The title of this short book, only 130 pages, Building the New American Economy: smart, fair, & sustainable by Jeffrey D. Sachs with a foreword by Bernie Sanders (Columbia University Press, 2017) is unfortunately misleading. There is much here about the new economy. The misleading part is that there is very little about its construction, the building of the new economy.
Sachs covers many important issues in a thorough, efficient fashion. If you need a primer or a tune up about the economy this is a good place to start. These include: investment in our society, infrastructure, Federal budget, income inequality, healthcare, energy, military and the empire (not his phrase), and innovation. If you have been reading my postings over the last 5 or so years much of this will seem a bit deja vu.
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I’ve been looking through Paul Krugman’s textbook Macroeconomics (Krugman and Wells, 4th edition, 2015) and came on Principle #2 – “The opportunity cost of an item—what you must give up in order to get it—is its true cost….The concept of opportunity cost is crucial to understanding individual choice because, in the end, all costs are opportunity costs. That’s because every choice you make means forgoing some other alternative.”
In this standard economics model, a central feature of capitalism gets swept under the rug or simply not mentioned, external costs. Many of the total costs of capitalist products are hidden from the pricing system, yet we all live with the consequences of the fact that capitalist markets require producers to socialize (externalize) as many costs as possible. Much of the history of the capitalist era is a struggle over who pays for these external costs. The capitalists wanted to continue to have someone else pay. Others began to push back.
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“There” is our current situation in which our government has been bought by the rich and corporations, over 80% of the population has not had a pay raise in 40 years and the public sphere, schools, parks, our infrastructure, really anything not behind the gated walls of private wealth, is being starved in the name of free market ideology. The American promise that hard work, pluck and a bit of luck can bring success to anyone, regardless of their rank at birth, is an empty myth. If you are born poor you will die poor. Even if you are middle-class, there is a significant chance that you will sink and at any rate you will always struggle just to keep that middle-class status.
The rich and corporations have waged a 40 year class war. At this point they have won all of the battles and continue to take home the spoils.
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As the presidential campaign of 2016 fades away and the Trump Era begins, we find a national scene without any real discussion of the facts of jobs and unemployment and what the future might bring. Trump and others talk about bringing manufacturing back to the US. No plan, plausible or otherwise, has ever been mentioned for how to accomplish this. The Democrat are hardly better. Much has been made and continues to be made of the role various trade agreements have had in the loss of manufacturing jobs. Even Bernie Sanders can do no better than talking about creating millions of good paying jobs through a national infrastructure program. It is laudable to fix the infrastructure that has become third world, but that is not a long-term jobs strategy.
There are structural changes in the capitalist economy that must be understood and accepted as fact. Lets begin with a few examples. US steel production, one of those lost American industries, is now as high as it was at the beginning of the 1960s.
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There is more evidence that the current run of religious mania about “free markets” is finally giving way to a more fact-based approach to this important human invention, many countries are now applying capital controls on the flow of monies into their economies. The world flood of money seeking higher rent districts is terrorizing smaller economies like a tsunami. Fears of speculative bubbles burgeoning and then bursting with disastrous consequences for local economies are driving many to control inflows. Recently the NY Times posted an article about this phenomenon, “Countries See Hazards in Free Flow of Capital”.
“The world has learned about the perils of free market finance — global financial liberalization just does not work as advertised,” said Dani Rodrik, a political economy professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “Just as John Maynard Keynes said in 1945 — capital controls are now orthodox.”
Despite the obvious lessons of the last 4 years, “free market” advocates, just like religious zealots throughout history, remain undeterred by the facts on the ground. Financial firms ride along with this zealotry because its suits their business strategies to a T. Nevertheless, some governments, in the face of what must be enormous pressures from the world financial industry that profits coming and going in these financial boondoggles, are facing up to the facts and doing their best to take actions to control the impacts of markets on their local economies. Unfortunately for us in the US, we have no such governments. Ours are owned more than ever completely by big money, overwhelmingly by big corporate money and the super plutocracy of the super rich. They have always known that “free markets” is a wonderful religious cover their control over the real wheels of commerce and politics.