Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems by Charles E. Lindblom

I began reading this book sometime around 1978. I finished it today. I don’t remember why I stopped reading it the first time. Through the years, I thought about picking it up again but never did. Until a few weeks ago.

Charles Lindblom (1917-2018) was a Yale professor of politics and economics. In Politics and Markets, he categorizes and analyzes the different ways nations are organized, concentrating on the relative roles played by governments and markets in countries ranging from the United States and United Kingdom on one end of the continuum to China, the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other. Since the book was published in 1977, he pays a lot more attention to communism than he would do today.

Reading this book is strange at times. Lindblom is describing something in great detail that you might feel you already know. Don’t we all understand how governments and markets work? Well, not as well as Prof. Lindblom did. (Still, if you had to teach relatively advanced students from another planet about the way governments and businesses operate on Earth, starting from scratch, Politics and Markets would make a very good text.)

The book left me with two main thoughts. The first is hardly a revelation: all countries, even Cuba circa 1976, are hybrids. All countries have governments, of course. But all of them also employ so-called “free markets” as well. No society is totally planned by the government, for good reasons. Even the most pervasive governments use markets for various purposes, as when money is paid to acquire consumer goods or to attract employees to better-paying jobs.

This makes China’s transition from a communist country to a leading participant in world markets easier to understand. The Chinese have retained the one-party control of communism while doing a better job at capitalism than many of their capitalist competitors. The issue is always what mechanisms (laws, regulations, civic education) should be used to insure that businesses are successful while serving the health and welfare of society. Neither total government control of the economy nor total freedom for business would make sense. 

The other thought is more surprising. We often hear that democracy and capitalism work well together. They say it’s something to do with freedom. Yet there is a serious conflict between democracy and big business. Lindblom explains how the people who run businesses must be encouraged or induced to keep the economy functioning. If government officials interfere too much (from the business perspective), companies can stop producing sufficient amounts of the goods and services the rest of us need, at prices we can afford. They can also decide to pay us to little to live on or employ too few of us. If business people don’t produce enough or raise prices too much, there’s inflation; if they don’t pay us enough or hire enough of us, there’s deflation.. 

Because big corporations are so important to the economic life of a nation, the unelected owners and managers of these firms wield great power. From the book’s final paragraphs:

. . . It is possible that the rise of the corporation has offset or more than offset the decline of class as an instrument of indoctrination. That the corporation is a powerful instrument for indoctrination we have documented earlier. That it has risen to prominence in society as class lines have muted is clear enough. That it creates a new core of wealth and power for a newly constructed upper class, as well an an overpowering loud voice, is also reasonably clear. 

The executive of the large corporation, is on, on many counts, the contemporary counterpart to the landed gentry of an earlier era, his voice amplified by the technology of mass communication. A single corporate voice on television, it has been estimated, can reach more minds in one evening than were reached from all the platforms of all the world’s meetings in the course of several centuries preceding broadcasting. More than class, the major specific institutional barrier to fuller democracy may therefore be the autonomy of the private corporation.

It has been a curious feature of democratic thought that it has not faced up to the private corporation as a peculiar organization in an ostensible democracy. Enormously large, rich in resources, the big corporations, we have seen, command more resources than do most government units. They can also, over a broad range, insist that government meet their demands, even if these demands run counter to those of citizens expressed through their polyarchal [rule by the many] controls. Moreover, they do not disqualify themselves from playing the partisan role of a citizen — for the corporation is legally a person. And they exercise unusual veto powers. They are on all these counts disproportionately powerful, we have seen. The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit.

Lindblom doesn’t offer a solution, although he thinks more corporations might be treated like defense contractors or public utilities. The government would guarantee their profits while exerting significant control over their operations.

And with that, Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets can safely return to a bookcase to sit quietly for another 40 years. That’s if it escapes the recycling bin, or a natural disaster, since even excellent books don’t live forever.

Decisions, Decisions

Our mail-in ballots arrived today. I’m wondering if I should vote for the candidate who’s a decent person with a substantial record of government service? Or his opponent, a horrible person with a history of deceit and fraud? Further down the ballot, should I vote for candidates who will help the next president achieve his goals or the ones who will do everything possible to make him fail? Hmm.

