Category Archives: Free markets and their discontents

Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin on Inverted Totalitarianism as a Threat to Democracy

Yves here. We’ve been featuring what we consider to be standout segments in an important Real News Network series, an extended discussion between Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin on capitalism and democracy. This offering focuses on what Wolin calls “inverted totalirianism,” or how corporations and government are working together to keep the general public in thrall. Wolin discusses how propaganda and the suppression of critical thinking serve to a promote pro-growth, pro-business ideology which sees democracy as dispensable, and potentially an obstacle to what they consider to be progress. They also discuss how America is governed by two pro-corproate parties and how nay “popular” as in populist, candidate gets stomped on.

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Will US Browbeating of Japan Revive the Zombified TransPacific Partnership?

As readers may recall, we declared the toxic, national-sovereignty-gutting, misnamed “trade” deal called the TransPacific Partnership to be dead based on America’s colossal mishandling of Japan (not that it has handled the other prospective signatories any better, mind you). The pact was designed to be an “everybody but China” grouping, a centerpiece of Obama’s pivot to Asia. Japan’s participation is essential to meeting that objective, as well as to another critical objective: that of getting major nations to sign up to agreements that subordinated national regulations to the profit-making rights of foreign investors, who could sue governments over any incursions in secretive, conflicted arbitration panels.

Nevertheless, meetings on the TransPacific Partnership continue, with the latest round in Sydney last week. The US press is depicting the Japanese as bad guys who can be browbeaten into giving up protecting their beef and rice farmers, among others. Is that likely to happen?

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Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

Yves here. Real News Network is running an eight-part series on capitalism and democracy, with Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin as interlocutors. I thought the second segment in the series, which is historically focused, to be particularly strong. It seeks to trace the evolution of what they call corporate capitalism, or what we’ve sometimes called Mussolini-style corporatism.

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Class Traitors: How Ideological Brainwashing Gets Rich and Ordinary Americans to Undermine Their Economic Interest

Linda Beale, of ataxingmatter, has written forcefully and persuasively about some of the propagandizing-accepted-as-gospel that the well-heeled use to advocate policies that advance their economic interests. For instance, as most Naked Capitalism readers appreciate, but a remarkably large swathe of the US population does not, tax cuts for big corporations are simply a transfer to the rich. From a post last year:

I’ve argued frequently in the past that there is no there there–i.e., that lowering corporate tax rates will do nothing to create jobs. Instead, I’ve said, it will simply deliver an even higher profit margin to be skimmed off by the highest paid executives and, possibly, shareholders. The higher profit margins are unlikely even to be used to increase workers’ shares of the corporate revenues through higher wages, a place where they could most help the economy other than new jobs created. Thus, the drive for “revenue neutral” corporate tax reform (cut corporate taxes, cut expenditures elsewhere to make up for the decreased corporate tax revenues) is just another example of corporatism as an engine of the modern form of US class warfare

Beale takes up a different theme today: how the rich and poor act against their economic interest. For many in middle and lower income strata in red states, hostility to the government is an article of faith even though those states (and many of those same govement-hating citizens) are significant beneficiaries of Federal programs.

But less well recognized are the ways that the wealthy are undermining themselves. They’ve taken the “increase our distance from everyone else” experiment well beyond its point of maximum advantage, not just to the society around them but also in terms of the costs to the class warriors.

As we’ve pointed out, highly unequal societies have lower lifespans, even among the rich; the shallower social networks of stratified societies and the high cost of losing one’s perch, in terms of loss of friends and status, creates an ongoing level of stress that has a longevity cost. Beale points out something we’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, that creating an underclass with inadequate access to medical services is a great breeding ground for public health problems. The fact that many low income Americans can’t afford to take sick days and health plans generally have high deductibles, which discourage individuals from getting treated until they are sure they are really sick, isn’t a great program design if you want to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

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Uber Economics: There is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Yves here. This post on Uber raises a sobering point about activism and human cognition. How do you opposed a cause you regard as dubious without unwittingly legitimating it? For instance, remember when one of the many justifications offered for the Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden? Even though that idea was patently false, efforts to debunk it actually reinforced the connection between Hussein and Bin Laden simply by featuring their names in close proximity.

If readers, particularly activists, have ideas for how to steer clear of effectively promoting ideas and causes you are challenging, please let us know in comments.

