Stiglitz on America’s Economic Dystopia

Karl FitzgeraldTrue Cost Economics5 Comments

Today I had the pleasure of seeing Professor Joseph Stiglitz speak on the topic of From Measuring Production to Measuring Well-Being, courtesy of the Economic Society of Australia.

I became a fan of his following his timely defection from the World Bank as outlined in Greg Palast’s The Globalizer Who Came in from the Cold. I read this article in my formative days of studying geonomics. Palast writes –

So then I turned on Stiglitz. OK, Mr Smart-Guy Professor, how would you help developing nations? Stiglitz proposed radical land reform, an attack at the heart of “landlordism,” on the usurious rents charged by the propertied oligarchies worldwide, typically 50% of a tenant’s crops. So I had to ask the professor: as you were top economist at the World Bank, why didn’t the Bank follow your advice?

“If you challenge [land ownership], that would be a change in the power of the elites. That’s not high on their agenda.” Apparently not.

Back to today’s talk.

Stiglitz framed the discussion around the importance of accurate information, following his specialty of asymmetrical information. The core focus was the need for a Green GDP measure. Paraphrasing his speech, he mentioned:

“What is measured, affects what we do. The distortion created by price (what you can con the market in to paying for a piece of land, for example) rather than value (what can be realistically earnt from that location) causes multiple problems. This lured 40% of all US investment to be channeled into real estate, delivering phony profits. 40% of all corporate profits in the years running up to the GFC bust were in finance. Again these were phony profits, not based on any form of productive value, and so were wiped out by the subsequent market correction.

This was an example of the economics of information. Measurements like GDP included phony profits, making countries look better than what life actually is for those on the ground. ‘Bad accounting leads to bad decisions.'”

Stiglitz segwayed onto the UN’s Human Development Index. He gave the tentative thumbs up to such measurements of the quality of life, saying that incorporating both health and education with GDP per capita was a more rounded measure. Eyebrows were raised when he commented that more weighting should be given to the health and education sectors of the UN HDI than economic growth.

He went on: “It would be negligent of a business not to depreciate it’s capital. This is a key component that all investors consider. Why then do we not incorporate a measure on natural resource depletion?”

Other statistical discrepancies of note included the predominance of mean measures for analysing incomes. The tremendous increase in the ultra wealthy over the last 30 years has dragged the mean upwards. Stiglitz was adamant that ‘more than all the growth in wealth was going to the top, none to the bottom tiers of society’. Far more accurate was to look at medians – measuring the income of those people half way between rich and poor.

As he has throughout the tour, Joseph threw his support behind the mining tax.

“Why does America return such poor results for the 16 – 17% of GDP spent on health? We spend a lot for so little in return. Infant mortality rates are comparable to the Developing World.”

Thoughts flowed to Alanna Hartzok’s 2006 tour when she discussed the Health Olympics (the greater the wealth gap, the poorer the health).

“But yet GDP was pushed higher by poor health outcomes (requiring even more spending).” Why not a similar Defence Spending Olympics as Joseph ridiculed how some US states spent more on new prisons than schools, despite the police and war efforts.

Professor Stiglitz concluded with the need for distinction between what society says makes it happy and what we end up doing. Families not eating together in the main was anathema to the common belief of the family first.

Measurements must reflect what we care about.

This brought me back to the MC’s opening remarks – ‘what doesn’t get measured doesn’t matter’. Why aren’t economic rents measured? Have we learnt anything from the land bubble – the giant black hole of economic analysis – that led to the GFC? Two income earners are working so many hours to cover the mortgage, no wonder they don’t eat together. How extensively would the Riches of Oz be unlocked if we captured the rents for all?

The question I would have asked if I had the chance was, ‘with price to value such an issue in a world of resource scarcity, when are we going to look beyond Reactive Economics (like struggling to find health finance) and look towards Preventative Economics (where our behaviour is influenced before the act)?’

Having sat directly behind Stiglitz pre-talk, I reminded my neighbour that I might have missed out on asking a question, but it was all about location, location. Soon Stiglitz had a copy of Hudson’s Counter-Enlightenment in the post talk rush to speak to him.

A quick prompt of him got the desired response – ‘I’m a huge fan of Henry George’.

With that I encourage you to read this insightful interview with Joesph Stiglitz (h/t – Geophilos & Wealth and Want:

Joseph Stiglitz: October 2002 Interview
with Christopher Williams, of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation,
published in Geophilos, Spring, 2003

Q: I want to follow-up on what you had said some months ago about land reform:

JES: “The main, underlying idea of Henry George is the taxation of land and other natural resources. At the time, people thought, “not really that too,” but what was underlying his ideas is rent associated with things that are inelastically supplied, which are land and natural resources. And using natural resource extraction and using land rents as the basis of taxation is an argument that I think makes an awful lot of sense because it is a non-distortionary source of income and wealth.

