Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Mysteries of the middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 28, 2013 18:28 UTC

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.

In practice, though, some economists who once championed flexible labor markets without reservation, like Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have begun to have second thoughts. Acemoglu doesn’t doubt the positive economic effects of flexible labor markets, but he has begun to be concerned about their political and distributional consequences. They might help the economy grow overall, but they may also be contributing to the hollowing out of the middle class by weakening its political bargaining power.

That’s why a recent paper by Joao Paulo Pessoa and John Van Reenen, both of the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, makes such fascinating reading. Van Reenen and Pessoa set out to unravel the two big mysteries about Britain’s economic performance over the past five years. The backdrop to both is the devastation that Britain, with its oversize banking sector, suffered in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

“The big story in the UK is that the economy has shrunk by 2.5 percent since the pre-crisis period,” Van Reenen told me. “That’s the longest depressed economy in this country for more than a hundred years.”

Britain’s dismal economic performance certainly helps to explain the grimness of British politics at the moment, and the growing appeal of the nationalist fringe. But the story becomes more mysterious when you start investigating what is happening inside the country’s shrunken economy.

Economic worries and the global elite

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 17, 2013 15:46 UTC

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.

That matters because the TED conferences are one of the obligatory stops on the itinerary of any self-regarding plutocrat, and in the past that constituency has often preferred its vision of the economic future served sunny-side up. (TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and is a not-for-profit global conference organization.)

The gloom started with former Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece. In a remarkably candid and introspective talk, Papandreou offered a mea culpa for his own mistakes and those of the European political elite. He admitted that hardship had been imposed on people who were “in the main, not to blame for the crisis” and accused the European establishment of uncritically, and at great cost, clinging to “the orthodoxy of austerity.”

An elite deserving of the name

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 13, 2013 16:32 UTC

This book review originally appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and is reprinted with permission.

As the twenty-first-century American middle class gets squeezed, with little relief in sight, liberals are wistfully remembering something about the postwar era that they had energetically forgotten. That age of suburban conformity and institutionalized sexism and racism was also a time when big business believed in government and worried about the common good, and was willing to pay for both.

Reminding us of that era, and documenting the engagement between the corporate class and the state during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, is the most valuable contribution of The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite by Mark Mizruchi. The University of Michigan business school professor, who has written three previous books about the practices and culture of the American corporation, offers a compelling history of how the American corporate elite reconciled itself to the New Deal, and then, in the aftermath of World War II, signed on to a vision of America in which government played a muscular and essential role in steering the economy and underwriting the well-being of the middle class.

The perils of authoritarian overreach

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 7, 2013 15:16 UTC

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.

A second case, in Russia, has been on a much smaller scale but in some ways is even more menacing: Sergei Guriev, one of the country’s most respected economists and university leaders, has left the country, fearing arrest if he stayed.

What is striking about both episodes is how costly they are proving to be for the dominating leaders who have provoked them, and how easily it seems they might have been avoided.

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