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By George P. Brockway, originally published November 2, 1992

1992-11-2 The Illogic of Leanness and Meanness Title

1992-11-2 JK Galbraith                EDITORIALWRITERS and speech makers are fond of the expression “lean and mean” (or, sometimes, “mean and lean”). I suspect it is the rhyme that appeals to them. They can’t possibly be allowing themselves to think about what happens to people who work (or used to work) for lean and mean corporations. They can’t possibly give a satisfactory answer to the question John Kenneth Galbraith asks in Affluent Society: “Why should life be intolerable to make things of little urgency?”

Nor can they possibly be wondering whether lean and mean corporations make this a better world to live in, even for their customers and their stockholders. St. Augustine wrote: “Every disorder of the soul is its own punishment,” and meanness is certainly a disorder of the soul.

Yes, I know: We are told we will have to be lean and mean to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. Some commentators say that the global economy and the competition are already here.  President Bush inclines to this view; President-elect Clinton inclines to this view; and I suspect that Citizen Perot had something similar in mind. At any rate, he had a lean and hungry look.

Fifty years ago another self-made man, Wendell L. Willkie, had a vision of One World in which we would all help each other. Willkie was a lawyer and CEO of a giant utility holding company before he became the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate (Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior, called him the “barefoot boy from Wall Street”); he was no starry starry-eyed innocent. Yet his touchstone was cooperation, not competition. The world seems to be different now, and not as nice. What happened?

It is, I think, a case of Samuel Johnson being right again: “Hell is paved with good intentions.” The economic situation we find ourselves in is mean enough to have at least some of the attributes of hell, and it is paved in part with free trade, a theory whose intentions were the best in the world. I say “were” because I’m not so sure they’re all so good today.

Practically every economist is in favor of free trade, and the fraternity has been joined by a broad range of right-thinking, public-service citizens groups, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the League of Women Voters. The argument for free trade is simple and strong: All of us are consumers, and therefore benefit from cheap consumption goods. Tariffs, subsidies and the like increase the costs of consumption goods, and therefore are bad. A less materialistic reason for open international trade is that it is said to make for peace, although perhaps not in the Middle East.

The foregoing arguments, including Willkie’s, may be classified as general or ideological. There are also technical arguments in support of free trade – for example, the theory that cheap imports are both anti-inflationary in themselves and anti-inflationary in their competitive pressure on domestic prices. This notion was a favorite of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker. The most famous technical argument is David Ricardo‘s so-called law of comparative advantage. Unhappily, there isn’t sufficient space here to discuss this “law,” except to say that it consists mostly of exceptions[1].

For the moment I merely want to register the point that each of the arguments, the ideological and the technical, depends – as does standard economics generally – on three assumptions: that full employment actually obtains here and now, that chronological time does not matter, and that all public questions are, au fond, economic questions (or, as Marx had it, that the state will wither away and need not be taken seriously).

Free trade as an ideal has had a long run on the American political stage, starting at least as early as the Boston Tea Party. What has happened recently is not inconsequential. Even as late as 1950, imports were less than 5 per cent of our GNP (exservices): currently they are running at about 16 per cent. Until 1977, American exports generally exceeded imports; I don’t have to tell you that the situation is different now. Nor do I have to read you a list of American industries that have been decimated by foreign competition. Those who say that the global economy is upon us are not far wrong. I am persuaded, however, that what they propose to do about it is indeed far wrong.

Essentially, they make two proposals. The first is the lean and mean thing, to which I will return. The second involves empanelling a committee of government officials, bankers, businessmen, economists, engineers, scientists, and the obligatory representatives of the general public (but not including Ralph Nader) to recommend research and development projects to the government, and then to pass judgment on the results of the research and propose ways of implementing the development of approved ideas. The government’s role would be crucial, because of the antitrust laws and because the research is thought likely to cost more than any corporation, regardless of its size, could afford. In addition, it is observed that the largest corporations tend to devote less and less money to research.

