Disclaimer: I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything. This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Over the past few days, I have been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Green Earth” trilogy, an examination of possible futures and strategies in dealing with climate change thinly disguised as science fiction. One phrase in it struck me with especial force: “the blind hand of the market never picks up the check.” To put it in more economic terms:
· Firms, and therefore market economies as a whole, typically seek profit maximization, and because the path to profit from new investment is always uncertain, to focus particularly on cost minimization within a chosen, relatively conservative profit-maximization strategy.
· To minimize costs, they may not only use new technologies (productivity enhancement), but also offload costs as far as possible onto other firms, consumers, workers, societies, and governments. Of these, the most difficult is offloading costs onto other firms (e.g., via supply-chain management), since these are also competing to minimize their costs and therefore to offload right back. Therefore, especially for the large, global firms that dominate today’s markets, the name of the game is to not only minimize costs from workers, consumers (consider help desks as an example), and societies/governments, but also to get “subsidies” from these (time flexibility or overtime from workers, consumers performing more of the work of [and bearing more of the risk of] the sales transaction, governments not only providing subsidies but also things such as infrastructure support, education and training of the work force, and dealing with natural disasters – now including climate change).
Often, especially in regard to climate change, economists may refer to the process of the invisible hand never picking up the check as the “tragedy of the commons.” The flaw of this analysis is to limit one’s gaze implicitly to tangible property. If one uses as a broader metric money equivalents, then it is clear that it is not just “common goods” that are being raided, but personal non-goods such as worker/consumer/neither time that translates to poorer health and less ability to cope with life’s demands, sapping productivity directly as well as via its effects on the worker/consumer’s support system, not to mention the government’s ability to compensate as it is starved of money. And all of this still does not capture the market’s ability to “game the system” by monopolizing government and the law.
Another point also struck me when I read this phrase: macroeconomics does not even begin to measure the amount of that “cost raiding”, instead referring to it as “externalities”. And therefore:
Economics cannot say whether market capitalism is better than other approaches, or worse, or the same. It cannot say anything at all on the subject.
Further Thoughts About Economics and Alternatives to Market Capitalism
A further major flaw, imho, in economics’ approach to the whole subject is the idea that cost minimization should not only be a desired end but also the major goal of an enterprise. I am specifically thinking of the case of the agile company. As I have mentioned before, agile software development deemphasizes cost, quality, revenue, time to market, and profit in favor of constantly building in flexibility to adjust to and anticipate the changing needs of the consumer. And yet, agile development outperforms approaches that do concentrate on these metrics by 25% at a minimum and sometimes 100%.
If the entire economy were based on real agile firms, I would suggest that we would see a comparable improvement in the economy – permanently. Moreover, the focus on the consumer should lead to a diminution in “cost raiding”. The focus on being truly in tune with the consumer’s needs, for example, should diminish raiding the consumer’s time in the sales transaction and forcing them to use the help-desk bottleneck. And I still live in hope that agile development with fewer time constraints will empower the developer with the ability to seek out and implement his or her own tools to improve processes, thereby allowing better retraining.
Implications of Climate Change for Economics and Market Capitalism
Robinson includes a critique of market capitalism in his work, and concludes that it has to change fundamentally. I find the critique itself problematic; but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right in his conclusion.
The fundamental question to me is, what happens when externalities go in reverse, and suddenly the things that have led to ongoing profits lead to ongoing losses? Robinson paints a frightening picture of a world in which brownouts, blackouts, killing cold, and killing heat are common, and insurance, whether private or governmental, cannot adequately compensate, leading additional costs to settle, inexorably, on their last resort, business. Then, implicitly, firms must cannibalize each other, with the largest being best equipped to do so.
I tend to place things in less apocalyptic terms. According to Prof. deLong, GDP performance can be thought of as part improvement in productivity and part expansion of the workforce. The climate change scenario necessarily implies a shrinkage of that workforce (in labor-hours) faster than productivity can climb, and therefore a constantly shrinking market. In that case, the market’s rising need for “cost raiding” as the market shrinks simply speeds up the shrinkage of the market – not to mention the underlying societies. And that, to me, is the fundamental flaw that needs correcting.
Theoretically, one option is to capture things like “the social cost of carbon” in company accounting – an idea I wrote about five years ago. Practically speaking, the uneven effects of that on companies mean real impact on the employees of coal and oil companies, a fact we have already seen a small foretaste of, and that has further revealed the ability of oil and coal companies to entirely snarl the political process to prevent adequate steps at limiting “cost raiding” – and that makes our carbon pricing efforts in real-world terms more likely than not to be inadequate to reverse the “cost raiding” trend.
The obvious alternative, which I and others have argued for and I in fact picked up on eight years ago when I first understood the dire implications of climate change, is “World War II in America”, governmental interference in the economy comparable to that of WWII in order to “win the war on climate change”. Only, of course, the aim is to lose the war with as little damage as possible. So suppose we do that; what then?
The obvious answer is, “sustainability” – meaning practices that will ensure that having “won the war”, we don’t lose it again in the future by slipping back into the old carbon-guzzling, ecology-devastating, arable-land-destroying habits. Is that enough? Robinson says no, that despite sustainability, cost raiding will continue to increase in other areas. And here I tend to agree with him, although I am not sure.
It appears, reverting to Prof. deLong’s point above, that it is possible with sustainability to continue to improve both human welfare and corporate profitability, by improving productivity with a more or less stable (almost certainly shrunken) population and workforce. However, productivity improvement may well be less than in the Industrial Revolution – it has already slowed for an unduly long time. And if that is the case, then there is no market-capitalism path forward that involves today’s increases in corporate profitability and avoids cost raiding increases.
I don’t know the answer to this. I feel, however, that the beginnings of an answer lie not in perpetually increasing the size of the workforce by improving human welfare, while somehow not increasing population, but rather in perpetually increasing “consumer productivity”: the value that people get out of their lives, that they can then invest in others. More specifically, I think markets can be divided into those for carrying out daily tasks (“Do”), those for socializing and participating in society (“Socialize”) and those for learning and creating (“Learn”). A balance must be kept between these efforts in any individual’s life, so the perpetual increases must be achieved inside each of these three sets of markets.
I would argue that today’s market economies use “Do” to crowd out much of the other two sets of markets, and are less good at perpetually increasing the value of “Socialize” and “Learn”, although the crowding-out may mean that “Do”’s superiority is illusory. I have no clear idea as to what to do about my conclusions, except to examine each set of markets more closely to gain clues as to how to achieve this perpetual value increase.
Just some thoughts. And oh, by the way, Robinson is indeed worth reading.