Tag Archives: Inequality

The Florange affair

6 Dec

As long-time observer of French politics Art Goldhammer has pointed out, there is little in the French government’s battle with the Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, that makes sense. Uncertainty prevails over what deal the government has done with Mittal, what promises he may or may not have given, and what the future is for the Florange plant that is at the centre of the whole affair.

One thing that seems to be clear: there will be no forced nationalization of the plant, as argued for by France’s industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg. Well-known as a voice on the left of an otherwise rather centrist Socialist government, Montebourg has long championed the cause of “de-globalization”: a return to national protection and a more traditional national industrial policy of old. Montebourg plunged into the Mittal affair by criticizing publicly the Indian businessman, accusing him of not keeping his promises. His proposed solution – that gave much hope to the workers of the steel plant threatened with closure – was to force a nationalization of the plant. Mittal resisted, saying he was willing to let the government take over some of the plant but he wanted to retain those elements he thought could be profitable. At issue are two blast furnaces at Florange which Mittal argues are no longer worth keeping given the overcapacity of steel production in Europe. As demand for steel has fallen, so Mittal has been forced to rationalize production. Existing demand can be met by steel production in other sites, such as Dunkirk (read economist Elie Cohen on this here), leaving the Florange furnances without customers. As the government wasn’t ready to cough up the cash needed for a full nationalization, and many in the government were opposed to doing so, it made a deal with Mittal. Though Mittal committed himself to 180 million Euros of investment in cold steel processing at Florange, the issue of the blast furnaces remains unsolved. The government is claiming that it has saved the 629 jobs that were threatened but the unions don’t think Mittal will keep his word.

What is really at stake in this affair? In many ways, it seems distinctly French and confirms much of what The Economist wrote about France a few weeks ago in its special report on the country. Loud union reps camping out at the entrance to the site, vitriolic anti-capitalist rhetoric from leftwing ministers, behind-the-scene deals brokered between political and business interests: all evidence of the poor state of corporate France.

Beyond some of these clichés, two issues stand out. One is to do with Montebourg. His appointment as minister responsible for revitalizing French industry was surprising. As someone who harbours ambitions far grander than saving a few hundred jobs on the Franco-Luxembourg border, Montebourg could have been expected to resist the poisoned portfolio. It was obviously going to mean fighting a losing battle over unproductive sites like Florange and yet he accepted the job. What has been tested in the Florange affair is Montebourg’s representativeness. Does he stand for a strong current in French opinion and within the Socialist Party about a state-led route for industrial rejuvenation? Is it correct to see France as torn between its Colbertian instincts of old and a new recognition of the need for liberalisation and market-driven competitiveness? This is the kind of ideological battle The Economist likes but events over the last few days suggest something rather less dramatic is going on in France. Montebourg doesn’t seem to have his own industrial strategy but nor does the government. At the very least, strategies are about choices and priorities. What the government’s response over Florange has demonstrated is immobility and fright: unwilling to give up on the Florange workers and yet unable to place their intervention in this case within a wider plan for French industry. Montebourg appears as the fire-fighter in chief more than as a voice for an alternative French industrial strategy.

The second issue is about nationalization itself. Elie Cohen argues that the Florange affair is different from other recent instances of nationalization: General Motors in the US, Alstom in France. He is right to point to differences: there is little in common between Florange and the company-wide restructuring that resulted from the government takeover of General Motors. But he doesn’t mention the other obvious case of nationalization, that of banking and financial institutions. Via bail-outs, some of these have become the property of tax-payers. In all cases, this was evidence of massive strategic intervention by public actors to save a financial system they believed was on the rocks. Why is it that such interventions are free from the sense of helplessness and pointlessness that government involvement in failing manufacturing industries evokes for all observers?