Q: In Globalization and its Discontents, you write (p. 81): “But land reform represents a fundamental change in the structure of society, one that those in the elite that populates the finance ministries, those with whom the international financial institutions interact, do not necessarily like.”

JES: Yes. Let me try to approach the question a little more systematically. Once you take the perspective I just gave, that means the management should be done in such a way that it maximizes the amount of money available to the US government from natural resources because they are within its domain and control. So, looking at the United States, one of the implications of this is that a foundation such as yours [the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, created to promote the ideas of Henry George, as expressed in Progress & Poverty] ought to be very much against the policies of the US government of giving away our natural resources. Here is a case where we not only are not taxing it much, we’re actually giving it away.

Q: I assume you’re speaking in particular of oil and mineral rights, but would not Broadband Spectrum rights also be included in that category?

JES: Yes, Broadband Spectrum rights as well. Now, giving away rights such as those would be anathema to the spirit of Henry George. And the second part is that when you sell them, you want to do so in such a way as to maximize the revenues. And whether you decide to sell it or whether you decide to rent it, would be the question of what is the way that maximizes the extraction of public revenues.

Q: And those revenues go to the people. Not to private concerns.

JES: Exactly. So you’re trying to say, from the perspective of public management, how can we take this inelastic supply of public resources and maximize the rents that we can extract from it, consistent with other public objectives? That is a very deep philosophical approach, and requires a re-thinking of how we manage all aspects of those public resources. However, much of what we do is inconsistent with that. Now, the issue of land reform is a little bit different. There, it’s a two-step analysis. My concern that I expressed about land is that in many developing countries, you have most land owned by a few rich people, and the land is relatively little taxed. But the land is worked in a system of sharecropping in which workers have to pay the landlord 50% of their output. In a way, you can look at that 50% as a tax. The sharecroppers are paying a 50% tax to the landlord. But it’s worse than a tax. Because it’s not a land tax, it’s a tax on their labor. And it’s a tax that goes to the landlord rather than to society. So the notion is that land reform could take a variety of different forms. For instance, the government could take over the land and rent it to the people. Or give it to the people and have a land tax that would not have the distortionary effect of land reform. So, in a way, these systems of share-cropping are worse even than anything that Henry George was worried about in terms of misuse of land.

Q: However, when you speak of land reform, do you have concerns about compensation as an issue in its implementation?

JES: That is one of the key issues. And there’s a program at the World Bank that’s been started in Brazil, which is called “Market-Based Land Reform” where they buy the land and give it or sell it to the workers. They use government power to obtain the right to buy it.

Q: Has President Mugabe of Zimbabwe’s misuse of government power to return land to its so-called “rightful owners” given land reform a bad name?

JES: That’s true, but it doesn’t have to be done that way. Now, one of the things that is again in the spirit of Henry George is that, if you have land taxes, then the market value of land goes down. What you’re willing to pay for land is the difference between what you pay and what you get to keep after paying your land taxes. So, in a Henry George world, the amount of compensation would be very low. So one could argue that moving toward a land tax would facilitate that reform. Once we raise rates on land taxes, the market value will have to go down. The government can buy the land and redistribute it to the workers, and they then would be able to keep the fruits of their labor. They will continue to pay the land tax, but the product of their own efforts — their labor — will be their own, as opposed to sharing fifty percent with the landlord.

Q: Do you think land reform could possibly find a way onto the political agenda in the United States?

JES: No. Land reform is not a big issue in the United States because we don’t have a lot of sharecropping. There’s some, but it’s very limited.

Q: What countries do you regard as the most politically open to tax reform as a means of achieving meaningful land reform?

JES: I think some countries in South America are moving in that direction. They’re beginning to do this form of taxation because they want the land to be utilized. Some people own land but make no use of it.

Q: You mentioned the World Bank’s program titled “Market-Based Land Reform.” Is that the only international forum in which there is a chance of gaining politically-effective support for “land value taxation” as an instrument for land reform?

JES: There’s not a lot [of] discussion going on in those circles about land reform. The World Bank is still talking about it, as in the program I was talking about. And certain countries are continuing to talk about it within themselves. But the IMF is not, and I don’t know of any NGO (nongovernmental organization) that is.

