Sunday, November 30, 2008

A real progressive solution to the economic crisis

David Schweickart's Economic Democracy is one of the few speculative socialist economies that actually seems as though it could plausibly arise from our present society, though it would still be a long shot—just not as long a shot as something like parecon. Here Schweickart describes how we could get there out of the current financial clusterfuck:
The first thing would be to assure everyone, à la Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that there's nothing to fear but fear itself. I mean, we are not talking about a meteor crashing into the earth, or an incurable plague, or a nuclear war. Pieces of paper have suddenly lost their value. Our resources are still intact. Our skill base is still intact. There's no reason for ordinary people to lose their jobs or see their incomes plummet-no material reason, that is.

What next? Well, since the stock market has tanked, let the government step in and buy up those now near-worthless shares of the publicly-traded non-financial corporations. (The price tag may well be less than Paulson's $700b. The government can print the money, if need be. In a depression it's essential to stimulate the economy by pumping money into it.) Suddenly our government has controlling interest in all the major corporations. (Notice, these assets are not "expropriated" by the government. They are paid for at full market value.)

Since we (the people) now own these enterprises, let's democratize them. Let's now turn these enterprises over to the employees, to be run democratically. The employees (now voting members of their enterprise) can keep the existing management-indeed, for six months or so, let's insist that they do, while worker councils are set up to replace the boards of directors that used to represent the shareholders and oversee management. After six months, they can keep their managers or replace them as they see fit. Thus the "commanding heights" of the economy are democratized. (A democratic corporation is not one in which workers decide policy on a daily basis. Sound management is important. But ultimate authority now rests, not with shareholders-who have been bought out-but with the workforce itself, one person, one vote.) These firms will compete with one another, and with the remaining capitalist firms in the economy-small businesses and privately held companies. (Not much has changed—yet everything has changed.)

There have been a lot of studies indicating that worker-owned firms are viable, that they tend to be at least as efficient as comparable capitalist firms. Indeed, a lot of existing capitalist firms have set up Employee Stock Ownership Plans to take advantage of the efficiency gains these programs often bring. In our case, the workers won't own the firm. As taxpayers, we'll keep title to the firm. But the employees, not government officials, will control it. The firm won't pay dividends to shareholders anymore, for there aren't any. Instead the workers will lease the firm from the government.

What about the financial sector? To begin with, let's nationalize all those financial institutions that are "too big to fail." (Indeed, that is what is happening now-with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with AIG.) Let's go further. Let's nationalize all our banks and other financial institutions. As William Butier has recently pointed out:

"There is a long-standing argument that there is no real case for private ownership of deposit-taking banking institutions, because these cannot exist without a deposit guarantee and/or deposit of last resort facilities, that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer. . . . The argument that financial intermediation cannot be entrusted to the private sector can now be extended to include the new, transactions-oriented, capital-market-based forms of financial capitalism. The risk of a sudden vanishing of both market liquidity for systematically important classes of financial assets and funding liquidity for systematically important firms may be too serious to allow private enterprises to play. [, 9/17/08]"

It should be noted that Buiter is no socialist, but a professor of European political economy at the London School of Economics, the former head of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and-get this!-the author of a blog (Maverecon) on the Financial Times website, which is where this posting first appeared. The fact of the matter is, banks can be nationalized. Indeed the Economist proposed a few years back that Japan follow precisely this road to resolve its crisis.

Let's restructure our banking system, making into something that more closely resembles the system we had in place before deregulation set in some three decades ago. Let's have a network of Savings and Loan associations that will handle home mortgages and other consumer loans. Funds will be deposited by private savers, and loaned out to creditworthy customers.

Let's also have a system of investment banks. These are the institutions responsible for providing credit to the business sector. This is the economically crucial sector. Since businesses typically buy their raw materials and pay their workers before their products are sold, businesses must have access to credit. They also need credit to retool or to expand production. (It's this credit freeze that is so worrying about the present crisis. "The real shock after the feds failed to bail out Lehman Brothers wasn't the plunge in the Dow, it was the reaction of the credit markets. Basically, lenders went on strike . . . ." [Krugman, "Crisis End Game," NYT 9/19/08].)

Let's have a system of investment banks, but let's not generate the funds for these banks by trying to entice private individuals to save. Let's not rely on the "animal spirits" of the wealthy for the liquidity necessary to keep our economy going. There's an easier, more transparent way to raise those funds. Let's raise them the way we now raise funds for infrastructure, for basic research, for all our military hardware, for NASA, etc., i.e. via taxation. Let's have a special tax, all proceeds to be made available as loans to the market sector of the economy (our newly democratic and remaining capitalist enterprises). Let's abolish the corporate income tax. Let's have a simple, flat-rate capital assets tax. Democratic enterprises can consider this their leasing fee for use of public property, capitalist firms a replacement for the tax on profits. (Profit taxes used to comprise a significant portion of our national income tax receipts, but they no longer do. Corporations have figured out how to avoid those taxes. A capital assets tax is much simpler to administer-and impossible to avoid.)

Suddenly we don't need to worry about those financial markets anymore, which had become so complex, and opaque that no one really understood how they worked. Paul Krugman reports that when Ben Bernanke became Federal Reserve Chairman, he required a face-to-face refresher course from hedge fund managers to explain the system to him. "How did things get so opaque? The answer is ‘financial innovation'-two words that should, from now on, strike fear into investors' hearts" ["Innovating Our Way to Financial Crisis," New York Times, 12/3/07]. Of course some people understood it well enough to make very big bucks at the game. Hedge fund manager John Paulson (no relation to the Treasury Secretary) took home $3.7 billion for his hard work in 2006. (No, that's not a typo. It was $3.7 billion, not $3.7 million.)

