Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dean Baker's Rigged And Robert Reich's Saving Capitalism

Dean Baker has a new book out: Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. It recounts how laws that define property, markets, and so on have been rewritten, over the last fifty years, to accomplish an upward redistribution of income. This bias for the rich contrasts with the effects of the rules of the game in the half-century golden age following World War II. This is the same theme as Robert Reich's Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. And both books are targeted for the common reader. Thus, a review of Baker's book can usefully compare and contrast it with Reich's book. (I have previously reviewed Reich's book.)

Both books focus on a few areas in which the rules have been rewritten to distribute income upward. For example, consider intellectual property rights, especially the extension of patents and copyrights to last longer and to cover more. Baker, I think, discusses the international dimension more than Reich. The United States has been trying to ensure that patent laws are consistent throughout the world. The largest impact of this attempt, perhaps, is on the price of drugs in developing countries, and the subsequent consequences for health and life.

Both discuss how changes in laws have provided companies with more market power and have protected monopolies and oligopolies. Baker has more of a focus on upper-class professionals, such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Baker especially emphasizes how they are protected from international competition. So called free trade treaties, like the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are selective in who they subject to the rigors of international competition.

Both discuss corporate governance and the impact on the pay of Corporate Executive Officers (CEOs) and top managers. CEO pay went from 20 times averages wages in the 1960s to over 250 times average wage nowadays. In general, CEO pay is set by a committee appointed by the board of directors who, in turn, are appointed by the CEO. Stockholders have little say, even after the Dodd-Frank bill gives stockholders the right to have an up-or-down non-binding vote on pay packages. Baker extends his critique of CEO pay to heads of foundations and to university presidents, for example.

Reich writes more about contracts, bankruptcy, and enforcement. Baker, on the other hand, writes more about the macroeconomic setting. For example, the Federal Reserve is overly focused on the threat of inflation and not so much on unemployment. I know something of the importance of macroeconomic policy from James Galbraith, who has been writing on this theme for a long time. Baker follows his chapter on macroeconomics with a chapter on the financial sector.

I find Baker more analytical and less polemical than Reich. Baker adopts an interesting trope for putting in context large numbers. He frequently converts dollar flows into multiples of the yearly cost of welfare, that is, the yearly outlay on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). He doesn't always carry through this conversion. I suppose a comparison of doctors' incomes among specialities is only one illustration of health care costs and may not require this contextualization.

I think both books contain a similar tension. Part of their point is that a contrast between non-government intervention in markets and more regulation is a false choice. I think Reich is better on ideological critique of, say, marginal productivity theory or the exploded theory of skills-biased technological change. Baker seems less interested in abstract economic theory, although he does ask whether one can really believe CEOs have gotten so much more productive since the 1950s so as to justify the increased inequality in their pay. But Baker keeps on contrasting legislated barriers to competition with what a free market would produce, that is, less rent. He is too accepting, at least for rhetorical purposes, of traditional economic theory for my tastes. Reich is more consistent with emphasizing that no such thing as a free market can ever exist, absent laws defining markets. Baker does start and conclude with this point.

Baker proposes any number of innovative policies throughout the book, and gathers them together in the second-to-last chapter. For example, Baker suggests that corporations be given an option of issuing non-voting stock to the government, instead of paying corporate income tax. Inventors could be given the option of competing for contest prizes, where a requirement of signing up is that they cannot receive patents over a number of years. (As far as I am aware, existing prize contests have no such connection to the patent system.) He also suggests that governments can pay for medical tourism, where those needing operations travel to other countries in search of cheaper prices. Baker has thought about how some of his policy proposals could first be implemented on a small scale. In general, I find both Baker and Reich too voluntaristic in policy proposals. But I do not know how to avoid that in today's general dismal climate.

I guess my conclusion is that Reich's book is broader, but that Baker's book is generally better in areas of Baker's focus.


Magpie said...

Baker has more of a focus on upper-class professionals, such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Baker especially emphasizes how they are protected from international competition. So called free trade treaties, like the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are selective in who they subject to the rigors of international competition.

Personally, I'm a bit of a fan of Baker.

That said, let me ask your opinion.

Baker has been making that case for a while. Interestingly, while most everything he writes about is well received by the left-leaning public, that specific point has gained him a lot of flack from the wider public, on the one hand, while progressive intellectuals -- often upper-class professionals -- tend to ignore it, on the other.

I repeat, I'm interested in your opinion. Is Baker's case compelling or do you see flaws in it?

Ignacio said...

Completely agree with Baker here. Upper professional classes form the backbone of mainstream parties too, so it all checks out.

Robert Vienneau said...

It took me a while to see Baker's point. I probably took existing relationships as natural, a common mistake. Trade in services seems harder to arrange cross borders than trade in goods.

I know a woman here, in upstate NY, who is probably not well off and who has her regular dentist in Costa Rica. Apparently, a hospital in Buffalo, NY, USA, emails x-rays taken for emergency patients at night to some hospital in Australia and receives corresponding x rays during the day. I don't see why drugs received by mail could not come from out of the country.

So there are certain concrete examples.