Former Danish Prime Minister, Poul Rasmussen, an articulate European social democrat, once made the observation that many Western politicians appear unwilling to accept a shrinking of their country’s financial sector but they are willing to run down almost entirely their manufacturing sectors. He put this down to a deference elected representatives felt in the face of suave and sophisticated bankers. He perhaps exaggerated the point but it is certainly true that whilst government intervention to save failing industries appears to us anachronistic, intervention to prop up a tottering financial sector is seen as far-sighted and brave. This is surely as much about sentiment as it is an objective assessment. After all, a reason why the government couldn’t afford to nationalize Florange is that it still hasn’t paid off the debts incurred in saving its banks. These are the kinds of priorities the French government cannot articulate but they are nevertheless there in the background and structure government action over the mid to long term. There is no strategy there, but an underlying structure of interests and relations of power upon which French society rests.

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Aglietta on the crisis

26 Sep

In a comment last week on George Soros’ well-publicized essay on the Eurozone crisis, we noted his fixation with the European roots of the present crisis. In his view, the combination of the Eurozone’s curious institutional design (a common currency without a fully empowered central bank) and the overly cautious approach of European policymakers together explain the European sovereign debt crisis. Whilst there is a specific European dimension to the crisis, we argued that it is also a crisis of capitalism, not just of the Euro.

In a piece published in the New Left Review in May 2012, the French economist Michel Aglietta gives his account of the European crisis. His account is more general and wide-ranging that Soros’. His explanation of the debt build up in Western economies is tied to the emergence of a new “accumulation regime”: one that demands a maximisation of returns for shareholders and downward pressure on labour costs. The gap between stagnating wages and the demand needed to maintain growth levels is provided through credit. The availability of credit in Western economies was made possible by various factors, including financial innovations and the recycling of large dollar surpluses built up by East Asian economies. These surpluses were an outcome of the East Asian crash of the late 1990s: a traumatic event that pushed governments in the region to insulate themselves from further instability by focusing on export-led growth.

Whilst generating a great deal of liquidity within the global financial system, these developments in East Asia also help explain why European economies failed to capitalize on the boom years of the 2000s when borrowing rates across the continent fell steeply on the introduction of the Euro. Aglietta notes that the intention in the early 2000s was that the mobility of capital within Europe would lead to a convergence of national economies. Productive investments would be sought out and the differences between national economies would slowly disappear. Capital certainly flooded to those countries that had the highest interest rates prior to 1999 – Greece, Spain etc – but there was no evening out of competitiveness across the region. In fact, as Aglietta notes, divergences grew. This was because at the same time as capital was moving into Europe’s periphery, so were East Asian economies beginning a concerted export drive as a response to their 1997-1998 crisis. Unable to compete with these imports, industrial activity in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere shrunk. Capital was channelled into a property and services boom, with growth becoming dependent upon rising house prices. In a better starting position and not faced with the temptations of sudden influxes of capital, countries like Germany and the Netherlands faced up to East Asian competition and were able to generate their own export surpluses. Aglietta also notices that given the poor performance of the German economy in the first half of the 2000s, the country was not sucked into the property boom that affected countries like Ireland and Spain. Divergences within Europe are thus not only an internal European story but have a global dimension as well.

Aglietta makes a number of other important points. His discussion of the options open to Greece and to Europe makes for interesting reading. He notes that Europe cannot really afford a Japanese-style era of deflation and high public debts. A reason for this is that Japan has a large industrial sector and is in a very dynamic part of the world. Aglietta also observes that Japanese debt is financed by Japanese savers, meaning that the risk of spiralling debt refinancing costs is kept low. In Europe the situation is different on all counts, making it difficult to replicate the Japanese model. On Greece, Aglietta gives a detailed breakdown of how “Grexit” would work, arguing that the long-term benefits outpace the short-term costs. Argentina, he argues, did the right thing but it did it badly. Greece could learn lessons from it and exit the Euro in a more orderly manner.

