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Tyler Cowen tries to argue in his latest book Big Business that big businesses are in reality not the villains they’re often made out to be and, in fact, deserve our praise. While the book presents strong counter-intuitive arguments about the good that big business does in America, I suspect readers skeptical of large private enterprise will walk away unconvinced. In the big picture, critics of big business are still likely to assume that some combination of more regulation, smaller businesses, and public ownership would be a superior alternative to the status quo.

In a huge ecosystem of large corporations, Cowen emphasizes that a fair assessment needs to look at the “net net” of the total impact of big business and not just the worst offenses. Cowen acknowledges the salesmen swindling low-information customers, dentists recommending more appointments than necessary, and pharmaceuticals striking shady deals with doctors to dish out addictive drugs. But his underlying thesis is that we need to look at the net effect.

The Good

While admitting these egregious offenses, Cowen claims “the propensity to commit fraud is essentially just an extension of the propensity of people to commit fraud.” He points to a survey showing that 53% of people admitted to lying in their online dating profile. One study estimated that we tell an average of nearly two lies per day and most often those are to people we are the closest to and not total strangers. Another showed 31% of people having completely fabricated information on their resumes and 76% “embellished the truth.” Indeed, when we look at big business in the modern economy we often evaluate things as they are and think of alternatives as we wish to be. It’s worth considering the possibility that big business is no more dishonest than we are as individuals.

In fact, Cowen argues that big business is incentivized to be even more honest than individuals or small companies. Because they have an (inter)national brand to uphold, big businesses are more incentivized to avoid the PR disasters that come from customer negligence in a world of viral social media. Further, there is evidence big businesses are more likely to treat their workers better than their mom-and-pop counterparts.

The NFL can shamefully exclude Colin Kaepernick because of his politics, but often overlooked is the idea that the profit motive can be a positive force for social justice. Cowen points to our national reckoning with sexual assault to argue that private business can be a better force for good in these regards than the public alternative. Allegations against men in the entertainment industry were met with swift action – think of Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, etc. – while a man with a long history of unambiguously immoral treatment of women sits in the Oval Office. Roy Moore only barely lost in the Alabama Senate race. Market forces can be seen as a villainous determinant to cut corners and exploit people unfairly, but it can also be a force for social justice under some circumstances. As Sam Hammond argued in Liberal Currents, corporate capitalism and social justice are not always opposing forces.

Too many arguments in favor of scrapping the entire system assume that a radically redefined economic system and culture will mold to their ideal reality. But what happens when we put government in control of every industry and Donald Trump is the one running that government? Fox News is an easy target for the ills of profit-driven media, but would an entirely publicly-owned media landscape just mean Trump hires Roger Ailes to run PBS?

Cowen spends the majority of the book tackling the common criticisms of big business: CEO pay, the financial industry, big tech companies, and corporate influence over government. The gravity of these statements need to be analyzed through his “net net” framework and does add counter-intuitive arguments to the conversation, even if not always entirely convincing.

CEOs today work in a more demanding environment, he argues, needing to steer through a globalized economy full of public relations issues, foreign investment, and regulatory know-how. How important is leadership to a company’s performance? The top 4 percent of corporate performers are responsible for the entire increase in the U.S. stock market since 1926. Cowen offers evidence that these higher demands are borne out by higher performance. For example, Chinese firms could improve their productivity by 30 to 50 percent by bringing management quality up to the standard of Americans, Indian firms 40 to 60 percent. One study says a company’s leader accounts for 5 to 6 percent of the value of a company. Under this backdrop, Cowen believes higher pay is warranted under the greater demands.

An important stylized fact is that the main driver of inequality is not from changing pay scales within firms, but changing pay scales between firms. In other words, superstar firms that are torching the competition with higher productivity are paying all of their workers better, and Cowen believes this rise of superstar firms is thanks in large part to good CEOs.

