Today, the Washington Post’s Outlook section published my article on the future of the American economy in the wake of the pandemic. They invited me to write it because of my earlier blog post on “Winners and Losers.” (Hey, despite all appearances, maybe blogs are still worth writing.)
The article is pretty gloomy. The short summary is that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate and reinforce the two primary economic trends of our time: consolidation and inequality. At this moment, I believe that more strongly than when I originally drafted the article two months ago. It seems to me that, as a society, we are caught between two unacceptable outcomes: either we reopen elementary schools (at least) so that parents can go to work, adding fuel to the epidemiological fire that is already burning throughout much of the country; or we keep schools closed and millions of predominantly low-income workers lose their jobs because they have to take care of their children. Choosing between your job and your children is not something that should happen in a supposedly rich society, yet there we are.
A few friends have asked me what I think the solution is. Here are the last three paragraphs of my first draft, which ended up on the cutting room floor:
I think it’s highly likely that the dust will clear eventually and that our economy will come back to life at some point in the next two or three years. I know there are certain disaster scenarios that can’t be ruled out, but I think they are unlikely. I’m not going to guess when things will return to a semblance of normal. Really, no one knows.
The question for now is: what will that economy look like?
By some measures, in the short term, COVID-19 will surely reduce inequality of wealth, and probably inequality of income as well. As a purely mechanical matter, the rich have a lot more money to lose when the stock market crashes and most sectors of the economy grind to a halt.
At the same time, however, this pandemic is throwing into stark relief how unequal the lives of Americans are today. Most of the upper-middle class and rich seem to fall into one of two categories. Those without children in the house trade suggestions on how to fill their time: virtual happy hours, virtual yoga, free streaming opera, binge TV-watching, etc. Those with children in the house trade suggestions on how to keep said children occupied so that we can get anything done or have any time to ourselves: educational apps and websites, home science experiments, live streaming from zoos and aquariums, etc.
There are exceptions, of course. Doctors generally make comfortable livings, and many of them are currently facing difficult working conditions and high risk of infection to save as many lives as possible. But the most difficult thing many rich people have to endure is figuring out how to get a Peapod or Instacart delivery slot, or finding a good recipe for canned tuna.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
This is the most famous line from the most famous justification of market capitalism. Smith’s point is that it is individual self-interest that drives the economy. In the next paragraph, he goes on to describe how gains from trade explain the division of labor in a modern economy:
“The certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business.”
As I’ve said before, “whenever the butcher, the brewer, the baker, or the invisible hand is invoked, the reader should hear alarm bells going off.” The COVID-19 pandemic provides a particularly stark demonstration of the problems with Smith’s comforting fable and how it is used in contemporary politics.
It seems that social distancing is the primary strategy for slowing the propagation rate of COVID-19. That and widespread testing are the key tools for containing an outbreak, for reasons discussed repeatedly in the media.
But does it work? Or, more to the point, how well do different degrees of social distancing work? How strict does it need to be, and how tightly does it need to be enforced? It seems to me that this is an important and at least theoretically answerable question.
Thanks to ubiquitous commercial and government surveillance, there are staggeringly comprehensive databases of exactly where people are at all times. Google has one, for example. Picture for yourself an enormous aerial picture of some metropolitan area with a dot for every person’s location; then picture those dots moving around as time passes. That’s more or less what is available. (Some people are blocking their location data, and some people don’t have personal surveillance devices smart phones. But there are certainly enough people transmitting their location to do the analysis discussed below.)
The airline industry is trying to hold up the federal government for $29 billion in grants and another $29 billion in loans. They threaten that if they don’t get the grants they will lay off employees, and that if they don’t get the loans they will use their remaining cash on dividends and stock buybacks.
First of all, the second threat is staggering in its audacity. At current course and speed, the airlines will go bankrupt. When you are in financial distress, the last thing you should do is take your scarce cash and hand it to your shareholders. That meets at least the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of a fraudulent conveyance in bankruptcy law. But it represents the pinnacle of the idea of shareholder capitalism: screw the workers, screw the creditors, just take the money and run.