The scheme has both practical and theoretical flaws. The chief practical flaw is that whatever good ideas the committee might come up with would be immediately available worldwide. Just as the American television set industry quickly slipped into the Pacific sunset, so would the new wonder industries.

It is inconceivable, for instance, that giant American corporations would be excluded from the marvelous new industries thought up by the committee. Our giant corporations, however, are not really American; they are multinational. They are motivated by the self-interest of the stockholders (in the conventional theory) or of the managers (in Galbraith’s view); in either case, their devotion is neither to the nation nor to the nation’s workers.

Consequently, upon learning of the miraculous new product along with everybody else, if it is truly miraculous, the responsibility of these corporations to their stockholders or to themselves would require them to start producing it in the least expensive way. And where would they do that? Wherever in the world they found the most stimulating subsidies, the most alluring tax rates and the cheapest labor.

Wherever in the world that might be, it would not be in the United States of America, for the inescapable reason that, at least so far, the American standard of living is higher than that of any other first-rank country. The cheapest labor will not be found here unless we destroy ourselves. On the MacNeill Lehrer Newshour a few months ago, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills seemed to believe the Mexican poverty rate was only about 11 per cent (ours was 13.5 per cent two years ago and has undoubtedly risen since). She must have been thinking of some Mexico other than the one I’ve visited.

A MINOR practical flaw in the committee scheme is inherent in the very idea of creating such a group. Schumpeter counted the mature corporation’s addiction to committee decisions a prime reason for decline, and we all know the absurdity that would result if a committee tried to design an animal. Perhaps more important, we know from experience that a committee is quickly co-opted by those with the liveliest immediate interest in the outcome of its deliberations.

In the proposed body the industry and banking representatives may not be the smartest or the best informed, but they surely will have their minds concentrated on the fate of their sector of the economy, and they will certainly wield the direct and indirect power that comes with enormous wealth. In Japan, captains of industry respect the authority of even minor bureaucrats; in the United States, money talks.

Beyond this, the committee approach has a serious theoretical flaw in that it contradicts the very reasons for its formulation. These, it should be kept in mind, are (1) the decline of American industry because of foreign competition, and (2) the presumed impossibility or unacceptability of self-protection in any form.

The conventional charge against self protection is that it interferes with and distorts the natural course of trade, thus making for inefficient if not altogether wasteful use of resources. Publicists reinforce the charge with the cliché that a man knows better what to do with his money than does some bureaucrat in Washington. Yet if the charge and the cliché were valid, there would be nothing to be done about the decline of American industry. It would be natural and inexorable. Further, it would assure the “efficient” use of resources and be a necessary contribution to the wealth and happiness of mankind. Some people would no doubt be hurt by it, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

On the premises, there is no more place for a reindustrializing committee than there is for self-protection. If the committee wouldn’t interfere with the natural marketplace, what would it do? Its whole purpose is to interfere in a large and comprehensive way. The logic of the scheme is absurd. Major premise: American industry is being ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: A committee should be empaneled to interfere with the free market. What kind of logic is that?

The lean-and-mean logic is similar. Major premise: The American standard of living will be ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: We should make corporations lean by firing people, make them mean by working the surviving employees harder for less pay, and thereby make ourselves miserable without help from anyone else.

I find it odd that standard economics, based as it is on self-interest, should find self-protection invariably reprehensible.

The New Leader

[1] This link includes references to the Law of Comparative Advantage in other Dismal Science articles

By George P. Brockway, originally published September 21, 1992

1992-9-21 The Malignity of Capital Gains Title

THE RECURRING wrangle over the fairness or unfairness of capital gains taxation, while certainly not irrelevant, has distracted attention from the malign effects on the economy of the search for capital gains.