Q: What are the greatest political obstacles confronting developing countries to the extraction of economic “rent” for public purposes? Is it simply a matter of “vested interests?”

JES: Yes, it’s not very complicated. You know, in the Clinton Administration, we tried to reform the disposition of natural resources — mineral rights — by saying the US Government should not be giving this away to a few wealthy people. But the mining interests were adamant in opposing this reform.

Q: In your opinion, would it be more effective to attempt to achieve support from economists about the need for such reform, or to bypass them in seeking to build popular support independently from them, in that the views of mainstream economists on the topic of land reform might fairly be characterized as an “intransigent”?

JES: There are some economists who are interested in this. I think most economists would like the idea, and would support it. But, economists spend their time on things that they think have marketability. So it isn’t that they don’t think it’s a good idea; they don’t think there’s any resonance in it. President Bush is still talking about the inheritance tax, and income tax, and they want to get involved in what other people are talking about. It’s a social phenomenon, I think. So, if you get a lot of other people talking about it, then they’ll join the fray.

Q: You are aware that Henry George was a critic of the moral foundations of our economic institutions. What do you think of reform efforts toward land value taxation based on an appeal to morality?

JES: What it fits into is that there is a wide view today that we should tax environmental “bads” such as pollution and the like. And switch from taxing good things like labor. So, in a way, that’s where it comes in: let’s stop taxing good things like labor, and tax things that are resources. So the argument is, “why tax things that are contributing to society?”

Q: I’d like to move to topics related to globalization because I read your book, Globalization and its Discontents, and, like many other people, found it fascinating. What has happened to the idealism that was supposed to make institutions such as the World Bank and IMF serve the inclusive interests of everyone in what was then called the Third World? You make the point that these have become institutions that serve the interests of wealthy nations almost to the detriment of poorer ones.

JES: The problem is that they believe that by helping the rich you help the poor.

Q: The old “trickle down” theory?

JES: Yes, “trickle down.”

Q: But that’s been fairly discredited, hasn’t it?

JES: Yes, it has. But as a general phenomenon, nobody likes to think badly of themselves. They always end up in arguments about why it’s in the “General Good.” But, on the other hand, I think that self-interest is a very strong force. That’s what Adam Smith said, and I see it all the time.

Q: But haven’t these institutions detached themselves from the grass-root interests of land-less people around the world?

JES: The IMF never thought of itself in that way. It began as a club of the rich countries to help each other out. And when the colonies got released, and the developed countries managed their own economies better, they went in and became the new imperialist power. That’s an over-simplification, but they then became the agents of the advanced industrialized countries.

Q: You criticized “The Washington Consensus.” From reading your book, I see that you summarize that set of doctrines as “1) Fiscal Austerity, 2) Privatization, and 3) Market Liberalization.” What are, in your view, the central weaknesses of the policies that flow from the Consensus?

JES: It didn’t work. I mean, the weaknesses are not that these are necessarily bad in their own right, but it’s the balance. Fiscal prudence is a good thing. But they pushed it beyond where it ought to have been. Market Liberalization is a good thing, but not if it’s done too fast.

Q: Would you say, then, that there is a structural flaw in the market system?

JES: There are many limitations. We all know that there are lots of examples where markets fail, and you need a role for government. So where the structural problem is, it’s their belief that there’s not a role for government to play. And that markets can solve every problem. That’s the structural failure: “Markets are perfect, and can solve every problem.”

Q: For this interview, I also read George Soros’ book, On Globalization, which I know you reviewed in the New York Review of Books. In it he states, “It is market fundamentalism, which holds that the social good is best served by allowing people to pursue their self-interest without any thought for the social good — the two being identical — that is a perversion of human nature” (p.179).

JES: Yes, George and I are very similar in our views.

Q: Don’t you think we need to go deeper and look at the rules that govern the unequal bargaining power between the rich and the poor? Isn’t that what really has to be attacked?

JES: Yes, that’s what I’m saying in the book. The underlying problem is the way the rules are made. If the rules are bad, you need to ask the question, “how did those rules get established?” And it’s the processes by which the rules get made that is the underlying source of the problem.

Q: Do you think that changing the rules is possible?

JES: I wrote the book because I believe that, in a democratic society, pressure can be brought to bear on the rule-making process. As you become aware of who’s at the table, why things are biased, they’re responding, criticizing. Even if it doesn’t quickly change, it circumscribes the ability to continue with self-interest. The World Bank is already changing enormously. That was relatively easy. President Clinton appointed someone who has a very different mind-set from previous World Bank presidents. The rest is very hard. The IMF has not made that kind of change. It’s still a long, hard road for both of them. In some ways the WTO [World Trade Organization] is in an even more difficult position. But that’s the great thing about democracy: we have so many critics. We have newspapers, and people like me and George Soros writing books.

