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Posts Tagged ‘creative destruction’

The future of capitalism

Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.

The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.

The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.

All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.

The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.

The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.

The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”

So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?

Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.

Articles
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)

Questions

  1. Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
  2. What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
  3. Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
  4. What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
  5. Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
  6. What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
  7. What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
  8. What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?
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The self-destruction of capitalism – was Marx right?

The following podcast from the BBC Radio 4′s series, A Point of View is by John Gray, emeritus professor of European thought at the LSE and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. In the podcast, he considers whether Marx, the great 19th century thinker, was right to predict the demise of capitalism.

Marx’s picture of the end of capitalism and the stages of society that would succeed it have been dismissed by most academics and commentators as quite false. Marx predicted that as capitalist economies became increasingly unstable and unequal, so workers would rise up in revolution. What would follow would be a socialist state in which the means of production would be collectively owned and output and distribution would be planned. As socialist economies became wealthier and life was perceived to be fairer, so the need for state control would diminish. Eventually the state would wither away and the ultimate stage of communism would be reached, where there would sufficient resources to reward everyone according to their needs.

Two of the key criticisms of Marx’s analysis are: (a) capitalism was overthrown in only a few countries and (b) in the countries that did adopt central planning, such as the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, the state did not wither away; instead, they reverted to capitalism.

But whilst Marx’s analysis of a post-capitalist world may have been flawed, his analysis of the weaknesses and tensions of capitalism have been prophetically correct in many regards. As John Gray says:

It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.

Listen to the podcast and try to assess whether we are witnessing a 21st century version of Marx’s 19th century vision.

A Point of View: The revolution of capitalism (article) BBC Radio 4, John Gray (4/9/11)
A Point of View: The revolution of capitalism (podcast) BBC Radio 4, John Gray (4/9/11) (see alternatively)
Has Western capitalism failed? BBC News (23/9/11)

Questions

  1. Why, according to Marx, do capitalist societies contain the seeds of their own destruction? What role would the middle classes play in this?
  2. Why does capitalism transform everything it touches?
  3. Explain what is meant by ‘creative destruction’.
  4. How would Marxists respond to the criticisms of their analysis that the middle classes have got proportionately bigger and that, with the advent of the minimum wage, even the poorest workers are protected?
  5. To what extent has the experience of the developed world since the banking crisis of 2007/8 lent weight to the Marxist analysis?
  6. John Gray says that “Today there is no haven of security.” What does he mean by this and is there an answer within capitalism?
  7. And here’s a hard question to finish with: if capitalism does contain the seeds of its own destruction, what will succeed it? Will it be something other than capitalism and, if so, what? Or will it be a new variety of capitalism and, if so, what will it look like?
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The morally hazardous business cycle

“‘Capitalism,’ Schumpeter wrote, ‘is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary … This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism”. In the article below William Keegan looks at this process of creative destruction and relates it to the current financial crisis and the downturn in the business cycle.

Moral hazard? It’s just another danger along the capitalist way Guardian (5/10/08)
Time To Drop The Baggage That Comes With Moral Hazard Financial Times (4/10/08)

Questions
1. Explain what is meant by the term ‘Creative Destruction’.
2. Explain what is meant by the term ‘Moral Hazard’.
3. “In theory, enlightened economic policies can moderate the workings of the business cycle”. Discuss possible policies that can moderate the workings of the business cycle.
4. Discuss the extent to which the recent economic boom was an ‘asset-price boom’ rather than a ‘traditional one’.
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