We hear on the one side that they are largely the concern of the rich, and of their pursuit by rapacious business executives. On the other side we are told tales of young men enabled to realize a great invention with the help of a timely investment by some capitalist with vision. We learn, too, of family farms and family businesses, of personal art collections, and of great tracts of unspoiled wilderness that would not be put to their best social uses if equitably taxed.

We hear all of these things, and most of them are true, or could be true. But we hear little or nothing about the influence of the search for capital gains on the stock market and, through the stock market, on the efforts of the Federal Reserve Board to stimulate the economy.

It is a source of much puzzlement that the Reserve’s well publicized three-year long assault on short-term interest rates has done, if anything, the opposite of what it was intended to do. Since the summer of 1989 the Reserve has cut short term interest rates more than 20 times. The expectation, of course, has been that lower rates would encourage producers to borrow and invest in plant expansion and modernization. The resulting increased employment, coupled with lower rates on consumers’ loans, would encourage consumers to buy, thus validating the producers’ expansions and setting the economy on a sustainable upward curve.

The plan made sense from almost every economic point of view, yet its failure is manifest. Producers are shutting down plants instead of opening new ones; unemployment has risen painfully; corporate profits and personal savings are both down; retail sales continue to be disappointing.

For most of the economy 1991 was a bad year, and 1992 is worse. But one sector flourished, and continues to flourish. Nearly all brokerage houses are prosperous, some of them more so than ever before. The stock exchanges, despite waffling between their January and July peaks, have been buying and selling at a record rate.

It has been a long time since Wall Street was primarily concerned about the business prospects of the firms whose shares the exchanges trade in the hundreds of millions every business day. Two statistics dominate the thinking of speculators. The first is unemployment, which is a worry because there is supposed to be a trade-off between unemployment and inflation. But in only three of the 46 years since the end of World War II has unemployment been higher than it is today; so regardless of the validity of the supposition, there is little fear of an imminent resurgence of inflation.

The other number that concerns Wall Street is the interest rate, because the capitalized value of any income-earning asset goes up as the interest rate goes down. The reaction of the secondary market for short- term bonds and notes is almost automatic. The long bond market, being congenitally fearful of inflation, follows at a more circumspect pace. As the prices of bonds rise, common stocks become more attractive investments, both for income and for capital gains.

Therefore, as the Federal Reserve Board has lowered the interest rate, the stock market has climbed. Investors especially speculators eager for capital gains-have rushed to take advantage of the quick profits. Money has poured into the stock market.

Now, that money obviously had to come from somewhere, and its ultimate source had to be the producing economy, where things are made and sold and services are performed and paid for. It may be old money from CDs and money market funds and bonds, or it may be new money borrowed at the new interest rates. In either case, it is money that the rising stock market denies to the producing economy. The lower interest rates, instead of stimulating the producing economy, have caused money to be drained away from it. Hence the deplored credit crunch.

Unfortunately, there is nothing the Federal Reserve Board can do about this. A continuation of the policy of lowering the interest rate will lead to a continuation of its consequences. A determination to stand pat will leave us in our present doldrums. A reversal of policy, raising the interest rate, will not only deepen the recession but very likely cause the market to crash. Moreover, when the market crashes the money that is lost simply disappears. It is not returned to the producing economy, nor does it reappear as cash in someone’s pocket.

Gross private domestic investment, as a percentage of GNP, was practically unchanged in 1986, 1987, and 1988 (the year before the crash, the year of the crash and the year after the crash). The percentages were 13.5, 13.1, and 13.8, respectively. As for cash, M1, which includes it, fell in 1987 as the market fell. The lost money was gone forever.

Was the Reserve wrong, then, to reduce the interest rate? Certainly not. Usurious rates are largely responsible for the recession, and still lower rates will be necessary to end it. It is true that the discount rate is now lower than it has been for 30 years. It is also true that it is three times what it was in 1947 and six times what it was on special advances in 1946.

