Tag Archives: Business/Employment

Monday’s Mtg: Is there a Third Way between capitalism and socialism?

In the last decade anxiety has grown about the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of modern capitalism. The financial meltdown and Great Recession of 2008-10, rising material inequality, and the specter of climate catastrophe have focused a lot of minds and some people wonder if systemic change is in order. No one wants early 20th century-style command economies, of course. But, it might be a good time to dust off a debate that was briefly popular after the Cold War ended: Is a “Third Way” possible, a new economic system balanced between capitalism and socialism with characteristics of each?

I tend to think that our worst problems and inability to act are more products of political failures than of any fatal flaw of capitalism. Yet, others say that today’s hyper-globalized, giant corporation-controlled, finance-dominated capitalism is the root cause of many of them, or at least that today’s capitalism never will be able or willing to act on them. Problems such as –

  • Climate and environmental damage.
  • Soaring economic inequality.
  • Financial system instability.
  • Concentration of corporate power fewer and fewer hands.
  • Loss of interest among economic elites in maintaining high wages and full employment.
  • Disruptive technologies on the horizon (like AI) that could render vast numbers of jobs obsolete.
  • The existence of seemingly successful but authoritarian models of development, especially China’s.

To these problems you can add political ones, like disappearing social institutions that used to help to constrain concentrated private power, paralyzed governments, and a pissed-off public searching for populist scapegoats.

To be sure, capitalism has always been very adaptive and dynamic. A disruptive and painful “creative destruction” has always been the price we pay for the enormous wealth capitalism creates and the personal freedom it allows. Moreover and as we’ve discussed, there isn’t just one model of capitalism in the world. To simplify somewhat, there is a Nordic model, a German one, an Anglo-Saxon one, and several state-led Asian variants, notably the authoritarian Chinese one. Their freedom to experiment is somewhat limited by international law and trade rules, as is ours to a lesser extent.

It’s almost too big a topic, when you think about it. We might get somewhere on Monday if we ask some of the right questions. Focusing on who should own the means of production, how much government planning is needed, and the merits of the profit motive seems a little archaic to me. IMO it also focuses more on means than ends. Maybe my educational/career background can help here. So, I will open us up with a short introduction that frames the big questions we are going to have to ask in the years ahead regarding capitalism – questions I think will bedevil us regardless of what type of “system” we say we have. Here are a few general questions and some reading ideas.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Socialism: What is/was Socialism? What was/wasn’t socialized and why? Different types?
  2. Capitalism: How many different models of mixed capitalism exist today? What are the biggest differences between them in term of property ownership; corporate governance; govt planning, tax/spend, regulation; democratic accountability; etc.?
  3. Successes: What makes an economic system successful? What’s an economy for? Do some economic systems support democracy better than others and vice versa?
  4. Failures: Is capitalism in crisis? Which models fare best and are best prepared for the future? Is capitalism or politics to blame and can one be in crisis without the other?
  5. Priorities: What more do we want from our economic system, and what are we willing to give up? (Stability, growth, opportunity, sustainability, social justice, etc.?) Tradeoffs.
  6. Future: Disruptive technology issues, rise of China/India, climate crisis…

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Socialism –

Types of capitalism –

Alternative Third Ways –

  • 10 alternatives to capitalism, some farfetched.
  • Stakeholder capitalism: Change corporations not the whole economic system.  Recommended or shorter version here.
  • Globalization’s one-size-fit-all approach. Its rules don’t leave enough room for democracy nor permit countries to develop different economic models. Recommended.
  • State-owned industries: Maybe sometimes it’s a good idea.
  • Conservative POV: Quasi-capitalism cannot work and should not be tried. Very long but fair.

NEXT WEEK: Religiosity – How has its decline affected the USA?

 

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Monday’s Mtg: Are we near the end of paper currency?

This is one of those topics where it is a little vague what it’s about. My “end of paper currency” wording implies a focus on whether we are finally approaching the long-imagined “cashless society” in which all transactions are electronic.   Cash is probably far too convenient in transactions for that to happen anytime soon, from what I read. But, the rise of PayPal and other e-payment technologies make the idea at least worth discussing, maybe.