For all the elegance in his exposition, Aglietta’s solution to the crisis is surprisingly apolitical. He argues that “the euro must be constituted as a full currency, which means it must be undergirded by a sovereign power” (p36). This means transferring competences to the European level, fiscal union, and a long-term development strategy based on the idea of permanent transfers from one part of Europe to another. Aglietta’s recommendations are obvious but the problem today is that public opinion across Europe is moving in the opposite direction, against the idea of further transfers of power to European institutions. In practice, pursuing Aglietta’s recommendations means deepening the gap between national politics and European-level policymaking, thus compromising democracy in the name of economic emergency. Whilst that may provide some palliative to the economic crisis, it will only make the political crisis even greater.

A comment on Soros

18 Sep

For a long-time a bête noire amongst pro-Europeans because of his status as the financier that forced Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and thus cemented the UK’s outsider status in European monetary integration, George Soros has recently emerged as one of the most authoritative commentators on the ongoing Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. His most recent article in the New York Review of Books was one in a long line of alarmist but thoughtful interventions into the debate.

Soros’ main argument is that Germany needs to choose between either fully backing the Euro or leaving the Eurozone altogether. Lacking the will to act as paymaster, but determined to keep the Euro together, Germany has been accepting the bare minimum that is needed to keep the currency union together. According to Soros, this is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. By insisting on national responsibility for EU-incurred debts, Germany risks recasting the egalitarian European integration project around the twin poles of creditor and debtor. Debtors are pushed into deflationary traps as they struggle under debt burdens and national antagonisms deepen as debtor states survive on a Euro drip provided by miserly creditors. All in exchange for deep cuts in social protection and welfare.

The novelty of Soros’ argument lies in his claim that a German exit from the Euro would save rather than sink the currency. His reasoning is clear. When a debtor – like Greece – leaves the Euro, the benefits of a depreciating new currency are offset by the strangling effect of Euro-denominated debts rising dramatically in value. When a creditor like Germany leaves the Euro, however, the situation is different. The creditor, of course, faces a loss. But those remaining in the currency zone benefit enormously: depreciation of the Euro would bring competitiveness back to Eurozone members and the main political obstacle to further political integration –German obstructionism – would have disappeared. The Eurozone would be free to introduce key measures – debt mutualisation, for instance – that would exist were it not for Germany.

By blaming Germany, Soros’ argument appears as part of a more generalized anti-German sentiment popular all across Europe. In fact, Soros himself seems rather comfortable with the idea of a German-dominated Europe. He would just rather that Germany accept the responsibility that comes with empire. As he puts it, “imperial power can bring great benefits but it must be earned by looking after those who live under its aegis”. Soros’ advocacy of German paternalism is hardly a compelling vision. But his focus on the German origins of the crisis are welcome as they challenge the notion that profligate spending by Southern cone European governments is at the heart of the current mess. But there are limits to the blame game.

It is certainly the case that German banks and businesses benefitted from the introduction of the Euro. In particular, it meant that consumers in Southern Europe could – via public or private borrowing made possible by the low risk premiums brought about by monetary union – buy German exports. But it is also the case that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Germany was – as The Economist put it – the “sick man of Europe”. The changes put in place by Chancellor Schroder were far from socially neutral: labour markets were liberalized and wages were frozen or cut in real terms. Only the Social Democrat’s hold over the trade unions made this possible. Germany underwent an internal devaluation with the burden of adjustment squarely pushed onto the German working class. It was in this period that Die Linke, a party to the left of the SPD, was created. The sentiment driving German caution in this crisis is thus a complex one. It certainly involves some miserliness and a good dose of anti-Southern prejudices. But it also includes an understandable fatigue on the part of German workers at having to bear the burden of adjustment. When we read that in recent weeks banks have been holding over 700 billion Euros in surplus liquidity at the ECB, it seems that there is ample room for some adjustment on the part of German capitalists.

