23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism - YouTube

Too much Maths, too little History The problem of Economics - YouTube

The global economy lies in tatters. While fiscal and monetary stimulus of unprecedented scale has prevented the financial melt- down of 2008 from turning into a total collapse of the global economy, the 2008 global crash still remains the second-largest economic crisis in history, after the Great Depression. At the time of writing (March 2010), even as some people declare the end of the recession, a sustained recovery is by no means certain. In the absence of financial reforms, loose monetary and fiscal policies have led to new financial bubbles, while the real economy is starved of money. If these bubbles burst, the global economy could fall into another (‘double-dip’) recession. Even if the recov- ery is sustained, the aftermath of the crisis will be felt for years. It may be several years before the corporate and the household sectors rebuild their balance sheets. The huge budget deficits created by the crisis will force governments to reduce public investments and welfare entitlements significantly, negatively affecting economic growth, poverty and social stability - possibly for decades. Some of those who lost their jobs and houses during the crisis may never join the economic mainstream again. These are frightening prospects.

This catastrophe has ultimately been created by the tree-market ideology that has ruled the world since the 1980s. We have been told that, if left alone, markets will produce the most efficient and just outcome. Efficient, because individuals know best how to utilize the resources they command, and just, because the competitive market process ensures that individuals are rewarded according to their productivity. We have been told that business should be given maximum freedom. Firms, being closest to the market, know what is best for their businesses. If we let them do what they want, wealth creation will be maximized, benefiting the rest of society as well. We were told that government intervention in the markets would only reduce their efficiency.

Government intervention is often designed to limit the very scope of wealth creation for misguided egalitarian reasons. Even when it is not, governments cannot improve on market outcomes, as they have neither the necessary information nor the incentives to make good business decisions. In sum, we were told to put all our trust in the market and get out of its way.

Following this advice, most countries have introduced free- market policies over the last three decades — privatization of state-owned industrial and financial firms, deregulation of finance and industry, liberalization of international trade and investment, and reduction in income taxes and welfare payments. These policies, their advocates admitted, may temporarily create some problems, such as rising inequality, but ultimately they will make everyone better off by creating a more dynamic and wealthier society. The rising tide lifts all boats together, was the metaphor.

The result of these policies has been the polar opposite of what was promised. Forget for a moment the financial meltdown, which will scar the world for decades to come. Prior to that, and unbeknown to most people, free-market policies had resulted in slower growth, rising inequality and heightened instability in most countries. In many rich countries, these problems were masked by huge credit expansion; thus the fact that US wages had remained stagnant and working hours increased since the 1970s was conveniently fogged over by the heady brew of credit-fuelled consumer boom. The problems were bad enough in the rich countries, but they were even more serious for the developing world. Living standards in Sub-Saharan Africa have stagnated for the last three decades, while Latin America lias seen its per capita growth rate fall by two-thirds during the period. There were some devel- oping countries that grew fast (although with rapidly rising inequality) during this period, such as China and India, but these are precisely the countries that, while partially liberalizing, have refused to introduce full-blown ffcc-markct policies.

Thus, what we were told by the free-marketeers — or, as they arc often called, neo-liberal economists - was at best only partially true and at worst plain wrong. As I will show throughout this book, the ‘truths’ peddled by free-market ideologues are based on lazy assumptions and blinkered visions, if not necessarily self- serving notions. My aim in this book is to tell you some essential truths about capitalism that the free-marketeers won’t. This book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto. Being critical of free-market ideology is not the same as being against capitalism. Despite its problems and limitations, I believe that capitalism is still the best economic system that humanity has invented. My criticism is of a particular version of capitalism that has domi- nated the world in the last three decades, that is, frce-markct capitalism. This is not the only way to run capitalism, and certainly not the best, as the record of the last three decades shows. The book shows that there are ways in which capitalism should, and can, be made better.

Even though the 2008 crisis has made us seriously question the way in which our economies are run, most of us do not pursue such questions because we think that they are ones for the experts. Indeed they are — at one level. The precise answers do require knowledge on many technical issues, many of them so compli- cated that the experts themselves disagree on them. It is then natural that most of us simply do not have the time or the neces- sary training to learn all the technical details before we can pronounce our judgements on the effectiveness of TARP (Trou- bled Asset Relief Program), the necessity of G20, the wisdom of bank nationalization or the appropriate levels of executive salaries. And when it comes to things like poverty in Africa, the workings of the World Trade Organization, or the capital adequacy rules of the Bank for International Settlements, most of us are frankly lost.