We also could talk about cryptocurrencies, a very different thing. Also called altcoins, these are non-government-backed monies (or, “monies”) that can be used in electronic peer-to-peer transactions. Bitcoin is the most widely known cryptocurrency, but there are hundreds of others, many with tech-bro names like Etherium, ZCoin, and Einsteinium. Cryptocurrencies have a lot of limitations and problems, notably no governmental central bank to back their value or control their volatility. They are vulnerable to bubble and the machinations of peculators and get used a lot in criminal commerce (but then, so do $100 bills). Still, cryptocurrencies may be here to stay, at least in some forms, and the idea of a currency free from government will continue to be appealing to some Libertarians.

A third way we could expand our topic would be to talk about some of the more, um, exotic (crackpot, maybe) stuff that comes up when you Google “the end of paper currency.” These range from advocates of returning the United States to the gold standard and Ron Paul’s “end the Fed” stuff, to survivalists predicting a collapse of society and a return to a barter-based economy. It’ll be fun for the whole family.

Re: Readings. Cryptocurrency is a brand new topic for me, so I don’t know which of the primers on the subject are best for you to read.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

A Cashless Economy? –

  • Should we trash cash, asks NYT? Recommended.
  • More details + more international POV, from BBC.

Cryptocurrencies –

Gold standard –

NEXT WEEK: What is the legacy of the 1980s?

Monday’s Mtg: Are corporate monopolies damaging our economy?

What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.

Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.

We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:

  1. Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
  2. Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
  3. Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
  4. Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.

Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).

But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).

Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:

  • Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
  • Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
  • Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
  • Depressing innovation and R&D;
  • Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
  • Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.

Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Monday’s Mtg: How far should the government go to encourage healthy lifestyles?

The more I think about this one the more complicated it gets. OTOH, a lot of what the government does to prevent and treat what are called non-communicable diseases (like cancer, diabetes, anorexia, Alzheimer’s, and hypertension) is widely supported by most Americans. The public loves govt funding basic research on chronic diseases, Medicare and Obamacare subsidies, and govt-enforced safe food and water.

But, when Americans perceive that other people’s illnesses are due to poor lifestyle choices things get controversial. How far should, for example, regulation and taxpayer-supported health insurance go in protecting people from their own bad choices?

It’s not just a moral judgment, either. As the first article below points out, it is hard to attribute many chronic conditions to specific behaviors. This is true even for health problems they’ve been studying for decades like cancer and diabetes and (it seems to me) is probably even more true for behaviors that public policy is newly targeting, like obesity. How can we know what interventions are cost-effective if we don’t know how a lot of the science works?

Oh, and what constitutes a bad lifestyle “choice” exactly? Not all decisions about what to eat and where to work and live are equally voluntary, especially for children but also in a sense for people too poor to afford healthy choices.

Along with these issues, here are some other basic questions we might consider on Monday. I will be back from my vacation, BTW.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Rationale: Why should the govt try to prevent/minimize bad lifestyle choices?
    — Why: General public interest? Externalities (effects on other people)? To help the economy? To prevent needless suffering? To fulfill international obligations?
    —  When: Scientific uncertainty.
    — Who: Federal govt v. state/local concern?
  2. Targets: Which behaviors?
    — Smoking/drinking, other drug use and vices.
    — Diet: Obesity/sugar, child nutrition/school lunches, “food deserts” in poor areas.
    — Violence and accidents: Guns, hazards. At work/home.
    — Health care: Insurance, Obamacare carrot and sticks.
  3. Tools: It’s not just regulation.
    — Taxation/subsidies.
    — Information and advocacy.
    — Market regs: Restrictions on buying/selling, food service, product safety regs, etc.
    — Health care.
    — People under govt control: School kids, prisoners, soldiers…
  4. Limits:  How much govt action is too much?
    — Who should decide?
    — Where has govt gone too far or should do more?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Does foreign aid work?

Monday’s Mtg: Should We Raise the Minimum Wage?

I had this idea for us to do a series of meetings in the run-up to November that highlighted the starkest policy differences between the two presidential candidates. Oops. Donald Trump’s candidacy and Media’s obsession with horserace trivia make that pretty hard to do. Trump’s policy platform involves him basically riffing a stream of consciousness on whatever topic an interviewer brings up, hoping to run out the clock before anyone notices he has no policy ideas at all nor a rudimentary grasp of the issue.  No one seems to know exactly what Trump’s position on the minimum wage is, much less what it might be tomorrow or in a face-to-face debate with Clinton.

