Analysis and Commentary by Roosevelt Fellow Mike Konczal
There’s been a lot of new data and analysis of student loans and colleges in the past week, including a new Brookings paper and the launch of the College Scorecard by the Department of Education. And with so much data coming out, it’s becoming more important that we keep our questions open-ended. The Brookings Report,
One last note, following up on previous posts about human capital contracts (ISAs) and higher education. The first is about a NY Fed report that I believe argues ISAs would increase education costs. The secondis that the features of ISAs that are meant to mitigate higher education costs aren’t likely to do so. I’ve received
Andrew Kelly and Kevin James, higher education researchers at the American Enterprise Institute and prominent defenders of human capital contracts (ISAs), take issue with my earlier post on that topic, arguing that I “miss the mark.” They argue that ISAs, or selling off a future percentage of your income to pay for college now, would
Sometimes you hear something that sounds so much like common sense that you end up missing how it overturns everything you were actually thinking, and points in a far more interesting and disturbing direction. That’s how I’m feeling about the coverage of a recent paper on student loans and college tuition coming out of the
Following the well-received Disgorge The Cash, this is really the foundational paper that outlines a working definition of financialization, some of the leading concerns, worries, and research topics in each area, and a plan for future research and action. Since this is what we are building from, we’d love feedback.
Prior to this, I couldn’t find a definition of financialization broad enough to account for several different trends and accessible enough for a general, nonacademic audience. So we set out to create our own solid definition of financialization that can serve as the foundation for future research and policy. That definition includes four core elements: savings, power, wealth, and society. Put another way, financialization is the growth of the financial sector, its increased power over the real economy, the explosion in the power of wealth, and the reduction of all of society to the realm of finance.
Each of these four elements is essential, and together they tell a story about the way the economy has worked, and how it hasn’t, over the past 35 years. This enables us to understand the daunting challenges involved in reforming the financial sector, document the influence of finance over society and the economy as a whole, and clarify how finance has compounded inequality and insecurity while creating an economy that works for fewer people.
Savings: The financial sector is responsible for taking our savings and putting it toward economically productive uses. However, this sector has grown larger, more profitable, and less efficient over the past 35 years. Its goal of providing needed capital to citizens and businesses has been forgotten amid an explosion of toxic mortgage deals and the predatory pursuit of excessive fees. Beyond wasting financial resources, the sector also draws talent and energy away from more productive fields. These changes constitute the first part of our definition of financialization.
Power: Perhaps more importantly, financialization is also about the increasing control and power of finance over our productive economy and traditional businesses. The recent intellectual, ideological, and legal revolutions that have pushed CEOs to prioritize the transfer of cash to shareholders over regular, important investment in productive expansion need to be understood as part of the expansion of finance.
These historically high payouts drain resources away from productive investment. But beyond investment, there are broader worries about firms that are too dominated by the short-term interests of shareholders. These dynamics increase inequality and have a negative impact on innovation. Firms only interested in shareholder returns may be less inclined to take on the long-term, risky investment in innovation that is crucial to growth. This has spillover effects on growth and wages that can create serious long-term problems for our economy. This also makes full employment more difficult to achieve, as the delinking of corporate investment from financing has posed a serious challenge for monetary policy.
Wealth: Wealth inequality has increased dramatically in the past 35 years, and financialization includes the ways in which our laws and regulations have been overhauled to protect and expand the interests of those earning income from their wealth at the expense of everyone else. Together, these factors dramatically redistribute power and wealth upward. They also put the less wealthy at a significant disadvantage.
More important than simply creating and expanding wealth claims, policy has prioritized wealth claims over competing claims on the economy, from labor to debtors to the public. This isn’t just about increasing the power of wealth; it’s about rewriting the rules of the economy to decrease the power of everyone else.
Society: Finally, following the business professor Gerald Davis, we focus on how financialization has brought about a “portfolio society,” one in which “entire categories of social life have been securitized, turned into a kind of capital” or an investment to be managed. We now view our education and labor as “human capital,” and we imagine every person as a little corporation set to manage his or her own investments. In this view, public functions and responsibilities are mere services that should be run for profit or privatized, or both.
This way of thinking results in a radical reworking of society. Social insurance once provided across society is now deemphasized in favor of individual market solutions; for example, students take on an ever-increasing amount of debt to educate themselves. Public functions are increasingly privatized and paid for through fees, creating potential rent-seeking enterprises and further redistributing income and wealth upward. This inequality spiral saps our democracy and our ability to collectively address the nation’s greatest problems.
We have a lot of future work coming from this set of definitions, including a policy agenda and FAQ on short-termism in the near future. I hope you check this out!