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The Financialization of Life

Yves here. One of the efforts the Naked Capitalism community has been engaged in is trying to understand and map our emerging political and economic order. Over the last four decades, massive changes have taken place in social values, in job security, in the importance of communities relative to other networks, like professional associations, and in the role of the state. Economists, social scientists, and laypeople have used various frameworks for describing this period. Understanding the driving process is important not merely for the purposes of description, but also for analysis, since a major question remains open: is this a last gasp of large-scale industrial capitalism, or is this the starting phase of a new economic order? We’ve tended to see this period as a self-limiting finance-led counter-revolution against the New Deal, but that may prove to be too optimistic a reading.

This Real News Network interview with Costas Lapavitsas, a professor in economics at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, takes a different perspective. Lapavitsas contends that financialization itself constitutes a new form of capitalism, which is supported by neoliberal ideology.

Independent of whether you fully agree with Lapavitsas’ framing, this talk gives a good overview of the major economic and political changes since 1970. His summary would be useful for those who could use a historical perspective on these shifts, or want a high-level understanding of the restructuring of modern economies without having to get too deep into the weeds. But even though this interview is designed to go down easily, it offers a lot of grist for thought.

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Goldman Makes It Official That the Stock Market is Manipulated, Buybacks Drive Valuations

It’s remarkable that this Goldman report, and its writeup on Business Insider, is being treated with a straight face. The short version is current stock price levels are dependent on continued stock buybacks. Key sections of the story:

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LinkedIn’s “Economic Graph” as Algorithmic, Global Labor Brokerage and Panopticon

Silicon Valley labor law violator LinkedIn has a vision — “the Economic Graph” — and it’s sponsoring a $25,000 contest to find “researchers, academics, and data-driven thinkers” to help them make it a reality.[1] Here’s the vision in short form: There are approximately 3 billion people in the global workforce. LinkedIn’s vision is to create […]

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Matt Stoller: Why We Need to Break Up Amazon – and How to Do It

Yves here. The main way that those of the left-leaning persuasion see Amazon as a bad guy is for its treatment of warehouse workers, who work in physically-taxing conditions and are paid what is barely a living wage for a single person.

As Matt Stoller describes in this piece, Amazon’s ambitions are monopolistic, and they’ve already gone a long way towards achieving that ambition in a large number of markets. They regularly engage in predatory pricing to crush competitors and gain market share. Their dominant position then allows them to chose how to extract more profit, which is usually a combination of squeezing suppliers and raising prices.

Antitrust has become close to a dead letter in the US. Amazon makes for a worthy object for reviving it.

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WalMart Makes Empty Gesture to End Minimum Wage Pay While Cutting Pay Levels

WalMart just announced that it will at some unspecified point down the road end minimum wage-level pay for its workers. As we’ll demonstrate, there is way less here than meets the eye. In fact, all in pay levels, including benefits, are falling for WalMart workers, not rising.

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Michael Perelman: Globalization, “Free Trade,” and Food as a Strategic Weapon

Yves here. Michael Perelman gave a wide-ranging talk in Ankara called the Anarchy of Globalization which focused on the local impact of globalization. The presentation was wideranging and included a discussion of the evolution of usage and theoretical concerns.

We’ve extracted a section below, on the role of “free trade” agreements and one of their not-widely-recognized side effects, that of weakening food security. The case study is Mexico.

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How Much Has the IMF Changed in Response to the Global Crisis?

Yves here. For US readers, the posture of the IMF may not seem like a terribly important topic. But most countries in the world face decent prospects of being subject at some point to its tender ministrations. And even those that would seem to be exempt, like Germany, nevertheless also are subject to its impact through how IMF programs affect its export markets and Eurozone arrangements.

The IMF’s policies received a great deal of attention last year as its chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, effectively admitted that austerity did not work. The formulation was that in most cases, fiscal multipliers are greater than one. That means that cutting government deficits, in an effort to lower government debt, is ultimately counterproductive because the economy shrinks even more than the reduction in spending. The result is that the debt to GDP ratio actually gets worse. This outcome is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, since the neoliberal experiment has produced the same bad results when administered in Greece, Latvia, Ireland, and Portugal, to name a few.

But what did this rare bout of empiricism mean for the IMF? This post gives that question a hard look.

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