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:
- far-right nationalism,
- center-left reformism, and the
- 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 progressive capitalism, which prescribes a radically different economic agenda, based on four priorities. The first is to
- 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.
- The second priority is to recognize that the “wealth of nations” is the result of scientific inquiry – 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.
- This brings us to the third priority: addressing the growing problem of concentrated market power. 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.
- 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.
Just under ten years ago, the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress issued its report, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up.The title summed it up: GDP is not a good measure of wellbeing. What we measure affects what we do, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If we focus only on material wellbeing – on, say, the production of goods, rather than on health, education, and the environment – we become distorted in the same way that these measures are distorted; we become more materialistic... The OECD has constructed a Better Life Index, containing a range of metrics that better reflect what constitutes and leads to wellbeing... The new report highlights several topics, like trust and insecurity, which had been only briefly addressed by Mismeasuring Our Lives, and explores several others, like inequality and sustainability, more deeply... Better indicators would have revealed the highly negative and possibly long-lasting effects of the deep post-2008 downturn on productivity and wellbeing, in which case policymakers might not have been so enamored of austerity, which lowered fiscal deficits, but reduced national wealth, properly measured, even more... Political outcomes in the United States and many other countries in recent years have reflected the state of insecurity in which many ordinary citizens live, and to which GDP pays scant attention. A range of policies focused narrowly on GDP and fiscal prudence has fueled this insecurity. Consider the effects of pension “reforms” that force individuals to bear more risk, or of labor-market “reforms” that, in the name of boosting “flexibility,” weaken workers’ bargaining position by giving employers more freedom to fire them, leading in turn to lower wages and more insecurity. Better metrics would, at the minimum, weigh these costs against the benefits.. Spurred on by Scotland, a small group of countries has now formed the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. The hope is that governments putting wellbeing at the center of their agenda will redirect their budgets accordingly. For example, a New Zealand government focused on wellbeing would direct more of its attention and resources to childhood poverty... Better metrics would also become an important diagnostic tool, helping countries both identify problems before matters spiral out of control and select the right tools to address them. Had the US, for example, focused more on health, rather than just on GDP, the decline in life expectancy among those without a college education, and especially among those in America’s deindustrialized regions, would have been apparent years ago... Likewise, metrics of equality of opportunity have only recently exposed the hypocrisy of America’s claim to be a land of opportunity: Yes, anyone can get ahead, so long as they are born of rich, white parents. The data reveal that the US is riddled with so-called inequality traps: Those born at the bottom are likely to remain there. If we are to eliminate these inequality traps, we first have to know that they exist, and then ascertain what creates and sustains them... A little more than a quarter-century ago, US President Bill Clinton ran on a platform of “putting people first.” It is remarkable how difficult it is to do that, even in a democracy. Corporate and other special interests always seek to ensure that their interests come first. The massive US tax cut enacted by the Trump administration at this time last year is an example, par excellence. Ordinary people – the dwindling but still vast middle class – must bear a tax increase, and millions will lose health insurance, in order to finance a tax cut for billionaires and corporations.If we want to put people first, we have to know what matters to them, what improves their wellbeing, and how we can supply more of whatever that is. The Beyond GDP measurement agenda will continue to play a critical role in helping us achieve these crucial goals.
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.