survive.  Read more…

Ten years after

September 14, 2018 4 comments

from David Ruccio

Everyone, it seems, is writing their version of the lessons to be learned after the crash of 2008. And most of them are getting it wrong.

Here, for the record, are some of the lessons I’ve taken from the crash:

  1. What has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?
  2. Mainstream economists got globalization wrong
  3. The policy consensus on economics has not fundamentally changed
  4. Mainstream economics has fallen in the eyes of the public—and for good reason
  5. Little has changed in terms of the teaching of economics
  6. Mainstream economists reject the new populism, which they helped to create
  7. The normal workings of capitalism created, together and over time, the conditions for the most severe set of crises since the first Great Depression
  8. Mainstream economists, for the most part, haven’t even attempted to make sense of the role inequality played in creating the Second Great Depression

Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property?!

September 13, 2018 2 comments

from David Ruccio

map

Almost 30 thousand people joined the ranks of the global super-rich last year, as booming global stock markets and corporate profits boosted the fortunes of the already very-rich and bumped them up into the ultra-high-net-worth bracket.

The global population of ultra-high-net-worth people, classed as those with more than $30 million in assets, increased by 12.9 percent last year to a record 255,810 people,  while their combined wealth surged by 16.3 percent to $31.5 trillion, according to a report by research firm Wealth-X.

Read more…

Sympathy for the devil?

September 6, 2018 12 comments

from David Ruccio

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I have long argued (e.g., herehere, and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the boards of directors of corporations in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and wage increases for workers.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

Read more…

Utopia and the exhaustion of the center

September 1, 2018 12 comments

from David Ruccio

We’re ten years on from the events the triggered the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression (although read my caveat here) and centrists—on both sides of the Atlantic—continue to peddle an ahistorical nostalgia.

Fortunately, people aren’t buying it.

As Jack Shenker has explained in the case of Britain,

one of the most darkly humorous features of contemporary British politics (a competitive field) is the ubiquity of parliamentarians, pundits and business titans who wail and gnash at our ceaseless political tumult but appear utterly incurious about the conditions that produced it. . .

Such stalwart defenders of a certain brand of “common sense” capitalism have watched in horror as ill-mannered upstarts — on both the right and the left — build power at the fringes. But these freshly emboldened centrists pretend that the rupture has no connection to their own dogma and seem to envision the whole sorry mess as some sort of administrative error that will be swiftly tidied away once the right person, with the right branding, is restored to authority.

Much the same is true in the United States, where centrists in the Democratic Party watch in horror as the Republican Party falls in lockstep with Donald Trump and the only energy within their own party comes from the Left. All the while, they ignore their own role in creating the conditions for the crash and the fact that their technocratic promises to American young people—university or community-college education leading to a stable and prosperous worklife, the dream of a thriving middle-class democracy, the claim for capitalism’s economic and ethical superiority—lie in tatters.  Read more…

Economic moats and American capitalism

August 31, 2018 3 comments

from David Ruccio

In a 1999 interview with Fortune, legendary investor Warren Buffett coined the term “economic moats” to sum up the main pillar of his investing strategy. He described it like this:

The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage. The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.

The idea of an economic moat, with Buffett’s endorsement, has picked up steam since the article. Morningstar, an investment research firm, created an index that tracks companies with a wide economic moat in order to see if Buffett’s theory holds water. In 2012, VanEck, a money manager, created an exchange-traded fund called “MOAT” that would track Morning Star’s economic moat index.   Read more…

Utopia and materialist critique

August 24, 2018 3 comments

from David Ruccio

The argument I’ve been making during this series on utopia is that the utopian moment of the Marxian alternative to mainstream economics is critique.*

Let me explain. All modern economic theories have a utopian moment. In the case of mainstream economics, that moment is a full-blown utopianism—the idea that there is, or at least in principle can be, a perfectly functioning economic and social order. Such an order is both envisioned as a model within the theory (often by stipulating the minimum set of theoretical requirements) and advanced as the goal of economic policies (which move the economy to, or at least toward, the utopia). In this sense, utopia—of sovereign individuals, free markets, and private property—is the fundamental premise and promise of mainstream economic theory.

The Marxian approach is otherwise. Certainly Marxian economists (and social thinkers generally) imagine that the world can and should be radically different from what currently exists. They simply wouldn’t engage in their intellectual and political work if that weren’t the case. But, instead of drawing up a blueprint of what such an alternative might look like, Marxists are engaged in a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” It is a ruthless criticism of both mainstream economic theory and of the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists.  Read more…

Tear down that wall!