One reason to vote for Biden and members of his party is that, despite what many think, Democratic presidents have a better record on the economy than Republican presidents. Paul Krugman of the City University of New York and the New York Times explains:

[On Monday night], Joe Biden claimed that his tax and spending plans would create millions of jobs and promote economic growth. Txxxx claimed that they would destroy the economy.

Well, everything we know suggests that Biden was right and Txxxx wrong. And I’m not the only one saying this. Nonpartisan analysts like Moody’s Analytics and the not-exactly-socialist economists at Goldman Sachs are remarkably high on Biden’s proposals. . . .

There’s a widespread perception that Republicans are better than Democrats at managing the economy. But that’s not at all what the record says.

Yes, Ronald Reagan presided over a long economic expansion; but so did Bill Clinton, and the Clinton boom was both longer and bigger. The economy did in fact add many jobs under Txxxx before the coronavirus struck, but this simply represented the continuation of an expansion that began under Barack Obama.

And those were the good stretches. Both Bushes presided over really poor economic performance.

Republicans also have a long history of claiming that progressive policies would lead to economic disaster. They’ve been wrong every time.

They’ve been wrong about tax hikes: When Clinton raised taxes in 1993, Republicans confidently predicted recession, but what actually happened was a huge boom. When California raised taxes under Jerry Brown, the right called it “economic suicide”; again, the economy boomed.

They’ve also been wrong about social programs. Obamacare, the G.O.P. insisted, would destroy millions of jobs. One of the dozens of attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act was actually called the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” Yet in the six years after January 2014, when the act went into full effect, the economy added almost 15 million jobs.

And let’s not forget the flip side, the many, many times Republicans promised that cutting taxes on the rich would produce an economic miracle, promises that never came true. There’s a reason conservatives still go on and on about the Reagan boom, all those years ago; it’s the only example they have that even seems to support their economic ideology. (It doesn’t, but that’s another topic.)

But there’s a difference between saying that progressive policies are not the disaster conservatives claim and saying that Biden’s plan would actually promote growth. Why are Moody’s and Goldman Sachs so high on his proposals? Why do I share that optimism?

First, the background. Even before the coronavirus, good employment numbers could hide underlying economic weakness. For at least the past decade, we’ve been living in a world of excess savings: the amount the private sector saves persistently exceeds the amount it spends on real investments. This savings glut is reflected in low interest rates, even when the economy is strong.

Low interest rates, in turn, limit the ability of the Federal Reserve to fight downturns, which is why Jerome Powell, the Fed’s chairman, has been pleading for more fiscal stimulus.

In today’s world, then, we actually want the government to run budget deficits, because they put excess savings to use. But we also want those deficits to be productive — to boost investment, and strengthen the economy in the long run.

The 2017 Txxxx tax cut flunked that test. It increased the budget deficit, but the main driver of that red ink — a huge cut in corporate taxes — utterly failed to yield the promised surge in business investment.

Biden’s plan would roll back that corporate tax cut, replacing it with spending programs likely to yield much more bang for the buck. In particular, much of the spending would be on infrastructure and education — that is, outlays aimed at strengthening the economy in the long run, as well as boosting it over the next few years.

When Moody’s ran this program through their model, it concluded that by the end of 2024, real gross domestic product would be 4.5 percent higher than under a continuation of Txxxx’s policies, translating into an additional 7 million jobs. Goldman Sach’s estimates are similar: a 3.7 percent gain in G.D.P.

Now, a model is only a model, and economists’ predictions are often wrong (although some of us are willing to acknowledge error and learn from our mistakes).

But if you’re trying to assess the candidates’ economic claims, you should know that Txxxx’s predictions of a Biden bust lack credibility, not just because Txxxx lies about everything, but because Republicans always predict disaster from progressive policy, and have never yet been right.

And you should also know that Biden’s assertions that his plan would give the economy a significant boost are well grounded in mainstream economics and supported by independent, nonpartisan analyses. . . .

Unquote.

There’s a simple reason why Democrats do better. They believe in sharing the wealth. Republicans don’t.

Hmm. I think we should go with the Democrats.

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.