Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The End Of The Experiment? Part 4

Changing the economic frame/ Making a political difference

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” ( Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532, Chapter 6)
“For the overriding economic problem discussed in this book, the first necessity is not technical devices but the public acceptance necessary to make them work” (Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth, 1977, conclusion)

It has long been understood that it is politically difficult to introduce a new and untried order of things which upsets the economic status quo. With the slow motion economic failure of the 30 year experiment, it is nevertheless important to ask:  how can we make a difference politically and begin to organise a better world. The answer is not obvious. We have accumulated so many critiques of neo liberalism that, if they were all piled up one on top of another, they would surely by now reach to the moon. And yet, after several decades, we are no closer to defeating neo liberalism.

This disconnect between critical thought and effective action isn’t a problem for everybody. As we have argued in our blog about Thomas Piketty’s Capital, the sales success of that book can be attributed to the way in which it combines fact driven critique of growing wealth and income inequalities with an utopian solution of higher income and wealth taxes. This solution will never be enacted when we live in post democracy where the mass party is no more and the organised working class have been disempowered
But it is a big problem for the team that wrote The End of the Experiment because we wanted to write a book that moved from critique of the thirty year experiment to new political proposals for action and intervention.  Of course we are academic scribblers not political practitioners. But we can break with the dismal TINAF (There is no Alternative Framework) assumption that frames current centre left and centre right politics; and hope that  our arguments can have some performative impact in the next phase of ongoing crisis

In our book, the distinctive form of our critique shapes our concept of the alternative. Because the one centralised, Westminster led dogmatic experiment has failed, we recommend much more diversity of regional and local experiments which provide the basis for discovering answers. Because our critique shows that the generic fix of competition and markets has led to sectoral mismanagement, we recommend a different approach which recognises the heterogeneity of the economy and engages with activity specifics in what we call the foundational economy.

The argument on these points in The End of the Experiment  is dense but it can be simplified and systematised.  The book’s policy argument starts from a contrarian insight about how there is more than one economy. It then focuses on part of the economy by proposing the foundational  economy as an alternative object before proposing chain value and social license as policy principles do which could be developed and articulated through local experiments 

1) The contrarian insight
After thirty years, it is not difficult to see the problems inherent in the current framing of our politico- economic problems in a country like the UK. It is increasingly realised that our economic problems do not have technical solutions with existing management tools. It is widely accepted that the current UK recovery is consumption based, debt fuelled and unsustainably driven by house price rises: if that observation is set in the context of boom and bust over the past thirty years, the implication is that there is no setting of the macro policy levers (fiscal and monetary) which will deliver sustainable UK growth.

The main stream response is denial. The Thatcherite revolution fails because it is incomplete, the answer is more of the same (and please don’t talk about debt based growth). The generic fix of competition and markets is now applied with more force to energy, banking and every other sector; this structural reform is backed by bolt-ons like industrial policy to deal with market failure in the commercialisation of early stage innovation.

This kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour may be increasingly incredible; but it is at the same time difficult to reframe issues and propose an alternative that works. The difficulty relates to habits of thought and organisational peculiarities which are embedded in main stream British politics.

In terms of overall vision, the centre left’s question has always been why can’t we be more like Germany and their difficulty is that they have no policies which would move the British economy away from financialization and onto a more virtuous productive path. Manufacturing output shows no sustained output growth because the aspirations of foreign owned branch firms are limited as are the capabilities of British firms who prefer to compete in sheltered sectors; adding more finance for production or up-skilling the workforce will achieve little without radical changes elsewhere because UK supply chains are constructed around low skill and investment.

As a way of breaking out of this impasse, we turn to the insights of the French historian, Fernand Braudel. First, “there is more than one economy” because the economy is heterogeneous and includes zones that are not competitive. Furthermore, capitalism is as much about monopoly as competition because local monopolies are what many firms want and the state can franchise. These contrarian insights are the basis for our break with main stream thinking.

In the 30 year experiment, the economy was represented as the unitary sphere of competition where all should submit to the imperatives of globalisation; this conceptualisation was reinforced by the aggregation of everything into national income measures with growth and jobs then promoted as the objectives of policy. Against this we argue that a large part of the economy (more than one third) is sheltered from competition; while growth and jobs are socially meaningless objectives when the income gains from growth are captured by the top 10% of households by earnings and because low wage jobs spread welfare dependence

2) Our object is the foundational economy
After recognising the heterogeneity of economic activity, the question is about how to think about the different zones and their interaction. Our focus is on the zone or sphere which we call “the foundational economy”. The foundational has never been an explicit object of policy and (we would argue) has been mismanaged insofar as it has been subjected to the competition and markets fix.

What’s inside the foundational economy? On our calculations, we include the pipe, cable and wireless utilities that deliver water, energy and broadband, transport utilities like rail and bus, food processing and distribution through supermarkets and most of the lower levels of health, education and welfare. Their outputs are mundane goods and services, from processed food to primary education, which lack the glamour or attractiveness found in high tech or knowledge based “key sectors” like aerospace or the creative industries.
The activities inside the zone are diverse in terms of outputs or ownership because the foundational economy produces a bewildering variety of goods and services under private and public ownership. Yet these activities also have a series of shared characteristics which are the basis for our classification.  These goods and services are all foundational because they are necessary to everyday life, consumed by every citizen regardless of income and distributed according to population through branches and networks. They are also typically sheltered and often politically franchised so that the state (through regulation and planning laws) gives the cable tv operator or the big box retailer an effective local monopoly.

When these activities are bracketed together, the foundational economy appears as a large and strategic zone for several reasons. Large because the foundational economy employs one third or more of the UK workforce; strategic because the cost, quality and security of foundational goods and services (such as energy supply and health care) are key determinants of citizen welfare. Indeed foundational activities are funded by a kind of lien on tax revenue and household expenditure; foundational expenditure accounts for 30% on average of weekly consumption in households who have little choice about paying utility bills or buying supermarket groceries.

