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Posts Tagged ‘inequality

“What people these days call ‘Vibes’ is a smell, a taste of the soul”*…

Up? Down? Better? Worse? What’s actually going on in our economy? Noah Smith on the asymmetric warfare going on around that question…

As we gear up for election season, a big debate is whether the U.S. economy is doing well or not. Biden supporters point to extremely low unemployment, falling inflation, and real wages that have started rising again. Biden opponents — including both conservatives and socialists — contend that the inflation of 2021-22 left such a severe scar on Americans’ pocketbooks that low consumer confidence is perfectly justified. Biden supporters counter that since inflation has come down — and was never as severe as in the 1970s — the anger over the economy is just “vibes”.

Basically, the Biden supporters are right; the U.S. economy is truly excellent right now. Inflation looks beat, everyone has a job, incomes and wealth are rising, and so on. But on the other hand, I can’t command people to simply stop being mad about the inflation that reduced their purchasing power back in 2021-22. People care about what they care about.

At the same time, though, I think it’s possible for negative narratives about the economy to take hold among the general populace and distort people’s understanding of what’s actually going on. For example, John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times recently found [gift article] that consumer sentiment closely tracks real economic indicators in other countries, but has diverged in America since 2020:

Now this could be because Americans simply care about different things than Europeans; we might simply have started to really really hate interest rates since 2021, while Europeans didn’t. But a simpler explanation is that Americans’ negative sentiment is due to something other than economic indicators. And it’s possible that that “something” is a negative narrative — i.e., vibes…

“Vibes vs. data”

Indeed, as Burn-Murdoch observes in his analysis…

… It seems US consumer sentiment is becoming the latest victim of expressive responding, where people give incorrect answers to questions to signal wider tribal political or social affiliations. My advice: if you want to know what Americans really think of economic conditions, look at their spending patterns. Unlike cautious Europeans, US consumers are back on the pre-pandemic trendline and buying more stuff than ever…

“Should we believe Americans when they say the economy is bad?” (gift article)

But why? Jonathan Kirshner‘s review of Martin Wolf‘s important book The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, suggest an unsettling answer…

The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism is an essential read for its articulation of the perilous crossroads at which the future of enlightened liberal civilization now stands. Wolf argues persuasively that, for all their visible flaws and imperfections, competitive market capitalism and liberal democracy are the best bad systems available for organizing human societies. And each requires the other to thrive—“[b]ut this marriage between those complementary opposites […] is always fragile.” Capitalism has been allowed to run amok, and it has elicited a backlash that threatens democracy…

Wolf’s central argument is that capitalism and democracy are inherently interdependent, yet also often in tension with one another—and managing the balance of that indispensable relationship is akin to walking a tightrope. In traditional autocracies, the economy has been captured by those that control the state, and that control is the basis of their power (which is why they are so reluctant to let go of the reins of authority). Liberal democracies today face the inverse problem: the capture of the state by those that control the economy. This is plutocracy, and aside from the injustice it visits on societies, it is also profoundly dangerous, because in democratic plutocracies (like the United States today), the simmering frustrations of mass polities will at some point lead to the voluntary election of an autocrat: “[I]nsecurity and fear are gateways to tyranny.” Decades of stagnant incomes, rising inequality, and the erosion of high-quality jobs for the middle class and the less-educated have allowed the relationship between capitalism and democracy to become dangerously unbalanced. The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism argues that the fault lies with the failure of public policy to tame the excesses of capitalism; it warns that those excesses will unleash the forces that destroy democracy.

Economic inequality, on the rise for 50 years, has soared to ever greater extremes in recent decades. As Wolf reports, from 1993 to 2015, the real income of the top 1 percent of the population in the United States nearly doubled; for everybody else, over those same years, aggregate real income grew by 14 percent. More pointedly, as the very rich got much, much richer from 2005 to 2014, 81 percent of US households had flat or falling real income—a weighty reminder that we continue to live in a world defined by the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath…

