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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Prize or a Bad Joke?

Many see the Nobel Prize as the Super Bowl of intellectual life. But more and more, it appears to be like another championship belt in the World Wrestling Federation. Where awarding the “Peace” prize to the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most war-mongering power tarnished the award, the recently awarded prize for economics brings the contest down to the level of American Idol.

“Economic science,” as its practitioners refer to it, has moved in two directions at once: further away from the reality of economic life and closer to self-sustained scholastic exercises understood and appreciated by the few who work in those same close quarters. Yet never does it travel too far from the ranch of apologia for the holy scriptures of capitalism.

Capitalist triumphalism – the view that all deep questions about the fundamentals of economic structures and activity have been settled – dominates and informs recent academic research in the field. If one suspects a parallel with the religiously driven dogmas of Ptolemaic cosmology, it is there to be found. The world of modern academic economists assumes, with no need to prove it, that economic activity is and can only be understood with the basic units of markets, individual actors and their sets of interests, acquisitive motives, and private ownership. This is the game and the only game. Outsiders – Marxists and renegades from economic scholasticism – are not allowed to play, since they fail to abide by the rules.

But sometimes reality intercedes with brute economic events that challenge this smugness. As the often-brilliant John Strachey wrote in 1935 during the midst of the Great Depression:

The capitalist world… has its experts, its economists. The phenomena of crisis lie, however, outside the scope of their science… They have evolved a science of economics which seems to explain the exact workings of the capitalist system, and (incidentally) justifies those workings in every respect. There is only one difficulty. The system periodically refuses to work… (The Nature of Capitalist Crisis, p.8)

Today, we are in the throes of a similar crisis and economists are similarly fumbling for explanations and solutions.

In the spotlight of today’s crisis is the seeming intractability of extremely high unemployment, a problem even more embarrassing to capitalist apologists in light of record-setting profits.

Thus, many, even far outside of the academic world, expectantly turned with great interest to the announcement that three economists would share the $1.5 million Nobel Prize for purportedly insightful work on unemployment. Peter Diamond, Dale Mortensen, and Christopher Pissarides won the 2010 prize for their “groundbreaking ideas that help explain why unemployment remains stubbornly high in the US and other developing countries,” as hailed by The Wall Street Journal.

Sadly, any such expectations would be quickly shattered. The core problem addressed by the three scholars is not the unemployment of the moment, but the relatively high unemployment associated with the European economies of the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, France, Germany and other advanced economies enjoyed strong growth, rising living standards, viable social welfare benefits, but relatively high unemployment – high relative to the theoretical fundamentals of economic dogma. Conventional thinking dictated that growth and rising standards should motivate Europe’s unemployed to seek the available jobs, but instead many chose to obstinately accept the benefits of the social welfare system while settling for a measure of leisure in an abundant society. Essentially, they were redundant, but without courting starvation, some choosing to write poems or backpack through Europe like the sons and daughters of the idle rich. In the eyes of those benefiting from the imposition of strict discipline upon labor, the unemployed were not victims, but outlaws.

Not only did this violate the logic of market forces, but it also challenged the culture of the post-feudal work ethic as explained so well by Max Weber. Since jobs were available, economists - like the three laureates - took on the task of explaining this phenomenon and thus providing policy tools to restore order to economic orthodoxy. The intellectual contributions of the three came to be called “search theory” – an explanation of how the buyers and sellers of labor power can fail to match up. In other words, they sought to account for why workers were not automatically and always herded into jobs despite the assumption that work was necessary to survive. They postulated that “frictions” – inhibiting factors – allowed for jobs to be unfilled while workers were idle. Their “frictions” were hardly novel or earthshaking: “tough” labor regulation restricting firings, “generous” unemployment benefits, inadequate or inappropriate skill sets, and geographical distance between jobs and workers, for example.

It should not escape notice that none of these “frictions” touch on the fundamental friction between workers and employers, namely, the fight for the distribution of the economic surplus. None of these “frictions” address the kind of employer-friendly unemployment that pressures workers into pay cuts and concessions or increases the rate of exploitation. To state the obvious, isn’t it possible that workers do not take available jobs because the available jobs simply do not pay enough? Is this not a street-corner answer to “search theory”?

But these are answers to different questions, questions of little interest to academics accustomed to seeing employees as numbers in calculations or variables in complex equations. Moreover, workers or their organizations do not fund academic research or make generous awards to economists.

Does the Nobel-award-winning research help us understand or overcome the current crisis of unemployment as The Wall Street Journal proclaims?

No, not at all. It is irrelevant and, should it influence policy, potentially disastrous. The current tragic unemployment rate is the result of two years of uneven class war over the carcass of a severely wounded economy. Unemployment is the casualty count of the working class. Profits are the war booty of the employers. Government and its policy makers have sided decisively with the profit-seekers.

Unlike the period in Europe studied by the three economists, there are far too few jobs available today. (The Wall Street Journal in its article hailing the awarding of the prize provides a deceptive chart that shows a growth in available jobs since the worst moment of 2009, a growth that does not even account for those newly entering the job market.) The unfavorably geographical distribution of jobs today is not a matter of leaving home for another city or state, but leaving for an entirely different time zone! Witness the thousands who travel overnight to attend job fairs or apply for a few dozen jobs. The mounting foreclosures, the explosion of food stamp applications, and the growth of unclaimed medical prescriptions hardly point to “generous” unemployment benefits offering a cushy life. And of course there are no “tough” job regulations that restrained the cruel, massive layoffs of the last two years.

At its core, “search theory” finds no fault with the reigning economic system. It identifies no “friction” between the needs of people and the relentless drive for profit. It is blind to a decade of slow or non-existent job growth coupled with growing concentration of wealth and the quickening rise of after-tax profits as a portion of national income. “Search theory” dares not search in this territory.

Instead, this “groundbreaking” theory seeks to motivate the unemployed to try harder, move to low wage areas or retrain for subsistence jobs. It justifies the limiting of unemployment benefits. For all its theoretical sophistication, “search theory” is simply the latest version of the carrot and the stick – in today’s world, a shriveled carrot and a heavy stick.

Zoltan Zigedy

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