After a period when low cost provision of many of these goods was taken for granted, the price and security of foundational supply is increasingly an issue. The crisis of foundational supply is related partly to the limits of our small planet and partly to the failed thirty year experiment; thus, our privatized utility operators like BT are investment averse and British infrastructure is increasingly being half-heartedly renewed by billing the customer or taxpayer for investment.

3) Our economic principle is chain value
Our argument on the foundational economy starts from a distinction between two concepts of value (point value and chain value) which is then developed into an argument about how the foundational economy is being mismanaged on point value principles and would be better managed on chain value principles.
Point value means that the measure of success is least cost or highest profit in an individual transaction (or basket of transactions) at a node in an economic chain. Point value is an active and now ubiquitous principle in the calculations of private and public sectors.

It is represented in the public company imperative of shareholder value through quarterly earnings and higher stock price; or in private equity through cashing out by selling a portfolio company to meet the equity investors’ demand for high returns which are levered up with cheap debt. But it is also represented in the public sector response to budget cuts and value for money when, for example, in adult home care the local authority cuts the hourly rate paid to the agency supplying care workers.

Point value has considerable intellectual prestige; because it is in one form materialised in all the post 1930s business school calculations of return which take account of the time value of money; as with discounting to calculate net present value. At ordinary rates of interest, such calculations are socially questionable because they devalue the future by attaching a very low value to returns more than 5 or 7 years away.  Practically also, they are place bound because point value represents a trader mentality which ignores broader social consequences.

Point value is embedded in private business models which then pass problems down the chain as with supermarkets which use their power to capture supplier margins. In the public sector, the problem is that the state gains on one account only to lose on another account. Thus, wage cuts will reduce the cost of providing council services but increase the demands for housing benefit and other kinds of welfare support.  Pervasive point value therefore spreads unsustainability as private and public actors trumpet their point success when supply chains are undermined and the welfare bill spirals out of control.

So our alternative is back to the future with the alternative principle of chain value.  We should recover the idea of value as a stream of benefits for (internal and external) stakeholders over time. Benefits are not only financial and measurable through one master calculation because there are several orders of worth and long term uncertainty requires defensive prudence. This requires a different kind of economic calculus which balances the interests of different stakeholders (rather than privileging the investor); and introduces political objectives around the ideal of connected economies which deliver both the benefits of re-localisation and of national standards and inclusive national networks 

One of the central problems is that much of this calculus about interconnection is not actionable within the current British system and is equally unlikely to be realised through  the forms of decentralisation which are currently on offer. The British way after the 30 year experiment is to dispense with intermediary institutions and combine self-governing operating units with centralised political power which micro manages in an interfering way; hence the decision makers are the PLC board or the Academy School governors subject to interference by Vince Cable or Michael Gove. As for devolution and decentralisation, in the bi partisan view, articulated in the Heseltine and Adonis reports, this is a matter of handing decision making and central money to dominant regional elites with very few questions asked.

4) Our political principle is social license
The operationalization of chain value thus requires not so much more government as a different concept of what nested levels of government are and can do. As well as very much less reliance on governance at operating unit level which always promises much more than it delivers.

We are against the post 1979 concept of business friendly government which has dominated in the period of the thirty year experiment. In this frame, government’s role is facilitative as it creates the space in which the incentives of markets and competition do their work; hence the structural reform agenda of lower taxes, market liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. The only acceptable forms of local and regional policy are infrastructure and training which make the market work better (and now help create competitive agglomerations); industrial policy is about rectifying market failure in commercialising innovation. 

Against this, we make another back to the future argument which revives the 1930s ideas of US thinkers like Berle about how business and community are in a relation of mutual dependence because all business exists under a social contract whereby the corporation should offers responsible behaviour in return for the privileges which allow market access and secure profit taking. This is especially so in the foundational economy where the privileged business gains a local monopoly on the household spend of an immobile population in communities and user groups

Hence our arguments for social license in the foundational economy with the aim of enforcing the obligations of business to the community (which are much broader than those of customer care). The explicit analogy is with the mining industry where a social license about benefits for the local community is the quid pro quo for the right to exploit immobile natural resources. Social licensing in the foundational economy would impose relevant conditions on specific activities. Thus, councils would be obliged to pay living wages while supermarkets should attend to local sourcing; this would need to be backed by social innovation to change business models.


All this has fierce political pre- conditions in that change through experiments with scope and scale requires decentralisation with intermediate institutions under electoral and civil society pressure for change. But, if we do not have the answer and favour diverse experiments, then regional and local government can begin right away with experiments in areas, like adult care, where resistance to change is weakest. The question is whether regional and local governments, under pressure from civil society, can rise to this challenge and through experiments and “ actual experience” demonstrate the potential of this approach in ways which increase not just “public acceptance” but public demands for change.


Manchester Capitalism

The End Of The Experiment? Part 3

The Foundational Economy: A different starting point

If the exhibits in Part II show that the market experiment had many unpredictable and unanticipated outcomes, how does that register in the UK’s core sectors? ‘The End of the Experiment?’ develops three case examples of ‘foundational economy’ activities that demonstrate what’s gone wrong over the past 30 years and how we could do things differently for better economic and social outcomes.
Our starting point is that is that all markets are embedded in politics and that we currently have a problem with political planning. The cases of i) telecoms and broadband, ii) supermarkets and dairy, and iii) retail banking are services most of us use every day. The cases show the increasing prevalence of ‘point value’ calculations and trader mentalities within large, quasi-monopolies, where cashing out often comes at the expense of national outcomes and social objectives. All reveal different fault-lines in their business models that work against societal interests as well as the limits of a generic ‘competition and markets’ framework.

Let’s follow the money and find the faultlines

The End of the Experiment?’ cases show how, in different ways, we have ended up with socially and economically dysfunctional outcomes. This is unsurprising when much of the foundational economy is dominated by shareholder value driven business models. There are some generic overlaps such as confusion marketing but all in all three cases the key drivers are financial because giant PLCs compete on two dimensions: (1) the product market to win customers; (2) the capital market to generate the narratives and numbers expected by stock market investors.

