Sunday, August 16, 2020

"The Asset Economy" (or how to create an underclass)

From the Los Angeles Review of Books, August 11:
At the start of 2019, The Economist coined the term “millennial socialism” to refer to the growth of strong critical and left-wing sentiments in a generation that until recently was primarily known for its sense of entitlement and its obsession with social media. It noted that a large percentage of young people hold a favorable view of socialism and that “[i]n the primaries in 2016 more young folk voted for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.” [1] The Economist acknowledged that some of these millennials may have good reasons for their political sentiments. But it immediately went on to declare that understanding this trend shouldn’t lead us to justify or legitimate it — socialism remains as dangerous as The Economist has always known it is. It views millennial socialism as being too “pessimistic” and as wanting things that are “politically dangerous.” The Sydney Morning Herald followed up in the same month with an opinion piece arguing that while millennial socialism has roots in millennials’ “rising anxiety about their economic prospects” (and in particular the virtual impossibility of ever attaining home ownership in the country’s largest cities), as a political choice it seemed to reflect above all ignorance and the lack of memory of the horrors of communism. [2]

Framing this political shift in terms of a generational schism would seem to rest on flimsy conceptual foundations. Indeed, while generational analysis may be making a return to public debate, where the mainstream press loves to cover millennials, among social scientists it has largely gone out of fashion. The idea that being born around the same time or experiencing the same historical events at the same age produces a natural solidarity or a similar experience of life is now considered overly simplistic. It is typically seen as too abstracted from a range of other structural inequalities that would seem to have far greater bearing on people’s position in the social hierarchy. Just as there are poor baby boomers, so there are fabulously wealthy millennials.

Yet some element of generational distinction seems to be playing an undeniable role in the logic of the present. So what do we make of this? A useful direction was indicated in the Financial Times — always more willing to put critical analysis to work for the preservation of capitalism. [3] Featuring a picture of Ben Bernanke next to one of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of its opinion pieces stated that “Quantitative Easing was the Father of Millennial Socialism.” And of course, as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, when Ocasio-Cortez started her term she could not afford an apartment in Washington, DC.

Quantitative easing is a policy that central banks in many countries have relied on over the past decade to rekindle economic growth and escape from the Great Recession that ensued in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–’08. It works on the idea that, if central banks push large amounts of liquidity into the financial system, banks and other financial institutions will lend more liberally and so spur investment, growth, and employment. But one of the main points of critique of these policies has been that this transmission mechanism is in fact not working very well, and that in practice quantitative easing has propped up the values of financial assets without translating in higher rates of employment and growth. That is to say, quantitative easing is often seen as working to enrich the owners of financial assets (often pejoratively referred to as “rentiers”) at the expense of those who have to work for a living.

The same Financial Times piece continued with an observation on the generational effects of property prices. Noting the dramatic divergence between wages and property prices in large cities over the past decade (not just in New York and San Francisco but also in many smaller urban centers), it concluded: “The young are locked out.” In almost all large Western urban centers, property prices have reached levels that make renting very expensive and put home ownership effectively out of reach for many. Property inflation in large urban centers is the linchpin of a new logic of inequality.
Property price inflation is not limited to the past decade. In major cities across the Western world, property prices have been on the rise for several decades. If the problem had been specific to the past decade, we would just be looking at a particularly inappropriate set of policies conceived by incompetent or corrupt elites. That would be bad enough, but we might reasonably hope that greater awareness of the issue would lead to democratic pushback and a reversal of quantitative easing policies. But the problem is of longer standing and reaches deeper into the fabric of social life.
Quantitative easing is only a more explicit version of financial policies that have been pursued since the 1980s that aim to make asset ownership profitable. We should also not be too quick to cast this as a project that aimed to enrich a tiny elite at the expense of the rest of the population, as the current focus on the runaway wealth of the one percent would suggest. The phenomenon of the one percent pulling away from the rest of society is all too real, but it is so thorny and intractable precisely because it is anchored in a wider institutional and social configuration that has generated particular constituencies with a vested interest in these sorts of policies.

It is therefore important here not to reach too quickly for the critique of “rentierism.” This may be a useful means of expressing moral opprobrium and voicing concern about a world that allows some to receive income without having to work for it, but its analytical edge is blunt. The critique of rentierism is long-standing. It has long been a favorite tool of the left, whether of middle-of-the-road progressive reformists, labor politics, or more radical currents. Indeed, it had been one of Keynes’s stated concerns to ensure the “euthanasia of the rentier,” [4] and it seemed to many that mid-20th-century capitalism had delivered precisely this, bringing capitalism in line with the needs of working people. But the past decades have done much to erode this sense that capital can work to advance the interests of society as a whole. Left-wing critics have relied on the critique of unproductive rentierism to criticize neoliberalism since its inception, but in recent years, the critique of rentierism has returned to mainstream public debate with Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century[5]

And a repost from September 2013

Ben Franklin on Labor Economics (or how to create an underclass)

The easiest way to create a dependent class is to price them out of the real estate markets.
In countries fully settled…those who cannot get land must labor for others that have it; when laborers are plenty, their wages will be low; by low wages a family is supported with difficulty; this difficulty deters many from marriage, who therefore long continue servants and single....
In the United States The Land Ordinance of 1785 set the cost of land purchased from the government at $1.00 per acre in sections of 640 acres.

This price was raised to $2.00/acre in 1800 but purchase was paid for in four equal annual payments.
In 1820 the price of Federal lands was reduced to $1.25 per acre with payment in cash.
An alternate conveyance in the 1862 Homestead Act maintained the $1.25 price.

Compare  the wages various craftsmen could command:

In 1785 a journeyman carpenter in New York City was paid  $1.12 ½ per day.
Here is the average hourly wage for various years, note the post Civil War inflation in the 1870 numbers and the decreases of the latter 1800's deflation:
  • Occupation   1860    1870     1880      1890
  • blacksmith    0.178    0.304   0.259     0.271
  • carpenter      0.182   0.410    0.276     0.322
  • machinist      0.158   0.260    0.227     0.243
  • laborers         0.098   0.156    0.135     0.151
As 60 hour weeks were typical, here is the average weekly wage:
  • Occupation   1860,  1870,  1880,  1890
  • blacksmith,   10.68, 18.24  15.54  16.26
  • carpenter,     10.92   24.60  16.56  19.32
  • machinist,       9.48  15.60  13.62  14.58
  • laborers,         5.88,   9.36    8.10    9.06
Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890

The point of all this is that in relatively short order a working person could earn enough to purchase a smallholding, that 1785 carpenter is earning almost 1 acre per day.

Even if the cost of non-Federal land was 10x the above a working person could still actually contemplate becoming a land owner. No more.
It's probably worth repeating:
4.  In Countries full settled, the Case must be nearly the same; all Lands being occupied and improved to the Heighth; those who cannot get Land, must Labour for others that have it; when Labourers are plenty, their Wages Will be low; by low Wages a Family is supported with Difficulty; this Difficulty deters many from Marriage, who therefore long continue Servants and single.  Only as the Cities take Supplies of People from the Country, and thereby make a little more Room in the Country; Marriage is a little more incourag'd there, and the Births exceed the Deaths....
-Benjamin Franklin, “ObservationsConcerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” (1751).