Jun 24th 2020

The Main Street Manifesto 

by Nouriel Roubini

 

Nouriel Roubini is CEO of Roubini Macro Associates and Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University.

 

NEW YORK – The mass protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer are about systemic racism and police brutality in the United States, but also so much more. Those who have taken to the streets in more than 100 American cities embody a broader critique of President Donald Trump and what he represents. A vast underclass of increasingly indebted, socially immobile Americans – African-Americans, Latinos, and, increasingly, whites – is revolting against a system that has failed it.

This phenomenon is not limited to the US, of course. In 2019 alone, massive demonstrations rocked Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Pakistan, among other countries. Though these episodes each had different triggers, they all reflected resentment over economic malaise, corruption, and a lack of economic opportunities.

The same factors help to explain populist and authoritarian leaders’ growing electoral support in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis, many firms sought to boost profits by cutting costs, starting with labor. Instead of hiring workers in formal employment contracts with good wages and benefits, companies adopted a model based on part-time, hourly, gig, freelance, and contract work, creating what the economist Guy Standing calls a “precariat.” Within this group, he explains, “internal divisions have led to the villainization of migrants and other vulnerable groups, and some are susceptible to the dangers of political extremism.”

The precariat is the contemporary version of Karl Marx’s proletariat: a new class of alienated, insecure workers who are ripe for radicalization and mobilization against the plutocracy (or what Marx called the bourgeoisie). This class is growing once again, now that highly leveraged corporations are responding to the COVID-19 crisis as they did after 2008 employment: taking bailouts and hitting their earnings targets by slashing labor costs.

One segment of the precariat comprises younger, less-educated white religious conservatives in small towns and semi-rural areas who voted for Trump in 2016. They hoped that he would actually do something about the economic “carnage” that he described in his inaugural address. But while Trump ran as a populist, he has governed like a plutocrat, cutting taxes for the rich, bashing workers and unions, undermining the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and otherwise favoring policies that hurt many of the people who voted for him.

Before COVID-19 or even Trump arrived on the scene, some 80,000 Americans were dying every year of drug overdoses, and many more were falling victim to suicide, depression, alcoholism, obesity, and other lifestyle-related diseases. As economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton show in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, these pathologies have increasingly afflicted desperate, lower skilled, un- or under-employed whites – a cohort in which midlife mortality has been rising.

But the American precariat also comprises urban, college-educated secular progressives who in recent years have mobilized behind leftist politicians like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. It is this group that has taken to the streets to demand not just racial justice but also economic opportunity (indeed, the two issues are closely intertwined).

This should not come as a surprise, considering that income and wealth inequality has been rising for decades, owing to many factors, including globalization, trade, migration, automation, the weakening of organized labor, the rise of winner-take-all markets, and racial discrimination. A racially and socially segregated educational system fosters the myth of meritocracy while consolidating the position of elites, whose children consistently gain access to the top academic institutions and then go on to take the best jobs (usually marrying one another along the way, thereby reproducing the conditions from which they themselves benefited).

These trends, meanwhile, have created political feedback loops through lobbying, campaign finance, and other forms of influence, further entrenching a tax and regulatory regime that benefits the wealthy. It is no wonder that, as Warren Buffett famously quipped, his secretary’s marginal tax rate is higher than his.

Or, as a satirical headline in The Onion recently put it: “Protesters Criticized for Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First.” Plutocrats like Trump and his cronies have been looting the US for decades, using high-tech financial tools, tax- and bankruptcy-law loopholes, and other methods to extract wealth and income from the middle and working classes. Under these circumstances, the outrage that Fox News commentators have been voicing over a few cases of looting in New York and other cities represents the height of moral hypocrisy.

It is no secret that what is good for Wall Street is bad for Main Street, which is why major stock-market indices have reached new highs as the middle class has been hollowed out and fallen into deeper despair. With the wealthiest 10% owning 84% of all stocks, and with the bottom 75% owning none at all, a rising stock market does absolutely nothing for the wealth of two-thirds of Americans.

