If Elizabeth Warren really wants to unrig the system, she should focus on the Dream Hoarders

Odds are that you have not been following the recent libertarian dust-up over the merits of an Elizabeth Warren presidency. To give a brief recap: The main contenders were Will Wilkinson and Jerry Taylor of the “liberaltarian” Niskanen Center, who have been Warren-friendly to varying degrees; their opponents were colleague Samuel Hammond, along with Tyler Cowen of the more traditionally libertarian Mercatus Center, who touched off the whole debate with a withering critique of Warren’s policies.

A point-by-point exploration of their arguments would exceed the space allotted for this column by several thousand inches. But I think one can sum up the libertarian approach to Warren with a single question: How big a problem do you think billionaires, and the mega-successful corporations they helm, pose to the average American? Actually, come to think of it, I think that’s about how you’d sum up the question of Warren from any angle.

Which is why this debate ultimately matters to a lot more people than just some cranky libertarians: It speaks directly to a whole lot of young people who see that the economy doesn’t work for them the way it did for their parents and grandparents, and therefore conclude that somewhere along the way, the people it is working for — the barons of finance, the giants of Silicon Valley — must have rigged the system in their favor.

To be fair, they’re not entirely wrong. As Adam Smith once wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Bankers and tech executives very much included. So I find myself nodding in agreement with Wilkinson — and, by extension, with the progressive base of the Democratic Party — when he says: “Warren’s general diagnosis of the problem — it’s a rigged system of anticompetitive rent-seeking enabled by insufficiently democratic and representative political institutions — is broadly similar to my own.”

Yet they’re not entirely right, either. Are big corporations, or billionaires, or banks, or tech giants, or health insurers and pharmaceutical firms — to name some of Warren’s favorite targets — really the reason that young people are struggling

  • with enormous student loans? Are they the reason that millennial homeownership lags that of their parents? Are they the
  • reason that recent college graduates are more likely than their elders to be underemployed? Have they
  • driven the cost of health insurance to its current stratospheric levels?

Sure, Warren may be eager to sic her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on your mortgage lender if you fall afoul of some obscure clause, but that’s not the problem for most Americans. They’re much more likely to struggle with finding affordable housing in prosperous cities. In fairness, Warren does have a plan to ease the zoning regulations that cause the shortage — but for some reason she rarely talks about it on the campaign trail, possibly because it’s constitutionally dubious, but more likely because it would alienate her affluent suburban base.

Similarly, Warren is eager to forgive student loans — a $1.6 trillion transfer to some of the most affluent members of society — but not to attack degree creep, which has walled off most of the best jobs for those who hold a bachelor of arts while enriching a lot of colleges. She targets insurers and drugmakers, but not the hospitals and medical workers who drive most of our health-care costs.

Too many of her proposals are like this; they focus on corporate villains or billionaires while ignoring the much broader class of people that Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution dubbed the “Dream Hoardersthe well-educated upper-middle-class people who are desperate to pass their privilege onto their kids, and are unhappy about the steadily mounting cost of doing so. They’re Warren’s base.

Unfortunately, the Dream Hoarders — and I include myself in their number — are a much bigger problem for the rest of America than the billionaires whose wealth Warren promises to expropriate. Those billionaires got that way by building companies that disrupted cozy local monopolies, and they fund coding camps for high-school dropouts; Dream Hoarders

  • protect their professional licensing regimes and
  • insist on ever more extensive and expensive educations in the people they hire. Dream Hoarders also
  • pull every lever to keep their own housing prices high — and poorer kids out of their schools — while
  • using their wealth to carefully guide their children over the hurdles they’ve erected.

Which may be why the best predictor of a neighborhood with a low degree of income mobility is not the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else — the gap that Warren focuses on with all her talk of taxing billionaires — but

If you really want to unrig the system, you need to focus less on a handful of billionaires than on the iron grip that the Dream Hoarders have on America’s most powerful institutions — including, to all appearances, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.

After Neoliberalism

For the past 40 years, the United States and other advanced economies have been pursuing a free-market agenda of low taxes, deregulation, and cuts to social programs. There can no longer be any doubt that this approach has failed spectacularly; the only question is what will – and should – come next.

The neoliberal experiment – lower taxes on the rich, deregulation of labor and product markets, financialization, and globalization – has been a spectacular failure. Growth is lower than it was in the quarter-century after World War II, and most of it has accrued to the very top of the income scale. After decades of stagnant or even falling incomes for those below them, neoliberalism must be pronounced dead and buried.
Vying to succeed it are at least three major political alternatives:
  1. far-right nationalism,
  2. center-left reformism, and the
  3. progressive left (with the center-right representing the neoliberal failure).

And yet, with the exception of the progressive left, these alternatives remain beholden to some form of the ideology that has (or should have) expired.

