Thursday, March 22, 2018

Economic Inequality And Economics Theory-- Stiglitz To The Rescue

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I used to be in the music business. Like in many businesses, there was always a tension between executives who put all their energy and resources into the current quarter and executives who felt a responsibility towards creating long-term (future) shareholder value. Bonuses-- which could be 6 or 7 figure amounts-- tended to be based on the short-term approach. That's, at least in part, why so many music companies have gone under.

Recently Business Insider ran a piece about Davos that deals with the problems around economic inequality, which stems, at least in part from 1970s stagnation, where chasing quarterly profits has resulted in a toxic short-termism. The piece is primarily about how Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz views this short-termism. Short version: "I want to emphasize that it was, in this period, not only activist shareholders but Milton Friedman," the late economist and fellow Nobel laureate, who was to blame for this prevailing ideology. "And he was wrong." Reporter Richard Feloni noted that "In his highly influential 1962 collection of essays, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman proclaimed that in a free economy, 'there is one and only one social responsibility of business-- to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.'"
We followed up with Stiglitz after the Davos panel, and he told us that Friedman's assertion "was not based on any economic theory." He then gave some background on the origins of this debate.

Friedman made his assertion as a natural extension of a defining passage in Adam Smith's definitive The Wealth of Nations from 1776, that of the "invisible hand." Smith wrote that an individual laboring in his own interest is "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."

Stiglitz pointed out that indeed the invisible hand's existence was "proven" in 1954 by the economists Kenneth J. Arrow and Gerard Debreu. Arrow and Debreu were able to show the existence of an equilibrium between supply and demand in a free, competitive economy-- but they also made clear that this could only exist if a given set of assumptions about the economy and consumer behavior were true.

And the latter part is essential, said Stiglitz.

"Then some of us, beginning in the late '60s, asked the question, 'Well what happens if those conditions aren't satisfied?'" he told Business Insider.

Stiglitz said that he and the economist Sandy Grossman investigated this question throughout the '70s. In 1980, they published a paper that declared that while market equilibrium can exist in theory, it was "impossible" for it to exist in a competitive economy in reality. Following this line of thinking, then, Friedman's argument falls apart. And therefore, existing solely to please shareholders will not-- as Friedman argued-- benefit other stakeholders, such as employees, consumers, and society as a whole.

Stiglitz respected Friedman (who died in 2006) for his work on consumption that won him a Nobel prize, he wrote in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality, but the two had several arguments about this idea of the free market. "I remember long discussions with him on the consequences of imperfect information or incomplete risk markets; my own work and that of numerous colleagues had shown that in these conditions, markets typically didn't work well. Friedman simply couldn't or wouldn't grasp these results."

Friedman's ideas, however, would take hold in the US for the next few decades.

When Stiglitz cites what he considers to be the problem of Friedman, he explained, he's using him as the figurehead for a movement that took advantage of the societal trends [Henry] Blodget mentioned. This movement was led by the Chicago school of economics, the free market ideology developed at the University of Chicago in the mid-20th century.

As Stiglitz sees it, Americans, particularly on the right, embraced the Chicago school's way of thinking because it appeared to be the efficient solution to stimulating a stagnant economy.

Within this free market ideology, pursuing short-term value is simultaneously a pursuit of long-term value. If you accept this, prioritizing short-term gains comes through the optimization of management and spending, which allows the company to grow, in turn supplying higher returns, more jobs and other benefits to society, and better products.

It is a rejection of a fundamental Keynesian belief, Stiglitz noted.

British economist John Maynard Keynes published his revolutionary book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, in the wake of the Great Depression. In it, he differentiated between short-term and long-term value, and expressed his frustration with the way the American stock market encouraged public companies to prioritize short-term gains, better for the majority of contemporary investors, over long-term gains, better for society as a whole. The basic premise of the argument Keynes had with his peers is the same as the one today.

"The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future," Keynes warned.

More Americans in positions of power began gravitating toward the Chicago school's ideas in the '70s, and Friedman became an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Not only did Friedman have the ear of the leader of the free world, but the Chicago school's theories around lawmaking for the intended purpose of market efficiency also came to fruition.

In his 2015 book Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy, Stiglitz said that the normalization of shareholder primacy was solidified under the Reagan administration through changes to federal income tax law and securities law, including relaxed antitrust laws. This fostered the rise of activist investors.

"If all of this had led to more efficient and innovative corporations, that would have been one thing," Stiglitz wrote. "But in fact, the new 'activist' investors pushed for seats on boards and pressured management into policies that were viewed as more 'shareholder-friendly'-- meaning friendlier to short-term investors-- including increasing dividends and buyouts."

The Securities and Exchange Commission continued this trend through the early 1990s.

And while the increasingly linked nature of CEO pay and stock performance was ostensibly to keep CEOs accountable to their shareholders, Stiglitz argued, it instead materialized as "an incentive to manipulate stock prices by using company money to buy back shares in order to drive prices higher." That's how you got from the average ratio of CEO-to-median-level-employee pay from 20-to-1 in 1965 to 295-to-1 today.

