When the financial crisis threatened to topple the global economy, my Russian friends took great delight in calling me from Moscow and sharing the bittersweet response that was making the rounds of a city that always laughs loudest when things go wrong: Everything Marx told us about communism was false, the gag went, but everything he told us about capitalism was true.
If you are worried about the Western middle class – and we all should be – you may have started to have some doubts about the virtues of flexible labor markets. In theory, flexible labor markets should make our economies more productive, and all of us richer, by making it easier for people to do the work the economy needs and to stop doing the work it doesn’t.
Here’s one sign the global elite is starting to get worried that capitalism isn’t working for the Western middle class. At the TED Global gathering in Scotland’s elegant capital city this week, much of the spotlight was on what’s going wrong with the 21st-century economy.
The past week has been a lesson in the perils and the apparent inevitability of overreach. The most eye-catching example has been in Turkey, where what began as a few people protesting a planned shopping mall has burst into a mass revolt against the governing of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The past week has underscored one more way in which the lives of the super-rich are diverging from the lives of everyone else: The middle class is becoming a matriarchy, while the plutocracy remains firmly patriarchal.
We are living in the age of the technocrats. In business, Big Data, and the Big Brains who can parse it, rule. In government, the technocrats are on top, too. From Washington to Frankfurt to Rome, technocrats have stepped in where politicians feared to tread, rescuing economies, or at least propping them up, in the process.
One of the most urgent questions in economics today is the connection between inequality and growth. That is because one of the big economic facts of our time is the surge in income disparity, particularly between those at the very top and everyone else. The other big fact is the recession set off by the financial crisis and the consequent imperative to jump-start economic growth. Figuring out the relationship between these two tent-pole issues is therefore a good way for economists to spend their time.
If you doubt that we live in a winner-take-all economy and that education is the trump card, consider the vast amounts the affluent spend to teach their offspring. We see it anecdotally in the soaring fees for private schools, private lessons and private tutors, many of them targeted at the pre-school set. And recent academic research has confirmed what many of us overhear at the school gates or read on mommy blogs.