However, it is not necessary for us to understand all the tech- nical details in order to understand what is going on in the world and exercise what I call an ‘active economic citizenship’ to demand the right courses of action from those in decision-making positions. After all, we make judgements about all sorts of other issues despite lacking technical expertise. We don’t need to be expert epidemiologists in order to know that there should be hygiene standards in food factories, butchers and restaurants. Making judgements about economics is no different: once you know the key principles and basic facts, you can make some robust judgements without knowing the technical details. The only prerequisite is that you are willing to remove those rose- tinted glasses that neo-liberal ideologies like you to wear every day. The glasses make the world look simple and pretty. But lift them off and stare at the clear harsh light of reality.

Unce you know that there is really no such thing as a tree market, you won’t be deceived by people who denounce a regula- tion on the grounds that it makes the market ‘unfree’ (see Thing i). When you learn that large and active governments can promote, rather than dampen, economic dynamism, you will see that the widespread distrust of government is unwarranted (see Things 12 and 21). Knowing that we do not live in a post-industrial knowl- edge economy will make you question the wisdom of neglecting, or even implicitly welcoming, industrial decline of a country, as some governments have done (see Things 9 and 17). Once you real- ize that trickle-down economics does not work, you will see the excessive tax cuts for the rich for what they are — a simple upward redistribution of income, rather than a way to make all of us richer, as we were told (see Things ij and 20).

Thing I : There is no such thing as a free market

What they tell you Markets need to be free.

When the government interferes to dictate what market participants can or cannot do, resources cannot flow to their most efficient use. If people cannot do the things that they find most profitable, they lose the incentive to invest and innovate. Thus, if the government puts a cap on house rents, landlords lose the incentive to maintain their properties or build new ones. Or, if the government restricts the kinds of finan- cial products that can be sold, two contracting parties that may both have benefited from innovative transactions that fulfil their idiosyncratic needs cannot reap the potential gains of free contract. People must be left ‘free to choose’, as the title of free-market visionary Milton Friedman’s famous book goes.

What they don’t tell you: The free market doesn’t exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restric- tions that we fail to see them. How ‘free’ a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition. The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to defend the market from politically motivated interference by the government is false. Government is always involved and those free-marketeers are as politically motivated as anyone. Overcoming the myth that there is such a thing as an objectively defined ‘free market’ is the first step towards understanding capitalism.

Labour ought to be free

In 1819 new legislation to regulate child labour, the Cotton Factories Regulation Act, was tabled in the British Parliament. The proposed regulation was incredibly ‘light touch’ by modern standards. It would ban the employment of young children - that is, those under the age of nine. Older children (aged between ten and sixteen) would still be allowed to work, but with their work- ing hours restricted to twelve per day (yes, they were really going soft on those kids). The new rules applied only to cotton factories, which were recognized to be exceptionally hazardous to work- ers’ health.

The proposal caused huge controversy. Opponents saw it as undermining the sanctity of freedom of contract and thus destroying the very foundation of the free market. In debating this legislation, some members of the Flouse of Lords objected to it on the grounds that ‘labour ought to be free’. Their argu- ment said: the children want (and need) to work, and the factory owners want to employ them; what is the problem? Today, even the most ardent free-market proponents in Brit- ain or other rich countries would not think of bringing child labour back as part of the market liberalization package that they so want. However, until the late nineteenth or the early twenti- eth century, when the first serious child labour regulations were introduced in Europe and North America, many respectable people judged child labour regulation to be against the principles of the free market.

Thus seen, the ‘freedom’ of a market is, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder. If you believe that the right of children not to have to work is more important than the right of factory owners to be able to hire whoever they find most profitable, you will not see a ban on child labour as an infringement on the freedom of the labour market. If you believe the opposite, you will see an ‘unfree’ market, shackled by a misguided government regulation. We don’t have to go back two centuries to see regulations we take for granted (and accept as the ‘ambient noise’ within the free market) that were seriously challenged as undermining the free market, when first introduced. When environmental regulations (e.g., regulations on car and factory emissions) appeared a few decades ago, they were opposed by many as seri- ous infringements on our freedom to choose. Their opponents asked: if people want to drive in more polluting cars or if facto- ries find more polluting production methods more profitable, why should the government prevent them from making such choices? Today, most people accept these regulations as ‘natural’. They believe that actions that harm others, however unintention- ally (such as pollution), need to be restricted. They also understand that it is sensible to make careful use of our energy resources, when many of them are non-renewable. They may believe that reducing human impact on climate change makes sense too. If the same market can be perceived to have varying degrees of freedom by different people, there is really no objective way to define how free that market is. In other words, the free market is an illusion. If some markets look free, it is only because we so totally accept the regulations that are propping them up that they become invisible.