The former publicly owned BT in its modern guise shows a marked reluctance to invest in a national network of fast broadband. This unsurprising result is the legacy of privatisation where BT demonstrates a preference for distributing dividends - £20 billion distributed since 1984 – and buying back its shares. The outcome is that its super-fast fibre optic broadband terminates at the cabinet adjacent to, rather than on, the premises. The government’s aim of rolling out super-fast broadband nationally meets BT’s corporate requirements, but does it necessarily meet social needs, particularly when the company expect the state to subvent an extension of the network to rural areas?

Supermarkets present themselves as supporters of British farmers, but a point value mindset often harms stakeholders as suppliers are squeezed upstream. In dairy farming the farmers are visible and vocal complainants, but the invisible and silent victims are often the milk processors in the middle of the chain. In the decade since 2001, processors’ share from a litre of milk has declined from 35% to 19% while supermarkets have maintained margins through a form of predatory contractualism.

Retail banks’ rely on the pressure selling of products to customers where the proceeds are applied to cover branch costs. This is a necessity under a shareholder value driven model in the context of free banking. This often results in numerous mis-selling scandals – the fines for which are treated as a basic cost of doing business. The policy response is nearly always to encourage new entrants, without any understanding of either the destructive competition in the product market or the unreasonable capital market demands for high returns on equity which underlie the dysfunctional business model.

Is this the outcome of market competition?

All three cases play out in different ways but all have socially and economically dysfunctional outcomes. All manage to deliver acceptable stock market returns (although some supermarkets are under pressure). But all crucially depend on their supply chain positioning at key pinch points which gives them power over suppliers or customers. The pursuit of ‘point value’ strategies means that position is exploited to extract value immediately at the expense of a stream of benefits over time. Value is maximised at the point of transaction to benefit the shareholder; profits are levered on suppliers and customers without regard to the social/national interest.

The 30-year experiment has above all enshrined generic competition as its mantra. And to varying degrees, with governments of different hues, this is the principle that has underpinned policy. So within this context, how, in such a large portion of the economy, have these PLCs maintained return on equity and profit margins?  Equally, how have PLCs limited the effects of competition when firms are competing amongst themselves inside each sector?

The key features that have prevented the erosion of margins and returns are (a) the companies avoid direct price competition through confusion marketing which is actively used in all three sectors (e.g. bundling to make comparisons difficult); (b) PLCs inside sectors operate using similar business models –often narrated to emphasise differences –that create an opera of stereotyped competition with emphasis on a part e.g. service, plus (c) PLCs using ‘point value’ as a means of exploiting local power relations to take margins off other stakeholders.

There are alternatives but they require vision and framing

The normal treatment of corporate excess and scandal is to claim that it is the result of ‘market failure’ which requires ‘more competition’. These framing devices dominate the rhetoric of Select Committees, policy reports and other outputs. The recommendations are always generic: encourage new entrants, educate consumers, limit monopoly excess. In doing so, the frame narrows our field of the visible and limits our imagination about what alternatives are possible.

The success of this framing has been overwhelming. But there are many other experiments beyond the free market that perhaps meet social and economic need more successfully. These experiments focus on co-operation and co-ordination to rebuild fragile or fragmented supply chains that resulted from the 30 year experiment. They include modest innovations by local authorities in the UK trying to re-glue the supply chain fragments by co-ordinating private sector partners; building agglomerations of expertise and overlapping functions in their area. These experiments also emerge spontaneously in the private sector: for example, Morrison’s vertically integrated meat supply chain secures supply and investment-driven efficiencies. Similarly Tesco’s intervene in the milk supply chain by guaranteeing, via the processors, a minimum price per litre that effectively puts a floor under competition. Alternative forms of ownership may also change the characteristics of competition: municipally owned utilities in the US compete successfully against PLCs, despite operating with quite different priorities. These different examples do not necessarily require central state planning or co-ordination since they involve the rebuilding supply chains from the bottom up.

These are all experiments related to building the foundational economy.

Looking at the three cases in the book it might be easy to conclude that these are just examples of ‘bad company behaviour’. But that would be an alibi and deny the need for something more than just the restatement of more competition and more markets with the usual bolt-ons like industrial policy. But doing something different requires a fundamental reframing of our problems that should include interventions through licensing for social objectives. However, that will require political will not generic fixes for the generic rhetoric of market failure.


Manchester Capitalism

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The End Of The Experiment? Part 2

The free market experiment began with the Thatcher government of 1979 and continued under Major, Blair and Brown. Looking back, many of the changes that occurred in the UK were not well anticipated by the arguments made for markets at that time. Yet despite these undisclosed outcomes, our political classes have yet to consider a 'null hypothesis' result.

The 1980s experiment was premised on a set of visionary promises about what the market could deliver. The vision centred on a critique of the State as a blockage on jobs, growth and competitiveness and a distorter of price signals in a market setting. Drawing on the sentiment, if not the detail, of the Bacon and Eltis thesis, it was argued that the public, non-marketed sector ‘crowded out’ private sector investment and enterprise. Similarly the debate over the public utilities was transformed by an Austrian view that the market would bring the rigour of competition and efficiency of co-ordination to cumbersome public utilities industries. The solution was wholesale de-regulation and privatisation to release entrepreneurial spirit and build an enterprise culture that would benefit ‘the public’ in its multiple identities: as producers, consumers and taxpayers.

The reforms may have had effects, but they were often not the effects that were expected. Surprisingly, public sector job creation increased, both absolutely and relative to private sector job creation under Tory administrations (figure 1). 86.4% of net new jobs created from the beginning of the Thatcher administration to the end of the Major administration came from the public sector. Whilst some of that is explained by the economic cycle, it was mostly the result of a secular decline in manufacturing jobs (over 3m net jobs were lost) which the growth of financial services could not rebalance (only 250k net new jobs were created). By the end of New Labour in 2007 this figure had risen: 4.4m manufacturing jobs had been lost since 1979, with only 330k new financial services jobs created to compensate. What the Conservatives - and later New Labour - discovered was that public sector jobs were a necessary cost, ‘filling in’ for (not crowding out) anaemic private sector job creation and buying in public quiescence at a time of unrest.