For Stiglitz, the outrage isn't that individuals making that much is a moral outrage by itself, it's that it's happening at the expense of the entire economy.

Stiglitz told us that this decades-old debate about how to balance the creation of short-term and long-term value is recently gaining new life in the US because of the venomous class class tensions and ugly politics arising out of income inequality, and because people in positions of power are looking at the big picture and realizing that something has to change.

And regardless of the performance of the stock market this year, the economy overall is not doing too well, Stiglitz argued, when you look at it from the perspective of GDP growth.

"When we were growing at 4% we might have been able to grow even faster," he said. "But we took the 4% and enjoyed it. But when we're growing at 2-2.5%, and we had been growing at 3.5%, the natural question is, 'What's happened? Is there something wrong?'"

What we're seeing today is largely the result of the ideas championed by the likes of Friedman that seemed so promising to those in power in the '80s, Stiglitz argued. It's contributed greatly to this combination of inequality and low growth in America.

Stiglitz said that while CEOs aren't going to solve inequality on their own, the reason they exist in society is to grow the economy, and more are realizing they need to make changes.

It's why, for example, someone like BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, as the head of the largest asset manager in the world, has felt compelled to take a stand against short-termism. In a letter to CEOs this year, Fink announced that BlackRock will only do business with companies that have clearly defined long-term strategies that benefit in society in some way.

"Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential," Fink wrote. "It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders. It will succumb to short-term pressures to distribute earnings, and, in the process, sacrifice investments in employee development, innovation, and capital expenditures that are necessary for long-term growth. It will remain exposed to activist campaigns that articulate a clearer goal, even if that goal serves only the shortest and narrowest of objectives."

For Stiglitz, Fink's letter and similar declarations from large companies like Unilever aren't calls to feel good and congratulate each other, but are arising out of a sense of urgency. It's an urgency to shed the Friedman doctrine.


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7 Comments:

At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" ..Americans, particularly on the right, embraced the Chicago school's way of thinking because it appeared to be the efficient solution to stimulating a stagnant economy."

horseshit!

I'm going to invoke Occam's Razor again here. The reasons that the right (of which the Chicago School is and was a part) embraced Friedman is because it ratified for them one simple impulse -- greed. It's EXACTLY that "Greed is good" thing from that disgusting movie.

Friedman told everyone, in an academic way, that their greed is good and when you add up all the greed acted upon by everyone, the sum was positive for everyone and everything. This theory is horseshit on its face. That any serious academic would give it any credence or respect is an indictment on themselves and their study.

J.M. Keynes might have been the most brilliant economist ever (his theories were nearly as revolutionary as Einstein's relativity was at that time). And, clearly, when his theories were put into practice, they worked spectacularly. That alone should have acted to utterly repudiate Friedman's quackery... but greed (the dark side) is far more powerful than altruism in americans. And americans managed to spread our cancer all over the world in spite of (at the time) 50 years of solid repudiation in practice (like, REAL man!) of that quackery.

I've always respected Stiglitz. I've always wondered why he (there are many others too) is largely ignored by global press. I do not wonder why he's largely ignored in America. Americans are the dumbest and greediest population on earth, Darwinistically selected for such by 40 years of Friedmanism.

 
At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unless an economic theory has the good of the entire society as its primary feature, it is going to cause great harm and social pain. Keynesianism had its problems (the idea that effort expended isn't productive activity unless money changes hands, for instance), but as the author notes, it ran better than anything else tried since - unless you are wealthy.

Mow that wealth owns the governing mechanism of too many nations, we are going to perform a reboot of the 1930s with all of the bells and whistles modern technology created in the mean time. I just hope for now that the apparel styles of that era remain in the closet. We have enough Nazis running amok without giving them fancy duds to adorn.

 
At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friedmanism is that same old religious practice whereby humans create their deity in their own image.

Their gawd becomes one of selective disdain, genocide, arrogance and hubris.

Their economist deity becomes the one who rationalizes their own greed, elitist hatreds and corruption.

 
At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

8:07, trump is such a fat fuck, he'd look like a hippo in military dress.
On the plus side, he'd have a very wide area on which to pin a million fake medals and fruit salad.

And the hat would make his hair look even worse.

He'd have to pick a uniform color scheme that didn't clash with orange.

 
At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...trump is such a fat fuck, he'd look like a hippo in military dress."

So did Goering, but that didn't stop him from parading about as if he was important.

 
At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah. Goering. HE is the parallel, the incompetent fat fuck pompous shithead who stole everything he could grab.

That would make our hitler... pence?

 
At 7:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

5:11

Pence is not our Hitler. Just listen to him speak sometime. "Mother" would never have led 1933 Germany to disaster.

I see many who desire to play that role, but I don't see anyone who can - yet.

 

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