August 20, 2018 6 comments

from David Ruccio

American capitalists love immigration. So, as it turns out, should American workers.

The last time I addressed the issue of immigration, I made the argument that

recent waves of immigration have benefited a tiny group of employers at the top, who in turn have managed to shift the costs—through wage reductions and higher taxes—onto workers (both recent immigrants and native-born workers).

In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, American corporate titans used a collegial dinner with Donald Trump to press him on easing immigration restrictions.

gallup-immigration

As it turns out, Americans have a much more positive view of immigration than they did in 2007—and than Trump and some of his supporters have today. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans now say immigrants have a positive effect on food, music, and the arts (57 percent), while nearly half say immigration benefits the economy in general (45 percent)—with both of those measures up 17 percentage points from 2007.

Recent studies suggest that American workers should really have an even more positive view of immigration.  Read more…

“Don’t class warfare me”

August 14, 2018 3 comments

from David Ruccio

trump slump

Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal is no class warrior. Far from it. But after Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow spent considerable time during a recent interview celebrating the latest statistics about economic growth, jobs, and wages and minimizing the effects of the trade tariffs, Ryssdal was encouraged to challenge him:  Read more…

Socialism or truth

August 7, 2018 30 comments

from David Ruccio

The liberal establishment continues to mourn the death of truth. Everyone else is moving on.

Every day, it seems, one or another liberal—pundit, columnist, or scholar—issues a warning that, in the age of Donald Trump, we now live in a post-truth world. In their view, we face a fundamental choice: either return to a singular, capital-t truth or suffer the consequences of multiple sets of beliefs, facts, and truths.

For example, just the other day, Keith Kahn-Harris [ht: ja] (in the Guardian) noted the “sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy,” which in his view “are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.” It’s what he calls “denialism”: the transformation of the “private sickness” of self-deception into the “public dogma” of seeing the world in a whole new way.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: from those who are sceptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately sceptical about their scepticism. What they all have in common, I would argue, is a particular type of desire. This desire – for something not to be true – is the driver of denialism.

Read more…

Utopia and mathematics

August 4, 2018 9 comments

from David Ruccio

In a recent article, Dan Falk [ht: ja] identifies a fundamental problem in contemporary physics:

many physicists working today have been led astray by mathematics — seduced by equations that might be “beautiful” or “elegant” but which lack obvious connection to the real world.

What struck me is that, if you changed physics and physicists to economics and economists, you’d get the exact same article. And the same set of problems. giphy2.gif

Economists—especially mainstream economists but, truth be told, not a few heterodox economists—are obsessed with mathematics and formal modeling as the only correct methods for achieving capital-t truth. Mathematical modeling for them represents the best, most scientific way of producing, disseminating, and determining the veracity of economic knowledge—because it is logical, concise, precise, and elegant.* In that sense, mathematics represents what can only described as a utopia for the practice of modern economics.**

Mathematical utopianism in economics is based on elevating mathematics to the status of a special code or language. It is considered both a neutral language and, at the same time, a language uniquely capable of capturing the essence of reality. Thus, economists see mathematics as having both an underprivileged and overprivileged status vis-à-vis other languages.

Let me explain.  Read more…

“Another day older and deeper in debt”

August 2, 2018 8 comments

from David Ruccio

reuters

Most Americans are not loading sixteens tons of coal. But they are, even in the midst of the recovery from the Second Great Depression, sinking deeper and deeper into debt.

According to a recent analysis by Reuters [ht: ja], the bottom 60 percent of income-earners have accounted for most of the rise in consumption spending over the past two years even as their finances have worsened.* The data show the rise in expenditures has outpaced before-tax income for the lower 40 percent of earners in the five years through mid-2017, while the middle 20 percent has just about stayed even. However, the upper 40 percent—especially the top fifth—has increased its financial cushion, deepening income inequality and leaving those at the bottom in an increasingly precarious financial position.**  Read more…

Disappearing poverty

July 25, 2018 2 comments

from David Ruccio

In international human rights law, a “forced disappearance” occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization (or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization), followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.

The most infamous forced disappearances have occurred in Spain (during and after the Civil War), Chile (after the coup by General Pinochet in 1973), Argentina (during the so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983), and the United States (as part of the so-called War on Terror).