Soros’ account of the crisis is also curiously Eurocentric. As someone aware of the global dimensions of the current economic and financial crisis, he chooses to focus on the unique features of Eurozone governance. Had the Eurozone been armed with a common treasury, and not just a European central bank, Soros suggests that there would have been no Eurozone crisis. Policy mistakes, tied to the short-sightedness of Eurozone policymakers, have caused the crisis. This is at best a partial explanation. Outside of the Eurozone, the British and US economy are struggling to exit a major economic downturn. The crisis itself – beginning with the Lehman Brother’s collapse – originated in the US. Popular mobilization against the inequalities that have build up in recent decades is not European either. It was unwise to create a common currency without institutions capable of exercising the required political discretion in a time of crisis. But the crisis is one of capitalism, not just of the Eurozone. Were the right institutional fixes to be introduced, we would still be faced with the twin problems of financialization and debt-financed growth. And endlessly replicating an export-based growth model raises the question of who will be the “market of last resort”? In focusing on the Eurozone, Soros misses the wider dimension of the crisis.

France’s Golden Rule

13 Aug

At the end of last week, France’s Constitutional Council announced that the recent European treaty on economic governance was in conformity with France’s Constitution. This avoided a complicated constitutional amendment procedure by which the European treaty would have been made compatible with French constitutional law. France’s president, François Hollande, is now freer to introduce the terms of the treaty by way of a simpler parliamentary procedure.

The reaction to the decision has been varied across the political spectrum. The far left has expressed its dismay at the imminent entry into law of a treaty they see as being far too focused on budget cuts and austerity, with little attention paid to growth. Having campaigned so firmly on the slogan of growth rather than austerity, the left of the Socialist Party feels the President has broken his promises. The right argues instead that the Constitutional Council’s decision means that the bite has been taken out of the treaty: rather than inscribing its terms into the constitution, the government is obliged merely by an ordinary law which it could in principle revoke. The famous “Golden Rule” by which governments would be obliged to aim for balanced budgets has been watered down. It is time for excessive spending Southern Mediterranean-style, claims the right.

The Constitutional Council’s decision is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the attention and importance attached to this decision reflects the central role played by this institution in French politics. This has not always been the case but in recent decades, there has been a firm juridification of French political life, evident in the way political questions have been recast as legal matters (for a history of the Council, read Alec Stone Sweet). Secondly, in terms of the decision itself, the Council rightly argues that there is nothing in the treaty that violates in any absolute sense national sovereignty. This points to a broad trend in European integration today: new initiatives are predominantly undertaken in the form of agreements between national executives, with little by way of transfers of power to supranational bodies. The present treaty is no exception to this general rule and there is little in it which identifies how exactly the treaty rules will be policed. Thirdly, the Council also rightly argues that the adoption of constraining rules with regards to government spending – and macro-economic policymaking more generally – is in fact nothing new. It is a continuation of a trend already well-established in the 1990s with the introduction of the Maastricht criteria. And the French Constitution already contains within it an explicit orientation towards balanced budgets. Those opposing the treaty on the grounds that it violates national sovereignty are well over a decade behind.

This leaves us with is a key paradox. European treaties are the work of national executives and they do not empower supranational agents. But in substance they limit further the discretion that these national executives have to make policy. At the heart of Europe today we find national politicians who exercise their authority by binding themselves at the European level. The broader problem here is that rules – whether constitutionally enshrined or not – have replaced discretion as the basis for political decision-making. The political point at stake here is whether or not tigher controls on government spending will help or hinder a return to growth in Europe. And it is the difficulty national governments have in commanding the consent of their populations to the cuts they are envisaging which explains their preference for a collective, rule-based set of policies.

Capitalism under Hollande

11 Jul

In recent days, French president François Hollande has begun what is perhaps the most important aspect of this presidency, a reform of the French labour market and of capital-labour relations more generally. Typically, very general ideas about these changes were discussed during the presidential campaign but no firm commitments one way or the other were made by Hollande as candidate, not least for fear of angering the unions. Now that he commands a majority in the national parliament and is in a position to push through changes, we can see more clearly the social content of the Hollande presidency. Under conditions of crisis, and in the name of boosting French competitiveness, it is likely Hollande will do something similar to what Gerhard Schroder did in Germany, namely a flexibilisation of labour laws and a shift in the burden of funding social insurance from capital to labour. How hard Hollande will push is unclear but it does seem that history is repeating itself in France: as with Mitterrand, reforms hostile to labour are being undertaken by the left, not by the right.

