Disparate Models, Desperate Measures: The Convergence of Limits ∗

This chapter was originally written back in 2003 and published in 2005 in the volume edited by David Coates (god father to a Miliband son I think) Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches.  The data contained inter alia is by now stale in one sense.  However in another sense the document holds up for its time and place in the early Anglo-American debates on neoliberalism.  The trends I analyzed–rising income inequality, reduced welfare state effort, eroding quality and conditions of work, and a secular decline in productivity growth–across the rich OECD zone regardless of which model of capitalism was being pursued were in fact, as I noted at the time, secular trends.  At the time, 2003, most academics still had their heads in the ground about inequality and the punitive dynamics of neoliberal labour market policies.   Indeed the  hegemony of neoliberalism was so complete at that time most social democratic intellectuals refused or were incapable of acknowledging the state of affairs.  Even worse many were actively crafting and implementing neoliberal policies.

In the above sense I think the chapter still holds up.  Moreover, it also holds up in terms of its main hypothesis that the advanced capitalist zone, despite being populated by nation states with very different institutions and public policy regimes, was producing increasingly poor outcomes for workers and citizens. For A version of the chapter “Disparate Models, Desperate Measures: The Convergence of Limits,” leave a comment to request the document.

∗This article was originally published in David Coates (ed.) Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, (2005). The version of the article reproduced herein may be reproduced on a not for profit basis subject to the GNU Free Documentation License and provided proper citation is provided.

Trumped up and buried under the ashes of neoliberalism


At the time of preparing this talk, January 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected the 45th president of the United States of America.    This talk is not really about the United States under the tutelage of the newly elected American President Donald Trump.  Rather this talk is more about how we arrived here: about the legacy of neoliberal policies that forged the trump card for the explosion of right wing populist movements and their victories across the advanced capitalist zone including in the United States.  As the vivid title of this talk makes clear, I am not arguing that we have moved to a post neoliberal order as of yet–although there are signs we may be in a bad transition out of the neoliberal epoch.  Alternatively, I will argue that we are living with the consequences of neoliberal institutions and policies: suffocating under the ashes of neoliberalism with Donald trump as the brightest burning coal at the top of the ash heap.

As most people know, to play the “trump card” in any game—political, economic or otherwise—confers a decisive advantage to the person who plays it given the right circumstances and timing.  The idiomatic expression “trumped up” refers to situation that has been manufactured to produce one set of outcomes while falsely claiming to produce another.  A trumped up criminal case is promulgated on phony evidence where the wrongly accused faces a criminal sanction while the broader public is misled to believe justice is being done.  There is close analogue here to the phrase gaslighting.  Much of neoliberalism, indeed an important explanation for its ideological spread was the initial promise of employment and renewed economic growth, i.e., what we might call the remedy to economic shame[i].  There is a sense in which neoliberalism is and was a scam and a manipulation of public morale: the difference today is most, including significant sections of the ruling classes admit this. They simply do not care because its all just a contemporary communications game.

If you are on the left it is easy, in this context, to simply be against Donald Trump and the sundry list of right wing populist movements and leaders. Who reading this post is for racism, sexism, xenophobia and soft and hard bigotries of all stripes?

Rather the problem for the putative left, particularly but not solely, its formal parliamentary forms; the Democratic Party in the United States, the New Labour Party in Britain and Australia, the Socialist party in France, the New Democratic Party in Canada, and the Sozialdemokratische Partei in Germany, for example, is to come to terms with what is now 40 years of their own internal drift to the right and their own hand in building the very neoliberal institutions which  created the conditions in which right wing populism and inequality flourish and left wing politics languishes.[ii]

In the above regard, it is my suspicion that it will be much harder for the institutionalized left to come to grips with the folly of neoliberalism than the right.  This is particularly so in the upper echelons of the progressive social structure (intellectuals, academics, politicians and the quasi woke citizenry).

Here is why.  For the right, neoliberalism was an internally motivated project, which sought to roll back, dismantle, and or fundamentally restructure the post World War II social order.   Neoliberalism was never about jobs, productivity, or economic growth for conservative elites: it was about a redistribution of power upwards.  In this regard, the adoption of neoliberalism did not require a conversion of ideological convictions as it did for the left. It was broad and important segments of the left which made the conversion:  It is the Clinton democrats, Tony Blair’s ‘new labour’, Gerhard Schröder’s ‘third’ way, and the legions of intellectuals and academics which made their own accommodations, and indeed in many cases who crafted neoliberal innovations that will have to do the hard work of soul searching, shame letting, and back tracking.

I am not very sanguine about the prospects of the aforementioned coming to pass for three reasons.  For one thing, most left accommodations to neoliberalism were made within the reality of a very constrained political economy characterized by high unemployment,fears of high inflation, and low economic growth and a concomitant ideological restructuring to the right.  For example, Tony Blair inherited Margaret Thatcher’s new United Kingdom, and Bill Clinton inherited Ronald Reagan’s “New Day in America.”  It would be impish to maintain that these were not real reconfigurations to the possibilities facing policy makers—left or right.