But, I’m not sure it really matters. As I keep hammering away at week after week, we are electing a political party to govern us more than an individual. And, the Dems and GOP at all levels hold irreconcilably-opposite views on the minimum wage. The Republican Party is wholly opposed to raising the minimum wage at all. Period. Many conservatives would prefer it be abolished or reduced, although I doubt they would take the political risk of trying it at the federal level. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz oppose any federal minimum wage.

In stark contrast, Democrats really, really want to raise the minimum wage, either nationally or in as many states as possible. Hillary Clinton campaigned on raising it by 60%, from $7.25 to $12 per hour, to be phased in over several years. This would be the largest such increase in history. Under pressure from Bernie Sanders, Clinton stated she would sign a $15 minimum wage bill if a Democratic Congress sent one to her. This would double it.  This November 8, minimum wage increases are on the ballot in five states.  Democrats want to make this a wedge issue – one that motivates base voters to turn out – like Republicans did with same sex marriage bans in 2004.

Luckily for us, the debate over what would happen if the minimum wage were raised significantly is not all theoretical. The current federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour, one-third lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in the late 1960s. However, 29 states have a higher minimum wage, 12 of which are over $9.00 per hour. California’s is $10 – the nation’s second-highest –and Brown just signed a law to raise it to $15 in 2022. This means that lots of studies have been done comparing places that have raised the minimum wage to those that have not raised it. The results are generally encouraging to the liberal economic case for raising the wage. Yet, as I will explain, it’s not quite that simple.

On Monday I will open with a brief tutorial on the minimum wage and the types of questions we should be asking about what might happen if we raised it to various levels. I don’t think lowering the minimum wage is really on the table right now as a viable policy option, although if Trump wins, all bets are off.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Current policy:
    1. How high are U.S. minimum wages now and how high are they due to rise in some states?
    2. What else does govt do to support working poor? How important a policy tool is the minimum wage in comparison?
  2. Arguments: What arguments are used to support and oppose raising/lowering/ending the minimum wage
  3. Evidence: Based on history what affects would raising min. wage have on:
    1. Helping people: Raising incomes of the working poor, reducing poverty and reliance on govt transfer programs.
    2. Hurting business: Killing jobs, raising prices, other business decisions (like replacing workers with machines).
    3. Would more spending on other govt programs (EITC, etc.) do more to help the working poor than raising the min. wage?
    4. Can we predict what would happen if we abolished the min. wage?
  4. Fairness:
    1. Will raising min. wage really put a dent in inequality?
    2. Will it make low-wage pay more “fair?” What’s fair?
    3. Does the minimum wage subsidize big corporations more than it helps the poor (they can keep paying low wages)?
  5. Politics: Is this a winning issue for Democrats or Republicans? How big a winning issue?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Sept 26):  Progressives’ Constitutional Philosophy.

Monday’s Mtg: Why Has Economic Productivity Slowed?

It is Econ 101 that ever rising labor productivity is the key driver of modern economies. When the amount of output per worker is higher every year than the year before all of the good stuff that Americans have come to expect is possible. The economy grows steadily with room for higher wages/benefits and consumer spending, business profits, savings and investment, and enough tax revenue for government to meet public investment and social needs. Without rising productivity, the economic pie stops getting bigger and we are all left fighting over the size of the slices. A zero-sum economy begets zero-sum politics, and we all look around for someone to blame.

Sound familiar? It’s starting to happen. Worker productivity roughly doubled in the USA from 1945 to the early 1970s, then slowed down for the rest of the 20th century. But since then it has slowed to a crawl, only growing about 0.5% annually since 2000. In 2016, productivity actually began falling.

Now, maybe the fall is temporary, an artifact of the Great Recession. Maybe it is not happening at all. There is some evidence that the way experts measure labor productivity fails to capture some important improvements in the quality of the goods and services workers produce. Maybe.

But, there I another problem independent of measurement error. Even before U.S. labor efficiency slumped, American workers were not getting paid in line with what they were producing. Since 1973, U.S. workers have become 75% more productive, but average worker compensation (pay + benefits) grew by less than 10%! When liberals say rising inequality is unfair, this is what we mean. It’s not some philosophical judgement of how much people are “worth” to society. How well do you think regular people will fare if, on top of this unfairness, the productivity slump persists and the pie stops growing altogether?