In honor of Dodd-Frank’s fifth birthday party last week, I wrote a 4,000 word summary of the major accomplishments of the financial reform act. It includes what is working as well as what is stalled, what needs to be amplified and what isn’t yet tackled. There’s a focus on the CFPB, derivatives, capital, and ending Too Big To Fail. It’s aimed at both readers with little background as well as people with some familiarity, so I hope you check it out and share.
On the 5th Anniversary of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Roosevelt Fellow Mike Konczal wrote an explainer in Vox looking at the three core pillars of the law and where additional reforms are needed. Dodd-Frank fixes the broken consumer finance system by creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It addresses out of control derivative trading by
Our Rewriting the Rules report is in the news as part of a debate over the more liberal push in economic thinking. Matt Yglesias argues that this report and the new agenda “reverse the neoliberal formula.” He coins the term “new paleoliberalism” to describe it. David Brooks adds to this, arguing that said paleoliberalism displays “a naïve faith” in government. I want to respond to these three points in turn.
First, Yglesias says the new agenda breaks with the consensus. The old consensus, to him, was that “[t]he main way the government can impact the pre-tax distribution of income is by providing high-quality education,” and if that fails, “progressive taxes should fund redistributive programs to produce a better outcome.”
I think focusing on a new consensus is correct, but I’d think about it a different way. For us, the old consensus was built around two economic folk theories: that as an economy matures, inequality will decrease and all incomes will go up; and that any efforts to combat inequality have a serious negative impact on growth. (It’s not clear whether Kuznets or Okin, respectively, would have agreed with the extreme versions of their arguments that became this consensus.)
The new liberal economic consensus has three elements. To start, you can’t really distinguish between pre-and-post tax income the way these old arguments do. The market structures that determine final income, including taxes, also are a serious determinant of market income. This is pretty obvious if you say it in English: The rules of the economy matter. But this gets lost in the consistent idealization of abstract, perfect markets.
Also, in a world without perfect markets, efforts to fight inequality have fewer strict tradeoffs than people imagined, especially at the margins. We certainly see this internationally, with a wide variety of efforts to change the distribution of income and no obvious impact on growth. As a result, as economies grow, inequality can do any number of things—but it is a choice determined by the market.
The second question is whether the new liberal consensus is “paleo.” Inasmuch as the term means nostalgia, recycling old theories, and is bordering on revanchist, I like to think it is not.
The focus is very much a reaction to the facts on the ground, including a financial system that isn’t working to channel good investments, new forms of monopoly power, lack of institutions that support the working lives of women, a criminal justice system that has become too punitive, full employment in a period of weak demand, and so on.
The tools remain those that Franklin Roosevelt formalized: a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance as the bedrock of a thriving economy. Those are the right tools to build on. But how those tools are deployed changes with the times.
There is a strain of liberal thinking that imagines we can wish the labor movement of the 1940s or the 1890s back into existence. Our report has a detailed labor section that I think is really important. But it doesn’t simply imagine we can recreate an economy that no longer exists. Instead, it builds from where we are now.
As a third point, David Brooks, talking about Clinton but mentioning the same liberal economic consensus as Yglesias, asks if we have too much “unchastened faith in the power of government,” a faith that is “epistemologically naïve.”
What strikes me about this argument is that the Republicans have no less faith in the power of government. They have faith that the government can privatize social insurance in a way that won’t involve weaker security and higher costs. They have faith that if the government gives employers wage subsidies for poorer workers, employers won’t simply pocket them in wage bargaining. They have faith, against evidence, that the government having no taxes on capital will cause a boom in private investment. They have faith that the government cutting taxes will more than make up the lost revenue. Their faith leads them to conflate building a robust civil society and economic security with laissez-faire economics.
You could say that this is a faith in “the market.” Yet rules and institutions will always shape markets; the nature of rules is what determines what the economy will look like. The transfer of power to employers and owners isn’t “less government” in any real sense of the term. Structuring markets to give employers and owners more power based on a faith that this will usher in more prosperity is not just naïve; the past few decades have shown it to be a failure.
Derek Thompson has a 10,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, “A World Without Work,” about the possibilities of “post-work” in an economy where technology and capital has largely displaced labor. Though Thompson is clear to argue that this isn’t certain, as the “signs so far are murky and suggestive,” he takes the opportunity to describe how a post-work future might look.
There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.
At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.
Before we begin, I think it’s important to note how unlikely this scenario remains. We can imagine the Atlantic of the 1850s running a “The Post-Agriculture, Post-Work World” cover story, correctly predicting farming would go from 70 percent of the workforce to 20 percent over the next 100 years, yet incorrectly predicting this would end work. We don’t think of what happened afterward as “post-work.” The economy managed to continue on, finding new work and workers in the process.