Figure 1

Equally unanticipated  was the lack of new entrepreneurial sole traders and SMEs, despite the promise that deregulation extended. From 1992 (when our time series began), the number of full time self-employed workers was virtually flat, until redundancy forced expansion after the 2007 crash. Instead, there was a growth in casualised, insecure low paid jobs: part-time self-employed jobs increased 116%, while part time workers for corporations increased 32% (figure 2). At the same time, large firms failed to show the entrepreneurial flair promised in the discourse of free markets, choosing often to sacrifice high risk/high return activities for modest returns, low risk activities plus scale. The free market experiment, in other words, created an environment where capital satisfices: large companies calcifying around the apparatus of the state, lobbying hard for the release of ever more low return but safe public activities.

Figure 2

This pattern of satisficing was also evident in investment, which always carries risk because it is a gamble on management's strategic and orgranisational competences. The free market experiment promised to stimulate investment, but these problems stubbornly remain. Investment as a % of GDP fell from 17.6% in 1980 to 14.4% in 2013; and the UK continues to have the lowest investment share of GDP among all G7 countries (figure 3).

Figure 3


If the hypothesis that markets would stimulate private sector job growth and investment proved faulty, it equally did not capture unexpected drivers of growth in a more marketised economy. Both Tory and Labour administrations assumed that growth would come from operating efficiencies, competitiveness and specialisation forged within dynamic markets. What they did not anticipate was the importance of credit and asset prices as key sources of growth in a liberalised economy. The push of newly minted credit against real estate assets allowed households to cash out equity gains as income. That income was spent, and GDP rose. It is a staggering fact that housing equity withdrawal was equal to 104.2% of GDP growth under the Thatcher administration and 101.7% of GDP growth under Blair (figure 4). And whilst equity withdrawals were not always spent on items accounted for under GDP measures, its contribution to growth should not be underestimated.

Figure 4


So what were the outcomes? It is clear that the opportunity culture did appear for some: house-flippers, upper income employees in the state subvented sectors, the (subsidised) financial services industry and certain professions all did well. But for many, the disposable income inequalities that emerged put a ceiling on opportunity as income mobility rates fell. By the end of the 1970s the tenth richest households (D10) had five times as much disposable income (before indirect taxes) as the tenth poorest households (D1). By the 2000s the average ratio was almost ten times. These effects were further amplified by the shift from direct to indirect taxes which hit the poor disproportionately: D10 to D1 inequality was 13.4 times on average over the 2000s, up from just over 5 times at the end of the 1970s by this measure (figure 5).

Rising inequalities between households should be understood within a broader context of disenfranchisement as household's lost their stake in GDP growth. At the beginning of the 1980s average disposable household incomes were – effectively – a lien on growth. That changed by the mid-1980s, so that by 2011 (when our series ends) the disposable household income growth of the bottom 90% of households had not kept up with GDP (figure 6). And even the top 10% of households had only just kept pace with GDP growth. Where did this share go? Labour’s pre-tax share of GDP fell 3.5 percentage points from 1979 to 2010 - this was almost identical to the growth of financial corporation gross operating surpluses share of GDP, which increased 2.9 percentage points; although taxes on products and production also claimed a similar increased share of GDP.

Figure 5

Figure 6

These unexpected outcomes may truly surprise us. But surprises are commonplace in all experiments. Learning from those unanticipated results – in this case – seems something that our political classes are less willing to contemplate.

Part 3 will be posted next week...


Manchester Capitalism

Monday, 30 June 2014

The End Of The Experiment? Part 1

Our new book, The End Of The Experiment? From Competition To The Foundational Economy  is now available  as an ebook on Kindle. Over the coming weeks we will be outlining its argument and we begin here with a sketch of the historical and intellectual context of the work.

The British economy has been in relative decline since the last quarter of the 19th century, and there has been debate about the sources of that decline since at least the great ‘national efficiency’ debate prompted by the failings revealed by the Boer War.  Britain, it seems, is the subject of eternal experiments. In the post-war years there have been two. The first was the post-war settlement, which delivered historically unparalleled prosperity and generous public goods in the form of the welfare state. That settlement floated on the ‘long boom’ (the thirty glorious years) and it sank alongside that long boom in the 1970s. For over thirty years now we have lived through a new experiment, symbolically inaugurated by the victory of Thatcherite Conservatism in 1979, but an era of experimentation which also encompassed the heady years of New Labour domination. That experiment had several well known features.  It created ‘flexible’ labour markets;  it dismantled the command economy represented by publicly owned industries;  it placed a bet on the creation of a ‘branch’ economy in manufacturing in a global division of labour, and on a financial services revolution in London; it prompted an outsourcing revolution which saw numerous public services franchised to private corporations; it created an audit state; and it ushered in a new era of micromanagement by the Whitehall elite.

The starting point of our book is the failure of this latter experiment.  The public occasion of failure was the great financial crisis, but the roots lie much deeper.  Our book explores four great deficits left by the thirty year experiment:

  • A competitiveness deficit: productivity stubbornly lags behind our competitors; the financial services sector  has failed to generate employment; and ‘branch’ manufacturing  has failed to solve the problem of the trade deficit.
  • A sustainability deficit: the post-war settlement delivered generous public goods; we show (for instance  in our broadband chapter and in the separate studies of the rail industry carried out in CRESC) that the privatised system isn’t delivering a sustainable infrastructure.
  • An accountability deficit: the thirty year experiment was legitimised in the language of accountability, but it has created new worlds of unaccountability – out of control corporate elites, franchises in privatisation and outsourcing shrouded in opaque accounting, constant uncertainty about accountability lines between politicians and service deliverers.
  • A competence deficit: the age of experiment has also been  a new age of fiasco -  outsourcing, PPI, rail privatisation, financial regulation; a hollowed out civil service unable to police the new franchises.