The benefits of the financial industry are not always obvious for the typical citizen but Cowen tries to paint a brighter picture. He points to the role of credit in supporting the country’s biggest projects and the strong correlation between prosperous countries and the health of their financial sectors. American venture capital, he believes, is the envy of the world and funds some of our greatest success stories – without ever expecting a bailout. The American banking system is more fragmented than any other high-income country in the world, and the proliferation of smaller banks during the Great Depression shows “breaking up the banks” is no guarantee in preventing catastrophe.

Contemporary tech companies give us unparalleled power at our fingertips, often for free. The cost of privacy has become the common public rallying cry but Cowen still believes their value to each and every one of us far exceeds the cost. We’ve become so accustomed to free email, free mapping, one-day shipping, and reliable spreadsheets that it’s easy to only focus on what appears to be corrupting market power. But only recently did companies like Kodak, Myspace, General Motors, IBM, AOL, and Blackberry seem to be too dominant. The image of too-powerful tech titans complicates our appreciation for the value of these companies, in Cowen’s mind. The common criticism of brain-rot through the internet and smartphones is strikingly familiar to the doomsday predictions of yesteryear about the opera, rock and roll, and the novel.

The election of Donald Trump shows the hold of big business on government is not nearly as strong as portrayed, Cowen believes. Business leaders most often state their priorities to be predictability, more open immigration, and free trade – a clear opposite to Trump’s policies. The $3 billion companies spend annually on lobbying is pennies compared to the $200 billion they spend on advertising. Farm subsidies – one of the most offensive instances of crony capitalism in the Federal budget – only accounts for $20 billion a year out of a $4.4 trillion budget.

In Search of a Better Alternative

But to all of the good of businesses, a skeptical outsider would rightly point out that these realities exist within the current system. What if we lie on our resumes because it’s a brutal rat race economy? Or we lie on our dating profiles because the market economy conditions us to be self-interested and cut corners to get ahead? It’s true that Monsanto supplies the food that keeps me alive, tech giants allow me to communicate with my family, and big pharmaceutical companies produce drugs that fight infections. Every prosperous society has indeed depended on a well-oiled financial system. And the dignity of work that employers give us through jobs is indeed important. But why are these actions necessarily being done in the most optimal way?

Feudal lords could be given credit for the food given to peasants or the dignity their work provides, tyrannical leaders for military protection, and the DMV for making sure our roads are safe. Skeptics of the market economy believe that we could have a world that is more prosperous, more egalitarian, and more ethical under a different regime. Just as an anarcho-capitalist would refute gratitude towards roads or a public school education with “well, the private sector could do it better,” any critique of the status quo asserts a superior alternative outside big business.

Incrementalists who criticize big business may just want more regulation or more support for small business, while radicals prefer more public ownership. I sense that many of Cowen’s observations on the goods that big business provides will fall on deaf ears to skeptics whose prior beliefs are that we could have an even better regime.

Of course, Cowen is up against an insurmountable foe in many of those skeptical arguments. Critics of the status quo can struggle to find strong counterfactuals in order to prove there is a better system out there. Saying that “culture and economy would shift under a different system to one where we’d all be moral, not run the rat race, cut corners, or tolerate pollution” is a tough argument to prove or disprove when it is so hypothetical.

In Cowen’s (wonderful) podcast, he always asks the guest about their “production function” – what habits/routines the guests do to ensure their highest productivity. In a recent Ezra Klein Show podcast episode about workism, Ezra brings up how an inevitable part of capitalism is the encouragement to always maximize productivity…even doing something like meditation or wellness as a means to counteract the toxins of modern life. But it’s still under a framework of “optimizing” time. Can this cultural reliance on “productivity” actually make us miss the point, even when we appear to be cognizant of mindfulness? For an infovore like Cowen, the current culture and system gives him every opportunity he can to learn and explore new things. But for the vast majority of us, are smart phones instead just giving us a bigger portfolio of addictive distractions from more important matters?