Q: Aren’t you also saying that the real impetus will come from democratically-elected representatives with the political power to make changes?

JES: But they also respond to public pressure. In the last Presidential Debate between Bush and Gore, both sides said that we had to change the IMF. Clearly, the issue of the IMF had raised itself to a level — it’s still not in everyday talk in that it’s not what most Americans think about — that it got thirty seconds or a full minute in a Presidential Debate between Bush and Gore. Well, that’s a big achievement from where it was before. The IMF is a very important institution for developing countries and most Americans have never heard of it.

Q: I was at a conference recently on the French concept of “mondialization” as opposed to “globalization.” The French consider the spirit of “mondialization” to be more “generous” towards less developed countries, in contrast to the American idea of pursuing our national interest without regard to theirs. Would you call yourself a proponent of “mondialization” rather than of “globalization”?

JES: It is interesting that my book has been selling fantastically in France, so they obviously sense the commonality on our views.

Q: Let me ask you about Russia. President Putin has been a prominent advocate of the need to shift the fiscal base away from people’s wages and savings and on to the rents of natural resources. But this strategy flew in the face of conventional tax wisdom, which favored a “broad tax base” that included the use of “stealth” taxes. The IMF, by its actions (if not its public declarations), strenuously opposed the Putin strategy. What might President Putin do to remain engaged in the process of pro-market reforms while retaining the support of foreign investors and at the same time shifting the tax base on to the rents to be derived from Russia’s natural resources?

JES: Russia provides another good example of what I’ve been talking about. The fact is that their economy has been imploding. And it’s become nothing more than a natural resource economy as a percentage of the GDP — about 60 to 70%. At that point, natural resources become the only major source of revenue. So they’ve been forced to move in that direction by necessity. And, obviously there’s a political economy tension: the rich guys don’t want to give it up. But that’s the distinction they’re going to move in because there’s no alternative.

Q: Your academic work led you to formulate what you called “The Henry George Theorem.” This demonstrated that public spending — where this was efficient — generated additional rental value that surfaced in the land market. Other distinguished scholars, such as the late Nobel prize winner, William Vickrey, confirmed your findings. You also noted in one of your books, co-written with Anthony Atkinson, that the Henry George Theorem was attractive both because it was the revenue-raiser that did not distort private incentives and because “it is the ‘single tax’ required to finance the public good.” [Anthony B. Atkinson & Joseph E. Stiglitz, Lectures on Public Economics, London: McGraw-Hill, 1980, p. 525] Now, public investment, unless of the wasteful kind designed to serve the privileged interests of rent seekers (the classic type being a land speculator), should be viewed as working in partnership with the private sector and not a drain on the community. How can the reputation of publicly provided services and investments be rescued?

JES: That’s a very good question. What we did when I was at the Council of Economic Advisors was some studies to try to show what the social returns would be to public investment in R&D, etc. And we became convinced that the rates of return of those investments are very high. So you ask the question, “what can we do to restore confidence in public investment?” We need to realize how much we depend on them. I keep telling people, “The Internet.” That’s one example. It was publicly funded. It’s now a public-private partnership. The government did the basic research, and the private sector ran off with it. But, arguably, we would never have had the Internet if it were not for government expenditure. So I think a major industry in the United States — biotech — is based on NIH (National Institutes of Health). NIH does all the basic research.

Q: From the conference on “mondialization,” I saw a major difference in attitude among the French with regard to public investment. The French believe strongly in public funds for public works, whereas Americans believe they shouldn’t be taxed more in order to support public projects. Which view do you agree with?

JES: There’s been a lot of so-called “bad rhetoric” in this whole area. The real point is that we need to recognize that there are some things in the area of “the public sphere.” We’re not having investment in basic research; we need to have the government do it. And that’s what I’ve consistently been arguing; you don’t want the government building steel factories. But you do want the government doing certain research, and the relative size of that depends on the society. Right now, we should be spending far more on basic research. So what is the message. I think how much we depend on the government. And the new economy, we take it for granted, but it is the public sector. I think you’re right that we have the wrong view. But I keep saying, “The Internet.” How much as it changed our lives? And it’s [the result of] the government.

Q: And yet, in American society, the idea is instilled that one ought to take for one’s own benefit, so as to have the big cars and houses, etc., that will impress other people, rather than to give in order to promote a public benefit. Aren’t those the actual values of American society?