So, this is not a dry topic about formulas and equations. It is about what makes our economy healthy and innovative and how we can ensure that regular Americans share in the wealth they produce.

To keep us focused, I will start us off on Monday with a quick summary of:

  1. What is meant in plain English by labor productivity and what really drives it (opinions differ on the latter); and
  2. The main theories of why it has stagnated recently and whether we have a long term problem.

Then, we can debate any aspect of this broad topic-of-everything we want to discuss. The main driver of productivity in the long-run is technological innovation, but other things matter, too, including public policies.  I hope we can devote a good chunk of time to discussing the growing divergence between worker compensation and productivity. But, keep in mind that any public policies to close that gap need to do so by raising the former, not reducing the latter.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Measuring it: How do they measure labor productivity? Could it be growing faster than experts think?
  2. Ensuring it: What keeps U.S. labor productivity rising; e.g., healthy biz/entrepreneur climate, R&D/Universities, tech innovation, worker edu/skills, government action/inaction?
  3. Problem. Why has productivity suddenly cratered? The recession?
  4. Problem! Is something deeper afoot? Are we entering a prolonged period of “secular stagnation” like we talked about in 2013?
  5. Problem!! Why has pay not kept up with productivity for decades?
  6. Solutions: Which pubic policies might (a) goose worker productivity in the short-term and long-term, and (b) ensure American workers benefit from it? Left vs. right solutions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Productivity Puzzle –

Solutions?

Next Week: Do government anti-poverty programs really work?

Monday’s Mtg: Do We Need More or Less Regulation of Business In America?

This one was Dean’s idea, and I think it’s got a lot of potential. Dean said he wanted us to explore the arguments that having “more” or “less” government regulation of business would solve a lot of our problems because that is the simple way the right and left often talk about the topic. Fewer regs = good = more freedom. Or, More regs = good = control evil corporations. To be sure, it is hard to debate such vague, I-love-my-ideology slogans. But regulating business to ensure that markets function smoothly and t protect the public interest is a core function of govt. Not to mention, we’re living in a country where presidential candidates promise to build 3,000 mile fences and turn us into Denmark, so I don’t think any proposal is too simplistic to merit our attention.

Now, we all know that there is no such thing as a completely unregulated market. In any market the public sector is there to help set and enforce the rules; police fraud and protect the rights of consumers, workers, and owners; provide and maintain the public goods that markets rely on, etc. As an article I’ve linked to before put it, Markets Are Not Magic.

But IMO, even the simplest slogans for reduced less government regulation raise key and complicated issues. Regulations always impose costs on businesses and often on workers and consumers, too. Some of those costs are easy to measure and to compare to the regs’ benefits. But, other costs are hard to determine and much harder to predict, like when regulation stifles competition and innovation, protects the powerful at everyone else’s expense, distorts prices and investment decisions, and erodes our companies competitiveness internationally. The way I see it, our topic is more like two questions.

  1. How can we know the true benefits and costs of government regs and therefore whose interests they really serve?
  2. How can we make govt regulation flexible enough to be effective and efficient as our economy rapidly evolves in the future?

I’ll explain what I mean a bit more in my intro on Monday and then ask Dean for his thoughts. CivCon has had several recent meetings related to govt regulation. (Aug ‘15 Is Big Finance finally tamed? Dec. ’12: What’s holding back small businesses? Feb. ’13: Religious conscience exemptions.) So, I’ll be brief and non-industry specific. I will, however, take the time to highlight the above and a few other important problems/issues facing federal and state and local govt regulation going forward.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What justifies govt regulation of business? What should be the goals?
  2. How (and how well) do they calculate the benefits and costs of regs? What factors, other than the raw $$$, should be considered, and whose voices are heard and not heard?
  3. Which govt regs are the most and least popular with (1) the public, (2) workers and consumers, (3) entrepreneurs and small biz, and (4) big corporations? Any common villains or inevitable conflicts of interest?
  4. Which regs do Republicans/Democrats want to repeal/add/change? Why? Why really?
  5. What needs to be done to keep regulation effective and efficient as our economy evolves?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

What Do People Want?

  • Public opinion: By a 2 to 1 margin, Americans favor the POV that there are “too many” govt regs on biz rather than “too few.”
  • But, notice that people like most specific regs and strongly approve of the their goals.