As the economist Thomas Philippon shows in The Great Reversal, the concentration of oligopolistic power in the hands of major US corporations is further exacerbating inequality and leaving ordinary citizens marginalized. A few lucky unicorns (start-ups valued at $1 billion or more) run by a few lucky twenty-somethings will not change the fact that most young Americans increasingly live precarious lives performing dead-end gig work.

To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry.

The new proletariat – the precariat – is now revolting. To paraphrase Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto: “Let the Plutocrat classes tremble at a Precariat revolution. The Precarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Precarious Workers of all countries, unite!”


Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is Chairman of Roubini Macro Associates and host of NourielToday.com. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org
 

 


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Jan 13th 2021
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Jan 12th 2021
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Jan 11th 2021
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Jan 10th 2021
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Jan 10th 2021
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Jan 9th 2021
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Jan 8th 2021
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Jan 2nd 2021
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Dec 29th 2020
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Dec 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "For the sake of comparison, it is worth remembering just how disastrous the 2000-15 period was for US incomes. Whereas the median real (inflation-adjusted) household income in 2000 was $62,500, in 2011 it was a mere $57,000. Only in 2016, President Barack Obama’s last year in office, did the median real household income clear its 2000 peak. And only during the first three years of the Trump presidency did incomes continue growing strongly enough to surpass the previous high tide. In 2019, the median household income was closing in on $69,000, more than 20% above the post-Great Recession nadir, and 10% above the previous Clinton-era peak ............What explains these trends? For starters, between 2001 and 2016, the US government did not emphasize the need to achieve a high-pressure economy that eliminates the economy’s demand shortfall, which is what it takes to deliver large wage increases for typical workers. In 2010, when the Obama administration began its pivot to austerity, it de-prioritized restoring employment to normal levels in the interest of pursuing spending cuts and fiscal consolidation ...........the siren song of austerity can today be heard once again. A growing chorus of commentators is insisting that near-zero interest rates are unnatural, and that the deficit needs to be cut substantially ...........Back in 2012, Lawrence H. Summers, fresh from a stint as Director of the US National Economic Council, and I tried to warn policymakers about the error of this line of thinking. We failed, ........ "
Dec 28th 2020
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Dec 19th 2020
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Dec 17th 2020
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Dec 15th 2020
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Dec 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2014, almost one-half of Iranians felt their country “should have the right to a nuclear weapon because it is a major nation.” After the framework agreement was announced in 2015 support for that proposition dropped to 20%. Following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, the percentage of Iranians who felt they had a right to a nuclear weapon because they are a major nation rose again to 40%. "
Dec 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "The European Union is facing an existential threat, and yet the EU’s leadership is responding with a compromise that appears to reflect a belief that the threat can simply be wished away. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s kleptocratic regime in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, the illiberal Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland, are brazenly challenging the values on which the European Union has been built. Treating their challenge as a legitimate political stance deserving of recognition and a compromise solution will only add – massively – to the risks that the EU now faces."
Dec 9th 2020
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Dec 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In the trade war with the US, China has given little ground ....... And in November, China mounted something of a geopolitical coup with the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a new trade agreement that will put it at the center of the world’s largest free-trade area. The RCEP will connect China’s huge market to those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – from Indonesia and Singapore to Vietnam – and will include important US allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. For the time being, India is not participating, but it might join later. The only regional player to be left out of the RCEP is America. The creation of a new, China-centered economic bloc illustrates the difference between reality and reality TV. When Trump arrived in the White House in January 2017, one of his first official acts was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama that would have created something like the RCEP, only with America at the center and China left out. Witnessing this US act of self-harm, China’s leaders presumably couldn’t believe their luck, and Xi’s government has been working hard to exploit Trump’s generous gift ever since."
Nov 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much puzzlement that the world’s stock markets haven’t collapsed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially in the United States, which has recently been setting record highs for new cases. But maybe it isn’t such a puzzle."
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "To paraphrase Charles Dickens, this is the best of times and the worst of times. As financial markets celebrate the coming vaccine-led boom, the confluence of epidemiological and political aftershocks has pushed us back into a quagmire of heightened economic vulnerability. In Dickensian terms, to reach a “spring of hope,” we first must endure a “winter of despair.” "