More importantly: the federal government should not give the airline industry a single penny either in grant aid or in sweetheart loans. I understand the economic challenges here. Thousands of workers are at risk of losing their jobs and not being to pay for food or rent in the midst of the greatest crisis of our lifetimes. To the extent we want to help them, the top priority is to give money directly to them.
Our business and household sectors are losing lots of money every day, and will continue to lose money for the foreseeable future. People no longer spend money at restaurants. Restaurant owners can no longer pay the rent or pay back their business loans. Restaurants fire their workers, who lose their paychecks and can no longer pay their rent, or their credit card bills, or their student debt. In an economic crisis like this, the overriding question is: who ultimately bears the losses?
We’ve been through this before. In the 2008 financial crisis, we applied the usual rules of capitalism—unless you were a large bank. Businesses failed and their owners (including shareholders, for corporations) were wiped out. Renters were evicted. Homeowners lost their houses. Investment funds that had bought mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations lost their money. Workers lost their pensions. Small banks were shut down by the FDIC. Big banks, however, got unlimited cheap credit from the Federal Reserve to stay afloat, thanks the the people we all know.
PPE, as we now know, stands for Personal Protective Equipment, like face masks and gloves. Right now there isn’t enough of it, and that’s one of the constraints on being able to test people, which is one of the biggest problems we face.
The only point I want me make here is this: This is how capitalism is supposed to work. If you’re a for-profit healthcare provider—or any kind of provider that is trying to provide the most value, however defined, with limited resources— you are not going to stock up on enough PPE to handle every possible scenario you might face. This is what management consultants and business school professors have been saying for decades. PPE, like inventory, is a form of working capital. If you can reduce the amount of working capital you need, you can translate that dollar-for-dollar into cash for your shareholders—or, if you’re a non-profit, into clinics for poor people, salaries for your executives, or that next gorgeous building you’re going to put up. Excess working capital is pure inefficiency.
Today is the day of the New Hampshire primary, and, perhaps more importantly, lots of people in California are getting their ballots around now. Before you cast your vote in the Democratic presidential primary, I wish you would read Take Back Our Party, either online (for free) or in print. But I know most of you won’t, so this is what I want to say.
As a preamble, if you are a moderate Democrat—if you think welfare reform and financial deregulation were good ideas; if you think, along with Barack Obama, that more oil production is a good thing; if you think that America’s health care problems can be solved by private health insurance companies—what I am going to say is not for you. Go ahead and vote for Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar.
I’ve never wanted to write a book as much as I wanted to write Take Back Our Party. And I’ve never wanted people to read one of my books as much as this one—in particular, before the 2020 Democratic primary season ends. For that reason, I bypassed the usual publication route. (As my editor at Pantheon liked to say, the period for turning a manuscript into a book is, for unknown reasons, the same as the gestation period of a human. In his defense, he did get both 13 Bankers and White House Burning out in around 5–6 months.)
Instead, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, agreed to publish the book online, and it went live here in December. In addition, I wanted there to be a print edition for people (like me) who, well, prefer reading things on paper—and for mailing to people who should read it. Ryan Grim at Strong Arm Press gamely agreed to publish it, knowing that it was already available on the Internet. Jordan Jones did the interior design and Soohee Cho did the cover. The print edition has a small number of corrections, it has real footnotes with accurate page citations (something you can’t do with Internet-style hyperlinking), and it has a descriptive index so you can look up your favorite neoliberal from the past three decades.
You can order a print or ebook copy via the Strong Arm website (or, of course, from your least-favorite monopolist). They should start shipping on Tuesday, and I believe the ebook is available right now. The online version at the Prospect will still be available for the foreseeable future.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose money on this, taking the book design costs into account, but that was never the point. The point was for people to read it. So do that now.
David Brancaccio of Marketplace has started a new radio project called Econ Extra Credit: reading a first-year economics textbook, one chapter per week, along with his listeners. Luckily, he chose one of the textbooks produced by the CORE project, a group of economists who set out to rewrite the economics curriculum in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession.
