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.
In the final dash to Election Day, Trump needed a Lee Atwater type — a street fighter. But once in the White House, Bannon’s role was less clear and the president chafed at claims that Bannon controlled his administration’s agenda.
.. They care about what the president and his administration can do for them. They support Trump because he articulated and, increasingly, is enacting an agenda they believe will improve their lives and secure the future peace and prosperity of the country.
.. They will still make the case to voters for economic policies that expand the middle class, for pro-citizen immigration policy and for a foreign policy that is circumspect about foreign military engagement.
How does this happen? It happens because the Republicans with the solid family lives, sparkling résumés, unlined faces, and big white teeth think they are entitled to rule the rest of us in their own interests. They think their (real) virtues entitle them to ignore the priorities of the electorate. There will always be fools and con artists but, right now, the vices of the good men are killing us.
The Republicans have managed the unlikely feat of producing a tax-cut bill that has only 26 percent support. This is part of a pattern whereby the allegedly responsible, thoughtful, public-spirited Republican leaders, such as Paul Ryan, produce legislation that is somehow even less popular than our already very unpopular president.
.. But maybe they haven’t forgotten. Maybe the Republican leadership has changed.
.. But something has changed in recent years. One visible sign was the Wall Street Journal’s infamous “lucky duckies” editorial, which complained that lower-middle-class people (those lucky duckies) with little income-tax liability might get a cut to their payroll taxes, and that this cut would reduce the tax cuts that might otherwise have gone to the more productive and deserving high earners.
.. Edward Conard, like Mitt Romney a Bain Capital guy, might be called Mitt Romney’s id. He argues that a proposal to set the corporate tax rate at 22 percent rather than 20 percent in order to finance a tax credit that reduces the payroll-tax liability of mostly wage-earning parents would hurt the economy, because it would reduce economic growth and diminish “middle-class incomes in the long run.”
.. The congressional Republicans are having trouble selling tax cuts to the middle class, because the middle-class tax cuts are included only grudgingly as a sweetener for the business and high-earner tax cuts that are the real goal of the Republican congressional leadership.
.. The elite Republicans haven’t forgotten. They have changed.
The Republican Party of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan and the middle-class tax revolts of the 1970s.
.. Why do Americans turn to elderly socialists like Bernie Sanders, or clownish (or worse) populists like Trump and Roy Moore? It is because the best of the Republicans are wedded to a politically self-destructive view of the world.
.. They seem to have the home life of the family man. They have the discipline and diligence of the organization kid. They have the looks of the pretty boy. Yet the public still rejects them, because the voters find their ideas even more unpleasant than Donald Trump’s odious personality.
.. When they think they can get away with it, they disparage the idea of tax cuts for the middle class (much less for wage-earning parents). They pretend that the taxes paid by wage-earners don’t even exist. They mouth the Reaganite lift-all-boats rhetoric, but they act on a get-those-lucky-duckies agenda. Reagan’s party is being infected with the Romney Disease.
Deep down, investors know that when patriots put country ahead of self, everyone benefits.
Less than a decade ago, after years of dramatic deregulation coupled with revenue-draining tax cuts, the entire U.S. financial system effectively collapsed. It took down with it millions of American consumers, workers, small businesses, retirees and middle-class homeowners.
The country can’t afford this kind of outcome again. That’s why I want to be as straight as possible: Despite what you may believe, the Republican tax plan taking shape is a sham. It will lead to more pain and less prosperity for the vast majority of Americans.
.. Stopping it will be good for investors’ bank accounts, because when Main Street and the rest of the nation does well, so does the financial sector. Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but trickle-up does. Trying to re-enact Reaganomics under completely different circumstances may well lead the economy back into a recession—one that the country will be ill-equipped to weather after the GOP proposal adds $1 trillion to the national debt.
.. The plan’s massive tax cuts won’t reinvigorate the economy. For years corporations have enjoyed historically high profits, but investment hasn’t increased alongside them. Last month at a meeting of The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, an editor asked attendees whether they would boost investment if the tax bill passed. Few hands went up.
.. Sixty-two percent of the benefits from the Senate bill’s tax cuts flow to the top 1% of earners
.. Honest analyses indicate that the Republican proposal overwhelmingly helps the wealthy and is probably a net negative for almost everyone else. That’s largely because it will be paid for with money taken out of the pockets of working Americans and their children: The tax cuts will be used as an excuse to further gut investments in education, health care and training. Slashing these services for working Americans will stunt the country’s future prosperity and weaken the overall economy.
.. the American people will not be fooled by the noise. If they see a bill passed that hands out filet mignon to the wealthy while leaving them struggling over scraps, they will be furious. Once again, they’ll realize that the system serves the needs of those at the top and ignores working families. They’ll consider this more evidence of corruption. And it will be harder than ever to argue otherwise.
.. Passing this tax plan, which adds to workers’ pain, would put another knife into American democracy. It would be a true disaster.
.. When 1 in 3 Americans say they are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, is it
- worth saving the Trump family $1 billion by repealing the estate tax?
- Worth increasing insurance premiums for middle-class families in the individual market by $2,000, as the Center for American Progress estimates the Senate bill would?
- Worth taxing tuition waivers, making it prohibitively expensive for young people to get advanced degrees and thus sacrificing America’s economic competitiveness down the road?
- Worth cutting Medicare by $25 billion?
- Worth ending tax credits for clean energy, sabotaging one of the most promising industries for the 21st century, while protecting much larger tax breaks for oil and gas?