The metaphor of an experiment has an appealing ring: experimentation is, after all, the standard method by which the sciences learn, by  testing, refuting or confirming theories. But the British history of experimentation is very different: we show in the book that we live in a state that finds learning from experience very hard. There seem to be three political reasons for this:

‘Hyperpoliticisation’: in a world of extreme micro-management everything is turned into adversarial politics and what in the book we call the ‘antidote fallacy’

The closing of the metropolitan political mind: a drastic narrowing in the social and institutional range of elite recruitment (symbolised by the disappearance of the mass political party and domination of  politics by a narrow class of  professionals) is part of the problem; an equal problem is the rise, since Thatcherism, of a ‘TINAF’ mentality: There Is No Alternative Framework, and this drastically  narrows  the range of possible dissent from the official ‘line to take’.

The shrivelling of professional expertise.  Thirty years of centralisation and increasingly tight control of professional elites have left  (beyond devolved government) shrivelled alternative institutions in civil society  - and alternative sources of ideas.

We will develop these themes further over the next three blogs.

Manchester Capitalism

Monday, 23 June 2014

Piketty, or “Just the Facts”

“Just the Facts, Ma’m” is the catch phrase credited to Sergeant Joe Friday of the LA Police Department in Dragnet, the US television series of the 1950s. Friday wanted the facts because they would lead to a cycle of purposive effective action with arrest leading to conviction and detention of criminals who should be afraid when Sergeant Friday is onto their case. Professor Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics also offers us the facts, in this case on the history of income and wealth inequalities. But these facts fit into a different kind of cycle of guaranteed inaction whereby society can recognise the problem of growing inequality without any prospect of effective redress so that the rich can sleep soundly in their beds

This is our explanation for the  bestselling success of Capital in the 21st Century (here after Capital), the English translation published of Le Capital au XXI siècle, published last year by Editions de Seuil (Piketty 2014). This is a prolix and inelegant 700 page doorstop of a book, published by an American university press and written by a little known author. It garnishes the facts on the historical development of income and wealth inequalities in twentieth century France, Germany, Sweden, Japan, the UK and the US with some musings on fictional inequality in the world of Balzac and Austen.

This book which failed to gain attention when published in French, has suddenly become a global must read. It has been on the top 100 non-fiction bestseller list of Amazon for thirteen uninterrupted weeks and on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, topping the list for three of those nine weeks. Capital has been lauded by at least two Nobel-laureates (Krugman and Stiglitz) as the most important book in economics since the Wealth of Nations (1776) (Krugman 2014), has been reviewed by every serious economist and has been deconstructed and reassembled in hundreds of economic blogs.

While other economics professors grade essays, Professor Piketty has toured two continents as if he was a true rockstar, has been received for a private tête-a-tête at the White House by Obama himself, has talked to the great and good from the worlds of global finance and politics, has been invited to talk to the Dutch parliament and has earned enough in the form of royalties, according to his own assessment, to buy a piece of prime real estate in the 16th arrondissement of Paris – which easily amounts to four, five million euros.

The central exhibits in his text are U shaped curves of the shares of wealth and income claimed by upper groups. While the U shaped curve of wealth distribution is new (and now challenged in the FT), his curve which shows income inequality returning to pre-1914 levels is not new because (in one form or another) it has featured in a series of academic publications by Piketty and his associates since the mid 2000s. The central finding is also no surprise. Income and wealth inequalities since the 1970s in most developed economies have increased to levels typical of the ‘patrimonial capitalism’ of the late 19th century. But Piketty himself has been arguing this since 2003 (see Piketty 2003), alone or together with his compatriot Emmanuel Saez (see Piketty & Saez 2003). The doyen of comparative inequality studies, Tony Atkinson, has been ringing the warning bell for at least two decades (see Atkinson 1996). The web site with their data, the World Top Incomes database, has been public for at least three years.

This raises the question why Capital has become such a big success, and especially: why now? Our answer is that Piketty’s fact-led discourse suits mainstream thinkers in the present conjuncture.  Before 2008 distributional problems were covered up by growth figures artificially beefed up by debt-driven asset inflation, especially in real estate; after the outbreak of the crisis in September 2008 nobody can deny that financialized capitalism rewards the few and simply does not deliver for the many. Financialized capitalism is a benefit for multinationals and elites but a disaster for citizens and the masses. And this verdict is no longer radical critique from the Occupy movement, Los Indignados or a few elderly socialists, it is endorsed by economists like Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz and Larry Summers.

In the background, the high priests of neoliberal liturgy like the IMF, the World Economic Forum and the OECD have recently voiced grave concerns over the political effects of rising income and wealth inequalities in developed economies (see IMF 2014). Under the banner of inequality threatening the legitimacy of capitalism, the IMF has even bracketed its traditional aversion to cross border capital controls (IMF 2012). An even starker illustration of the concerns raised by increasing inequality among the global financial elite is the May 27 London conference on ‘Inclusive Capitalism’. Organised by an heir to the Rothschild fortune, the conference allowed the great and the good such as Martin Wolf, Christine Lagarde, Prince Charles and Mark Carney to lament increasing inequality (see Lagarde 2014).

Against the back ground of disaffection with main stream politics, it is hardly surprising that the great and good are now recognising that they have a problem about the legitimacy and attractiveness of financialized capitalism. While bankers’ bonuses in the City and on Wall Street are back at the level of 2008, ordinary households in the US and the EU are still facing declining disposable incomes, resulting in pretty severe cost of living crises on both sides of the Atlantic. The stock markets are at record highs with  price records being set again on art markets and in markets for prime real estate in New York, Paris and London. The unconventional monetary policies which central banks hoped would beat the ‘great recession’ have instead benefited the wealthy by boosting asset prices.

