Tag Archives: markets

Are the Seventies Finally Over?

Adam Nagourney had a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Review about the changing political allegiances of the Sunbelt and how those changes might signify “an era’s end.”

The Republican Party has grown used to having “a lock” on the region stretching from Florida through the south, and to Western states like Arizona, Colorado Nevada and California; but with the nomination of Frostbelt candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the region looks up for grabs.

“Pummeled by the collapse of the housing market,” the Sunbelt suburbs have “soaring” poverty rates; and that, according to Harvard’s Lisa McGurr, “will transform the ability of the Republican party to appeal to suburbanites with private, individualistic solutions.”

What’s more, the Sunbelt’s demographics are changing – to illustrate, Nagourney mentions Latino and Asian “enclaves” in Orange County, and Latinos moving in large numbers to Texas and Arizona – even as Republicans have been pushing an anti-immigrant agenda.

If this week’s Republican convention marks the end of an era, it’s the end of an era that began in the 1970s. Then, a demographic shift from the industrialized Frostbelt to the Sunbelt precipitated the political realignment now on the wane. The northeastern liberal elite lost its exclusive hold on power; the liberal state came under assault. And when the barbarians arrived at the government gate, we gleefully let them in. All across the country, Americans were fed up with taxes, had lost faith in government, and began to disengage from public life. By the end of the 1970s, writes Bruce Schulman:

Americans not only accepted that markets performed more efficiently, but embraced the previously outlandish idea that they operated more justly and protected freedom more efficiently than government. The entrepreneur became a national hero, and suspicion of business, a mistrust of unregulated corporations that had anchored American politics since the 1930s, all but vanished from American political discourse. (The Seventies, p. 249)

Those were the days when Milton Friedman assured us that business had no greater obligation to society than to “maximize shareholder value”. This doctrine went hand in hand with Friedman’s hostility to the liberal state, his contempt for the inefficiencies of government, and his contention that free enterprise, unfettered by regulation and unburdened by taxes, would deliver political freedom and prosperity. What’s most striking is that by the end of the Seventies the majority of Americans had enthusiastically came around to that point of view. We all but abandoned the commons:

The slow march of privatization had pervaded the entire Seventies. It complemented all of the decades’ changes in attitudes: impatience with taxes and centralized authority, experimentation with new forms of community [including self-taxing private entities like homeowners’ associations and Business Improvement Districts, which supplanted and suborned municipal governments], Sunbelt self-reliance, and the fiscal crises that deepened municipalities’ reliance on private funds. (249)

The push toward privatization and “Sunbelt self-reliance” in the Seventies was also a retreat from the idea that we rely on each other – a retreat from the idea of “society” itself.

Hurricanes like Katrina or the one bearing down on the GOP convention this week don’t just threaten Sunbelt serenity; they are crises that heighten and exaggerate the shortcomings of the Sunbelt ethic. The same could be said for the financial tsunami that overtook us in 2008, and forced many people in the Sunbelt from their homes. (Foreclosure rates are high throughout the region.)

Despite the impending hurricane and the financial storm most Americans are still weathering, it’s unlikely anyone on stage in Tampa this week will speak about the limits of Reaganesque self-reliance or the things markets cannot do. But we have obligations to each other markets sometimes threaten, and sometimes simply cannot help us meet.

I’d at least like to think that with the Sunbelt’s eclipse more than the electoral votes of a few states are in play. Maybe, just maybe, the Seventies are finally coming to an end.

Machines and Monsters or Thriving Markets?

If you haven’t yet read it – and I admit I am late on this, as I am on nearly everything else – have a look at John Cassidy’s profile of Bridgewater hedge fund manager Ray Dalio in the July 25th issue of The New Yorker. Cassidy exerts most of his energy trying to figure out whether Bridgewater, which has bragging rights as the world’s richest and biggest hedge fund, is a Fountainhead cult, a Maoist re-education camp, or just a big bond-market player that happens to be run by a super-rich sociopath with intellectual “pretensions.” I was most struck by the passage where Dalio is “rambling” about how “everything,” or “almost everything,” is a “machine.”

“Almost everything is like a machine,” he told me one day when he was rambling on, as he often does. “Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is like a machine.” His constant goal, he said, was to understand how the economic machine works. “And then everything else I basically view as just a case at hand. So how does the machine work that you have a financial crisis? How does deleveraging work—what is the nature of that machine? And what is human nature, and how do you raise a community of people to run a business?”

I’ve talked about this view of nature, “the life cycle,” and the world as a machine in another context. Its philosophical heritage stretches back at least to the 17th century. But in Dalio’s case it’s hard to decide whether this is a considered view, informed by careful reading and thinking, or just some immature posturing, intended to create the impression that Dalio is an amoral übermensch. It’s not even clear how seriously Dalio takes himself: is everything a machine or is everything “like” a machine? The distinction is a crucial one, but Dalio wants to have it both ways.

It’s unfair, I suppose, to expect coherence and rigor from ramblings. And yet Dalio’s express goal – “to understand how the economic machine works” – deserves to be taken seriously. He’s betting the future of his firm on it; it’s key to his success. And it’s not just an offhand remark. As Cassidy explains, this mechanistic outlook is of a piece with Dalio’s crude social Darwinism.

He regards it as self-evident that all social systems obey nature’s laws, and that individual participants get rewarded or punished according to how far they operate in harmony with those laws. He views the financial markets as simply another social system, which determines payoffs and punishments in a like manner.

There’s nothing self-evident about any of this; and to track “all” social systems back to “nature’s laws,” whatever those are, is merely to admit one’s ignorance of social arrangements and social history and to confuse metaphors. The confusion, moreover, is not just Dalio’s; it’s general, and it fails us every day.

When, like Dalio, we regard the economy as a “machine,” and markets as a “social system,” we are inclined to put the system first and relegate people to the status of beneficiaries or collateral damage. The system does not serve human priorities. Instead, we put aside those priorities to keep a dysfunctional system running. The system “determines payoffs and punishments”; the system is the ultimate arbiter of our lot in life. We’ve already surrendered.

But we don’t have to. Umair Haque put up a postyesterday called “How Our Economy Was Overrun by Monsters and What to Do About It.” It offers a reminder that the market is a social construct – our construct, something not just hedge fund managers but human beings from all different places and all walks of life make and remake every day. And what we’ve created, says Haque, are monsters of opulence and greed, rather than markets that work for people and help us thrive. This is not just a moral reproach and it’s not (at all) an anti-capitalist rant. It’s simply about getting priorities right, and putting human prosperity before the efficiencies of a dysfunctional machine.