Opinion

Lawrence Summers

Why isn’t capitalism working?

Lawrence Summers
Jan 9, 2012 12:13 UTC

Americans have traditionally been the most enthusiastic champions of capitalism.  Yet a recent American public opinion survey found that just 50 per cent of people had a positive opinion of capitalism while 40 per cent did not.  The disillusionment was particularly marked among young people 18-29, African Americans and Hispanics, those with incomes under $30,000 and self-described Democrats.

Three elections in a row in the U.S. have been bloodbaths by recent standards for incumbents, with the left side doing well in 2006 and 2008 and the right winning comprehensively in 2010.  With the rise of the Tea Party on the right, and the Occupy movement on the left, this suggests far more is up for grabs than usual in this election year.

So how justified is disillusionment with market capitalism?  This depends on the answer to two critical questions. Do today’s problems inhere in today’s form of market capitalism or are they subject to more direct solution? Are there imaginable better alternatives?

The spread of stagnation and abnormal unemployment from Japan to the rest of the industrialized world does raise doubts about capitalism’s efficacy as a promoter of employment and rising living standards for a broad middle class.  This problem is genuine. Few would confidently bet that the U.S. or Europe will see a return to full employment as previously defined within the next 5 years. The economies of both are likely to be constrained by demand for a long time.

But does this reflect an inherent flaw in capitalism or, as Keynes suggested, a “magneto” problem (like the failure of a car alternator) that can be addressed with proper fiscal and monetary policies, and which will not benefit from large scale structural measures? I believe the evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter. Efforts to reform capitalism are more likely to divert from the steps needed to promote demand than to contribute to putting people back to work. I suspect that if and when macroeconomic policies are appropriately adjusted, much of the contemporary concern will fade away.

The fierce urgency of fixing economic inequality

Lawrence Summers
Nov 21, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

The principal problem facing the United States and Europe for the next few years is an output shortfall caused by lack of demand. Nothing would do more to increase the incomes of all citizens—poor, middle class and rich—than an increase in demand, which would bring with it increases in incomes, living standards, and confidence. A more rapid recovery than now appears likely would reverse, at least partially, a growing disillusionment with almost all institutions and doubts about the future.

It would be, however, a serious mistake to suppose that our only problems are cyclical or amenable to macroeconomic solutions. Just as evolution from an agricultural to an industrial economy had far reaching implications for society, so too will the evolution from an industrial to a knowledge economy. Witness structural trends that predate the Great Recession and will be with us long after recovery is achieved: The most important of these is the strong shift in the market reward for a small minority of persons, relative to the rewards available to everyone else. In the United States, according to a recent CBO study, the incomes of the top 1 percent of the population have, after adjusting for inflation, risen by 275 percent from 1979 to 2007. At the same time, incomes for the middle class (in the study, the middle 60 percent of the income scale) grew by only 40 percent. Even this dismal figure overstates the fortunes of typical Americans; the number unable to find work or who have abandoned the job search has risen. In 1965, only 1 in 20 men between ages 25 and 54 was not working. By the end of this decade it will likely be 1 in 6—even if a full cyclical recovery is achieved.

To highlight the disturbing trends in a different way, one calculation suggests that if income distribution had remained constant in the U.S. over the 1979-2007 period, incomes of the top 1 percent would be 59 percent or $780,000 lower and the incomes of the average member of the bottom 80 percent of the population would be 21 percent or over $10,000 dollars higher.

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