… the financialization of the economy, especially after the 1990s, and the fortunes amassed from that process, were part and parcel of a larger shift towards “rigged capitalism”—the emergence of which The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism places at the heart of the matter. In a remarkable (and laudable) intellectual evolution, Wolf, who welcomed and celebrated the Thatcher revolution in Britain, and not so long ago penned the book Why Globalization Works (2004), now attributes the crisis of our time to “what Adam Smith warned us against—the tendency of the powerful to rig the economic and political systems against the rest of society.” Superseding a well-ordered market society, rigged capitalism—a toxic brew of developments and practices including financialization, winner-take-all markets, reduced competition, increased rent-seeking behavior (the use of concentrated economic power to extract monopoly profits), tax avoidance and evasion, and the erosion of ethical standards—has led to a widespread loss of confidence in the legitimacy of democracy…

These pathologies run deep, and well below the headlines. The use of political power to undermine competition—which must thrive at the heart of any capitalist society—is an endemic attribute of rigged capitalism. (And it is why we pay higher prices for most things than a “free market” would levy.) Many if not most giant corporations are now monopolies or near-monopolies, a situation that, as any card-carrying professional economist of even the most conservative stripe would agree, generates inefficiencies, rent-seeking behavior, and outright exploitation. Many markets have become shielded, protections reinforced by access to the corridors of power, with wealth extracted from consumers (and workers) in consequence: consider the atrocity of unskilled workers in fast food restaurants being forced to sign “non-compete” clauses, an act of collusive wage suppression.

Rigged capitalism—which yields massive concentrations of wealth for a sliver of largely-above-the-law plutocrats, combined with stagnation and declining opportunities for the majority—leads to a basic political problem: “How, after all, does a political party dedicated to the material interests of the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution win and hold power in a universal suffrage democracy? The answer is pluto-populism.” This is where race, identity politics, and the culture wars come into play. The century-long political hammerlock held by the Democratic Party on the Old South was based on voter suppression and other devices that guaranteed, for working-class whites, greater economic opportunity, access to the legal system, and higher social status than Blacks, in exchange for their political support. Bob Dylan, at 22 years old, saw through this in his song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964)—and nearly 60 years later, that game hasn’t changed much…

rigged capitalism will nevertheless unleash forces not easily contained—and render liberal democracy unsustainable. As political scientist Rawi Abdelal has argued, “the social fact of unfairness is more important than the material fact of income and wealth distribution.” Endemic corruption, arbitrariness of justice, and fear for future prospects are poisonous to the body politic, undermining shared perceptions of the legitimacy of democratic society. In such settings, past and present, fear, despair, and frustration create the space for charismatic personalist authoritarians peddling promises of deliverance but who, once in power, consolidate their hold on the state by undermining the institutional constraints on their authority. And so, democracy dies from within.

What is bewildering about the American case is not that it has witnessed the rise of a leader who, as Wolf describes, “not only had no idea what a liberal democracy was but despised the idea,” and who was “instinctively authoritarian”—this, after all, is what pluto-populism conjures. What remains bizarre, however, is that, of all the possible choices, a hedonistic, ethically suspect, narcissistic grifter—who for decades was a signature beneficiary of rigged capitalism—would emerge as the people’s choice. Yet Donald Trump, like the gargantuan Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters, has been summoned by a collective subconscious rage to act as a malevolent score-settling agent of destruction…

“Rigged Capitalism and the Rise of Pluto-populism: On Martin Wolf’s ‘The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism’”

All three articles– and Wolf’s book– are eminently worth reading in full.

Saroj Aryal


As we ponder populism, we might that it was on this date in 1865 that the 27th state (Georgia) ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime). Proclaimed on proclaimed on December 18, it was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.

The Emancipation Proclamation (made in September 1862; effective January 1, 1863) had freed all current slaves in the U.S. (though as a practical matter freedom took years longer). The Thirteenth Amendment assured that it would never be reinstated.

Celebration erupts after the Thirteenth Amendment is passed by the House of Representatives in 1864 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 6, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons”*…

Further to yesterday’s post on the poverty created by manufacturing displacement, and in the wake of the sturm und drang occasioned by the coup at OpenAI, the estimable Rana Foroohar on the politics of AI…

… Consider that current politics in the developed world — from the rise of Donald Trump to the growth of far right and far left politics in Europe — stem in large part from disruptions to the industrial workforce due to technology and globalisation. The hollowing out of manufacturing work led to more populist and fractious politics, as countries tried (and often failed) to balance the needs of the global marketplace with those of voters.

