Opinion

Edward Hadas

The social market economy

Edward Hadas
Jan 25, 2012 15:14 UTC

Capitalism is the name people give to the way the modern economy is arranged. Now that Communism has been discredited as an economic system, there seems to be no real alternative. But the word is misleading.

A capitalist analysis of any economic issue starts with capital, both physical capital – factories and land – and financial – shares and bonds. It is associated with free and competitive markets for goods and labour.  And capitalism has come to designate a system where private property is the norm, with any exception needing some sort of justification. Capitalist analysis usually treats governments and unions as economic interlopers, and ignores the broader society.

That perspective is too narrow. Capital and markets are only two parts of the complex modern economic system. People don’t only matter because they bring their labour to the owners of capital – as in the original, 19th century definition of capitalism. And governments over the years have become regulators and keepers of the monetary order. Moreover, the economy is so closely integrated with modern society that no clear border separates the two. Social forces – such as the thirst for technological innovation, the work ethic and other moral values – play a fundamental part and influence the workings of the purely “capitalist” system.

A limited analysis often leads to unnecessarily grim prognoses. Think back to the 1960s, when environmental pollution was first identified as a serious problem. Many observers, enthusiastic capitalists among them, thought that the capitalist system couldn’t deal simultaneously with environmental goals and the search for profits. Economic disruptions were predicted. But changes in the law, technology, corporate priorities and cultural values combined to bring about a remarkable success in reducing noxious emissions, without noticeable harm to prosperity or profits.  The system found a way to price externalities without endangering itself.

Half a century later, people, including enthusiastic capitalists, are again wondering whether the system can survive. Now they cite the long financial crisis, or issues such as the exorbitant privileges of the very rich. They are not wrong to be concerned. If the economy were simply or primarily capitalist, either of these problems could well be lethal. After all, neither factory nor financial capital can be expected to allocate income and wealth justly. And the financial system could be too wounded to heal itself.

The cruise industry’s rough sail

Edward Hadas
Jan 18, 2012 17:50 UTC

The cruise industry demonstrates much of what works well in the industrial economy. The debacle of the Costa Concordia – 11 people confirmed dead and at least 23 missing, and a financial loss of as much as $1 billion – shows some of the ways that the economy can malfunction.

The loss of life from the accident off the Italian coast is tragic, and the loss of money is remarkably large for a business that has global annual revenues of around $34 billion, according to Cruise Market Watch. That is not a big business by global standards; airline revenues, as calculated by the International Air Transport Association, are 17 times larger.

Still, the cruise trade is large and familiar enough to provide an illuminating microcosm of the modern economy at work.

It’s not always the economy, stupid

Edward Hadas
Jan 11, 2012 15:38 UTC

“It’s the economy, stupid.” The words date from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, but the basic idea that political shifts are the visible manifestations of hidden economic developments was first articulated by Karl Marx, who wrote before the word “economy” had its current meaning. When he declared, in 1848, that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” the notion was truly revolutionary. It has become a commonplace. Pundits ferret out economic causes for everything, politicians strive to present voters with economic good news, and careful studies show that economic trends influence elections.

Like most often-repeated generalizations (“Germans are orderly” or “an army marches on its stomach”) the claim that politics is fundamentally about economics has some truth to it. But I think pundits, politicians and voters would all benefit from a bit of revisionism. It’s not always the economy, and when it is, politicians cannot do much about it in a hurry.

Start with the expert commentators. I’m thinking of the people who confidently declare that the Arab Spring was caused by the increased cost of food. Or the ones who explain the poor performance of Vladimir Putin’s party in the recent Russian parliamentary election as a reflection of stagnating average incomes. The invasion of Iraq? It was the oil, stupid. The rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe? Look no further than the job market.

The spirit of Christmas presents

Edward Hadas
Dec 20, 2011 19:39 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The opinions expressed are his own.

Ah, the curse of materialism. The true spirit of Christmas has been obliterated by a landslide of gifts. The crass commercialism which surrounds the experience of holiday shopping, not to mention the returns and post-Christmas sales, has turned this joyous holiday into little more than an exaltation of the worst aspects of our modern consumerist economy.

Or so it is often said. But is the complaint fair? It’s certainly true that the exchange of gifts on a large scale is a relatively new feature of Christmas festivities. In the 1840s, Charles Dickens has the Spirit of Christmas Present take the miser Ebenezer Scrooge to witness joyous celebrations of the feast. Food, drink and good cheer are in abundant supply, but there are no presents.

In the 1880s, hand-made gifts were making the day special for many American children. By the 1920s, a more commercial spirit had triumphed in the land of mass production and the factory-made Christmas was already causing complaints about inappropriate gifts. According to historian William Waits, some businessmen felt a little queasy about advertisements for such supposedly ideal Christmas gifts as a can of paint, a cooperative apartment, potatoes and floor wax.

Casting the runes on climate change

Edward Hadas
Dec 14, 2011 14:58 UTC

Something has gone wrong with global warming. It’s not that the world has stopped heating up. It’s that the anti-warming political movement, which seemed almost unstoppable when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, has stalled.

Last week’s United Nations climate change conference in Durban ended with little more than an agreement to talk some more about what to do next. Even that was too much for Canada, which has just said no to emission-reduction targets. The activists blame recalcitrant governments and many commentators blame economic distractions. They are probably both right, but I think the activists’ own approach bears much of the responsibility.

While only experts can judge the strength of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change, no technical knowledge is required to be troubled by the way the activists present their case. The willingness to describe knowledgeable opponents as “deniers,” a word previously used only for fantasists about Nazi atrocities, suggests a very unscientific attitude.