Led by Amazon and Starbucks, and advised by para-financial accountants and lawyers, large firms have succeeded in paying an ever smaller share of overall taxation, and hoard ever larger amounts of cash which is not invested. Households by default have to bear the brunt of both the austerity policies enacted throughout the EU and through higher prices or taxes pay for investments in the renewal of material and immaterial infrastructure (roads, rule of law, education) on which large corporates depend. Corporate lobbyists with trade narratives shield politicians and confuse citizens who nevertheless by majority in countries like the UK typically support policies like renationalisation of utilities.

Enter Thomas Piketty: a French economist with a reassuring CV that includes a PhD from the LSE and a stint as economics Prof at MIT. On the basis of carefully assembled historical data and an impressively sounding law of capitalism ( R > G ), Piketty warns that ceteris paribus we are returning to the  patrimonial capitalism of the late 19th century. Capitalism is an inequality machine because the return on capital (R) in a context of demographic decline will always be three to four times larger than overall economic growth (G), implying that income and wealth inequalities due to the forces of compounded interest and multiplication will by necessity grow. Mid twentieth century equality is according to Piketty an anomaly based on unrepeatable historical contingencies including war, destruction, financial repression, inflation, the rise of mass democracy and redistributive welfare states.

The strength of Capital lies in its careful presentation of the historical facts. As Piketty writes in the Acknowledgement: ‘this book is based on fifteen years of research devoted essentially to understanding the historical dynamics of wealth and income’ (p. vii). No more, no less. Thence the 18 Tables and 97 Figures, that have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the phase before 1914 was capitalist normality, that the period between 1914 and  1970 was capitalist exception, and that in the past thirty years we have embarked on a trajectory which will bring us irrecoverably back to that earlier normality.

The book derives its unmistakable political seductiveness from it’s a-theoretical, empiricist factuality. Although Karl Marx figures prominently in Capital, the spirit in which it is written is one of classical (not radical) political economy. Piketty’s devices include accounting identities, economic laws (‘the first fundamental law of capitalism’) and echoes of classical demographic arguments; Capital resembles Thomas Malthus much more than radical theorists like Karl Marx who employed the labour theory of value of Adam Smith and his ilk to critique the exploitative nature of industrialized capitalism and predict its ultimate demise through crises of over accumulation.

The reader looks in vain in Capital for Marxist or Marxisant theoretical explanations around class and accumulation or bourgeois radical explanations around business  models, agents, power relations and politics. Piketty asserts R > G as an explanation for growing inequalities, but it is of course no such thing. One section poses the crucial question as to why the return on capital should be greater than the growth rate (p. 353 ff); but this section does not contain any answer other than a summary of the historical record. Growing inequalities are inherent to capitalism au naturel, that’s just the facts.

And facts have a value which is enlightenment. ‘Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact,’ writes Piketty in the Introduction where he explicitly refers to Kuznets and his Whig expectation that economic progress would bring less not more inequality. Thus the main aim and the huge success of Capital (p. 2). This is the book which brings light where darkness reigned – not to debunk or demythologize or accuse, but to put the political debate on inequality on a more secure, empirical footing and (implicitly) when we know the facts, will we be able to assess, judge and act. Piketty hence subscribes to the positivistic view of science which colours to this day the self image of economics: positive economics is about facts not values, the technical facts not the political choices.

Piketty is the samurai hero of positive economics who lays about him with fearless sword play. Progressive readers can only cheer his skewering of the marginal productivity explanation for the rise of supermanagerial rewards since the late 1970s (p. 330 ff.). As Piketty contends, increased bargaining power does a much better job in explaining rising income inequalities than any other explanation. Yet this line of argument is not connected with the political economy and political science by scholars like Wolfgang Streeck (2014), Colin Crouch (2004) and Peter Mair (2013),on the increasing malfunctioning of democratic policy making in the late 20th century. The political backdrop for the return of patrimonial capitalism is never explored.

From this point of view, our core problem is disconnect between the median voter and his representative. This is explicit in the Eurozone troika countries, indirectly in the excessive deficit countries of the Eurozone, implicitly in all the other representative democracies. Everywhere it has created a democratic vacuum in which large banks and multinationals have been able to push through a silent coup. Just as the rise of mass suffrage marks the beginning of the great anomaly period of increased equality in the 20th century, so the end of mass democracy and the rise of post-democracy marks the back to the future return of income and wealth inequalities. But all this is never explicitly discussed in Piketty who simply avoids any kind of political explanation for the phenomena he describes.

In our opinion, this political reticence explains Capitals phenomenal success. In a conjuncture when capitalism is malfunctioning politically and economically, Piketty lets the undeniable facts speak for themselves. Thus, Piketty has succeeded in making his message about increased inequality palatable to an audience of important people who would have bridled at anything that smacked of contrarian leftism which in Marxist and Social Democratic  forms has always sought to organise politically on the basis of its economic analysis. Piketty does not offer an activist ideology; he deals in facts. No wonder that Larry Summers and Paul Krugman have claimed to see in Capital the birth of a new style of empirical economics. Away with models! Away with ideology! Away with theory! Here come the facts!

That is why Chris Giles launched his attack on Piketty in the Financial Times of late May and why it appeared so threatening to Pikettyites (Giles 2014). What if all those carefully assembled, speaking-for-themselves facts were wrong? What if the facts had overstated real inequalities? Would that not suggest that ideology lurked behind Piketty’s a-theoretical, a-political empiricism? If the facts did not speak for themselves and instead required political interpretation maybe there was nothing self-evident about Piketty’s facts? Inevitably, Piketty responded to Giles attack by claiming empiricist virtue: his work was transparent because ‘all Excel-sheets are available on Internet’; it was necessarily incomplete because ‘more data and more collaboration are needed’; and the adjustments were not biased because ‘colleagues have looked at off shore centres, suggesting that real inequality is larger rather then less’ (Piketty 2014a).

So far Piketty has done enough to see off Giles and other positivist economic critics who have until now only disputed the facts about the problem of wealth inequality and cannot find gross errors of the kind which the Amherst team found in Reinhart and Rogoff’s This Time is Different (see Herndon et al. 2013).  But, given his style, Piketty cannot do enough to see off political critics who would instead focus on his recommended solutions as the point of weakness.