Asking the Right Questions

Benefits and Costs of Govt Regulations –

We Need FEWER Govt Regs –

No, We Need MORE Govt Regs –  

21st Century Regulation –  [longer and harder, but key]

Next Week: Trumpism – What is it and will It will outlast him?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Big Finance Finally Tamed?

After seven long years, the most destructive financial crisis since the Great Depression is beginning to fade into memory – and myth. We haven’t talked about it in a while (2010 bailouts, 2012 EU crisis). Most discussions these days still are focused on assigning blame. This is understandable as well as necessary for accountability and for moral and ethical reasons. But, it shortchanges, IMO, another more timely aspect of the financial crisis that gets way too little public attention: Are our governments doing enough to prevent or a least, better contain the next one? Is our fragile financial sector finally tamed and at an acceptable cost?

We have to know the answer because there’s always another crisis. Since 1980, the world has seen 6 major global financial crises; a dozen or so smaller, regional ones; and, by one count, close to 150 single-country banking crises. Crises are frequent, getting bigger, and are easily transmitted around the globe. Our global financial system has yielded many benefits, but it is bubble-prone, panic-prone, and seemingly inherently unstable.

Since 2008, governments put in place a smorgasbord of new regulations to try to better monitor global finance, fix the system’s worst vulnerabilities, and prevent or better respond to the next crisis. What’s been done is very complicated (maybe too complicated, as we’ll discuss). I read a lot on this subject, but I don’t know the whole lay of the new regulatory and macroeconomic land very well, especially some of the more arcane efforts.

So, I thought Monday we would focus our discussion on the most important actions taken in the United States to prevent future financial catastrophes. Most of them stem from the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, so I will open us up by describing the basics of what that law tried to do and the major regulations that have come out of it. I may also briefly outline some other governmental actions in this area that have gotten even less media coverage but will affect us all.

Of course, we cannot spend an entire evening discussing banking regulations. (Who would want to?) So, in discussion maybe we can focus on a few big macro-level issues, like the “too big to fail” problem, the benefits versus the costs of new regulations, and the obstacle of Wall Street’s vast political power.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Causes – Big Finance: How much blame do private financial actors deserve for causing the crisis? How big a factor was financial fraud and lawbreaking? Were the banksters “out of control?”
  2. Causes – Who else: Were deeper, structural causes the real problem? What did governments do wrong and why?
  3. Choices: After the crisis hit, what options did governments have to stem the crisis and reform the system? Why did they choose some (bailouts) and not others (nationalizing big banks, aid to homeowners)?
  4. Fixes: What was done in the end? What is in the Dodd-Frank law?  What else?
  5. Results: How can we know if these policies are either (1) working, or (2) working too well by burdening the financial sector/real economy?
  6. What do you think will happen in the next crisis? Same old same old, or something more radical?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is it time to change California’s ballot initiative process?

Monday’s Mtg: Inequality’s Causes and Effects

[Note: This will be our first meeting at the PANERA CAFÉ at 5620 Balboa Ave.]

It has been almost two years since President Obama declared that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” are “the defining challenge of our time.” Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and every progressive I know believes the same. Hillary Clinton may not make inequality the rhetorical centerpiece of her campaign, but the policies she’s recommending are clearly designed to combat it. Even some conservatives are talking about inequality. (In fact, one might argue that Donald Trump sudden rise reflects a split between GOP elites and its base voters over inequality. His tirades target policies that downscale GOP voters blame – fairly or unfairly – for their stalled prosperity, like immigration and free trade.) The issue is not going away anytime soon.

I thought it might be useful for us to start at the beginning of the inequality debate by asking two basic (and not yet settled!) questions: (1) What’s been causing inequality’s sharp rise, and (2) what harm does it actually do? Of course, these are to some extent technical disputes among experts. Still, I think we’ll have no problem grasping the basic arguments, which will give us some insight and healthy skepticism going into the debate and bumper sticker slogan phase of the GOP and Democratic primary season.