The second reason I am not optimistic about the chances of a volte-face on the part of the neoliberal left is quite simply that we are now almost two generations into the neoliberal epoch and easily one generation into its hegemony.  Educational attainment, political identities and careers have been formed and built within a neoliberal cognitive and material framework.  None of which is particularly easy (and in some cases possible) to walk away from.

Third, the left remains fractured between insiders and outsiders.  Because the political insiders on the left will not admit to the paucity of neoliberalism and the role they played in constructing the neoliberal order, the most vigorous and energized elements of the left remain largely outside formal political institutions and the broader public policy processes.  Indeed many insiders on the political left are still gaslighting the outsiders.  And if they are not merely sociopaths, its fairly hard for serial abusers to admit they have a problem…lotta shame needs to be overcome.

Moreover, it is by now blatantly apparent in American politics that the political process is over-determined by campaign and party financing—with the democrats still requiring that some professional politicians and administrators be the front for the donors and with Trump era republicans increasingly disposing of the political ‘middle men’ (sic) and opting instead to just put the donors in power. That is, within American politics it is increasingly the case that the Democrats and Republican parties do not merely represent different fractions within the haute bourgeoisie–they are the haute bourgeoisie.  There is, therefore, a toxic stasis on the European and North American left facing a dynamic, well funded, and popularly organized right.

Afterword to the introduction

It has been almost a year since I gave this talk and there is reason today to feel a bit more sanguine than one may have felt in the morning after Trump was inaugurated.   The British labour party had a major coup d’état with the victory of Corbyn. Equally positive has been the increasing traction of non normie style democrats.  Moreover, and I think more importantly, there are some positive signs that that the non parliamentary left is finally working through some of its major dysfunctions of which I will just touch on two below.

First, there are strong signs that the non parliamentary left intelligentsia is moving beyond the internecine, unproductive and self defeating debates of the naughties and teenies.  I think Trump’s election was a brutal wake-up call signalling that the prosaic and bitter debates of grad school educated lefties had become a waste of real resources.  Do not get me wrong, I think those debates had to be had, but they went beyond their best before date and ossified  into petty silos.  It was as if by sitting in grad school seminars and by standing giving grad lectures we were going to change something all on our own, as if the logical consistency of our interior ontological righteousness could alone change the world:  to be sure a much more meaningful exercise than Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, but often not much (there is a future post in this analogue, someone remind me of it).

Second, while we were busy, people like Jane McAlevey and countless others were actually being a part of helping communities organize.  Her title gets right at the problem, there are no shortcuts to the real work of organizing: there is no one big existential idea, no coupling of mobilizing and online communication hubs (often falsely called communities) for living in, and being a part of, organizing ourselves in the broader (as in not self selected) communities we live in.  Life has an unavoidable spatial context and real social complexity.  Organizing involves dealing with both.  I think the non parliamentary left is finally getting this.

[i]   See Arlie Russel Hochschild, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, (2016), The new press.
[ii]  It remains to be seen if Jeremy Corbyn marks a shift in English politics.

Stimulative austerity bearing fruit in Britain? Not. Nor globally

George Osborne was quick out of the gates with the austerity as stimulus gambit.  Which as everybody from myself to Paul Krugman predicted was going to be a flop.  Osborne has been trying to save face by arguing that his government’s austerity package saved Britain from becoming Greece  (the most disingenuous piece of clap trap coming from the other side of the Atlantic since Tony last spoke of the need to go to war in Iraq).  The bond vigilantes are not swarming in on fully sovereign countries (i.e., those with the power to go around the bond market if they so choose; see almost any post by Bill Mitchell).  Indeed, Japan has a debt to GDP of over 200% and is issuing ten year bonds with great fan fare at below 2%.

Meanwhile Cameron has been trying to save face with an alternative: namely, that it is the crisis in the Eurozone that is to blame.  As Bill Mitchell points out the Eurozone was in crisis before Cameron pushed through austerity.  That is to say, if the British economic recovery hinged on a buoyant Europe it was a silly plan.

Now some fair-minded reader might insist that neither Osborne or Cameron could have known that the crisis in Europe would go from bad to worse and they are therefore the victims of optimism but not stupidity.  Not so.  Like the Canadian Finance Minister, Osborne has been preaching austerity and public sector restructuring to all and sundry.  The problem is that the austerity gambit requires that exports do the heavy lifting in terms of dragging the domestic economy up, up and away.  But if all the countries that buy your imports are also trying to do the same then in the aggregate we all loose: a in an anchor cut loose.

Canada and Britain could have perhaps used austere means to jump start their domestic economies by free riding on a massive stimulus in the US and Continental Europe.  Again it has been clear for some time that was not going to happen.  So even if austerity could have worked its funky magic it would have been because Europe was doing stimulating fiscal stimulus.

