We’re All Friedmanites Now, IV (But for How Long?)

In the last three posts, I attempted to cover various issues related to the rightward shift in America’s economic policy- its history, its context and its effects. In the (thankfully) final chapter of whatever this is, I would like to offer some potential solutions (and, indeed, problem with those solutions) to the issue.

A big part of this issue is how economics is taught. As excited as I am to discuss economic pedagogy, I think doing so would run the risk of alienating my, like, seven regular readers. As such, I’ll touch upon them quickly and then move on to more prosaic concerns. Firstly, the focus on rational self-interest, I believe, has run its course. There needs to be a bigger focus on alternative decision-making in the economics curriculum. This should comprise not only a focus on behavioral economics, but also the role played by uncertainty, as well as the institutional, social and political context in which we make economic decisions. Secondly, there needs to be a debate on where the political center of mainstream economics lies. Clearly, Edward Prescott and Joseph Stiglitz cannot both claim to be dispassionate researchers despite their vastly different policy conclusions (I say this with a tremendous respect for Dr Stiglitz’s work.) Economists must either play a genuinely non-ideological position (difficult-to-impossible, given the inherently political character of our work), or be more forthright about their policy convictions (which everyone can pretty much tell anyway if they can read between the lines.) Similarly, adherence to particular economic schools needs to be toned down, and ideas should flow across these largely artificial boundaries more freely. Finally, the focus on static analysis- that is- analysis frozen in time must give way to more dynamic analysis. Static analysis need not be overthrown, as it provides a solid framework for analysis. But increasingly powerful computational tools for dynamic analysis are available every day, and we should avail ourselves of them. Agent-based computational economics is a very good start.

We cannot deny that a substantive political debate on inequality has begun. A very telling example of this debate is the speech Federal Reserve chairperson Dr Janet Yellen made a few days ago. Ten- even five years ago- we would have thought it a cold day in Hell when a nominally apolitical Fed chair would throw down a list of “center-left” talking points on the issue of inequality. It’s a testament to the gravity of the situation, and I would argue that characterizing these opinions (read: facts) as politically biased is unfair, given that these opinions (read: facts) are, in fact, facts. Dr Yellen (for whom I have tremendous respect, as she has broadly resisted the rightward drift in economics, actually takes non-mainstream approaches to economics seriously, and has broken into the upper-levels of the boys’ club) is actually the unbiased one- former Fed chairs, such as the ex-Ayn Rand associate Alan Greenspan are the partisans.

But the fact remains: Dr Yellen is a Fed chair, and while having a leader in the field of economics raise the issue is vital, there’s a limited amount monetary policy can do to alleviate inequality. Sure, a pro-growth monetary policy can help increase the size of the pie, which could then be distributed downward. But with today’s fiscal and incomes policies, that’s simply not a possibility. Clearly then, the solution is in fiscal and incomes policy. There are a few options, among others: a minimum wage hike, an expansion of the EITC, a wealth tax (i.e., a tax on assets), more progressive income taxation, increased education spending combined with an education policy overhaul. Of these options, the first two are politically viable in the immediate and the last one is politically viable only if the debt issue is solved (or people, rightly, start caring less about it). It seems hugely unlikely, however, that tax policies- the most powerful tool on the list- will be changed any time soon. This is a catch-22: political power is disproportionate because of inequality, and putting a big dent in inequality is difficult because of disproportionate political power.

Fortunately, the minimum wage debate is making gains in the political sphere. While it still has its discontents, some of America’s more progressive cities have already started the process of raising the minimum wage, and not before its time. Frankly, I believe that once we see that the effects of the minimum wage hike are slim-to-none, it’s only a matter of time before other cities, states and finally the federal government begin adopting better minimum wage policies. An even more viable option is expanding the EITC- as it is a targeted program that, theoretically, bears less influence on employment, there is a great deal of bipartisan agreement that it is a good framework for poverty alleviation. There seems to be a debate on whether to expand on EITC or raise the minimum wage- I see no reason why we cannot and should not do both.

Education is of key importance to the debate. Job market competitiveness requires more education as economies develop, and it should be intuitive to any reader that a more skilled workforce benefits from (and can create) greater opportunities. However, a feedback loop exists in education systems- greater income inequality reduces the quality of schooling in poorer areas, and poorer schools provide fewer opportunities for students. The skyrocketing costs of higher education (again, a function of the unique market power universities- especially private ones- hold) prevent decent skills training for those who need it most. There are two pressing concerns within the education debate, though- the first being that any decision to increase education spending and overhaul the school system will hit a debt roadblock. Debt is not actually all that important , but so long as we are convinced it is, we’re unlikely to see gains in this area. Secondly, a great number of highly educated people are still un- or under-employed. Education works, time and time again, but it is still not a panacea. A combination of growth, redistribution and education is required to affect a genuine shift in public well-being.

In light to the difficulty of solving the inequality issue, I have yet to believe we’re so far down the road that we should abandon all hope or start listening to Russell Brand. The least we can do is stay attuned of these issues, exercise what democratic rights we have left, and keep pushing for reform wherever we can. Perhaps a silver lining of politics not being all that polarized is that we’re all in the same boat- the same dingy, increasingly water-logged boat- together. We can use that. There are policy solutions available, but none of them will be all that useful if We don’t give a shit.


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