I will start us off on Monday first by defining what is usually meant by “inequality.” Then, I’ll briefly explain its half-dozen or so most often-cited causes and effects. Partial lists:

CAUSES OF SOARING INEQUALITY (alleged) –

  1. Skills-based technological change: The idea that tech innovation has made Americans with the skills to use the technologies more valuable than those without the skills, and so the pay gap between them keeps widening.
  2. Trade and globalization may have put downward pressure on wages in sectors that are vulnerable to foreign competition.
  3. Immigration: The same night be true for low-skilled, non-college educated occupations that compete with either legal or illegal immigrants.
  4. De-unionization has weakened worker bargaining power.
  5. Financialization of the economy distorts incomes at the top and bottom.
  6. Corporate culture and structures may have changed to devalue workers and encourage excessive executive pay.
  7. Government policies: Tax cuts, spending cuts, anti-trust non-enforcement, mass incarceration, educational inequality, and a host of other policies have made the rich richer and left many of us to tread water or sink.
  8. The Great Recession could have suddenly magnified all of these other factors – or, maybe led us to overstate their impact.

EFFECTS OF SOARING INEQUALITY (alleged) –

  1. Stalled wages and social mobility for most Americans.
  2. Lower growth rates in the overall economy.
  3. Repeated boom and bust economic cycles from which only the rich recover quickly and fully.
  4. Slower recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and future recessions.
  5. Political polarization: There is an argument that soaring inequality contributes to partisan political polarization.
  6. Disconnected elites: Falling elite support for the 20th century American social contract, including full employment and the social safety net.
  7. Plutocratic elites: They’ve taken over our political system and used that power to…
  8. Rig the economic game to perpetuate their power and status.

Most conservative I’m familiar with argue that inequality has not risen by much if measured accurately, and/or that the increase is a result of “natural” market forces, and/or that it does more good than harm anyway.

Fewer links this week, even though it’s one of our more complicated topics.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Cyber-Security – Threats and Responses.

Monday’s Mtg: Is There a Looming U.S. Retirement Crisis?

I knew this would happen someday. We did this topic about a year and a half ago, in December 2013!. Oops. It was a good meeting and my intro post had some nice links, many of which I’ve reproduced below. Now, there is not much in the way of new developments in this area since 2013, since whether there is a retirement crisis and how big depends on long-range projections that do not change much with short-term economic fluctuations. But, I still think we can freshen up this issue on Monday night in several ways.

First, we can look at the weird politics that surround anything having to do with the interests of the elderly in this country. Older voters are now the base of the Republican Party, even though they are the most reliant on the socialistic government programs (Social Security, Medicare, and others) conservatives claim to despise in the abstract: Why is that? Progressives say they are the great protectors of these programs, yet liberal proposals for new government spending almost always exclude the elderly and (possibly) would come at old folks’ expense.

Second, if there is a large looming U.S. retirement crisis, it is a function of some of the other problems we talk about all of the time. Low wages and income inequality in particular, but also rising health care costs and other problems. Are the solutions to our retirement crisis to be found in goosing Social Security or other government benefits, as some progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed? Or, should any teeth-pullingly hard to get new spending be aimed at helping working people?

Lastly, we can view our retirement problems as part of an old problem that I’ve learned something shocking bout since our 2013 meeting: The “Great Risk Shift.” This is the huge transfer of financial costs and risks away from large institutions – corporations and governments – to employees and taxpayers that has occurred in the last 30 years. Via this book, I’ve just learned that hundreds of blue chip American companies have been using their employee pension plans as a kind of cash cow, looting them to pay for other priorities.

But in order to do any of these, it may be helpful to get a brief refresher on the basic issue of whether there might be a big retirement crisis in America’s future. I’ll try to do that in a short introduction. Have a nice Fourth of July and I’ll see you Monday.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Definitions: What makes for a “secure” retirement in the USA? What are the “3 legs” retirees are supposed to lean on financially?
  2. Leg 1 – Private pensions:  Who gets company pensions and who does not? How adequate and well-funded are they? Have big companies really been looting them in recent years?
  3. Leg 2 – Savings/Investment: Same.
  4. Leg 3 – Social Security:  How generous are its benefits and who relies most on it for retirement income?  How big is its funding shortfall and how hard would that be to make up?
  5. 1+2+3: So, do experts predict a big future U.S. retirement crisis?  Why/for whom? How sensitive are these estimates to small changes in assumptions?
  6. Fixes: What can and should be done about all this? Is spending more on the elderly the best place to spend any new public money?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Our last mtg on retirement –

Yes, a huge retirement crisis looms-

No, there is no looming crisis!

Next Week: Can science explain the mind?