At Dance of the Hippo, my colleague economist Karl Seeley discusses heterodox economic approaches, part of a hopeful trend to look beyond the neo-classical and math-based economics, which did not really become dominant in the U.S. until the 1970s (see Anthropology and the economists without history).
This is part of a longer conversation when Seeley asked “How do we pay for it?”, a question directed implicitly at Paul Krugman’s Keynesian hammer, End This Depression Now! The problem, Seeley argued, is the spending we need is not so much for growth, but to shrink into a green economy–a stimulus that would essentially retool and reduce resource use in the long run. However, since loans are traditionally paid off through economic growth, trying to borrow now for a green economy is potentially problematic.
Given that the U.S. can essentially borrow at a negative interest rate–and that we really do need to revamp resource use for a green economy–I believe we eventually agreed the question should be “Why aren’t we paying for it?” The answer is primarily political, and all the political trends seem to point away from what is really needed: public borrowing to jumpstart job creation and build a green economy. As if creating jobs, ending the recession, and reducing resource use were not enough, this task is all the more urgent as we may be approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, a “tipping point” beyond which ecological systems become irreparably altered.
But I’ll in turn agree with Seeley that perhaps “We don’t yet have the financial tools to divvy up that kind of future.” This is where my wife’s subscription to The Nation, and the article she left lying out Not So Wild a Dream, comes in handy. Here Gar Alperovitz and Thomas M. Hanna argue “it’s time to put the taboo subject of public ownership back on the progressive agenda.”
The whole article by Alperovitz and Hanna is worth reading, but there are two directly relevant points. First, Alperovitz and Hanna note we need public ownership because “large corporations are subject to Wall Street’s first commandment: grow or die.” Getting to a green economy means abolishing that commandment:
The destructive “grow or die” imperative of our market-driven system cannot be wished or regulated away. In addition to the overriding issue of global warming, countless studies have documented that limits to growth in such areas as energy, minerals, water and arable land (among others) are fast being reached. The energy corporations are desperately trying to crash through these limits with technological fixes such as fracking, tar sands exploitation and deep-water drilling, which are equally or more environmentally costly than traditional methods.
Second, making a strong case for public ownership may be the only remedy for the political trend against stimulus spending:
Rebuilding the spirit and drive of the next progressive politics calls for developing economic ideas that make sense at every level and scale. The Tea Party, for all its inane posturing, teaches a useful lesson–namely, that saying clearly what you want has a compelling force. When progressives are being called “socialists” no matter what, there is little to lose and much to gain by clearly making the case for a long-term plan that confronts–and ultimately overcomes–the centrality of corporate power.
But long discussions of public ownership are unlikely to have much appeal. Let’s get down to a simple slogan: Expropriate Goldman-Sachs. Use investment banking to create jobs and re-tool for a green economy.
- They’ve made enough money already. No compensation needed.
- Banking should be boring. They don’t need flashy suits and high-class perks, as in the Inside Job. Banking should be a family occupation.
- We already bought them once. “Had the government demanded voting stock in exchange for the taxpayer bailout of Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG and other institutions, these firms would have become de facto publicly controlled” (Alperovitz and Hanna).
During the next financial crisis, we need to be ready to demand public ownership, to expropriate large financial institutions. While Seeley and I are both interested in how to move toward a green economy in local settings (see the Local is Possible), there is some danger in not thinking big enough. As Frederic Jameson writes, we need to consider the possibility and advantages of monopoloy and monopolies, of “the ways in which the future society is ‘maturing within’ the present one” and like Lenin contemplate “the seizure of the monopolies” (Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future, 2010:28).
If the promise of Anthropology and Moral Optimism is to be realized, then like Jameson we must work through “the difficulties in thinking quantity positively” (2010:29) and explore the contemporary relevance of Lenin:
Without big banks socialism would be impossible. The big banks are the “state apparatus” which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single State Bank, the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district, in every factory, will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus. This will be country wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods, this will be, so to speak, some thing in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society.
We can “lay hold of” and “set in motion” this “state apparatus” (which is not fully a state apparatus under capitalism, but which will be so with us, under socialism) at one stroke, by a single decree. (Lenin 1917, Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?)
[Thank you to my colleague in English, Robert Seguin for dropping off the Jameson article in response to my persistent use of a footnote on Walmart--see the related pieces on Development, Reform, Revolution as well as Anthropology and Government Planning. I'm hoping to soon specifically follow-up with how Jameson expands on Walmart in Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future. Thank you also to my daughter who reminded me of the Walmart idea when she asked how stores in different towns could communicate with each other.]