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Friday, March 09, 2012

Mangle of inequality redivivus

Over at Economists View, there is a post disputing, to an extent, a new study by Michael Bordo and Christopher Meissner that disputes the idea that inequality caused the crisis. I can't resist reprising my mangle of inequality idea, with a few changes from the way I originally formulated it after my friend S.'s wedding.

As the discussion begins as one about cause, and I am all about conditions, I suppose I ought to say something about cause. Cause is difficult. Cause is an impossible quest. And it is made all the more impossible as economists bring a cumbersome machinery to the problem, which is pledged to a model forged from the idea of the market, of equilibrium, and of some kind of surreptitious base/superstructure idea - that is, one finds out the micro-foundations of macro-economic events, and we all go home then, to watch American Idol. I say nay, though, in bloggy thunder.

Rather, I want us to go back and understand what contemporary inequality in the developed countries, and particularly in the U.S., is about. The place to start, of course, is the seventies. After thirty years, we are starting to recognize the form of the shift that began to occur then. And let me be the harpooner that points out the shape of that beast, the main points of which are 1., the crushing of the bargaining power of labor; 2., the de-manufacturing of America – which was partly connected to the fact that manufacturing workers were the most militant, and partly the inevitable effect of the ability of capital to find other, cheaper regions in which to place factories; and 3, the dissolving of traditional constraints on credit.

These events occurred in response to the most serious crisis in capitalism since 1945. Galbraith’s New Industrial state, the liberal Keynesian economy, had created structures that were supposed to resolve such crises. These included the management of aggregate demand by the state, the moderation of labors’ older, utopian demands for a slice of the power in return for a steadily rising paycheck, and management’s movement away from optimizing profits in exchange for lessened volatility. The Keynesian moment unwound for a number of reasons – labour, with increasingly less interest in the political dimension that originally animated unions, became much more vulnerable; the government management of aggregate demand, combined with the government dependence on War, had finally unleashed inflation; and the ROI of the Fortune 500 corporations was finally causing an investor revolt. However, of the three factors I am listing in the shift to the new, Reagonomic paradigm, one and three seem oddly disjoint. How is it possible to diminish the bargaining power of labor – which results in the stagnation of wages – and at the same time dissolve traditional constraints on consumer and other credit?
Of course, from the neo-classical point of view, that makes a lot of sense. Instead of the government actively managing aggregate demand, the private sector, with a freer credit market, can take over. And in fact, even if wages stagnate, household incomes rise. The house itself as an asset appreciates, for one thing; more investment vehicles are made available to the public, for another thing; and finally, there is the great entry of women into the labor market.

Credit, then, is the keystone. It is from this moment on that the financial services sector, which had been relatively unimportant in the Keynesian regime, returns in force. It is what I would call the mangle of inequality – playing on Andrew Pickering’s term, mangle of practice. Contemporary capitalism in America has to effect a straddle – the economy depends on consumption, and yet, the majority of the consumers engross less and less of the productivity gains accrued by the system. Freeing the financial markets had two effects – one was to re-vamp the consumer’s financial horizon. Instead of worrying about making a wage sufficient to live the good life, the consumer worries about making a wage sufficient to have a good credit history – which is the magical key to the world of cars, plasma screen tvs, houses, and all the rest. The other was to make the consumer a shareholder in the system. For simplicity’s sake, call this the 401k world – that stands at the symbolic center of a system by which the ordinary person was hooked into the market. And the market could, consequently, use vast flows of capital to keep easing credit. A virtuous feedback, so to speak.
It had another, symbolically resonant significance. The triumph of the state in the 20th century was in providing for retirement. The state successfully created, within a capitalist economy, a mass ability to finish one’s life without poverty or utter family dependence. It was the template for the structural goods that the state, in a mixed economy, could provide – when the demands of distributive justice could not be aligned with the price creating market in a good or service. Consequently, social security has earned a special hatred from the right. The American system of encouraging private investment was meant, on the surface, to complement social security, but the ultimate aim was always to replace it.

The mangle of inequality, then, was not – as in Marx’s time – a head to head confrontation between classes. It is a more complex machine, in which class interests are blent so that head to head confrontation is systematically differed. The political triumph of the system is that the blending disenfranchised populism, since it became unclear who would really benefit from populist practice.

Given this context, we should be posing different questions about the housing bubble - not the question, what caused it, but the question, why was it necessary? It is not as if the policymakers consciously intended a housing bubble. But they did consciously intend returning the Clintonian surpluses to the investor class. And when the 2000-2001 recession happened, they consciously intended to find a way to respond to it that did not involve the government "interfering" in the economy. Luckily for the policy makers, by this time the neo-liberal program of guiding money from the wage class into financial assets was nearly complete - whether on the individual level of the 401k or on the aggregate level of pensions - and thus the neo-liberal machine could be played like a slot machine - there was plenty of money, the market in secondary mortgages as well as the housing market (two things which intersect, but which are not the same) could now provide a collective speedball, and everybody was happy. Otherwise, policymakers would have to face unpleasant alternatives to the neo-liberal version of capitalism. As we have seen in the O. era, they simply can't do that. The conceptual set seals off all solutions that might put in question the neo-liberal mindset. Hence, the mangle of inequality is both a cause and an effect of the neo-liberal economic paradigm.


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