Now consider that this past summer, the OECD warned that white-collar, skilled labour representing about a third of the workforce in the US and other rich countries is most at risk from disruption by AI. We are already seeing this happen in office work — with women and Asians particularly at risk since they hold a disproportionate amount of roles in question. As our colleague John Burn-Murdoch has charted [image above], online freelancers are especially vulnerable.

So, what happens when you add more than three times as many workers, in new subgroups, to the cauldron of angry white men that have seen their jobs automated or outsourced in recent decades? Nothing good. I’m always struck when CEOs like Elon Musk proclaim that we are headed towards a world without work as if this is a good thing. As academics like Angus Deaton and Anne Case have laid out for some time now, a world without work very often leads to “deaths of despair,” broken families, and all sorts of social and political ills.

Now, to be fair, Goldman Sachs has estimated that the productivity impact of AI could double the recent rate — mirroring the impact of the PC revolution. This would lead to major growth which could, if widely shared, do everything from cut child poverty to reduce our burgeoning deficit.

But that’s only if it’s shared. And the historical trend lines for technology aren’t good in that sense — technology often widens wealth disparities before labour movements and government regulation equalise things. (Think about the turn of the 20th century, up until the 1930s). But the depth and breadth of AI disruption may well cause unprecedented levels of global labour displacement and political unrest.

I am getting more and more worried that this is where we may be heading. Consider this new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, which analyses why AI will be as transformative as the industrial revolution. It also predicts, however, that there is a very good chance that it lowers the labour share radically, even pushing it to zero, in lieu of policies that prevent this (the wonderful Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson make similar points, and lay out the history of such tech transformation in their book Power and Progress

We can’t educate ourselves out of this problem fast enough (or perhaps at all). We also can’t count on universal basic income to fix everything, no matter how generous it could be, because people simply need work to function (as Freud said, it’s all about work and love). Economists and political scientists have been pondering the existential risks of AI — from nuclear war to a pandemic — for years. But I wonder if the real existential crisis isn’t a massive crisis of meaning, and the resulting politics of despair, as work is displaced faster than we can fix the problem…

Everyone’s worried about AI, but are we worried about the right thing? “The politics of AI,” from @RanaForoohar in @FT.

See also: Henry Farrell‘s “What OpenAI shares with Scientology” (“strange beliefs, fights over money, and bad science fiction”) and Dave Karpf‘s “On OpenAI: Let Them Fight.” (“It’s chaos… And that’s a good thing.”)

For a different point-of-view, see: “OpenAI and the Biggest Threat in the History of Humanity,” from Tomás Pueyo.

And for deep background, read Benjamin Labatut‘s remarkable The MANIAC.

* R. Buckminster Fuller


As we equilibrate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1874 that electrical engineer, inventor, and physicist Ferdinand Braun published a paper in the Annalen der Physik und Chemie describing his discovery of the electrical rectifier effect, the original practical semiconductor device.

(Braun is better known for his contributions to the development of radio and television technology: he shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Guglielmo Marconi “for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy” (Braun invented the crystal tuner and the phased-array antenna); was a founder of Telefunken, one of the pioneering communications and television companies; and (as the builder of the first cathode ray tube) has been called the “father of television” (shared with inventors like Paul Gottlieb Nipkow).


“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”*…

The image above captures the received wisdom about extreme poverty and the way that it has declined over the last couple of centuries. But Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel would have us take a longer view, suggesting that the story is neither so simple nor so laudatory as we might assume…


• The common notion that extreme poverty is the “natural” condition of humanity and only declined with the rise of capitalism rests on income data that do not adequately capture access to essential goods.

•Data on real wages suggests that, historically, extreme poverty was uncommon and arose primarily during periods of severe social and economic dislocation, particularly under colonialism.

• The rise of capitalism from the long 16th century onward is associated with a decline in wages to below subsistence, a deterioration in human stature, and an upturn in premature mortality.

• In parts of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, wages and/or height have still not recovered.

• Where progress has occurred, significant improvements in human welfare began only around the 20th century. These gains coincide with the rise of anti-colonial and socialist political movements.

