A book excerpt and interview with Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and author of “People, Power and Profits”.
For decades Joseph Stiglitz has argued that globalisation only works for a few, and government needs to reassert itself in terms of redistribution and regulation. Today the sources of his ire have grown more dire. Wealth inequality has become a hot-button political issue just as populists are on the march. In Mr Sitglitz’s latest book, “People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent,” he expands on his left-of-centre economic prescriptions. He believes that capitalism’s excesses can be tamed by the state providing a “public option” in areas like health care or mortgages when the market flounders. Here is a short, written interview with Mr Stiglitz about his ideas. It is followed by an excerpt from his book, on what he calls “the transition to a postindustrial world.”
The Economist: You argue that right-wing populists aren’t wrong—capitalism is indeed rigged. How so?
Joseph Stiglitz: It’s rigged in the obvious sense: some—the rich and powerful and their children—have better opportunities than others, enabling the perpetuation of advantages. There is not the competitive, level playing-field described in textbooks: in sector after sector, there are a few dominant firms that create almost insurmountable barriers to entry. Too many become wealthy not by adding to the size of the nation’s economic pie, but by seizing from others a larger share, through exploitation, whether of market power, informational advantages or the vulnerabilities of others.
The Economist: How did we get into this mess? Is it all the Republicans’ fault, or can you place a pox on the Democrats’ house as well?
Mr Stiglitz: There has always been a battle: those with power and wealth want to maintain and augment it, even when it comes at the expense of others. They have resisted attempts to redress the imbalances, whether through antitrust laws, progressive taxation and expenditure policies, or labour legislation. But in a series of progressive reforms from the late 19th century through to President Johnson, progress was made in each of these arenas and America created the first middle-class society. Then, with President Reagan, a new ideology came to prevail: leave everything to the market, the economy will grow, and everyone will be better off (what is called “trickle-down economics”). Instead, growth slowed and incomes for the vast majority stagnated. Some Democrats also bought into these ideologies, with accompanying policies of unfettered globalisation and financialisation.
Since Trump, however, the splits between the parties have grown ever larger, with the Republicans arguing for policies that would increase inequality and slow growth, as they increase the profits and power of corporations and further eviscerate that of workers and ordinary consumers.
Regulations to restrain banks and to protect the environment are being stripped away, taxes on ordinary Americans are being increased as those on corporations and the wealthy are being reduced, profits of pharmaceutical and health insurance companies are being increased as millions of more Americans are being left without health insurance. Life expectancy in America is, remarkably, in decline. And wages, adjusted for inflation, for people at the bottom of society remain where they were 60 years ago.
The Economist: You offer a wide range of solutions. Are there one or two that you see as a linchpin?
Mr Stiglitz: At the core is a new social contract, a new balance between the market, the state and civil society, based on what I call “progressive capitalism”. It channels the power of the market and creative entrepreneurship to enhance the well-being of society more generally. This will entail rewriting the rules of the economy, for instance, to curb market power of our 21st century tech and financial behemoths, to ensure that globalisation works for ordinary Americans, not just for corporations, and that the financial sector serves the economy rather than the other way around.
It entails increased government investment in technology, education and infrastructure—advances in science and technology and our ability to cooperate at scale. They are why our standards of living and life expectancies are so much higher today than they were 200 years ago.
With climate change providing an existential threat, both public programs and regulations have to be directed at creating a green economy. Essential in our ability to ensure that a middle-class life is accessible to most citizens will be a “public option,” a government alternative, for instance, in the provision of mortgages, retirement security and medical care.
The Economist: Behind your reforms is a bigger role for the state. But if government is dysfunctional, endowing the state with more economic power is like giving a toddler a power-drill: who knows what damage will ensue? Aren’t you worried that your solutions fall flat if the system that caused the mess is incapable of managing the fixes?
Mr Stiglitz: All humans, and all human institutions, are fallible. That is true both in the private and public sectors: look at the devastation wrought by private banks in the 2008 crisis, a loss of GDP (from what the economy would otherwise have produced) cumulatively now estimated in Europe and America to be in excess of $10 trillion. But government can and has worked well in many places, including in America. Both social security and Medicare have far lower administrative costs than private firms providing comparable services. Modern economics has made us sensitive to the underlying incentive problems in both the public and private sectors, providing tools to enhance efficiency and accountability. Oversight—including systems of checks and balances and an active free press—are essential, and this is again true, both in the private and the public sector.
The Economist: In an environment of post-fact politics, you marshal a lot of evidence to support your views—which counts for zilch if the political terrain disdains evidence. So how can your reforms stand a chance of being adopted, unless you go to battle armed with narrative, emotion, superficialities and a dash of embitterment?
Mr Stiglitz: I’m a Midwestern optimist—a position that is perhaps hard to maintain in the face of what has been occurring. I believe, however, that the vast majority of Americans can be moved by reason and evidence, but I also believe that “emotions” are also on the progressive side. There is something distinctly un-American about our un-level playing field, with 20 percent of American children growing up in poverty; or with so much power concentrated in the hands of so few firms—power that they repeatedly abuse. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans support the policy positions which I advance in the book, and they want a restoration of true democracy.
We have to curb the power of money in our politics and end the systematic attempts at disenfranchisement. Political engagement of the kind we saw in 2018—and the increasing awareness of young people of how much is at stake—hopefully is setting the stage for the return of the country to its progressive ideals.