JES: We need to realize that our livelihood today depends on our innovation, and our innovation depends on our sciences. Our livelihood depends on our global position. For example, we have to be able to fly, to go to the airports.

Q: I wanted to ask your view on the adequacy of land as a tax base. At one time, as you know, there was a “Single Tax” movement, for the purpose of deriving revenues sufficient to run the government solely from land value taxation. In your view, how feasible is that today?

JES: Most economists would say that you cannot run the US economy on the “Single Tax.” In my mind, the “Single Tax” is the wrong way to think about it. The question is: “Would it be better if we had more taxation of land and natural resource, and more revenue from natural resource management, and I would include atmosphere and spectrum.” And less tax on income and savings. And I would say, “Yeah.” And I think many economists would agree with that. So, if you want to sell it as a “Single Tax,” then, no, you won’t get anyone to agree that there’s enough revenue there. If you look at is a more “central” tax, then, yes, you will get most economists to agree with you.

Q: A former Director of Robert Schalkenbach Foundation was given a grant recently to research the adequacy of land as a tax base. He’s a professor at the University of California, Riverside, named Mason Gaffney, and he wrote a book titled, “The Corruption of Economics.” Are you familiar with his work?

JES: No.

Q: I’ll send you a copy of the book. Basically, he argues that the founders of neo-classical economics, which, as you know, is the paradigm taught in schools such as the University of Chicago, distorted the science of economics to protect vested interests. For example, Rockefeller money was spent to hire professors of economics with a view to their discrediting the ideas of Henry George. Did that happen?

JES: My general impression is that most donors that give money to universities don’t take a very strong view of [who should be on] the faculty. Sometimes it ends up on one side, sometimes on the other. It would have been unusual [at Chicago], but it could have happened there. What is striking about Chicago as a school of economic theory is that it’s very conservative. One would have thought that Henry George was someone who would have been liked by “Conservatives.”

Q: In that George wanted to reduce tax on the fruits of one’s own labor?

JES: Exactly. And you want non-distortionary taxes, so I would have thought that every “Conservative” would be in Henry George’s camp. Now, as far as I know, I’m one of the few people who keeps emphasizing that you ought to view Henry George in a broader way, to include natural resources. I didn’t think that people thought about that a hundred years ago. But if they had, and maybe Rockefeller was smart — he realized that he obviously didn’t want a tax on natural resources.

Q: He wouldn’t have wanted rents flowing from natural resources to go to the people rather than to him.

JES: Yes, he obviously wouldn’t like that perspective. But I don’t know if that view was at that time recognized, and I just don’t know whether he actively intervened at Chicago.

… because democracy alone hasn’t yet led to a society in which all can prosper

5 Comments on “Stiglitz on America’s Economic Dystopia”

  1. We don’t enjoy a classless democracy thus, our democracy leads in directions which serve the ruling capitalist and landlord classes. Class ruled democracy is inadequate to the task; but it is to be preferred over outright dictatorship with no civil rights to speak and criticise.

    Wage-labour is the unequal trade which Capital is based on. Under this system, producers are paid what their skills sell for on the market in exchange for giving up control and ownership over the collective product of labour. So, while Stiglitz is right in pointing out the various corruptions of Empire, he is still pussy footing around the core issue, the social relation of wage-labour and capital.

  2. You should check the Law of Rent too in terms of deciding wage rates. If people can earn more from working at home then they will do so. The high price of land acts as a barrier to this freedom. “Even the capitalist is subservient to the Landlord” – K Marx

  3. I don’t agree with Mr. Stiglitz re buying large landholdings and then reselling or distributing them. I would go with a more purely Georgist approach of charging the full economic rent for all rural and urban landholders. If this were done, the sharecropppers might have to put up with the 50% payment to the landlords for awhile but it would not be long before other employment opportunities would open up so they could be able to refuse such arrangements. Forced redistribution of any sort opens up too many risks and pitfalls because it is not based on sound principles. It is crucial to realize that resource rent is a shift in thinking from expediency (however well-meaning) to principle, not just another economic tool to put in one’s toolbox. Many common economic tools rely on priviledge-shifting, forcibly redistributing wealth or assets from one group to another to “create” justice according to someone’s idea of what justice is. Resource rent is a principle-based measure that frees up the economy to become just naturally via the operation of the market without interference with or manipulation of the rights of individuals,

  4. If the government is to claim the economic rent of an oil or mining site what is the incentive for prospectors to locate such sites?
    Or does the government create a Department of Prospecting to deal with the problem?

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