Although the Reserve Board’s recent intentions bay be good, they have been, and will continue to be, overwhelmed by the altogether understandable rapacity of seekers after capital gains. It’s easy to make money on a rising market, but you have to risk a dollar to make a dollar. The dollars that you risk are dollars you might have risked in buying a new machine for your factory or in replenishing the inventory of your store. Your broker will try to tell you that by buying a share of stock you are producing goods just as much as if you were buying a machine for your factory. But of course the stock and the machine don’t both produce goods and it takes time to make money with the machine, while you can do that on the stock exchange very fast. So if you’re smart, you will play the market, and the Federal Reserve Board will be frustrated.

If the Federal Reserve cannot get us out of this mess we are in who can?  Unwittingly, President Bush has pointed the way – even though, characteristically, he was looking in the other direction. He has proposed a low capital gains tax, and a still lower tax on gains on some assets held more than five years. It won’t take you very long to see that his proposal would merely make more attractive the speculation that drains money from the producing economy.

Yet a sliding tax scale could take the profit out of speculating. If I had my druthers, I would have a capital gains tax that went something like this: Gains on some assets held more than five years would be taxed at 95 per cent, gains on assets held more than a year but less than two years would be taxed at 90 per cent, and so on, with the rate falling 5 points a year for 10 years.

Some changes in the tax law should be made regardless of the rates. Gains certainly should be taxed when assets change hands by gift or bequest as well as by sale. Capital gains of otherwise tax-exempt institutions should be taxed, because such institutions are responsible for much of the current market churning. On the other hand, it would be desirable to exempt principal family residences that fall below a certain value, along with small family farms and businesses.

Capital gains are an archaic form of profit. Despite their name, they are typical not of the capitalist system, but of mercantilism and more primitive economic systems. Likewise, the speculation that gives rise to them is an archaic form of economic enterprise. In the Renaissance the merchants of Venice organized each commercial voyage as a separate affair. Their personal experience taught them the sorts of goods most likely to be wanted on the Golden Horn. They stocked their outward bound galleys accordingly, and they brought home the sorts of things they could sell quickly and profitably at the quayside. The system was a series of speculative ventures, making the most of ad hoc opportunities to buy cheap and sell dear. When the selling was ended, the enterprise was ended, too. Capital gains are realized only when an investment is withdrawn and ceases.

In contrast, a modern corporation is a continuing enterprise. The basic concepts of classical and neoclassical economics are irrelevant to it. It could not continue if its market were “cleared. Since its market is not cleared, the “law” of diminishing returns is obviously violated. If the law of diminishing returns does not apply, there is no “margin,” and marginal pricing is impossible. If marginal pricing is impossible, “equilibrium” is neither necessary, likely, nor desirable. (And this is a good thing, for as all theorists from Leon Walras to Gerard Debreu acknowledge, economies of scale – the ideal mode of modern business enterprise – are impossible under equilibrium.)

Four years ago it was argued (fallaciously) by candidate George Bush that reducing the capital gains tax would increase tax collections (see “George Bush’s New Trojan Horse,” NL, September 19, 1988). His lips seem to be buttoned shut on that one today. Now we are told that reducing the tax would stimulate business, a notion dear to the far Right, which nevertheless mysteriously mistrusts him. But surely the Federal Reserve Board has had enough experience in the past three years to prove that to encourage capital gains is to encourage speculation, and that to encourage speculation is to induce a credit crunch that throttles productive enterprise.

A low capital gains tax is unfair because it is for the principal benefit of the rich. It is also economically counterproductive.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published June 29, 1992

1992-6-29 The Last Chapter on Keynes Title

ONE OF THE saddest pieces in modern literature is the last chapter of John Maynard KeynesThe General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. It was not meant to be sad. It was written in exultation by a man of 52 at the height of his powers. He had been editor of the Economic Journal, the most prestigious publication in his field, for 25 years. He was the author of several influential political pamphlets and four major books, one of them an international best-seller, another a ground-breaking two-volume Treatise on Money. He was active and known and listened to in Cambridge, Manchester, Whitehall, and the City of London.