His method and style are consensual and collaborative. In place of the immediacy and decrees typical of his predecessor, Hollande has organized a conference bringing together all the different representatives of business and labour in France. No firm commitments are to be made immediately. Rather, on key issues commissions have been set up that will discuss proposals and over the course of a year or so will come up concrete reforms. This contrasts also with Lionel Jospin, former socialist prime minister, who had angered business leaders back in 1997 by declaring at the end of a day of discussions the introduction of the controversial 35 hours week. Hollande’s approach is to keep everyone on board and introduce reforms only gradually.

Hollande may have attracted attention from outside of France as a socialist elected after a campaign where he declared “the world of finance” to be his enemy and where he proposed – remarkably off the cuff for such an important policy – to tax at 75% France’s highest earning individuals. But the reality of political change in France is elsewhere. Traditional leftwing parties, like the Front de Gauche, did far less well than many had expected, suggesting that the opportunity for reform à la Schroder has come in France. The form of his consultations is classically corporatist, with labour and business leaders fully represented in ongoing discussions with the state. As in Germany, the critical issue will be whether or not Hollande is able to secure the support of the unions to push through his proposed changes. The German government’s close relationship with the unions was what enabled the country to undertake its internal devaluation in the early 2000s, the source of its present day competitiveness. Keeping the unions on board, as well as the business groups, is essential for Hollande.

The actual substance of the changes is not yet certain but the ideas being floated make clear that the shift in the balance of forces within society is going against organized labour. One key possibility is that the cost of paying for social insurance, which in France lies heavily on business and is a clear legacy of postwar social democracy, may be increasingly levied on workers. This changes the balance between private wealth and public claims on that wealth. At present, there seems little by way of social mobilisation in France – or in the positions taken by unions – to suggest that such a shift will be resisted. The previous Sarkozy government had planned a similar shift but through an increase in VAT, the so-called social VAT, which unions had opposed unanimously. Hollande’s government is thinking instead in terms of raising what is called the CSG (contribution sociale generalise – a tax paid by all, used to finance health insurance, pensions, welfare payments to family etc.), a proposal that currently divides unions, some are in favour and some not. The CSG was already introduced back in 1990 as a way of generalizing the cost of social insurance which up until then had been levied uniquely on salaries and its extension today is in line with these earlier changes. The position of business is clear: unless such a move is made, competitiveness will continue to decline and jobs will be lost. With thousands of jobs in line to disappear as companies – from automobiles to big pharma – shed labour, the pressure on the government to lessen these costs on businesses is very high.

The situation in France is thus a confusing one. A superficial attack on business through capping of salaries in public sectors enterprises and levying a high tax rate for high-earning footballers and other stars, exists alongside a much more substantial reduction in claims the state makes on privately generated wealth. Social insurance, in France, is being transformed. From being something that belongs to society as a whole, and is based on a coercive transfer of wealth from the private to the public purse, it is now a good enjoyed by individuals and one that they need to pay for themselves. What is being given up here is the idea that markets generate systematic inequalities that should be righted through public intervention. From social insurance as a critique of capitalism to social insurance as a private good purchased by individuals through their own contributions. We aren’t there just yet but this is the direction in which France is heading.

The Political Economy of Mass Incarceration

29 May

In a recent post, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson offered a familiar argument about the origins of mass incarceration in the United States:

“Could this be the basis of the new Jim Crow? Could the incarceration of so many black men be a continuation under a different guise of the penal system that developed in the South after Reconstruction? Could this be, paraphrasing Robert Michels and our own use of his Iron Law of Oligarchy, “the Iron Law of Discrimination”?”

To support their ‘New Jim Crow’ interpretation, Acemoglu and Robinson draw on the work of David Oshinsky, whose book Worse Than Slavery examines the development of convict labor as the lynchpin of Jim Crow era black labor control.