David invited me to talk with him about “Economics 101” and the one-sided impression of the world that people often take away from the class—especially those for whom it is their only economics class. This, of course, was the subject of my 2017 book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality.
I wanted to write this thing because it has become clear to me not only that our economic world is screwed up in all sorts of obvious ways, but also that the only viable path to fixing it runs through the Democratic Party. The Republican Party is what it is; even if it weren’t currently in the grip of a madman, it would at best be the party of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, … you get the point. The 1% will always have their party. The problem is that the 99% don’t have theirs. The result has been the rightward drift of our entire political system, in which Republicans use their turns in power to advance their extremist agenda, and we Democrats use our at-bats to hold the line and nominate reasonable people to the Supreme Court.
So the important question is how the Democratic Party can be rallied behind a new economic vision that can both stem the rising tide of inequality and wrest control of the political landscape back from the conservatives. And that, of course, means we have to replace the economic vision of Clinton, Obama, Clinton, and most of the primary candidates today: the fantasy that private sector growth, aided by clever government nudges to make markets work better, can solve all problems for all people.
The working title of Take Back Our Party—the one I carried around in my head but was too embarrassed to tell people—was Manifesto of Our Democratic Party. (David Dayen eventually agreed with me that it was too presumptuous.) But they idea was very simple: They—the party establishment—have their Democratic Party; but we have a vision of a different Democratic Party. And ours is better. Hence the titles of Chapters 1 and 4.
Chapter 2 of Take Back Our Party made the case that the market-centric policies of the Democratic establishment have failed to do anything about—and in many cases have exacerbated—the rise of inequality. Chapter 3 continues the indictment, arguing that the “growth and opportunity” doctrine of Clinton and Obama has also failed as politics.
The New Democrats chose to identify themselves as the party of jobs and growth because they did not want to be seen as the party of redistribution and welfare. But in copying the Republican message of market-driven growth, they also lost the ability to differentiate themselves from those same Republicans. While conservatives promised that slashing regulations and cutting taxes would unleash the ingenuity of the private sector, the Democratic message was roundabout and equivocal: yes, markets are the source of prosperity, but sometimes they suffer from market failures, so cleverly designed government policies are required to make them work properly, etc. We may be right about the economics, but as politics it fails to establish a compelling choice.
But the bigger problem is that by not doing anything about inequality for so many years, the Democratic leadership frittered away the brand equity that the party had built up since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Once upon a time, lower-income voters assumed that, at least on economic issues, the Democratic Party stood for them. As Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama did little that was recognizably, specifically for workers, they stopped believing that the party cared about them. Which brought us to 2016, when Donald Trump vastly outperformed Mitt Romney among low-income voters.
For more, the entire chapter is up at The American Prospect, as usual.
The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. On a host of issues, it is clear what we stand for and how we differ from the Republicans: minority rights, abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, the importance of facts, and, of course, whether or not the president is above the law. On economic issues, however, the picture is not so clear. Elizabeth Warren’s speech at St. Anselm’s College on Thursday is an attempt to fix that problem—and also a shot across the bow of the Democratic elite.
With each passing year, the widening gulf between the very rich and everyone else becomes more and more apparent. Even after ten years of economic expansion and with unemployment at historic lows, working-age adults in the bottom half of the income distribution make less than they did a full two generations ago, while the very rich now count their wealth with twelve digits instead of eleven. Yet the Democratic establishment insists that we must stay the course, and shared prosperity will be just around the corner.
Ever since the rise of the New Democrats in the 1980s and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party’s power brokers have preached the gospel of “growth and opportunity.” (This is the story I tell in the first chapter of my new book, Take Back Our Party, available for free at The American Prospect.) All good things come from the private sector; government’s role is to help markets function efficiently, create the conditions for private sector growth, and help people participate in those markets. Hence welfare reform, financial deregulation, and Obamacare, among other things. Hence also the intense, coordinated assaults on Bernie Sanders in 2016 and both Sanders and Warren today.