As he wrote the final chapter, he could look back with satisfaction on five years of hard work on a book he was frank to say he expected would change the world. The people with whom he had discussed his ideas and to whom he had submitted proofs of the work in progress encouraged him in that expectation, though he scarcely needed encouragement. He was self-confident to the brink of arrogance. At the same time, he had a saving wit (those who felt its occasional sting were not so sure it was “saving”) that was often turned toward himself. How else can we interpret the title he gave his great book? The General Theory, indeed! Did he rank himself with Einstein? Of course he did. Did he find it amusing that he should be so pushy? Yes, that too.

The heart of the whole work is in the last chapter’s first sentence: “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” I can only think that most economists reading that sentence have shrugged as they shrug when, let us say, a politician makes obligatory declarations in favor of school and family – two institutions everyone believes in and no one proposes to do anything substantial about. Then they probably have skimmed lightly to the famous peroration concerning “ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil,” and have returned contentedly to the construction and deconstruction of their mathematical models.

Keynes, however, intended his ideas to be “dangerous for good.” The economy’s faults were dangerous for evil” – not inconvenience, but evil. The economy would not work properly unless they were corrected. Every aspect of The General Theory depended upon and was directed toward that correction. Few noticed.

At a crucial point in Chapter 6 Keynes shows the fallacy of the classical theory that saving drives the economy. He writes: “Saving, in fact, is a mere residual.” At the end of the chapter he announces that” the conception of the propensity to consume will, in what follows, take the place of the propensity or disposition to save.”

Okay, say mathematically trained economists, wherever S appears in our equations we’ll substitute C. But they pay no attention to the distribution of incomes. Indeed, their procedure is one of deduction from axioms, with all reference to actual situations rigorously excluded. The result is confusion.

In the modern economy of mass production, while it may not make much difference who does the saving, it makes all the difference in the world who does the consuming. Affairs might be so badly skewed that only one person did all the saving, and the system could creak along reasonably well. But the system would not work if one person did all the consuming (a manifest absurdity); and it will not work very well when 20 percent of the people do a mere 4.3 percent of the consuming (which is the way we try to run things in the United States today [in 1992]).

In a mass-production economy, consumption is a chore that cannot be delegated. A feudal economy can do everything it has to do when one-tenth of 1 per cent of the people dine on pate of reindeer tongue, and 99.9 per cent get along on carrot soup. A modern economy falters whenever a sizable percentage of the population is denied its output. If the output isn’t fully consumed, there is no point in producing so much; and if there is no point in producing so much, there is no point in employing so many people, whereupon things start to unravel – rather, many things are not knitted up in the first place.

In talking about “arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes,” Keynes wasn’t ritualistically endorsing motherhood; he was pointing to the heart of the problem. This was so obvious that he didn’t think it needed much emphasis. The solutions, too, were obvious, and a few of them had been in partial use: nearly confiscatory death duties, steeply progressive income taxes, possibly a cap on incomes. What would be necessary at a particular stage in a particular society might not be appropriate in another, One wouldn’t know until one tried. It is also very likely, as he wrote in a previous chapter, that “the duty of ordering the current volume of investment [to achieve full employment] cannot safely be left in private hands.” Again, one could not say in advance exactly how this should be organized.

Keynes taught himself probability theory, and wrote a fat book about it, to satisfy himself that, as regards the future, “We simply do not know.” Unfortunately, some of his most skeptical critics and some of his most enthusiastic supporters undertook to supply the unavailable knowledge. The result was what several generations of bemused undergraduates have learned to call the IS-LM curve, which is supposed to show “the simultaneous determination of equilibrium values of the interest rate and the level of national income as a result of conditions in the goods and money markets.” That’s what The MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics says; don’t look at me[1].