There are two aspects of the ‘New Jim Crow’ interpretation that make it superficially convincing. First, incarceration is a system of social control. Second, black men are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. Here, for instance, is Acemoglu and Robinson’s chart for White, Hispanic, and Black male incarceration:

So it appears that there is a racialized system of social control, the present one analogous to the past one – a new Jim Crow.

However, there are some very important differences between the political economy of the mainly agrarian, Jim Crow penal system and the current, urban system of mass incarceration. If the penal system functioned as a system of social control in both eras, the aim of that social control was very different. In the Jim Crow era, the central issue was how to get formerly slaves to work for their former masters on the plantations now that blacks enjoyed a nominal freedom. As Eric Foner showed in his classic Nothing But Freedom, turning former slaves into an agricultural proletariat is the central political question of all post-emancipation societies. The shift from coerced slave labor to forced wage-labor is not a natural one, and emancipated slaves often have a different idea about the freedom they ought to enjoy than former masters. As Foner showed, in the Reconstruction South, blacks preferred just about anything to selling their labor to former masters. They engaged in subsistence farming, moved to cities, and in some cases – such as in Edisto Island – they occupied former plantations and ran the farms themselves, until the end of Reconstruction brought an end to their political and social power and land was returned to former slave masters.

Even under those conditions, former slaves were recalcitrant wage-laborers – the dull compulsion of economic need was insufficient to meet the labor needs of Southern employers. Foner details the way Jim Crow era criminal law was used not just to produce convict labor, but to eliminate all other employment options for blacks (self-employment, use of public lands, lynching of those who tried to leave, criminalization of vagrancy and debt). With no other economic options, ‘free’ wage-laborers were forced to sell their labor to former employers. As the Committee of the Freedmen of Edisto Island said, in their reply to the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had asked the former slaves to return land on which they were homesteading to its former owners:

“General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government…[but] the government Haveing concluded to befriend Its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between Its self and us Its allies In the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and thier all time ememies.”

This criminalization of a use of land (homesteading) that had been promised to slaves was, as theEdisto freedmen saw, a way of removing all options save ‘freely’ “working for…their all time enemies.”

So the main purpose of the penal system under Jim Crow was not to produce the directly coerced and cheap convict labor itself, though that was certainly a part of the regime of exploitation, but to produce a forced labor regime with nominally free labor. (Lest we think this was merely a Southern project, as Richard Bensel showed in Yankee Leviathan, the North was content with this new regime of controlled labor. Financiers were happy since it brought cotton back online – and thus foreign exchange to pay back debts and stabilize the dollar – and industrialists were now more concerned with the emerging problem of labor control, and increasingly troubled by the precedent set for the North by redistributing land and property to Southern freedmen.)

Robinson and Acemoglu thus mischaracterize the specific problem of social control in this period when they characterize the “practical problem” of Jim Crow in the following way:

“now that blacks were no longer slaves and could not be directly disciplined and punished by their masters, how should they be kept under control? Locking them up — when mob violence and lynchings didn’t do the job — seemed like a natural idea, but this would cost the state a lot of money, especially at a time when resources were scarce and the prison system was both underdeveloped and severely gutted by the Civil War.”

The problem was not a ‘general’ one of how to control free blacks, but a specific modality of social control: how to produce a docile agricultural proletariat. Though Acemoglu and Robinson are sensitive to the thought idea that underlying Jim Crow was a particular “extractive regime,” they miss the way in which Jim Crow was a kind of exercise in primitive accumulation. One of the key features of primitive accumulation is the use of direct coercion until the wage-labor/capital relationship is naturalized – at which point Marx’s famous ‘dull compulsion of the economic’ takes over. The political struggle, at least for a brief time, during Reconstruction was whether emancipation would mean real liberation – Jim Crow settled the question securely in favor of former plantation owners, and the criminal law was the central instrument through which wage-labor was instituted.