As a response to skeptics, Cowen points to data he believes reveals that – despite our self-reported disdain for tech and working – we love our smart phones and love working. He says that the fact Americans work longer hours now than they did in 1950 shows we necessarily like our jobs better. But what if we are just being motivated to “keep up with the Joneses” and none of the extra work is actually making us better? Similarly, he argues few people actually leaving Facebook despite all the public criticism shows that people like it a lot more than they let on. But the powerful network effects and addictive qualities of social media are not always the easiest thing to shake off. It seems a far jump to assume these facts necessarily reveal strong-willed rational decision-making. It’s not encouraging that the people who designed the notification mechanisms for phone apps don’t let their own children use them.

So Why the Hate?

The last chapter of Big Business addresses a lingering question: If big business is so good, why does everyone seem to hate it? While the vast majority of the population loathe the post-Citizens United saying that “corporations are people,” Cowen believes we indeed do anthromorphosize corporations. In fact, projecting human qualities onto our outside world is how we have long attempted to understand and relate to it. In all of recorded history, civilizations have told stories of the weather and natural forces as gods with faces, arms, and legs. “When it comes to our cars, our ships, and our pets, we give them names, talk about their loyalty, and feel abandoned or let down if they disappoint us.”

It is this humanizing fact that makes us inevitably disappointed by corporations’ performance. We want them to be our fuzzy friends that take care of us but in the end they are actually just … “faceless” corporations. It presents a case that we will never be grateful enough for what big businesses do for us. Cowen says hating corporations is like hating your parents – the people who give you everything but also enforce rules. This might be true…but again, couldn’t oppressive feudal landlords fit the same description?

 

It’s important to view any analysis of big business in “net net” terms by focusing not only on the most outrageous failures, but the tremendous good big business brings to our lives. To these points, Cowen does a service by providing under-appreciated defenses of the most common shortcomings of big business. I agree with Cowen’s point of view and think big business needs more appreciation. In the end, skeptics may be impossible to sway as they rely on non-falsifiable hypotheticals. But a better appeal to their stronger arguments would likely leave a stronger impression on the critics of big business.

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Finland was experimenting with a scheme resembling a universal basic income since 2016 but recently axed the funding for it. The initial 800 euros a month in unconditional income had been skimped down to 560 and eventually lost enough political support to keep it going. UBI advocates were excited by the prospect of the Finnish policy, in part because it would give researchers another opportunity to gather another solid dataset analyzing the effects of unconditional income payments. While I too am disappointed the Finnish government has pulled the plug on the policy, I am slowly drifting more into the “Jobs Guarantee” camp as time goes on. Giving cash to people has its benefits, but I don’t think it amply addresses the pressures high-income countries face from increased automation and globalization.

A Universal Basic Income – UBI – is a sum of money given to every citizen in a polity regardless of income and with no conditions attached. Though the amount of money and all the nuances can differ, that’s the basic idea. Unlike food stamps, the money does not need to be spent on food. Unlike TANF, the money is given to everyone regardless of income or need. The idea has diverse bipartisan support in a time when finding bipartisan support for anything is hard to come by. Those on the political left tend to support UBI because it gives everyone a base level of income, liberates many from the drudgery of bad jobs, and can give individuals the opportunity to pursue creative pursuits or take risks that they’d otherwise shy away from when struggling to pay rent. Those on the political right tend to support UBI because many UBI proposals get rid of all the clunkiness of a welfare state and replace it with one check: Forget all the administrative costs and bureaucracy involved in running dozens and dozens of agencies with different goals, all of these are eliminated and replaced by a simple transfer mechanism.

I was initially drawn to the idea of UBI for the reasons beloved by both the political right and left. It promises a simple, clean solution that’s more empowering and less paternalistic than telling people how they need to spend their money. Most importantly, the success thus far of charities like Give Directly in lower-income countries compared to old-fashioned targeted aid confirms a basic tenet of UBI: Give people money and they can be trusted to spend it optimally.