And don’t let it fret you. It’s all a game of let’s-pretend. But it distracted the economics profession from Keynes’ message and sent the majority off on a treasure hunt for equilibria to make graphs and journal articles of. (Physics, the source of the idea, equates equilibrium with entropy, or the end of change, a.k.a. death. But let that pass.)

KEYNES, TO BE sure, was not above trying to peer into the future himself. The peroration of The General Theory may even be taken as an example. I want to shift here, though to an essay he wrote six years earlier. It is called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” He advanced two propositions: First, the “economic problem” would be solved in about a hundred years, provided there were no major wars and the population did not expand too much. Second, the process would depend on the steady accumulation of capital, and that would come about by means of incentives then in force. “For at least another hundred years,” he wrote, “we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little while longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

The man who said, “In the long run we are all dead,” should have known that things seldom if ever work out as envisioned. Only 62 of his prophecy’s 100 years have run [in 1992.  84 years as of the day this is put on-line], and we certainly have not avoided major wars or population explosions. Nor have we seen recent signs of the sort of capital accumulation that Keynes expected to lead us into daylight. As for the interest rate, which he expected to trend steadily downward and effect “the euthanasia of the functionless investor,” it is (even at today’s supposedly low rates) higher than it ever was in his lifetime.

Two contemporaries, Bernard Shaw (whom he admired) and Lenin (whom he did not), had visions similar in form to his. In the Preface to Major Barbara, Shaw wrote “that the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty, and that our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.” In the play proper, Cusins asks: “Excuse me: is there any place in your religion for honor, justice, truth, love, mercy, and so forth?” Undershaft replies: “Yes: they are the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.”

Lenin, foreseeing the establishment of the Communist state, wrote in The State and Revolution: “Capitalist culture has created large-scale production, factories, railways, the postal service, telephones, etc., and on this basis the great majority of the functions of the old ‘state power’ have become so simplified and can be reduced to such exceedingly simple operations of registration, filing, and checking that they can be quite easily performed by every literate person.”

These three visions all rely on a situation or change of one sort to effect a change of another. In each case, foul or death-dealing or self-serving motives are supposed to be led, one might almost say by an invisible hand, to lay the foundations of the good life. Assume the foundations at last to be laid. Why should the original motives cease to be effective? Why should men and women who have succeeded with “avarice, usury, and precaution” now abdicate? Undershaft obviously enjoys his religion of being a millionaire and his control of money and gunpowder. Why give it all up for “graces and luxuries” he already has? Even in the Lenin example, where the same people may be involved first and last, one wonders why self-serving bureaucrats become dedicated and efficient public servants (for surely that was Lenin’s expectation – and we have lived to see it disappointed).

More important, how can you and I and Keynes himself – understanding the difference – renounce the fair and embrace the foul? What an obscene pretense is asked of us!

Well, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” is perhaps a playful aberration in Keynes. His steady theme elsewhere is that economics is one of the “moral sciences” (a phrase he no doubt learned from his Comtian father). His formal ethics was heavily influenced by the hedonism of G. E. Moore and thus was a far cry from that of, say, the American National Conference of Bishops – as both his and theirs are from mine. Yet he and I could have agreed with the bishops when they wrote, “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in the light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.” (See ” Bishops Move Diagonally,” NL, March 23, 1987.)

Keynes’ initial disagreement with classical economics was that it denied the existence and even the possibility of involuntary unemployment. Today the economics profession either accepts a “natural” rate of unemployment, which may be as high as 6 or 7 per cent, or rejects the relevance of ethics altogether. The high road surveyed in The General Theory, and described in its last chapter, was not taken.

It might have been[2].

The New Leader

[1] The author also refers here to a college prank of his.  In his senior year he had a course taught by a professor with a never admitted to or publicly used nickname, “Birdy,” and whose ideas were generally thought little of.  On a final exam the author says he wrote a complete and accurate response as the professor would have wanted, no arguing with the professor, but his last sentence, which resulted in a trip to the dean, was “That’s what Birdie says; don’t look at me!”

[2] It might still be

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