When it comes to fixes for inequality, in Chapter 15 Piketty presents his widely discussed ‘useful utopia’ of a global progressive wealth tax and is the first to acknowledge that politicians are unlikely to implement a wealth tax due to insurmountable collective action problems. Piketty can then present himself as the high intellectual in a low political world: ‘for reasons of natural optimism as well as professional predilection, I am inclined to grant more influence to ideas and intellectual debate’ (p. 513). Or, as we would put it, the more a-political, a-theoretical and empiricist the analysis, the less likely it is to have credible fixes as corollary.

The fixation on a global wealth tax is however revealing.  If the problem of capitalism is R > G, merely analytically there are at least two different economic pathways and one more political pathway out of the predicament of increasing inequality. One could choose to structurally limit the return on capital, by means of an estate tax for example. That is Piketty’s preferred solution: < R. Alternatively, one could also choose to ensure that growth increases, either through investment, re-framing management and redefining economic activity.  An alternative economic solution is > G  through massive investments in infrastructure, managing the sheltered foundational economy through social licensing and innovation and redefining what goes into GDP

Finally, one could choose to change the distribution of rewards between capital and labour ( R : G ). This is a political solution because the means to do so are labour union renaissance and new modes of corporate governance with a stronger say for labour and other stakeholders. The aim would be to encourage demands for higher wages by recreating the bargaining power which organised labour had in the mid twentieth century and deny capital the gains it has made since the late 1970s when liberalisation loosened up the exit options of capital.  As Thomas Frank has argued, if we strengthen labour against capital, the market will deliver the outcome which Piketty seeks through progressive taxation (Frank 2014).

Piketty’s preference for the pseudo technocratic fix of progressive taxation is revealing of his rationalist concept of management which again helps to explain his brilliant success. Progressive taxation is the rationalist solution because the logic of the ratios and aggregates is countered by an adjustment to the one element of government taxation which finance ministries can vary (but never will with the present balance of economic forces in high income countries). But this helps smooth the reception of his book amongst elites and opinion formers who market the book to a much wider circle. Piketty has a seminar room solution for inequality which is economically thinkable but not politically possible and the importance of his book is that it allows us all to acknowledge the problem of inequality without danger that we might be endorsing or licensing any effective solution. Read Capital and demonstrate your concern while doing nothing.

References

Atkinson, A. (1996) Income Distribution In Europe and the United States, Oxford Review of Economic Policy 12(1): 15-28.
Crouch, C. (2004) Post-Democracy (Oxford: Polity Press)
Frank, T. (2014) The problem with Thomas Piketty: “Capital” destroys right-wing lies, but there’s one solution it forgets, Salon, May 11, http://www.salon.com/2014/05/11/the_problem_with_thomas_piketty_capital_destroys_right_wing_lies_but_theres_one_solution_it_forgets/
Giles, C. (2014) Data Problems with Capital in the 21st Century, May 23, http://blogs.ft.com/money-supply/2014/05/23/data-problems-with-capital-in-the-21st-century/
Herndon, T. et al. (2013) Does high public debt consistently stifle economic growth? A critique of Reinhart and Rogoff, Cambridge Journal of Economics, doi: 10.1093/cje/bet075
IMF (2012) The liberalization and management of capital flows; an institutionalist view, November 14, 2012, http://www.imf.org/external/np/pp/eng/2012/111412.pdf
IMF (2014) Redistribution, Inequality and Growth, IMF Staff Discussion Note, February 2014, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2014/sdn1402.pdf
Krugman, P. (2014) Why We’re in a new Gilded Age, New York Review of Books, May 8, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/may/08/thomas-piketty-new-gilded-age/
Lagarde, C. (2014) Economic Inclusion and Financial Integrity—an Address to the Conference on Inclusive Capitalism, May 27, https://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2014/052714.htm
Mair, P. (2013) Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso)
Piketty, T. (2003) Income inequality in France, 1901-1998, Journal of political economy 111(5): 1004-1042.
Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard: Harvard University Press)
Piketty, T. (2014a) Rebuttal, http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/capital21c/en/Piketty2014TechnicalAppendixResponsetoFT.pdf
Piketty, T. & E. Saez (2003) Income inequality in the United States, 1913-1998, Quarterly journal of economics 118(1): 1-39.
Streeck, W. (2014) Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (London: Verso)


Dyfal Donc & Dutchman


Monday, 28 April 2014

Why The UK Is A Dead Duck Whatever Happens In The Scottish Referendum

Nobody can predict with accuracy what will happen in the Scottish independence referendum in September, though the unremittingly negative cast of the ‘no’ campaign is probably helping narrow the gap between the two sides.  That negative cast is certainly in part due to the obtuseness which is to be expected of a metropolitan elite trapped inside its own bubble: how else to explain the catastrophe of the CBI’s decision to alienate large sections of Scottish business, or Ed Balls’ decision to line up with George Osborne, a hated figure in Scotland, to try to put the frighteners on the Scots about currency union?

But the negative campaign is not mainly due to obtuseness.  It is due to influences which suggest that, whatever the outcome in September, the ‘United Kingdom’ as a historical project has had its day.  The ‘no’ campaign is overwhelmingly negative because the historical conditions that gave rise to a positive case for the United Kingdom no longer exist.  It is necessary to put the frighteners on the Scots because there is no longer a convincing case for the United Kingdom which can attract the Scottish imagination.  The idea of states and nations as ‘imaginary communities’ of course owes much to Benedict Anderson’s classic.  And it certainly conveys the notion that a political construct like the United Kingdom had a fictional quality: in Renan’s famous words, ‘getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.’   But it is not the fiction that is important; it is the success of the appeal to imagination.  A century of so ago any case for Scottish independence could have been met with a positive case that appealed to the imagination – especially to a Scottish imagination which was bound into the project that was the United Kingdom.  That project fused economic and militaristic imperialism (to both of which the Scots made a quite disproportionate contribution.)  It invoked Protestant providentalism, a providentialism which also drew special strength from the messianic character of Scottish (missionary) Presbyterianism.  And it promised unity under a crown which had invented a part Scottish identity via Victorian Balmorality.  Just imagine an attempt to mount a campaign now against the nationalists based on the empire, Protestant providentialism and unity under a crown: to pose it is to see immediately why it is necessary to try to frighten the Scots with horror stories.