Capitalism and extreme poverty: A global analysis of real wages, human height, and mortality since the long 16th century.” By way of context, Hickel is a “degrowthadvocate. In any case, the data is arresting– and surely worth pondering.

* Confucius


As we dig deeper, and lest we think pre-capitalist life was Edenic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1381 that “boy-King” Richard II met with the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt (AKA Wat Tyler‘s Rebellion or the Great Rising), which had arisen for a variety of reasons, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s and the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War.

At the meeting, Richard acceded to some of their demands– most notably, the abolition of serfdom. But after he had the opportunity to gather his forces, he put the rebellion down, rounded up the leaders (some of whom were executed; others imprisoned)… and re-instituted serfdom.

Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles (source)

“Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity”*…

Brad DeLong elaborates on Jonathan Kirshner‘s bracing review of Martin Wolf‘s important new book

Jonathan Kirshner: Rigged Capitalism and the Rise of Pluto-populism: On Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism: ‘The middle third of this book, “What Went Wrong,” should be required reading…. When it comes to solutions, unfortunately, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism comes up short. Wolf, ever measured, is convincing in making the case for reform over revolution…. Yet it is disheartening that the sensible, reformist agenda of reasonable, practical measures that Wolf outlines already seems beyond the capacity of our politics…. Massive concentrations of wealth for a sliver of largely-above-the-law plutocrats, combined with stagnation and declining opportunities for the majority—leads to a basic political problem: “How, after all, does a political party dedicated to the material interests of the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution win and hold power in a universal suffrage democracy? The answer is pluto-populism”… [which] unleash[es] forces… [that] render liberal democracy unsustainable…. corruption, arbitrariness of justice, and fear for future prospects are poisonous to the body politic…. Its final sentence, “If we fail, the light of political and personal freedom might once again disappear from the world,” reads less like a call to action and more like an epitaph…

Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism and Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation are, I think, the best books on theDover-Circle-Plus societies current Time of Troubles. And there is no clear way through.

It was James Madison who wrote, in 1787:

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths…

And the death of real democracy does not have to be accompanied by the end of the form. The classic example here is the Jim Crow U.S. South from 1876-1965. It was less than half as rich as the rest of the United States for almost a complete century. It was ruled by an oligarchy uninterested in economic development and very interested in corruption. The oligarchy its power by focusing the electorate on the necessity of keeping the Black Man Down, and tarring anyone who wanted a government that was less corrupt or more pro-development with being a negro-lover. That it held rocksolid from 1876 to 1965 shows that the future of anything we could call prosperous democratic capitalism is not assured…

Bracing: “Pluto-Populism,” from @delong.

See also: Kishore Mahbubani‘s “Democracy or Plutocracy? – America’s Existential Question” (source of the image above).

Thomas Frank


As we get back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Depression Era bandits Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed by police and shot to death in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut (Champion) Barrow were a criminal couple who traveled the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression. The couple were known for their bank robberies, although they preferred to rob small stores or rural funeral homes. Their exploits captured the attention of the American press and its readership during what is occasionally referred to as the “public enemy era” between 1931 and 1934.

The 1967 hit film Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles, revived interest in the couple, who were treated somewhat sympathetically. The 2019 Netflix film The Highwaymen depicted their manhunt from the point of view of the pursuing lawmen but received mixed reviews.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–34 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout (source)

“I think inequality is fine, as long as it is in the common interest. The problem is when it gets so extreme, when it becomes excessive.”*…

Alvin Chang, with a beautifully-told (and beautifully-illustrated) primer on a startling unpacking of the fundamental logic of our market economy…

Why do super rich people exist in a society?

Many of us assume it’s because some people make better financial decisions. But what if this isn’t true? What if the economy – our economy – is designed to create a few super rich people?

That’s what mathematicians argue in something called the Yard-sale model

Read it and reap: “Why the super rich are inevitable,” by @alv9n in @puddingviz.

* Thomas Piketty, A Brief History of Equality


As we ponder propriety, we might recall that it was on this date that Jane Austen‘s [and here] Pride and Prejudice was published. A novel of manners– much concerned with the dictates of wealth (and the lack thereof), it was credited to an anonymous authors “the author of Sense and Sensibility,” as all of her novels were.

Title page of the first edition (source)

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January 28, 2023 at 1:00 am