There's one more thing we should do. A lot of people have seen their pensions disappear. Let's restore those pensions. We'll pick a date before the crash. Whatever value a person's holdings in a pension fund was at that date will be transferred to that person's social security account, to be paid out as an annuity supplement to that person's basic social security income, when s/he retires. (Please don't say we can't afford this. Whatever the formal source of one's retirement income, whether entirely from the government or from the government plus one's "investments," the goods and services one purchases with that income must be provided by human beings currently working. If there were enough working people and resources to provide these goods and services before the crash, there will be enough after the crash. As I've already noted, we're talking about pieces of paper losing their value, not a plague that has decimated the workforce.)

That's it. The basic structure of our new, democratic socialist economy is in place. Notice what we've done. A capitalist economy is a market economy. In fact it's an amalgam of three distinct sorts of markets-markets for goods and services, labor markets and capital markets. Our new democratic socialism is also a market economy. Our enterprises still compete. We've learned from the mistakes of the past that complex modern economies cannot be centrally planned. We embrace the healthy competition that keeps producers efficient and innovative. That is to say, we've kept those markets for goods and services. But we've replaced those labor and capital markets with more democratic institutions.
There's more, including some less utopian suggestions, in the original article. Compare any of it to what we actually get and weep.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

If there was any doubt...

Anyone still clinging to the silly belief that Barack Obama is the Great Progressive Savior need look no further than the fact that he is keeping George Bush's Secretary of Defense to rather swiftly dispel the notion. He appoints centrist after centrist after centrist and on top of that keeps, of all positions, Bush's military advisor.

So I pretty much called this one, I guess. Still glad we have a black president. Still glad we can dodge the veto on some important legislation a Bush or McCain would make difficult. Still not expecting any major "change," simply a rerun of the Bill Clinton years -- hell, half of Obama's people are Clinton's people.

Could be worse.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thoughts on President Obama

As I anticipated it would, Obama's election gives me very mixed feelings. I am, without a doubt, ecstatic that 1. the reign of terror that comes with a Republican president is finally over, and 2. the nation was finally able to elect a black man to its highest office. Both of these events are reasons to be incredibly happy, particularly the latter. Presidents come and go from both parties, but the first of anything by definition only happens once, and it's exciting to be around to see it.

What makes the victory especially gratifying is that it was by a large margin and accompanied by Democratic pickups in the Congress as well. The American people indisputably rejected conservatism, especially the neocon variety, as a governing ideology for the country. Despite the right-wing nuts claiming that the landslide election of a man they portrayed as a radical Marxist mandates that he govern from the center, it is clear that America is ready for change. For progress, even.

However, I've always had mixed feelings about Barack Obama the man, rather than Barack Obama the symbol. This is already being borne out in his early selections for his cabinet. Rahm Emanuel is acknowledged by virtually all as an asshole, and the fact that Larry "I love deregulation, women are stupid, export pollution to Africa where they die young anyway" Summers and Robert F. "vaccines cause autism" Kennedy Jr were even on the shortlists for Treasury and EPA do not inspire confidence in the bold, progressive changes promised by Obama. In fact, they portend more of the same things we've been dealing with for decades.

But this is not a surprise. Obama was never the progressive dream candidate his supporters thought he was. That he will surround himself with ex-Clintonites and centrists will shock only the ignorant. It is our job, as those who are interested in change and progress, to not stand by and watch idly, but to continuously criticize these moves and put as much pressure as we can bring to bear on Obama and the Democratic Congress to make the moves we want.

One thing I do think Obama is capable of is responding to public pressure. He has never been an ideologue, and while he will also never be the savior his fevered followers believed him to be, we can use these two, four, eight years to demand some of the things we've always hoped for with an actual chance of some of them coming to pass. But this will never happen if, in our shock and delight at the genuine accomplishment of the first black president, we sit back and assume he will do the right thing.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Breaking: Obama uses bad words

I have much more to say about the election soon. Blogging time has really been an issue for me lately. In the meantime, I offer you this quote from Barack Obama in Newsweek.
I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, "You know, this is a stupid question, but let me . . . answer it." So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, "Well, I planted a bunch of trees." And he says, "I'm talking about personal." What I'm thinking in my head is, "Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."
Maybe I like this guy more after all.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama is not progressive; vote for him anyway

Dale Carrico nails it, as usual:
The reason [Obama's centrism] should not be devastating to progressives is that I think we should expect truly progressive initiatives to issue not from the White House but from the House of Representatives. For example, I think it should matter far less to progressives that Obama has not offered up a universal single-payer health care plan than that we know he has said healthcare is a right, and so will almost certainly not veto such a plan when it finds its way through Congress to his desk.
Anyone who is expecting Obama to actually deliver on radical change is a deluded fool. The advantage of President Obama over President McCain is not that he is a socialist dream candidate (ironically of the sort McCain's campaign has made efforts to portray him as). Obama's positions are not substantially superior to McCain's, aside from a handful of hot-button issues. Obama needs to be elected for only two simple reasons: to avoid driving what is truly a remarkable movement demanding change into cynicism and apathy, and to rubber-stamp any actually progressive legislation that gets passed.