Distinguished law scholar Elizabeth Warren teaches contract law, bankruptcy, and commercial law at Harvard Law School. She is an outspoken critic of America’s credit economy, which she has linked to the continuing rise in bankruptcy among the middle-class.
Series: “UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures” [6/2007]
We can save our broken economic system from itself.
Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.
But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s regulatory “reforms,” which reduced the ability of government to curb the excesses of the market, were sold as great energizers of the economy. But just the opposite happened: Growth slowed, and weirder still, this happened in the innovation capital of the world.
The sugar rush produced by President Trump’s largess to corporations in the 2017 tax law didn’t deal with any of these long-run problems, and is already fading. Growth is expected to be a little under 2 percent next year.
This is where we’ve descended to, but not where we have to stay. A progressive capitalism based on an understanding of what gives rise to growth and societal well-being gives us a way out of this quagmire and a way up for our living standards.
Standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century for two reasons:
- the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and
- developments in social organization (as a society, we learned how to work together, through institutions like the rule of law, and democracies with checks and balances).
Key to both were systems of assessing and verifying the truth. The real and long-lasting danger of the Trump presidency is the risk it poses to these pillars of our economy and society, its attack on the very idea of knowledge and expertise, and its hostility to institutions that help us discover and assess the truth.
There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.
America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.
Beginning with the Reagan era, economic policy played a key role in this dystopia: Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities. Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.
We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.
If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans making their living by driving.
The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.
If we had curbed exploitation in all of its forms and encouraged wealth creation, we would have had a more dynamic economy with less inequality. We might have curbed the opioid crisis and avoided the 2008 financial crisis. If we had done more to blunt the power of oligopolies and strengthen the power of workers, and if we had held our banks accountable, the sense of powerlessness might not be so pervasive and Americans might have greater trust in our institutions.
The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest. It is as fatally flawed as the notion after the fall of the Iron Curtain that we were seeing “the end of history” and that we would all soon be liberal democracies with capitalist economies.
Most important, our exploitive capitalism has shaped who we are as individuals and as a society. The rampant dishonesty we’ve seen from Wells Fargo and Volkswagen or from members of the Sackler family as they promoted drugs they knew were addictive — this is what is to be expected in a society that lauds the pursuit of profits as leading, to quote Adam Smith, “as if by an invisible hand,” to the well-being of society, with no regard to whether those profits derive from exploitation or wealth creation.
The plan seems to be paying big dividends now, but will it yield long-term results for American workers?
Two risks loom. The first is that the low-skill workers who benefit most from a high-pressure job market are often hit hardest when the job market turns south. Consider what happened to high-school dropouts a little more than a decade ago. Their unemployment rate dropped below 6% in 2006 near the end of a historic housing boom, then shot up to more than 15% when the economy crumbled. Many construction, manufacturing and retail jobs disappeared.
.. Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, said the next recession could be the moment when businesses deploy artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies in new ways that further threaten mid-skill work.
“Recessions are a prime opportunity for companies to reexamine what they’re doing, trim headcount and search for ways to automate,” he said. “The pressure to do that is less when a long, long expansion is going on.”
With these forces in play, many economists predict a barbell job market will take hold, playing to the favor of low- and high-skill workers and still disadvantaging many in the middle.
.. Personal-care aide, a job which pays about $11 an hour to help the elderly and disabled, is projected to add 778,000 jobs in the decade ended in 2026, the most of 819 occupations tracked. The department expects the economy to add more than half million food prep workers and more than a quarter million janitors.
Those low-skill workers are reaping pay gains in part because there aren’t a lot of people eager to fill low-skill jobs anymore. Only about 6% of U.S. workers don’t hold a high school diploma, down from above 40% in the 1960s, according research by MIT economist David Autor.
.. Skilled workers in high-tech and managerial positions are also benefiting from the high-pressure labor market, particularly in thriving cities. Of 166 sectors that employ at least 100,000 Americans, software publishing pays the highest average wages, $59.81 an hour in the fourth quarter of 2018. Wages in the field grew 5.5% from a year earlier, well outpacing 3.3% overall growth in hourly pay. The average full-time employee in the sector already earns more than $100,000 a year.
They seek to restore access to a middle-class life by providing decent, well-paying jobs, reestablishing a sense of financial security, and ensuring access to quality education – without the chokehold of student debt that so many graduates currently face – and decent health care, regardless of pre-existing medical conditions. They call for affordable housing and a secure retirement in which the elderly are not preyed on by an avaricious financial sector. And they seek a more dynamic, competitive, and fair-market economy by curbing the excesses of market power, financialization, and globalization, and by strengthening workers’ bargaining power.
These perquisites of a middle-class life are attainable. They were affordable a half-century ago, when the country was substantially poorer than it is today; and they are affordable now. In fact, neither America’s economy nor its democracy can afford not to bolster the middle class. Government policies and programs – including public options for health insurance, supplementary retirement benefits, or mortgages – are crucial to realizing this vision.
.. In a normal democracy, these ideas would, I am confident, prevail. But US politics has been corrupted by money, gerrymandering and massive attempts at disenfranchisement. The 2017 tax bill was nothing short of a bribe to corporations and the wealthy to pour their financial resources into the 2018 election. Statistics show that money matters enormously in American politics.