Now, Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) is attempting to carry out a forced disappearance of poverty.**

The aim of the Council’s report is to make the case for “expanding work requirements among non-disabled working-age adults in social welfare programs.”*** In order to do so, the authors of the report attempt to show that (1) there is a large pool of non-disabled  working-age adults who are currently beneficiaries of the three major non-cash welfare programs (Medicaid, food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing assistance) who can and should be put to work, (2) independence or self-sufficiency is undermined by participation in government anti-poverty programs, and (3) government assistance to the poor has become outmoded because poverty itself has virtually disappeared in the United States.  Read more…

I ran out of words to describe how bad the recovery numbers are

July 11, 2018 5 comments

from David Ruccio

Back in June, Neil Irwin wrote that he couldn’t find enough synonyms for “good” in an online thesaurus to describe the jobs numbers adequately.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve tried every word I could come up with—including “lopsided,” “highly skewed,” and “grotesquely unequal“—to describe how “bad” this recovery has been, especially for workers.

fredgraph

Maybe readers can come up with their own adjectives to illustrate the plight of Americans workers since the Second Great Depression began—something that captures the precipitous decline in the labor share during the past decade (from 103.3 in the first quarter of 2008 to 97.1 in the first quarter of 2018, with 2009 equal to 100).

But perhaps there’s a different approach. Just run the numbers and report the results. That’s what the Directorate for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs seem to have done in compiling the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2018. Here’s their summary:  Read more…

“They aren’t laws of nature”

from David Ruccio

Nicola Headlam is, I think, right with respect to “how the rules of the economy are set”:

“Somehow, someone, somewhere made these rules up. They aren’t laws of nature.” And they determine “who’s got what and where and why”.

The question is, how do we teach economics so that that message gets through?

Aditya Chakrabortty [ht: ja] reports on one way of doing it—a makeshift classroom in a converted church, with nine “lay people” and two facilitators (Headlam and Anne Hines, who are donating their time), in the Levenshulme area of Manchester, England.

Part of what makes the course interesting, at least to me, are the participants:

Those doing the Levenshulme crash course don’t look like your typical seminar room attendees. Not only are they decades older; all but one is a women. The average undergraduate economics course, according to the Royal Economic Society, is about 67% male and 25% privately educated (compared with 7% of the population). After the class, a charity van pulls up outside, offering three bags of short-dated food for £6. Several “students” collect their groceries for the week.

Everyone here brings their own lived experience of economics. In her motorised wheelchair, Joanne Wilcock notes how “everything is much more expensive when you’re disabled”. Bang on, yet you hardly ever read that in an article on the latest inflation figures. Bhatt knows that Levenshulme is supposed to be gentrifying – “fancy cars, flash weddings” – but notices his neighbours can’t afford to do up their own houses. “All fur coat and no knickers!” he concludes, and the room cracks up.

Another is the pedagogy:  Read more…

Worker rights in the United States

June 26, 2018 6 comments

from David Ruccio

Ambassador Nikki Haley’s decision last week to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Councilis remarkable. The United States is the first nation in the body’s 12-year history to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the council while serving as a member.

Some have alleged that the timing of Haley’s decision is conspicuous. “The move,” read the second paragraph of a CNN report on Haley’s decision, “came down one day after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border as ‘unconscionable.’”

It’s true the Trump administration has been threatening to leave the Council for much of the past year. And the condemnation of the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents on the border was perhaps the last straw.

However, in my view, at least as important was a report last month by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, on his mission to the United States late last year.*

poverty
Alston’s critique of the economic situation in the United States could not be more pointed.  Read more…

Book this!

June 22, 2018 4 comments

from David Ruccio

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The premise and promise of the Republican tax cuts—officially, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—are that lower corporate taxes would lead to increased investment and thus more jobs and higher wages for American workers.

We all knew at the time that the logic was a sham. As I explained last August, one of the likely outcomes of the kind of corporate tax cuts Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans supported—and, as we saw, eventually rammed through—would be an increase in inequality. That’s because, since corporations aren’t facing any kind constraint in profits or their ability to borrow beyond their current profits, we likely wouldn’t see more investment, but instead some combination of more mergers and acquisitions, more payouts to shareholders, and more distributions of the surplus to CEOS.

More recently, I explained that inequality would also increase because corporations would likely use a portion of their higher profits to engage in stock buybacks, leading to an increase in stock prices. And stock ownership in the United States is already grotesquely unequal. Therefore, the rise in equity prices would disproportionately benefit the small group at the top of the wealth pyramid. And that’s exactly what is happening.

Read more…