Tim Rogan: What’s Wrong with the Critique of Capitalism Now

RoganWhat’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. In The Moral Economists, Tim Rogan reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation. Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century. Read on to learn more about these moral economists and their critiques of capitalism.

You begin by asking, ‘What’s wrong with capitalism?’ Shouldn’t we start by acknowledging capitalism’s great benefits?

Yes, absolutely. This was a plan for the reform of capitalism, not a prayer for its collapse or a pitch for its overthrow. These moral economists sought in some sense to save capitalism from certain of its enthusiasts—that has always been the project of the socialist tradition out of which these writers emerged. But our question about capitalism—as about every aspect of our social system, every means by which we reconcile individual preferences to arrive at collective decisions—should always be ‘What’s wrong with this?;’ ‘How can we improve this?;’ ‘What could we do better?’ And precisely how we ask those questions, the terms in which we conduct those debates, matters. My argument in this book is that our way of asking the question ‘What’s wrong with capitalism?’ has become too narrow, too focused on material inequality, insufficiently interested in some of the deeper problems of liberty and solidarity which the statistics recording disparities of wealth and income conceal.

Was this critique of capitalism also a critique of economics, and if so what do these critics add to the usual complaints against economics—about unrealistic assumptions, otherworldly models, indifference to historical developments such as financial crises, etc?

Yes, the moral economists were critical of economics. But although their criticisms might sound like variations on the familiar charge that economists make unreal assumptions about the capacities and proclivities of individual human beings, the moral economists’ challenge to mainstream economics was different. The most influential innovators in economics since the Second World War have been behavioral scientists pointing out that our capacity to make utilitarian calculations is not as high as economists once took it to be. Part of what the success of this series of innovations is that the ideal of reducing every decision to a calculation of utility retains its allure, even as we come to realize how fallible our real-time calculations are. Behavioral economists have found our capacity to think like rational utilitarian agents wanting. But when did the capacity to think like a rational utilitarian agent become the measure of our humanity? This is the question moral economists have been asking since the 1920s. Initiated by historians determined to open up means of thinking outside economic orthodoxy, since joined by mathematically-trained economists concerned to get a more realistic handle on the relationship between individual values and social choice, the moral economists’ enterprise promises a far more profound reconstitution of political economy than behavioral economics has ever contemplated.

Doesn’t the profile of these writers—dead, male, English, or Anglophile, writing about a variety of capitalism long since superseded—limit their contemporary relevance?

No. Their main concern was to discover and render articulate forms of social solidarity which the dominant economic discourse concealed. They found these on the outskirts of ‘Red Vienna’, on railroads under construction in post-war Yugoslavia, but most of all in the north of England. They believed that these inarticulate solidarities were what really held the country together—the secret ingredients of the English constitution. Though they belonged to a tradition of social thought in Britain that was skeptical towards Empire and supportive of the push for self-determination in India and elsewhere, they raised the prospect that the same dynamics had developed in countries to which British institutions had been exported—explaining the relative cohesion of Indian and Ghanaian democracies, for instance. More broadly E. P. Thompson in particular argued that factoring these incipient solidarities into constitutional thinking generated a more nuanced understanding of the rule of law than nineteenth-century liberalism entailed: in Thompson’s hand the rule of law became a more tensile creed, more capable of accommodating the personal particularities of the law’s subjects, more adept at mitigating the rigors of rational system to effect justice in specific cases. The profiles of the late-twentieth century commentators who continue the critical tradition Tawney, Polanyi and Thompson developed—especially Amartya Sen—underscore that tradition’s wider relevance.

Aren’t these writers simply nostalgists wishing we could return to a simpler way of life?

No. Tawney especially is often seen as remembering a time of social cohesion before the Reformation and before the advent of international trade and wishing for its return. This perception misunderstands his purpose.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism draws sharp contrasts between two distinct iterations of European society – the late medieval and the modern. But this was a means of dramatizing a disparity between different societies developing in contemporary England—the society he encountered working at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End, where social atomization left people demoralized beyond relief, on the one hand; the society he encountered when he moved to Manchester to teach in provincial towns in Lancashire and Staffordshire, where life under capitalism was different, where the displacement of older solidarities was offset by the generation of new forms of cohesion, where many people were poor but where the social fabric was still intact.

The demoralized East End was the product of laissez faire capitalism—of the attempt to organize society on the basis that each individual was self-sufficient, profit-minded, unaffected by other human sentiments. The political crisis into which Britain was pitched in the late Edwardian period underlined how untenable this settlement was: without a sense of what more than the appetite for wealth motivated people, there could be no ‘background of mutual understanding’ against which to resolve disputes. At the same time the answer was not simply stronger government, a bigger state. The latent solidarities Tawney discovered in the north of England carried new possibilities: the facility of market exchange and the security of an effective state could be supplemented by informal solidarities making everyday life more human than the impersonal mechanisms of market and government allowed.