But high-income countries like the United States and Scandinavia are not like the beneficiaries of Give Directly. In many ways, high-income countries today are a land of plenty. We have no widespread shortage of basic material necessities like housing, infrastructure, food, or clean drinking water. One could argue the most significant economic pressures affecting high-income countries today are most strongly experienced by those left behind by increasing automation and globalization. Liberalized trade and capital policies are a net positive for the world, I still believe, but the downside effects to the “losers” of globalization were under predicted. As robots replace old middle-class jobs and rust belt work is sent overseas, many people are left with few work alternatives and can turn to opioids or scorched-earth politicians to soothe the pain.

The loss these communities feel is one of income, sure. But it’s also a loss of the myriad non-income benefits of employment: identity, community, purpose, and meaning. Middle Eastern Gulf countries that have significantly higher income because citizens are given a share of oil revenues don’t experience life satisfaction levels as high as their income would suggest. In fact, some evidence suggests their happiness level is more closely related to the income they have “earned” (in the traditional sense of the word) than what they have access to. To me, this shows the magnitude of neglect the policy commentariat has given to the importance of employment for life satisfaction that is unrelated to income.

I’m not advocating the elimination of the welfare state, or even against some sort of UBI altogether. Instead, I think UBI fans need to realize it is not the panacea they make it out to be. Economists specifically are too stuck in their models that suggest utility is purely a function of income. Models of the labor market that imply people frictionlessly moving from the coal mines to pink-collar healthcare jobs or from manufacturing to computer programming totally neglect these aspects. Equilibria in labor markets is a beautiful idea on the blackboard, but people do not effortlessly move across the country or world like electronic money. Among other issues, the old-fashioned rust-belt American men will not suddenly become nurses because “that’s where the work is.” Their identity, sometimes for generations, is tied strongly to a certain type of employment, and coal miners will struggle with the identity change of becoming a male nurse. In the same way, the professional class in America during a recession will shun working at a hardware store or cleaning houses and instead prefer unemployment, largely because it does not fit their identity. And despite the caricature of Welfare Queens or lazy people on the dole, the vast majority of people get purpose and meaning out of their job. Giving them a UBI check will help them pay the rent and put food on the table (nontrivial matters to take care of), but it won’t give them the community or purpose that showing up to work gives them.

A public Jobs Guarantee – the hot topic right now on Economics Twitter – has varied manifestations, but all proposals seemingly target this benefit of employment. I’m skeptical on many grounds, though I have hope that a good proposal emerges. A JG can act complementary with a UBI, so I don’t mean to dismiss the benefits of UBI entirely or see it as one-or-the-other. Instead, I think UBI cheerleaders need to realize that giving money will be a significantly incomplete substitute for the purpose/community/identity that a job gives.

The disturbing effect “Fox and Friends” has on our public discourse has brought into focus the power of corporate media in the era of Fake News. The President has repeatedly and immediately tweeted opinions after they’ve been discussed on Fox and Friends. The tendency for Fox News in general to pander to their audience – seemingly  spewing whatever nonsense their viewers want to hear – naturally makes one question whether profit-driven media is a part of the problem these days, and whether public broadcasting could be a solution. But like many leftist dreams of government correcting the ills of the market, the idea that public broadcasting would necessarily be an improvement has become even more unlikely in the age of Trump.