There are other minor problems. Globalization and technological advancement are treated as the same thing, when they are not. There’s also a slippage common in the critical discussion of these articles (you can see it from this tweet from Thompson here) of substituting in the argument that technology has weakened wages and excluded some workers in recent decades for an argument about the long-run trajectory of technology itself. These are two different, distinct stories, with the first just as much about institutions as actual technology, and evidence for the first certainly doesn’t prove the second.
We’ll Still Be Working
But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.
This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.
Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)
Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?
Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.
How Did We Get There?
Another major problem of this popular genre is that it immediately places us at the end of the story, with no explanation of the transition. Work has already disappeared, it’s over, so the only question that remains is how we can envision our lives in the new world. This has two major consequences.
First, by compressing this timeline and making it seem like only capital will be around after a short period, it preemptively identifies the interest of workers with the interests of capital and owners. If post-work is right around the corner, people won’t have any labor (or human capital, if you must) to allow them to survive, so it’s essential to turn them into miniature capitalists immediately. That’s why it’s not abnormal to see descriptions of post-work immediately call for the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley or the privatization of Social Security.
Secondly, this story also doesn’t explain the transition of labor among workers as it disappears. As Seth Ackerman notes, decreases in the amount of work done can result either from some people leaving the labor force (extensive margin) or from decreasing the amount of work all people do (intensive margin). In other words, do we want some people to leave the workforce entirely, or for us all to work less overall? These are two different projects, with different assumptions and actions necessary to advance them. Resolving these questions would be the fundamental problem of an actual decline in labor force participation, but they tend to be abstracted away in these discussions.
Projecting the Past Forward
Going further, the idea that a post-work economy would involve simply choosing between a handful of quasi-utopias strikes me as completely naive. In Thompson’s piece, for instance, the problem seems to be whether post-work people would spend their time in intellectual pursuits or as independent artisans. But it’s just as likely people would spend their days as refugees trying not to starve.
You can get the sense that something is missing because virtually all of these articles consider radical forms of leisure instead of ownership. (Indeed, in assuming that prosperity leads to redistribution leads to leisure and public goods, it’s really a forward projection of the Keynesian-Fordism of the past.) I rarely see any of these mass media post-work scenarios tackle these issues head-on, much less talk about “post-ownership” instead of just “post-work.” (Friend of the blog Peter Frase is one of the few who does.)
It’s just as likely that the result will be a catastrophe for those who lose the value of their human capital. It seems unlikely that the political economy would become more conducive to redistribution, as these articles usually imply, because the value of capital assets would probably skyrocket. With that value high and ownership concentrated, it would potentially lead to a political economy more favorable to fascism than to robust egalitarianism. Who owns the robots, and what that even means in such a world, will be just as much a question as what we do to occupy ourselves; the first, really, will determine the second.
As a result, discussions of the idyllic robot future give working people a desire that is an obstacle to the actual flourishing of their lived conditions, and it remains an ideology completely divorced from the lived experiences of everyday people. I hereby nominate this as Pure Ideology. Who seconds the motion?
John Judis believes that Democrats are on the wrong path and the Roosevelt Institute is partially to blame. In his recent piece, “Dear Democrats: Populism Will Not Save You,” he attacks the growing liberal consensus on economic issues, using our recent Rewriting the Rules report as an example, on both substantive and electoral grounds.
Judis’s core argument is that it is crucial “to develop a sophisticated politics” to turn economic appeals into electoral success. I couldn’t agree more, though I feel this issue is caught in the crossfire of Judis walking back his previous Democratic demographic triumphalism. His second point is that the economic platform we’ve outlined is a terrible basis for a Democratic majority because voters are “fearful of big government, worried about new taxes, skeptical about programs they think are intended to aid someone else,” and otherwise not motivated by inequality and turned off by economic “populism.”
As a coauthor on our report and as someone involved throughout its creation, I’d like to address these criticisms. I can only speak to our report, which argues that public policy and the rules of the economy are more responsible for our tough economic situation than technology, globalization, sociology, or any of the other factors normally cited. Judis, I think, misses how robust this approach can be, how much it diverges from caricatures of big government liberalism, and how a lot of forces brought us to this point.
A Broader Vision
Roosevelt’s Rewriting the Rules plan isn’t simply centered around fighting inequality, and it’s not just about fairness, which is an argument that Judis says tends to turn off voters. Instead, we view it as tackling central concerns over investment, growth, opportunity, shared prosperity, and economic security. The subtitle of the report is “An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity.” During the creation process, we kept two specific things in mind: First, nobody cares about inequality abstractly, they care about specific economic issues; and second, our vision can’t be simply returning to the past.