Polanyi and Thompson brought their historical settings forward into the nineteenth century, making their writings feel more contemporary. But they were both engaged in much the same exercise as Tawney—using history to dramatize disparities between different possibilities developing within contemporary society. They too had come into contact with forms of solidarity indicating that there was more than calculations of utility and the logic of state power at work in fostering social order.  Polanyi and then especially Thompson advanced their common project significantly when he found a new terminology with which to describe these incipient solidarities. Tawney had talked of ‘tradition’ and ‘convention’ and ‘custom,’ and Polanyi had followed Tawney in this—refusing to associate himself with Ferdinand Tonnies concept of Gemeinschaft and Henry Maine’s system of ‘status’ when pressed to, but offering no cogent concept through which to reckon with these forms of solidarity himself. Thompson’s concept of the ‘moral economy’ made the kinds of solidarities upon which they had all focused more compelling.

Does subscribing to a moral critique of capitalism mean buying into one of the prescriptive belief systems out of which that critique materialized? Do you need to believe in God or Karl Marx in order to advance a moral critique of capitalism without embarrassment?

No. Part of the reason that this critique of capitalism went out of commission was because the belief systems which underpinned it—which, more specifically, provided the conceptions of what a person is which falsified reductive concepts of ‘economic man’—went into decline. Neither Tawney nor Thompson was able to adapt to the attenuation of Christian belief and Marxian conviction respectively from which their iterations of the critique had drawn strength. Polanyi’s case was different: he was able to move beyond both God and Marx, envisaging a basis upon which a moral critique of capitalism could be sustained without relying on either belief system. That basis was furnished by the writings of Adam Smith, which adumbrated an account of political economy which never doubted but that economic transactions are embedded in moral worlds.

This was a very different understanding of Adam Smith’s significance to that with which most people to whom that name means something now have been inculcated. But it is an account of Adam Smith’s significance which grows increasingly recognizable to us now—thanks to the work of Donald Winch, Emma Rothschild and Istvan Hont, among others, facilitated by the end of Cold War hostilities and the renewal of interest in alternatives to state- or market-based principles of social order.

In other words there are ways of re-integrating economics into the wider moral matrices of human society without reverting to a Christian or Marxian belief system. There is nothing extreme or zealous about insisting that the moral significance of economic transactions be recognized. What was zealous and extreme was the determination to divorce economics from broader moral considerations. This moral critique of capitalism represented a recognition that the time for such extremity and zeal had passed. As the critique fell into disuse in the 1970s and 1980s, some of that zeal returned, and the last two decades now look to have been a period of especially pronounced ‘economism.’ The relevance of these writings now, then, is that they help us to put the last two decades and the last two centuries in perspective, revealing just how risky the experiment has been, urging us to settle back in now to a more sustainable pattern of economic thought.

You find that this moral critique of capitalism fell into disuse in the 1970s and 1980s. Bernie Sanders declared in April 2016 that instituting a ‘truly moral economy’ is ‘no longer beyond us.’ Was he right?

Yes and no. Sanders’ made this declaration at the Vatican, contemplating the great papal encyclicals of Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus. The discrepancies between what Sanders said and what Popes Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II before him said about capitalism is instructive. The encyclicals have always focussed on the ignominy of approaching a person as a bundle of economic appetites, on the apostasy of abstracting everything else that makes us human out of our economic thinking. Sanders sought to accede to that tradition of social thought—a tradition long since expanded to encompass perspectives at variance with Catholic theology, to include accounts of what a person is which originate outside the Christian tradition. But Sanders’s speech issued no challenge to the reduction of persons to economic actors. In designating material inequality the ‘great issue of our time,’ Sanders reinforced that reductive tendency: the implication is that all we care about is the satisfaction of our material needs, as if redistribution alone would solve all our problems.

The suggestion in Sanders speech was that his specific stance in the utilitarian debate over how best to organise the economy has now taken on moral force. There is an ‘individualist’ position which favors free enterprise and tolerates inequality as incidental to the enlargement of aggregate utility, and there is a ‘collectivist’ stance which enlists the state to limit freedom to ensure that inequality does not grow too wide, seeing inequality as inimical to the maximizing of aggregate utility. The ‘collectivists’ are claiming the moral high ground. But all they are really proposing is a different means to the agreed end of maximizing overall prosperity. The basis for their ‘moral’ claims seems to be that they have more people on their side—a development which would make Nietzsche smile, and should give all of us pause. There are similar overtones to the rallying of progressive forces around Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The kind of ‘moral economy’ Sanders had in mind—a big government geared towards maximizing utility—is not what these moral economists would have regarded as a ‘truly moral economy’. The kinds of checks upon economic license they had in mind were more spontaneous and informal—emanating out of everyday interactions, materializing as strictures against certain kinds of commercial practice in common law, inarticulate notions of what is done and what is not done, general conceptions of fairness, broad-based vigilance against excess of power. This kind of moral economy has never been beyond us. The solidarities out of which it arises were never eradicated, and are constantly regenerating.

Tim Rogan is a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he teaches history. He is the author of The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism.

Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Why Government Fails So Often: Or, the Skeptics Are Winning

7-17 SchuckAccording to The New York Times‘s David Leonhardt, the United States federal government gets an honorable mention when it comes to reform, innovation, and protection – but it’s not quite enough. In a recent op-ed for “The Upshot,” the paper’s politics and policy blog, Leonhardt pays due diligence to the large-scale achievements of the United States: dismantling totalitarian governments, putting men on the moon, and the invention of the Internet among them. And yet, despite our big picture success stories, we continue to stumble in the day-to-day.