In the recent Bruenig-Caplan debate on socialism vs capitalism, my strongest takeaway was perhaps this: One of the most underrated arguments against socialism is that socialists’ arguments are always in favor of policy outcomes rather than institutions that will lead to these desired outcomes while safeguarding against abuses of power. If the drive to profits is what keeps organizations like Fox News, Breitbart, and tabloid magazines spewing outright lies and propaganda instead of cold-hard facts, a public or non-profit alternative must be an improvement…right? Here’s the thing with any leftist idea that the government solution will be an improvement to the current market landscape: The theorizing is based on the idea that their benevolent bureaucrat is in power. It never seems to account for the probability (and now reality) that an unbelievably incompetent and shameless bigot like Donald Trump will be the one controlling the government. If our media industry consisted entirely of BBC- or PBS-type companies, the officials our country elected would now be dictating what they broadcast as “news.” Imagine if Donald Trump and/or a Republican-controlled Congress decided who was heading the state-run media agencies. The Fox News of today would appear harmless to the filth and propaganda the government would broadcast with taxpayer dollars. A likely outcome would be that a Roger Ailes-type would be elected Media Chairman. Hopes for a technocratic appointment like Federal Reserve Chairman can’t be guaranteed.

In other times, the libertarian scaremongering about government-run media looked simply overdramatic. “If we have the government run tv stations and newspapers, we’ll turn out like North Korea or Saudi Arabia!” The BBC, for one, is a fine organization, and any plausible criticisms of it having bias or skew are within a reasonable margin of error for how much a media organization can venture from optimality. There’s no reason to think that just because the government takes over certain operations, we’ll end up with an authoritarian regime. But government-run institutions are accountable directly or indirectly to the officials we elect, and when those elected officials really suck, the mediocrity trickles downward. With Donald Trump in office and an acquiescent Congress behind him, that libertarian scaremongering is not so farfetched.

One could argue a choice between government-run media versus a totally profit-driven one is a false dichotomy. Could an independent oversight board make sure the public media companies don’t venture into lunacy? Well who appoints those boards? Even the Congressional Budget Office is under threat from partisan hackery these days. I haven’t seen a plausible policy scheme that would convincingly ensure a public media organization from becoming a wing of taxpayer-funded propaganda under the Trump administration. Are there other regulations, subsidies, or vouchers, that could give a better alternative? Maybe there’s one out there, I just haven’t heard of it.

The unfortunate irony of many leftists complaining about Trump’s abuse of Executive power so far is the same people’s silence during the Obama administration. It’s totally fine when Obama did it because it agreed with certain policy prescriptions. In an age of immeasurable and unbelievable outrage, it can be hard to have a clear head and accurately critique government actions. But consider this whenever Trump does something you deem terribly awful: if what he is doing is within his legal scope as head of the Executive branch, should we reconsider how much power we give the Executive branch, or do you just not like how he’s using that power? Put another way, policy proposals are really easy to get enthusiastic about when the only reality you can envision is when Your Person is in power. But the next time you consider government presence as an alternative to market forces, try to picture what a government run by The Other Team can do with that power.

It gets back to a theme I find particularly relevant this day in age that applies to every public policy debate: when are individuals/institutions best held accountable through market forces and when are they best held accountable through the democratic process? As toxic as Fox News is for our culture, I’d take our profit-driven landscape over a Trump-run state media anyday.

I’ve been thinking lately about the power of language and the role of government- and society-enforced censorship. Many people – including yours truly – hold seemingly contradictory views on the power of words and liberal public policy. When is it permissible/optimal for the government and society to enforce norms on what is “ok” regarding language and rhetoric?

I’ll start by saying that the youthful me believed censorship to be almost always wrong. Books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 put censoring in the context of stopping radical ideas, free thought, questioning authority, and artistic works that made people uncomfortable. Music and video games, of course, were common targets for censorship.

Here’s a clip of Frank Zappa testifying in front of Congress, claiming that words in music are only words. Essentially, a “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” argument.

I don’t think Zappa was telling 100% of the story. Words of course can hurt. Language is incredibly powerful. Deirdre McCloskey believes a change in rhetoric was a huge impetus for the Industrial Revolution. Using the n-word or any other racial slur should not be tolerated. We should be conscientious of using inaccurate words like “Indians” to describe “Native Americans” and it goes without saying that we shouldn’t call them offensive terms like “savages.” Pronoun usage is an important consideration for people who identify as trans or non-binary genders.