Cheeseburgers and death: de-socializing health care

Edward Hadas
Dec 7, 2011 15:43 UTC

By Edward Hadas
The opinions expressed are his own.

Americans are both the fattest people in the world and the biggest spenders on health care. Both those facts can be traced, at least in part, to a common attitude.

First a few numbers. The latest global handbook from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that 34 percent of Americans are obese by the criteria of the World Health Organization. In health care spending, the United States leads with 17 percent of GDP. In both categories, U.S. numbers are almost twice as high as the average numbers of OECD members.

The extra fat accounts for only a small portion of the extra American spending on health care. Researchers recently estimated that the medical expenses caused by obesity, which is connected to problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, amounted to $147 billion in 2008. That number suggests that even if Americans were no fatter than the OECD average, they would only spend 3 percent less on health care than they do now.

Mr. Fine Suit visits Europe

Edward Hadas
Nov 30, 2011 06:00 UTC

Once upon a time there were 11 prosperous merchants who lived in a land of peace and plenty. They decided to form a league that would work together for everyone’s greater good. But then a charming man in a fine suit came around with a tempting speech: “I love your project and trust your businesses. I will lend you money at a very attractive interest rate”. How nice, thought the merchants. Our customers will love us if we use the money we borrow to give them better deals.

All went so well that six other merchants were proud to join the league. Mr. Fine Suit seemed pleased. He reduced the already low interest rate on the loans. The merchants all planned to repay, but today was never quite right. Today, in fact, was always a good day to borrow more, while tomorrow always looked like a better day to raise prices.

Then one day Mr. Fine Suit changed his tune. “You know, you have a mighty nice little enterprise going here. But business is business, my friends. Interest rates are going to rise for some of you.” The merchants were angry, but what could they do? They promised to be more frugal, but still had to pay up. As the months went by, Mr. Fine Suit became more hostile. Just last week he came to the G-store, the most prosperous and prudent of all the merchants, with a really nasty threat. “You know, between us, I’ve never liked your stupid league. You’re much smarter than the rest. Leave the league and I’ll keep on lending you money at a low rate. If not, well, here’s a little reminder of what I can do.” He increased the interest rate by two notches before leaving the room with a menacing smirk.

The two sides of inequality

Edward Hadas
Nov 23, 2011 15:30 UTC

Around 100 BC, a Roman nobleman calculated that it took about 100,000 sesterces a year to live comfortably. That was roughly 200 times the amount of money a poor city dweller needed to eke out a living. If an American needed the same multiple of the subsistence income to join the upper middle class today, the threshold would be $3.5 million. The United States economy has become less equal lately, but it remains much more egalitarian than the ancient Roman Republic.

The modern news on economic inequality is much more good than bad. The good news is very good. The greatest moral problem caused by inequality – the unequal access to the most basic economic goods, those which support life – has become less severe. The portion of the total population that suffers from this bottom-inequality is probably the lowest ever in history.

True, we do not know how many ancient Romans were on the wrong side of the bottom-inequality, but statistics for the most recent decades are encouraging. In 1970, 26 percent of the world’s population suffered from hunger, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The proportion is now 13 percent – still scandalously high, but the gain in food-equality is clear. Nor is food an isolated example. Electricity is a relative new development, but the Soviet dream of universal electrification has already nearly become a reality; more than 80 percent of the world’s population can plug in, according to the International Energy Agency. Health care and sanitary living conditions are now considered basic goods – and access to them has become more equal. The average life expectancy at birth is 65 or above in countries accounting for roughly 80 percent of the world’s population.

Is the euro history?

Edward Hadas
Nov 16, 2011 14:24 UTC

“The Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.” Or, to speak more directly than G W F Hegel, we can only become wise about the direction of history late in the day. The aphorism is pertinent to the euro crisis. Is this the twilight hour for the single currency or are the clouds over the euro no more than an early morning mist in pan-European history? The euro’s fate will look inevitable in retrospect (that is Hegel’s point), but for now the balance of historical forces is far from clear.

The technicalities of the euro crisis are bewildering, even to financial professionals. There are rescue funds constructed with baroque techniques of financial engineering, arcane details of labor market reforms and political feuds that have festered for decades. But something much bigger is at stake – whether or not there should be, in the words of Angela Merkel, “more Europe.” If so, the crisis can be resolved relatively simply: lenders would accept the losses caused by their past mistakes and errant governments would promise to play by the fiscal rules henceforth.

But should there be more Europe? Most British politicians think not and most mainstream continental politicians are in favor, if only warily. The reasons on both sides are fundamentally Hegelian. It is a question of which historical forces should prevail.

Can financial greed be contained?

Edward Hadas
Nov 9, 2011 14:08 UTC

“Our culture must be one where the interests of customers and clients are at the very heart of every decision we make; where we all act with trust and integrity.” The words are from a recent speech by Bob Diamond, chief executive of British bank Barclays. In a way, this is just the usual corporate guff. No boss will tell the world about untrustworthy workers who try to harm customers. But Diamond’s aspirations are a particular challenge for the financial industry.

Not that finance itself is an ignoble activity like drug dealing or contract killing. On the contrary, finance has a noble goal, the support of a just and effective economic community. Banks, fund managers and the like collect funds that is surplus to the owners’ current requirements. The funds are then made available to organizations and individuals which can make good use of them. The gains from that good use are justly shared between provider and user, with the intermediary taking a small fee for its valuable services.

That is a pretty picture, but in the pre-crisis finance world, the intermediaries often lost sight of their economic purpose. Customers came third, after employees and shareholders. Bankers, banks and other institutions were misled by a particular form of greed, the belief that finance is more about gaining than sharing.

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