The center-left, for example, represents neoliberalism with a human face. Its goal is to bring the policies of former US President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair into the twenty-first century, making only slight revisions to the prevailing modes of financialization and globalization. Meanwhile, the nationalist right disowns globalization, blaming migrants and foreigners for all of today’s problems. Yet as Donald Trump’s presidency has shown, it is no less committed – at least in its American variant – to tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, and shrinking or eliminating social programs.

By contrast, the third camp advocates what I call , which prescribes a radically different economic agenda, based on four priorities. The first is to

  1. restore the balance between markets, the state, and civil society. Slow economic growth, rising inequality, financial instability, and environmental degradation are problems born of the market, and thus cannot and will not be overcome by the market on its own. Governments have a duty to limit and shape markets through environmental, health, occupational-safety, and other types of regulation. It is also the government’s job to do what the market cannot or will not do, like actively investing in basic research, technology, education, and the health of its constituents.
  2. The second priority is to recognize that the “wealth of nations” is the result of  – learning about the world around us – and social organization that allows large groups of people to work together for the common good. Markets still have a crucial role to play in facilitating social cooperation, but they serve this purpose only if they are governed by the rule of law and subject to democratic checks. Otherwise, individuals can get rich by exploiting others, extracting wealth through rent-seeking rather than creating wealth through genuine ingenuity. Many of today’s wealthy took the exploitation route to get where they are. They have been well served by Trump’s policies, which have encouraged rent-seeking while destroying the underlying sources of wealth creation. Progressive capitalism seeks to do precisely the opposite.
  3. This brings us to the third priority: addressing the growing problem of concentrated . By exploiting information advantages, buying up potential competitors, and creating entry barriers, dominant firms are able to engage in large-scale rent-seeking to the detriment of everyone else. The rise in corporate market power, combined with the decline in workers’ bargaining power, goes a long way toward explaining why inequality is so high and growth so tepid. Unless government takes a more active role than neoliberalism prescribes, these problems will likely become much worse, owing to advances in robotization and artificial intelligence.
  4. The fourth key item on the progressive agenda is to sever the link between economic power and political influence. Economic power and political influence are mutually reinforcing and self-perpetuating, especially where, as in the US, wealthy individuals and corporations may spend without limit in elections. As the US moves ever closer to a fundamentally undemocratic system of “one dollar, one vote,” the system of checks and balances so necessary for democracy likely cannot hold: nothing will be able to constrain the power of the wealthy. This is not just a moral and political problem: economies with less inequality actually perform better. Progressive-capitalist reforms thus have to begin by curtailing the influence of money in politics and reducing wealth inequality.3

There is no magic bullet that can reverse the damage done by decades of neoliberalism. But a comprehensive agenda along the lines sketched above absolutely can. Much will depend on whether reformers are as resolute in combating problems like excessive market power and inequality as the private sector is in creating them.

A comprehensive agenda must focus on education, research, and the other true sources of wealth. It must protect the environment and fight climate change with the same vigilance as the Green New Dealers in the US and Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom. And it must provide public programs to ensure that no citizen is denied the basic requisites of a decent life. These include economic security, access to work and a living wage, health care and adequate housing, a secure retirement, and a quality education for one’s children.

This agenda is eminently affordable; in fact, we cannot afford not to enact it. The alternatives offered by nationalists and neoliberals would guarantee more stagnation, inequality, environmental degradation, and political acrimony, potentially leading to outcomes we do not even want to imagine.

Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron. Rather, it is the most viable and vibrant alternative to an ideology that has clearly failed. As such, it represents the best chance we have of escaping our current economic and political malaise.

Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron

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:

  1. the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and
  2. 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.

 

Davos: A Family Reunion for the People who Broke the Modern World

For the past several decades, world leaders, CEOs, tech titans, billionaires, philanthropists, and celebrities have descended upon Davos, Switzerland with the goal of “improving the state of the world.” Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, says they are part of the problem.

Trade wasn’t working for everyone.

Dynamic scheduling, underpaid, contractors, fight minimum wage, more flexible labor, tax cults for the wealthy anti-inheritance taxes, evade existing taxes, rewards offshoring, expresses no loyalty to communities. (5 min)

I don’t think arsonist need to attend at a firefighter’s convention.

Poor people are very accessible. They want someone to bear witness. They don’t have publicists.

You can’t understand inequality without understanding rich people and the systems they use to justify themselves (10 min)

Today’s elites are among the most socially away, yet also predatory

I don’t think we have free markets, we have a capitalism of monopoly, and rent seeking

Jane Meyer’s Dark Money: how we got here.

Business didn’t have power (Nixon started the EPA) and worked to understand it. They used an alliance with evangelicals and philanthropy to build power.

History is life a mob boss: we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.  It can go down like the civil war or women’s suffrage.

82% of new money was in the 1 percent’s hands.

It’s going to require many to become traitor’s to their class.  If Gates devoted as much to pushing an estate tax, he could have a bigger impact.

I think things are changing.  There aren’t going to be as many Goldman Sachs and McKinsey people in the next administration.