Much of “censorship” comes not from a Parental Warning on an album cover as much as social norms of people telling their peers “yo, that’s not ok” when they use language that is not deemed permissible. So when is censorship, or more broadly “socially enforced norms on language,” acceptable? The liberal tradition is based on the idea of people being able to live together, even if not living the same lives; it’s accepting differences of preferences, tastes, and values.

[I think when to give certain views a platform under the pretense of “diversity of thought” is a slightly different conversation to have. This has been a hot topic recently, with Kevin Williamson having been fired from The Atlantic for some extreme anti-abortion comments and climate-denier Bret Stephens being hired to the NYT editorial board. Giving a platform to flat-earthers and holocaust-deniers to “hear both sides” is not the ideal we’re striving for, but where this boundary lies I am not sure. However, again, I think this is a different conversation.]

The standard liberal recipe for free speech is that offending someone is fine, but you can’t threaten/slander someone else. What happens if the standard for “threat” is as low as writing Trump on a sidewalk at Emory University? Is using an incorrect gender pronoun really considered a threat or slanderous? Is showing a gay couple on tv considered a threat? Consider your opinion on these three matters and what your reasoning is. Is your reasoning consistent about when it is “ok” to do something even if you disagree with it? Remember that the formal legal system is often uninvolved in these judgements of tolerating certain behavior.

This debate is interesting to me because, like many topics, we have our own intuition about what is right, use boilerplate rhetoric to defend our position, and yet never really fully consider the roots of our view. I’m not going to shame someone for being in favor of gun rights, but I probably will shame them for denying slavery existed. My shaming is a form of censorship, even if it’s not government-imposed. In most situations, people are in favor to some extent of disapproving certain beliefs. We all recognize the power of language.

The point I want to get across is that if one holds the view that racial slurs are harmful to our social fabric, one implicitly recognizes the power of language and expression in certain contexts and needs to acknowledge the power of art/music to also be powerful. To this extent, I naturally tend towards the position that people’s views on censorship or political correctness are very likely to fall in line with their own preferences/beliefs rather than a well-grounded philosophy on when or when not to censor. I will call out use of the n-word but not push for censorship of music. Why? Well, it probably has a lot to do with how I don’t like racism but I really like music that is usually the target of censorship. What needs to be fully recognized is that my opposition to music censorship cannot claim that the lyrics are unharmful. I could argue that I don’t trust the government to make that judgement for us, but I don’t think I can use the Zappa defense that the words are meaningless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few months ago, I made a conscious decision to overhaul my Twitter feed. The vast majority of accounts I followed were not only economists, but they were white, male, and in an ideological range from libertarian to Technocratic Left. I eliminated a lot of those accounts, replacing them with accounts representing a diverse range of views/demographics. Even in this simple experiment, the A/B test gives me conscious conclusions about how one’s media bubble affects one’s line of thinking, and suggests there are even more implicit outcomes that I don’t recognize. It also made me realize how reasonable it is that nearly everyone is under-exposed to an optimally diverse set of views in their media diet.

B.O. (Before Overhaul), I was pretty sure there weren’t any smart socialist thinkers out there. And this extends past purist socialism and even into what you might now call the “Bernie Left.” Most arguments I read were caricature defenses of socialism that frankly could easily be refuted. Naomi Klein would make outrageous ad hominem attacks on Milton Friedman and claim it delegitimized the market economy, Jeremy Corbyn would defend the wonderful work Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela for the poor, college-aged kids would spew half-baked defenses of what they thought Marx meant, and a plethora of writers would accuse anyone against rent control as selfish idiots. If the best arguments I came across were entirely unconvincing, it only made sense that I became more confident in my views.

