Who will ‘burn the house down’?

My friend and co-author Gulzar Natarajan has a lengthy and detailed post on few very important and thoughtful articles and reports that have been doing the rounds in the last week or so. His post is  very comprehensive.

I have the following comments on his blog post. It is a slightly expanded version of the comment I left on his post.

I am pleased to see that you had linked to the perceptive essay by Jonathan Rothwell in NYT on the elite interests that have gamed the system and the rules in their favour. Rothwell may be making one mistake, however.

In his long essay and in his tweets, he is dismissing the role of technology and globalisation in the extremely distorted income distribution. But, they were the pursuits and priorities of elites who gamed the regulations (as per his own analysis) to pursue technological upgradation and globalisation that delivered profits. So, they did contribute to the problem of inequality because they were ‘elite’ projects. Some of the domestic factors he lists could be more important but it would be hard to dismiss technological progress and globalisation as inconsequential for in-country rise in inequality in the developed world. In this regard, the review of the book, ‘Captured Economy’ is worth a read. It is well written.

As we discussed bilaterally, to a degree, the recommendation of the Mckinsey Global Institute (MGI) on more digitisation and more technology to restore the ‘glory’ of U.S. manufacturing (mind you, the ostensible problem they were dealing with was the declining labour share of income) vindicates Rothwell above!

MGI report notes that the labour share of income in the U.S. had dropped from 59.8% in 1970 to 55.6% in 2015 and that manufacturing contributed 68% to this decline. But, the solutions they propose, even if they restore the glory of U.S. manufacturing somewhat, might actually further erode labour income share if machines and robots replace workers while only requiring and paying some highly skilled workers and fewer of them. On paper, that might boost labour share of income but the median worker pay will not have improved. Even now, the decline in the U.S. labour share of income will be far pronounced if financial services workers are excluded.

One does not identify the decline of the manufacturing as a principal contributor to the decline of labour share of income and proceed to give solutions that might worsen the situation further. At the very least, there should be a debate/discussion in the report on the consequences of their proposals for the labour share of income. But, I had not read the full MGI report but only the Executive Summary. May be, the full report has such a discussion. The full report and the Executive Summary can be found here.

Further, although Tony Rothman in ‘Project Syndicate’ focuses more on customer convenience and the ‘ends’ of technological upgrades being lost (motion is not progress) in the welter of mindless ‘improvements’ and ‘enhancements’, that too is part of the problem.

As you conclude, the solution is to ‘burn the house down’ completely. But, that leads us to a cul-de-sac. In the Seventies, the pendulum swung (the house was brought down, as it existed then) due to a combination of factors:

  • Excessive abuse of labour power;
  • Economic misery – stagflation
  • The turning of the intellectual tide in favour of rules over discretion, Disgust with politics as usual (Nixon’s impeachment, Ford’s pardon and Carter’s perceived or real ineffectiveness)
  • Rise of alternative leaders who were not exactly perceived ‘extreme’ like in the case of Donald Trump

May be, I am missing out some.

But, if we try to develop a comparable checklist now, we do have

  • Excessive abuse of the power of capital by capitalists
  • Instead of stagflation, we have extreme inequality
  • There was disgust with politics as usual – it is demonstrated in the multiple political election and referendum results across Europe and the United States

But, what is missing are these two,

– There is intellectual resistance to changing the status quo – many would lose out on their personal perks and influence. Notice how many are writing as boldly as Dani Rodrik is writing. Very few. Those who do are not deemed ‘mainstream’. For example, the monetary policy establishment has managed to brand even the BIS and folks like William White and Claudio Borio, et al, as ‘extreme’ or ‘fringes’.

The ‘99%’ is unable to mobilise and have a sane leadership with clarity of purpose and goals as capitalists on either side of the Atlantic were able to achieve in the Seventies.

Usually, crises help overcome all these drawbacks and throw up policy and personnel (leadership) alternatives. One thought that the 2008 crisis would do that. To a degree, it has. It has cracked open the door. But, the door is still being manned and protected well, despite cracks in the door and in the castle.

Perhaps, it needs another crisis to ‘burn the house down’ as you put it. Or, may be, somewhat less dramatically, as Mark Klieman had written (tweeted by Jonathan Rothwell),

a political strategy capable of mobilizing forces proportionate to the massive task at hand. [Link]