The social control problem of the 1970s was decidedly different. It was as much if not more Northern and Southern, it was as much if not more urban than agrarian – indeed the urban race riots of the late 1960s and early 70s were a key precipitating event, alongside racial mutinies on the front lines of Vietnam, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the civil rights struggle. But in the background, the key political-economic shift was not from slave to proletariat, but from proletariat to lumpenproletariat. The flight of middle class blacks from desegregating inner cities, deindustrialization, the loss of jobs in the North, and increasingly concentrated urban unemployment among black males produced a surplus labor population. The role of the criminal justice system in this context was to police an underclass, not make workers out of slaves. And it became increasingly so as other, more benign, modes of social control – like welfare, public housing – sputtered. This new carceral regime invovled the state taking on direct responsibility for control of a population now that it lacked a strong tie to economic life. And it did so by criminalizing one of its few economic activities: drugs. The war on drugs was the pivotal instrument for introducing this new form of social control. It not only massively increased the prison population, but subjected them, and urban black communities more widely, to the continual supervision of public coercive authority. The statistics are familiar, but here is a chart from the Bureau of Justice (h/t Kareem Reda for forwarding the image from the Sentencing Project)

Note that just as the use of convict labor dwindles the prison population explodes. Where during Jim Crow convict labor and the criminal law was an appendage of the wider, Southern agricultural political economy, in the new era of mass incarceration it is imprisonment that is the point. Being jailed or being threatened with imprisonment is the instrument for containing the problems left by the failure of society to deal with mass unemployment not mass unwillingness to sell labor. Put another way, under Jim Crow the point of criminalization was to create wage-laborers, under the drug war the point is to create criminals.

In both cases, there are/were better alternatives. The freedmen could have been given forty acres and a mule. Urban blacks could be given jobs (not to mention legalize drugs) rather than rap sheets. But in both cases, blacks needed the political support of non-blacks – always a real though fragile possibility. And in both cases, the penal system served not just to control black populations, but also to divide them from their potential allies.

What Middle Class?

11 May

Is the middle class doing worse or better since the 1970s? Depends, but if so, just barely. Is this the right question to ask? No. Let us explain.

Recently, a number of commentators have begun pushing back against the claim that the past thirty years have seen stagnating fortunes for the middle class. The claim comes from a variety of sources, perhaps most prominently from Piketty and Saez’s work on inequality. They have argued that median incomes have stagnated and that, from 1979-2007, the median income is up just 3% in real terms. But other mainstream economists think the data answers a poorly framed question. Meyer and Sullivan, two mainstream economsits, argue that “material well-being” for poor and middle income households has increased. Burkhauser et al. claim that if we look at post-tax and transfer household income, rather than pre-tax and transfer individual tax unit income, then the median household had seen a gain of 36.7% in their overall income.

Can everyone be right? Oddly, yes. The reason is that the difference here is not about the data – which we for the moment assume is more or less accurate – but the interpretation of the data. It is true that, as P-S say, the median, pre-tax and transfer individual median income is up just 3%. It is also true that, as Burkhauser et al. say, the median household post-tax and transfer income is up 37%, and that it is also true, as Meyer and Sullivan argue, that the material well-being of the poor is better than it was thirty years ago. That everyone can be right is only the beginning of the story.

Let’s take Meyer and Sullivan first. Note that material well-being or ‘standard of living’ can improve even as the poor take home a decreasing share of the overall social product. It is perfectly reasonable for Meyer and Sullivan to point out that economic growth over the past thirty years has made more high quality goods and certain amenities (like air conditioning) cheaper, and thus available to those who couldn’t afford them. It would be hard to imagine capitalism surviving if it did not improve material conditions. But this improvement in the standard of living is perfectly compatible with increasing exploitation of workers. At least since Marx we have known that immiseration is not an absolute but relative process. We can have increasing living standards for many, while those same many control less of their time than before. If $100 used to buy a black and white TV and now it buys an HDTV, then that qualitative improvement in material human well-being is perfectly consistent with stagnating compensation, declining bargaining power and more injustice. It might take only three hours for society to produce all the things I can buy with $100 rather than the four hours it used to. And so, if all I have is $100, my overall claims on society have been reduced, even if the quality of my goods have improved. Put another way, if originally I had $100 and GDP was $10000, and now I have $100 but GDP is $20000, then just because I have higher quality goods doesn’t mean that my fortunes are increasing.