But that’s where the problem is. I assumed the views I was being exposed to were the best ones out there. By default, my media diet as a self-identifying liberal/cosmopolitan/technocratic/educated guy included MainstreamMedia sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic, Vox.com, etc. Those sources don’t often include a prominent voice on the socialist left. Just as David Brooks and Thomas Friedman are unconvincing voices for a centrist conservatism, the voices I was being exposed to were making weak arguments for socialist and left-populist economic policy. The reasonable voices were in a narrow range of centrism somewhere between Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, and Greg Mankiw. In hindsight, this group of people has way more in common than I or they ever realized. What I mean to highlight is that these sources, the ones I was reading as an Enlightened Educated Gentleman, were not amply exposing me to economic arguments for strong pro-labor, pro-nationalization, massive taxation, or significant adjustment to labor laws aiming to equalize gender/racial disparities. The people I was reading were all pretty in favor of markets as a basis for economic policy, where technocratic solutions through NBER papers and incremental adjustments were the road to ideal policy. The debates, in retrospect, were over the magnitude of redistribution and balancing economic liberty with regulation. Joseph Stiglitz would enter into the picture every now and then, but not enough to really shake my worldview.

It turns out there are a lot of smart people that have very far left economic views. Matt Bruenig, Elizabeth Bruenig, Marshall Steinbaum, to name a few, consistently are writing things that not only give a drastically different point of view – they are writing things that I find very difficult to argue against given my current toolkit of existing knowledge. This is when you know you’re actually exposing yourself to new ideas. Before, it was as if I was unconsciously exposing myself only to straw men arguments and red herrings in order to simultaneously reenforce my priors and give me a false sense of being open-minded. These people were always out there, but they don’t have a prominent (enough) voice in where I assumed a good media diet was found. [Elizabeth writes for the Washington Post now, and many of these people have some exposure, but you get my point]

The same can be said for the level of female economists out there. I used to rationalize not reading many female economists by saying that the field just didn’t have many women. While the discipline does seem to be hostile to women and it’s not at total parity, I was dead wrong. Some of the best work in academia is being done by people like Alice Evans, Claudia Goldin, Dina Pomeranz, and many many more. But except for Janet Yellen, Joan Robinson, Anna Schwartz, and a handful of others, female economists don’t have too much exposure in the mass media. Only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in economics (and she could be considered more of a political scientist). Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Mark Thoma, Brad Delong all seem to get much more exposure than their female counterparts. Without making a conscious effort to include more female voices in my media diet, I was left reading a much more homogenized set of views.

The same can be said for non-economists. I have made more of an effort to include historians, sociologists, and anthropologists in my twitter feed and blog roll. Robert Solow once quipped, “Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper.” Economists are prone to see everything as an economic problem; it’s all about incentives. All other disciplines fall prey to their own unique narrow-mindedness. But forcing yourself to look through that lens can be quite revealing. Looking through a lens of “everything is gendered” or “everything is explained by our irrational cognitive biases” at least exposes you to the possibility of these ideas.

So far in my experiment, I’m happy to report I’m much less sure of any of my beliefs. When Matt Bruenig gives an analysis with thorough empirics and theory showing the greatness of socialism, I can scoff all I want but if I can’t convincingly refute his points, how sure am I of the greatness of markets? I think I have a good idea of how economic history shows that markets and liberalism set the stage for the industrial revolution, but when Pseudoerasmus talks about the oh-so-ridiculous conventional wisdom that I of course had wrong, how sure am I about any of those beliefs?

Twitter is pretty much the worst, but also can be used for good. The freewheeling platform made it pretty easy to find these new alternative voices once I made the conscious effort. My worry is not that people don’t have access to a diverse set of views, it’s that their habits and circumstances will inevitably lead to equilibria that perpetuates echo chambers.

There’s still one thing everyone in my twitter feed agrees on: Trump is the worst. I’m not yet ready to start following alt-right accounts, Holocaust deniers, or MAGA fanboys. Yet it does beg the question: if I did, what would the mere exposure to these accounts do to my confidence in my own beliefs?