We do argue that you can’t address the economic concerns I mentioned without going big. You can’t tackle investment without looking at the financial sector, you can’t address opportunity without looking at structural discrimination, you can’t view economic security without looking at the labor market, and you don’t get growth without doing all of the above. But the liberal economic consensus isn’t about adjusting this or that statistical abstraction, or about building a time machine to return to an era that probably didn’t exist: It’s about solving real problems with long-term consequences for our future.
This is hard to balance, especially for an economic report that wants to highlight the latest research in inequality across fields. The team is full of economists, not political messengers. But since a forward, positive agenda is built into the DNA of these arguments, it is not hard for a talented political movement to use these economic arguments to talk about how Democrats can deliver the goods people care about when it comes to the future of the economy.
Deeper Dive into Markets
But isn’t it all just tax-and-spend and big government liberalism? As a second point, we think looking at the market structures that generate inequality in the first place is a way to both meaningfully address inequality and also move us in a different policy direction. The idea that the rules are rigged isn’t in the current dialogue, and it’s one worth testing out with the public as part of a comprehensive argument about the economy.
The policy section of the report is a call for further discussion (some of which will be elaborated on in future Roosevelt products), but what I think is important is that, in addition to higher top marginal tax rates and income support, there’s an entire suite of policies focused on the rules of the economy itself.
These are not trivial. We examine how changes to corporate governance encourage short-termism, how the ramp-up of the criminal justice system reduces wages and opportunities for people of color, and how the falling value of the minimum wage increases poverty. These “market conditioning” effects complement whatever emphasis political leaders put on tax-and-spend issues.
I think that’s worthwhile, because it gives Democrats an in to talk about economic problems with people who want to become rich or don’t think of themselves as class warriors, but do care about promoting broadly shared opportunity. It also short-circuits many of the libertarian arguments about the state, because people get that the economy needs rules—and that not having rules is still a form of rules.
(Ironically, by calling upon the work of Stephen Rose, who argues everything is fine with the macroeconomy because government transfers can just take care of any weaknesses, Judis is far more reliant on tax-and-spend liberalism that he accuses us of being. I’m fine with transfers, of course, as income support was crucial to fighting the Great Recession. But there are also electoral limits to this strategy.)
As for the electoral appeal, these ideas aren’t part of the normal policy discussion, but to the extent that they are, they are quite popular. The minimum wage is winning in red states, and financial reform is broadly popular as a topic.
The Natural Next Step
Judis’s narrative is focused on the idea that the Democrats have been hijacked (with ACORN a culprit, no less) with this agenda. At times, he forces this story into a symmetry with what is happening on the right to get some easy “pox on both houses” points.
But this doesn’t reflect the actual path we’ve taken to get here. One thing we tried to demonstrate in Rewriting the Rules is that the research has been moving in this direction for the past decade. Many of these policy items build on or expand what President Obama has proposed (infrastructure, financial reform, minimum wage, etc.)—proposals that still remain good ideas in 2016. The political success of the Fight for 15 workers has also shown that there’s energy at the local level that people are looking to help scale.
The other reason this agenda has gained traction is that the other approaches have collapsed in the past year. Education doesn’t look like the silver bullet people had believed it to be in the past. The idea that the Great Recession would be a minor hiccup and we’d be back on track has proved false. Centrist claims about the need for immediate austerity and a Grand Bargain have also failed to pan out.
Oddly, I’m not sure I’ve heard a compelling counter-strategy about how to describe the economy, and Judis proposes no such thing. The 2016 nominee won’t be able to run on an “overcoming partisanship” strategy like President Obama in 2008 or a “let’s give Obamacare and the recovery a chance” strategy like in 2012.
One could just downplay the economy, of course, and if next year gives us a large increase in wages the story will change with it. But polls now show economic issues are coming to dominate the discussion, median family incomes are down 7 percent since 2000, and the argument that President Obama pulled us back from an economic collapse and rebuilt jobs, and now we need to turn to a more secure future with better wages, investment, and security, seems the most natural transition.
Economic issues will dominate on the right, and while they mimic our language, their proposals will likely be very regressive. Even the GOP’s leading reformer, Marco Rubio, is calling for eliminating all taxes on capital and inheritances. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to be controlled by a base that wants the Ryan Plan immediately. But rather than simply calling out what’s wrong with the right’s approach, it will be essential for liberals to have their own vision of opportunity, investment, growth, and security. We think our report is a crucial building block for this.