It would of course be wonderful if we organized production for the sake of human needs, not profits. But it is pretty clear that is not Meyer and Sullivan’s interest in offering material human well-being rather than income and wealth as the measure of growth. Terry Eagleton once said that ideology works by being true in what it affirms but false in what it denies. It is true that standards of living have improved since 1970s, but it is false to think that refutes the concerns people have regarding inequality and growth.

Burkhauser et al. are taking a different tack. They argue that, if we want to know how the poor and middle class (whatever exactly the ‘middle class’ is) are doing, then we need to look at “real compensation.” We have to factor in not just pre-tax and transfer ‘market income’ but all the sources of compensation. After all, why should we care about what people take home before they pay taxes and claim benefits? Surely we care what households take home all things considered. And the real compensation by household has grown over the past 30 years, by about 37%. In fact, even in the worse period, from 2000-2007, while individual market income (pre-tax and transfer) declined by 5.5%, real compensation still grew by 4.8% because of elements of the tax code and public benefits, like welfare, earned income tax credit, unemployment benefits, and so on. Burkhauser supplies the following graph to illustrate his point:

Again, his own terms, Burkhauser is right. Real compensation has grown. Though note, two things. First, real compensation has grown very slowly: 1% per year, and has slowed to a near stop in the past decade. Further, “real compensation” has grown mainly because redistributive state measures have been large enough to cancel out declining individual wages and stagnating household wages. In other words, the market has been unable to produce jobs at the median level that compensate any better than they did thirty years ago (and below the median, real wages are decidedly worse.) Without progressive taxation and redistribution, real compensation would be down. In fact, the implication of Burkhauser’s data is that, for most people, the market has not created better jobs than thirty years ago. The bottom end is hanging on through transfers, not bargaining power and quality work. So when Burkhauser says “the notion that we as a society are not doing as well as we were 30 years ago, I think by virtually any reasonable measure, is just false,” this is not even true by his own measures. It’s certainly not true by the conventional conservative standard that people not be dependent on the state.

So far, we have just been considering the arguments on their own terms. In both cases, the authors do not prove that the economic situation over the past thirty years has been desirable or improving, which was their central intent. But that does not mean that the mainstream, default focus on median market income is still the right way to evaluate economic development. The median unit, whether it is an individual or household, is a narrow concern. It says nothing about class structure, how the worst off are doing, nor about economic possibilities and alternatives. For one, changes in wealth, not just compensation, are better indicators of class structure and advantage. In our society, it is wealth, especially financial wealth, more than income that confers security, greater bargaining power, and overall social power. And by that measure, our society is more unjust and exploitative. Recall this graph, showing decline in wealth for the lowest 60% of the population:

When we combine this graph, with some data on the actual distribution of financial (non-real estate) wealth, we are reminded why ‘median’ and ‘middle class’ are more ideological than they are analytical concepts.

Those who have no reasonable alternative but to sell their labor, as diverse a group as they are, still constitute roughly 80% of the population. These statistics suggest that behind ‘median’ income and compensation there is a much different distribution of wealth, and thus a different class structure than concepts like ‘middle class’ can make sense of.

We can ask even further questions – what kinds of jobs are being created, or could be created? Who controls job creation? Who has the freedom to ‘innovate’ and ‘create,’ and who serves the creators? An economy, after all, is never just about making new things, it is always about making new things under specific social conditions. Those social relationships always have to be reproduced, along with the goods and services that get produced. These are concerns about class structure and social power that mainstream economists are rarely interested in, but which cannot be dismissed by gesturing at living standards and compensation.

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