New podcast episode with Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles about their new book The Captured Economy:

Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles argue in their new book “The Captured Economy” that the last few decades have been characterized by an increase in political rent-seeking. Focusing on the financial sector, intellectual property laws, occupational licensure, and land use, they show how legislation has been captured by special interests in ways that slow growth and increase inequality. In this episode, Lindsey and Teles discuss how these policies distort various markets and cause upward redistribution, as well as the different ways we can work to better “rent-proof” our politics.

Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Donald, and on and on and on. There can no longer be any doubt about the existence of male privilege and how it breeds sexual entitlement. Something has to change.

The obvious answer for men on the individual level is to call out instances of misogyny and loudly condemn any sexual assault within our own immediate vicinity (in addition to not being a pig). But what to do on a systemic level? A lot of the commentary coming out now casually connects misogynist culture with some notion of capitalism, but it’s not clear to me what role the American economic system plays in all this.

[Anyone who has ever read this blog knows my sympathies to the market economy, though I’ll admit it’s not perfect and there can always be productive tinkering.]

Capitalism, in most real world manifestations of the word, allocates resources based on consumers’ preferences. When inequality is such as it is in the United States, rich people’s preferences are overrepresented massively because consumption is a function of income. If the consumers’ dollar is their vote, people with more dollars have a lot more votes. Money is power and I don’t think this is up for debate. In this sense, movies will be made that reflect men’s view of the opposite gender because they write the checks for the movies to be made and have more money to spend on movie tickets. If those with more money don’t want to see football players kneeling in social protest, then the profit-maximizing action for the NFL is to make a rule disallowing kneeling during the national anthem. Essentially, a capitalist system will shake out to reflect the interests of those with money and power, even if those interests are discriminatory and completely exploitative like in the case of Harvey Weinstein. Under these scenarios, I admit, the market economy is a system that rewards and perpetuates unethical behavior. [Not all corporate behavior is done under profit-maximizing conditions, however.]

On the other hand, I’m cognizant of arguments that show the market economy as being a force for good in this debate. Money talks, but this can go both ways. Bill O’Reilly was effectively forced out from Fox News because advertisers were boycotting. They didn’t want to be associated with such a vulgar human being. Were their decisions based on ethics, or just avoiding bad PR? Either way, the boycott worked. Similarly, Harvey Weinstein was forced out from his own company and seemingly blacklisted from the entire industry. Compare this to the President: his first wife alleged marital rape, he’s had countless sexual assault allegations, and the Access Hollywood tape was a smoking gun showing what kind of person he is. But he’s still in power. He’s not the only politician or person in government to retain their position after doing terrible things. We can all choose to support companies that we think are ethical and not use our dollar votes to support unethical ones, yet we are all bound to pay taxes to the same government.

So then I wonder: Under what circumstances do market forces punish men for this behavior better than the democratic process? It’s easy to look at the very real faults of a consumer-driven market economy and see an alternate system based on public control as the antidote. But if culture is the real problem, a new economic system might not make much of a difference. In fact, high-quality legislation from the democratic process could be disappointingly ineffective if the underlying culture is so engrained. If you think of different countries around the world with less ‘capitalist’ economies, how much of an improvement is there? For European countries that boast higher female participation in corporate boardrooms or the legislature, was it because of their culture or some sort of tinkering in how their economy is structured? I’m skeptical that replacing the current US economic system with, say, a full-on Bernie Sanders system will improve much. A sexist culture will still put sexist men in charge, though often we assume the right democratic outcome weeds them out.

The economy is not always a zero-sum game. We can both be better off without it coming at the expense of someone else. But power is a zero-sum game. So the asymmetric power of men, reenforced by their asymmetric holdings of money and connections, does come at the expense of women. Closing this power gap absolutely needs to be a policy priority, but more importantly it must be a cultural priority. Market forces should be used in tandem with legislation and the democratic process; anyone suggesting only markets or only a new economic system will cause the change which we would like to see should rethink their approach.

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