This means that even if the ‘no’ campaign succeeds in the September referendum the conundrum of what the United Kingdom is about will still not be solved.  Solutions – and a positive campaign – are indeed conceivable, but they are not feasible for the metropolitan governing elite.  Just across the Irish Sea the problem of what to do about an exhausted national project was solved in the 1970s.  By that date it was plain that the Irish nationalism ‘imagined’ out of 1916 was exhausted: Ireland was never going to be a rural, traditional, Irish speaking, Catholic outpost sealed off from the modern world.  That was De Valera’s fiction, but a fiction which no longer commanded imaginative power.  The Irish nation was instead successfully reimagined as a modern community enthusiastically committed to the project of European unification: people gave up on speaking Irish, practising Catholicism and listening to the Kilfenora ceilidh band.  In principle it is possible to conceive a campaign against Scottish independence which reimagines the United Kingdom as precisely this sort of committed participant in the European idea.  And for  reasons that are obvious it is exactly the kind of campaign which hardly any Conservative can now imagine; and nor is it something which Labour, still grudging in its attitude to Europe and an intellectual prisoner of Unionism, is able to conceive.
On Friday 19 September, whatever the result delivered on the previous day, the problem of what the United Kingdom positively stands for will still therefore be unresolved.

Pooter

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A 19th Century Institution Confronts 21st Century Problems

The publication in mid-March of a report by the Public Accounts Committee on the latest episode in the outsourcing saga (Contracting Out Public Services to the Private Sector, HC 777, 2013-4) represents the latest attempt by the institutions of parliamentary scrutiny in the UK to come to terms with the astonishing phenomenon of the new contractual state and the accountability issues which it has created.
The dimensions of this new contractual state are now well established.  The combination over the last thirty years or so of the privatisation boom and the outsourcing boom have created whole new areas of corporate enterprise and brought into existence new corporate giants.  The PAC report itself documents some dimensions of the phenomenon.  Government in the UK spends £187 billion on goods and services provided by third parties each year; about half of that is estimated to be directly connected to outsourcing contracts. The four outsourcing giants Atos, Capita, G4S and  Serco between them held government contracts worth around £4 billion in 2012-13.  Any financial configuration of this size and rate of growth raises obvious important issues of  accountability. The Public Accounts Committee, under successive chairs, notably David Davies, Edward Leigh and Margaret Hodge, the present chair, occupies an honoured position in this struggle: a string of PAC Reports over the years have thrown light on successive and costly fiascos in the outsourcing system and in public procurement more generally.  Democratic politics would be poorer without these interventions.

But the history of the Committee, and indeed its latest report, show key weaknesses of the accountability system.  In a sentence: this is a 19th century institution, with a 19th century set of values, trying to make sense of a 21st century world.  The PAC is an unusual Committee.  Most of the present range of House of Select Committees are creations out of the post-1979 reforms set in motion by Norman St John Stevas as Leader of the Commons.  The Public Accounts Committee, by contrast, traces its origins back to the middle of the 19th century.   It is a creation of the great budgetary reforms associated with Gladstone’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it reflects his famous insistence on the importance of economy in public spending – on the importance of ‘saving candle ends.’  The key House of Commons resolution,  of 1862, which still governs the Committee’s mission reads in part as follows:

‘There shall be a standing committee designated "The Committee of Public Accounts"; for the examination of the Accounts showing the appropriation of sums granted by Parliament to meet the Public Expenditure, to consist of nine members, who shall be nominated at the commencement of every Session, and of whom five shall be a quorum.’  

In 1866 Parliament created a key institutional connection which continues to shape the Committee’s work: it appointed the PAC as the overseer of the work of the Comptroller an Auditor General, who in modern Britain has morphed into the head of the National Audit Office.  As a glance at the hearings that underly the most recent report show, it is investigations by the NAO which now provide the main grist for PAC hearings and subsequent reports.

These 19th century origins have had two fatally narrowing consequences as the PAC has struggled to come to terms with the new contractual state.  The first is that the original ‘saving candle-ends’ emphasis on austere economy has turned, in the age of neo-liberalism, into a single minded focus on the extent to which outsourcing is governed by competitive markets, and the extent to which competition delivers ‘value for money’ –  delivering the most economic candle ends that money can buy.  This latest report, like earlier PAC investigations, is essentially about why the competitive market doesn't seem to be working in outsourcing. The second fatal narrowing consequence is that the work of the Committee has become focused on fiascos in the outsourcing system.  A subsidiary reason for this is that the investigation of fiascos, and the chastisement of senior executives in public hearings, makes for good media soundbites.  All modern chairs of the Committee have become minor media stars delivering excoriating judgements on firms’ failings on TV news and on the Today programme. And indeed the exposure of fiascos, of which there are plenty in the contracting system, is a legitimate task of the PAC.  But the overconcentration on media focused exposes, in the manner of a kind of parliamentary version of Private Eye, risks missing the bigger accountability issues raised by the rise of the huge outsourcing system.  Documenting that G4S keeps losing prisoners, or that it made a pig’s ear of the contract to provide security at the London Olympics, certainly provides good copy. But a focus on fiasco draws attention away from more important issues. Most of the contracting that takes place in the outsourcing business does not involve fiascos, for the very good reason that it is largely about making money from carrying out safe, easy to organise, mundane services: just how difficult can it be to administer the pension payment system for teachers?  Outsourcing means handing over to a small number of corporate giants a set of licences to print money.  And the relationships which govern the award of those licences, and more importantly the contractual conditions under which they are awarded and scrutinised, are largely missed in the search for candle end savings and the exposure of fiascos.

Pooter.