The Right Wing Commentariat is getting Desperate

Just go read Terence Corcoran’s latest in the National Post.  Never mind that the world was plunged into economic crisis by unregulated financial institutions and near fully captured regulators; never mind that by most accounts the financial regulatory reform that has taken place since has been mild and the regulators are still, for the most part, in the hostage room.  Terence tell us that one of the central reasons for the continuation of the slump is:

Banks are being regulated to an extent never seen before, forcing the world’s core providers of credit for business expansion to curb their appetite for risk. Confusion reigns as global and trans-national regulators blunder their way to impose ill-conceived rules and policies. The hard reality of new rules, ­especially new capital requirements, is that it forces banks to accumulate risk-free liabilities while curbing risk-taking loans.

For the right it is always the same villain: the government.  During the crisis they blamed the government because…wait for it…they did not regulate properly and the crisis was therefore evidence of state not market failure.  Now, as then, it is the state that is failing, not markets.

To wit, Terence finishes with:

Similar government interventions, bolstered by constant calls for more spending and taxes, are the norm through most of the G20 membership. To end the many debt crises, the first step should be to abandon growth-killing policies. With growth, even debts cease to be a problem.

Just where is Terence getting his information from?  The G20 is busy doing austerity across the advanced capitalist zone and not in the form of tax increases.  Does he even read his colleagues blogs?

Hopeful news

Paul Krugman is now debating the flank to the left of him with quasi seriousness and respect. Might not seem like much but actually in the context of the last 20 years of mainstream economic debate a fairly remarkable and somewhat hopeful sign. I have long argued that mainstream reform liberals will have little success unless they bring those to the left of them into the respectable conversation.

Never count on economists to defend the public interest

This is something that should always be kept in mind in economic policy discussions: most economists are pro-Market, not pro-Public Interest.

It is especially important to keep this in mind when we read commentary such as this, in which an economist from one of Canada’s smaller economics departments conflates being pro-market with being in the public interest.

This point is sometimes hard to see, especially since many economists hold to the deeply ingrained syllogism that being pro-market is straightforwardly being in the public interest.

But they are a lobby group like any other, and cannot be relied upon to defend the general public interest.*

Economists, particularly academic economists (and like all academics), rely on, for their social status, research funding and a quiet concious, having the public view them as working in the public interest. And given the majority of economists are true believers in the “market” that inevitably gets conflated with being in the public interest

Cloaking oneself as being in the public interest is of course one of the oldest rhetorical stances to take since like wearing the national flag it clearly puts the speaker in the role of the hero and casts those being spoken against in the role of the villains. This is all the more easy to to do when the terms of conversation are being articulated in fuzzy, ill defined concepts such as the “public interest” and “pro-market”. When an economist uses those terms they have very exotic definitions in mind that most lay people would not readily grasp. Perhaps I am being too charitable: I can’t, in fact, find a definition of the public interest in any my economics text-books.

The public interest is a rather fuzzy notion. We can perhaps all agree that it has something to do with public goods but that just raises the thorny issue of what is and what is not a public good. In any case the argument at least has to be made that a specific policy is in the public good and why. Just standing around hands waiving in the air mindlessly chanting pro-market rhetoric like “free trade” or deregulation does not really cut the mustard.

Indeed after a generation of pro-market policies like financial liberalization and deregulation with cascading financial crises of increasingly damaging intensity culminating in the Great Financial Crisis that was 2007 and from which no advanced capitalist economy has yet to emerge; in which whole nations like Iceland, Greece and Ireland were raised; in which untold millions of workers were put and remain out of work; and as a consequence a massive hole was blown in public finances around the world, it should be clear that pro-market policies are not always or even in the majority of cases un-problematically in the public good to say the very least.

Notice that even if you are want to argue that it was bad government regulation in the US which caused the Great Financial Crisis the fact is that decades of financial liberalization and deregulation (pro-market policies) directly led to the formation of global investment and insurance markets which made sure that a “made in the USA” problem had serious global consequences. And it is not just that economists did not foresee these negative consequences they actually argued in favour of these policies on the grounds that such a crisis was less likely to occur and that the consequences would be less severe in the event that it did occur because these pro-market policies allowed risk to be more evenly spread. So much for theory.

That a pro-market economist is given a national soap-box on which to conflate being Pro-market with being in the Public Interest does not bode well for the Public Interest.

* The first four paragraphs are an inverted paraphrase of the linked commentary. I apologize to my readers for reproducing a very clichéd prose style.

I am a Homo and a Sapien* what is Paul Krugman?

Krugman is sometimes a dull example of all that is both right and wrong with mainstream liberals in North America.  Today Krugman auto deconstructs:

Ideas Are Not The Same As Race

I would get into the specifics of his post but the headline is so atrocious and such a shining example of why economists are simply undereducated in the social sciences, humanities and hard sciences.  Here is the short of it, both race and gender are ideas in that they have no scientific merit.   Take a look at this little graphic from wikipedia

See anything missing after species?  Yep, lower than that and they are just ideas, not necessarily nice ideas but ideas nonetheless.

His title is thus a non sequitur wrapped inside a false antithesis.

Sad really.

*Excuse the botched singular.