Piano wires and leungfu masters

Like many people, as a child I was fascinated by all those gravity-defying kungfu masters in Hong Kong movies. Like many kids, I suspect, I was bitterly disappointed when I learned that those masters were actually hanging on piano wires. The free market is a bit like that. We accept the legitimacy of certain regulations so totally that we don’t see them. More carefully examined, markets are revealed to be propped up by rules — and many of them.

To begin with, there is a huge range of restrictions on what can be traded; and not just bans on ‘obvious’ tilings such as narcotic drugs or human organs. Electoral votes, government jobs and legal decisions are not for sale, at least openly, in modern economies, although they were in most countries in the past. University places may not usually be sold, although in some nations money can buy them — either through (illegally) paying the selectors or (legally) donating money to the university. Many countries ban trading in firearms or alcohol. Usually medicines have to be explicitly licensed by the government, upon the proof of their safety, before they can be marketed. All these regulations are potentially controversial - just as the ban on selling human beings (the slave trade) was one and a half centuries ago.

There are also restrictions on who can participate in markets. Child labour regulation now bans the entry of children into the labour market. Licences are required for professions that have significant impacts on human life, such as medical doctors or lawyers (which may sometimes be issued by professional associa- tions rather than by the government). Many countries allow only companies with more than a certain amount of capital to set up banks. Even the stock market, whose under-regulation has been a cause of the 2008 global recession, has regulations on who can trade. You can’t just turn up in the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) with a bag of shares and sell them. Companies must fulfil listing requirements, meeting stringent auditing standards over a certain number of years, before they can offer their shares for trading. Trading of shares is only conducted by licensed brokers and traders.

Conditions of trade are specified too. One of the things that surprised me when I first moved to Britain in the mid 1980s was that one could demand a full refund for a product one didn’t like, even if it wasn’t faulty. At the time, you just couldn’t do that in Korea, except in the most exclusive department stores. In Britain, the consumer’s right to change her mind was considered more important than the right of the seller to avoid the cost involved in returning unwanted (yet functional) products to the manufac- turer. There are many other rules regulating various aspects of the exchange process: product liability, failure in delivery, loan default, and so on. In many countries, there are also necessary permissions for the location of sales outlets - such as restrictions on street-vending or zoning laws that ban commercial activities in residential areas.

Then there are price regulations. I am not talking here just about those highly visible phenomena such as rent controls or minimum wages that free-market economists love to hate. Wages in rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else, including any minimum wage legis- lation. How is the immigration maximum determined? Not by the ‘free’ labour market, which, if left alone, will end up replac- ing 80—90 per cent of native workers with cheaper, and often more productive, immigrants. Immigration is largely settled by politics. So, if you have any residual doubt about the massive role that the government plays in the economy’s free market, then pause to reflect that all our wages are, at root, politically deter- mined (see Thing 3).

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the prices of loans (if you can get one or if you already have a variable rate loan) have become a lot lower in many countries thanks to the continuous slashing of interest rates. Was that because suddenly people didn’t want loans and the banks needed to lower their prices to shift them? No, it was the result of political decisions to boost demand by cutting interest rates. Even in normal times, interest rates are set in most countries by the central bank, which means that political considerations creep in. In other words, interest rates are also determined by politics.

If wages and interest rates are (to a significant extent) politically determined, then all the other prices are politically determined, as they affect all other prices.

Is free trade fair?

We see a regulation when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it. The nineteenth-century high-tariff restriction on free trade by the U S federal government outraged slave-owners, who at the same time saw nothing wrong with trading people in a free market. To those who believed that people can be owned, banning trade in slaves was objectionable in the same wav as restricting trade in manufactured goods. Korean shopkeepers of the 1980s would probably have thought the requirement for ‘unconditional return’ to be an unfairly burdensome government regulation restricting market freedom.

This clash of values also lies behind the contemporary debate on free trade vs. fair trade. Many Americans believe that China is engaged in international trade that may be free but is not fair. In their view, by paying workers unacceptably low wages and making them work in inhumane conditions, China competes unfairly. The Chinese, in turn, can riposte that it is unacceptable that rich countries, while advocating free trade, try to impose artificial barriers to China’s exports by attempting to restrict the import of ‘sweatshop’ products. They find it unjust to be prevented from exploiting the only resource they have in greatest abundance — cheap labour.