Leonhardt references Yale Law professor and Princeton University Press author Peter Schuck’s latest book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better in evaluating the current role of the federal government and the extent to which its activity is productive and beneficial, particularly when it comes to the siphoning of federal funds.

“When the federal government is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad (or at least deeply inefficient), it’s the norm.”

Soon, however, we might start to see some returns on our investments. The growing popularity of programs that are funded based on their initial success suggests a growing demand for tangible results, to see where our money is going and to ensure that we’re not wasting it.  These programs “span child care, job training and juvenile recidivism,” and are sometimes known as “pay for success,” wherein controlled trials are set up to determine the effect of such projects. And really, that’s the only way to know if something works. Professor Schuck is right to re-evaluate the cost-effectiveness of these initiatives, and with any luck, the government will start to fail just a little less.


Peter H. Schuck is the author of:

7-17 Government Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better by Peter H. Schuck
Hardcover | 2014 | $27.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691161624
488 pp. | 6 x 9 | eBook | ISBN: 9781400850044 | Reviews  Table of Contents   Chapter 1[PDF]

Heather Gerken to Speak on Moyers & Company

The Democracy IndexAs the government shutdown takes off its shoes and makes itself at home, media outlets have been going wild to get the scoop. Heather Gerken, Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It, is set to appear on Moyers & Company to speak about the shutdown and how the government will be affected by it.

A preview of the show can be found here, and the official description for the show can be found below.

This week, as the government shutdown continues, the Supreme Court began its new term and justices heard arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The case has been billed as the successor to the court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that gave corporations, unions, and the wealthy the opportunity to pour vast and often anonymous amounts of cash into political campaigns. The new case challenges caps on how much individual donors can give to candidates and political parties and could raise the amount to more than $3.25 million.

This week on Moyers & Company (check local listings), Bill Moyers talks with Yale Law School election and constitutional law professor Heather Gerken who warns that McCutcheon has the potential to be even worse than Citizens United. Political parties pay attention to the people with money, and as the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation reports, most of the funding for congressional and presidential campaigns comes from the top one percent of the one percent of the rich – “the elite class that serves as gatekeepers of public office in the United States.”

Moyers & Company airs weekly on public television. Viewers can find local tune-in information on our site. http://billmoyers.com/schedule/

Raghuram Rajan to take charge of the Reserve Bank in India amidst spike in economic challenges

Photo by Dan Dry. © University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Photo by Dan Dry. © University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Raghuram Rajan was one of the few economists who warned of the global financial crisis before it hit. Now, he is preparing to take charge of the Reserve Bank in India during a spike in economic challenges for the country.

In India, growth is at its slowest in several years, and the rupee has hit a low of 61.80 to one U.S. dollar. Rajan, who was previously the Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, has spent the past year as counsel on India’s economic reforms. Come September, when Rajan takes office, he plans to initiate a series of measures to stabilize the rupee involving decreasing imports and increasing exports.

While the challenge is great, Rajan has been praised for his rare and essential record of speaking out about economic instability (of the U.S. financial system), as well as his sound warnings regarding India’s economy the past few years. In a now-famous encounter, he predicted the impending crisis at a conference in Jackson Hole in 2005 for outgoing Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, for which he was attacked as an anti-market Luddite. Three years later, he was proven right and has demonstrated how imbalances—both within the U.S. as well as between the U.S. and the rest of the world—brought about an unstable system which led to the financial crisis in 2008.

In Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, winner of the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs 2010 Business Book of the Year Award, Rajan shows how the individual choices that collectively brought about the economic meltdown—made by bankers, government officials, and ordinary homeowners—were rational responses to a flawed global financial order in which the incentives to take on risk are incredibly out of step with the dangers those risks pose. He traces the deepening fault lines in a world overly dependent on the indebted American consumer to power global economic growth and stave off global downturns. He exposes a system where America’s growing inequality and thin social safety net create tremendous political pressure to encourage easy credit and keep job creation robust, no matter what the consequences to the economy’s long-term health; and where the U.S. financial sector, with its skewed incentives, is the critical but unstable link between an overstimulated America and an underconsuming world. Rajan outlines the hard choices we need to make to ensure a more stable world economy and restore lasting prosperity.

“Mr Rajan is no administrator but will also have to reform the RBI,” wrote the Economist. “In the 1990s [the RBI] toyed with relinquishing some of its vast empire—it runs everything from monetary policy to public-debt issuance and bank regulation. Recently it has clung to its powers only to find that its multiple goals of stability, growth and low inflation conflict. Mr Rajan’s task is to resolve those contradictions. If he succeeds, Western central bankers, who have seen a proliferation in their responsibilities since the crisis, will have another reason to listen to his views.”

More by Raghuram Rajan:
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Opportunity
The Squam Lake Report: Fixing the Financial System

More on India:
Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic Rise of China and India by Pranab Bardhan
An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen