Learning Political Economy

Learning Change Project: 8 Blogs, +7200 Readings

The Elusive Costs of Sovereign Defaults

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Few would dispute that sovereign defaults entail significant economic costs, including, most notably, important output losses. However, most of the evidence supporting this conventional wisdom, based on annual observations, suffers from serious measurement and identification problems. To address these drawbacks, we examine the impact of default on growth by looking at quarterly data for emerging economies. We find that, contrary to what is typically assumed, output contractions precede defaults. Moreover, we find that the trough of the contraction coincides with the quarter of default, and that output starts to grow thereafter, indicating that default episode seems to mark the beginning of the economic recovery rather than a further decline. This suggests that, whatever negative effects a default may have on output, those effects result from anticipation of a default rather than the default itself.

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Read also: The Costs of Sovereign Defaults

Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Default

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Politics of Debt: Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry

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Under the rubric of ‘financial inclusion’, lending to the poor –in both the global North and global South –has become a highly lucrative and rapidly expanding industry since the 1990s. A key inquiry of this book is what is ‘the financial’ in which the poor are asked to join. Instead of embracing the mainstream position that financial inclusion is a natural, inevitable and mutually beneficial arrangement, Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry suggests that the structural violence inherent to neoliberalism and credit-led accumulation have created and normalized a reality in which the working poor can no longer afford to live without expensive credit. The book further transcends economic treatments of credit and debt by revealing how the poverty industry is inextricably linked to the social power of money, the paradoxes in credit-led accumulation, and ‘debtfarism’. The latter refers to rhetorical and regulatory forms of governance that mediate and facilitate the expansion of the poverty industry and the reliance of the poor on credit to augment/replace their wages. Through a historically grounded analysis, the author examines various dimensions of the poverty industry ranging from the credit card, payday loan, and student loan industries in the United States to micro-lending and low-income housing finance industries in Mexico. Providing a much-needed theorization of the politics of debt, Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry has wider implications of the increasing dependence of the poor on consumer credit across the globe.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

February 27, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Credit, Debt, Politics, Poverty

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Credit as Relationship and Practice: the Sociology of Credit

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This paper aims to describe the social studies of credit developed in France over the past dozen years. We argue that this French sociology of credit, mostly centered on France, can be useful for researchers analyzing other countries, with other institutional particularities, because it proposes a specific method and a specific way to raise questions: credit is mostly understood as a result of social interactions embedded in organizational and legal structures. French researchers also deeply analyze the consequences of the organization of the credit market for inequalities, social stratification, and people’s life experiences. The first part of the paper focuses on works that have examined credit as a social test, looking at the institutional, technical, and social frameworks of money lending. Then, credit is understood as a sociological experiment: how is it integrated into household economies? How do people use forms of credit? Finally, the third part concentrates on credit failure, when a bank loan becomes a debt. This aspect is mostly framed in French sociology as “over-indebtedness,” which is an administrative and a social category. Throughout the paper, we address credit as both a relationship and a practice. This approach is heuristic, as we seek to demonstrate, because it enables us to show that credit is a social and political issue.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

February 27, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Credit, Debt, Sociology

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Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea

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Conservatives have succeeded in casting government spending as useless profligacy that has made their economy worse, centering the policy debate in the wake of the financial crisis on draconian budget cuts. Americans and Europeans are told that they need to live in an age of austerity since they have all lived beyond their means and now need to tighten their belts. This view conveniently forgets where all that debt came from. Not from an orgy of government spending, but as the direct result of bailing out, recapitalizing, and adding liquidity to the broken banking system. Through these actions private debt was rechristened as government debt while those responsible for generating it walked away scot free, placing the blame on the state, and the burden on the taxpayer. That burden now takes the form of a global turn to austerity, the policy of reducing domestic wages and prices to restore competitiveness and balance the budget. The problem, according to political economist Mark Blyth, is that austerity is a very dangerous idea. First of all, it doesn’t work. As the past two years of trying and countless other historical examples show, while it makes sense for any one state to try and cut its way to growth, it simply cannot work when all states try it simultaneously: all that happens is a shrinking economy. Second, it relies upon those who didn’t make the mess to clean it up, which is always bad politics. Third, it rests upon a tenuous and thin body of evidence and argumentation that acts more to prop up dead economic ideas and preserve astonishingly skewed income and wealth distributions than to restore prosperity for all. In Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Blyth demolishes the conventional wisdom, marshaling an army of facts to demand that we recognize austerity for what it is, and what it costs us.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

February 7, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Posted in Neoliberalism

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China: Turning away from the dollar

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In a nutshell, three big and inter-related changes are under way. China’s appetite for US Treasury bonds, a cornerstone of the global economy for more than a decade, is waning. Beijing is ramping up its overseas development agenda to boost financial returns and serve key geopolitical interests. The promotion of the renminbi as an international currency is gradually liberating Beijing from the dollar zone, providing it with more latitude to open up to foreign portfolio investment flows.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

December 10, 2014 at 10:33 am

Posted in China, Dollar

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On World Transition – Avoiding Western Networks

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Great powers rise and fall on the tide of history, but we lack the analytical tools to be able to map power transitions with any degree of confidence while they are actually occurring. The process of transition is not always peaceful and linear, but often jagged with friction. As the old and new powers cross each other on the way down and up, they create potential zones of tension that may lead to armed conflict through different pathways. A declining power may fail to recognize or refuse to accept its fading economic dominance, military might and diplomatic clout, persist in expecting and demanding respect due to its former status, and try to make the rising power pay for the perceived lack of respect. Conversely the rising but not yet fully risen power may exaggerate the scale and pace of its declining rival’s fall or its own ascent and provoke a premature confrontation.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

November 7, 2014 at 11:49 am

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America

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Can a country be a democracy if its government only responds to the preferences of the rich? In an ideal democracy, all citizens should have equal influence on government policy–but as this book demonstrates, America’s policymakers respond almost exclusively to the preferences of the economically advantaged. Affluence and Influence definitively explores how political inequality in the United States has evolved over the last several decades and how this growing disparity has been shaped by interest groups, parties, and elections. With sharp analysis and an impressive range of data, Martin Gilens looks at thousands of proposed policy changes, and the degree of support for each among poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans. His findings are staggering: when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans’ preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not. Gilens shows that representational inequality is spread widely across different policy domains and time periods. Yet Gilens also shows that under specific circumstances the preferences of the middle class and, to a lesser extent, the poor, do seem to matter. In particular, impending elections–especially presidential elections–and an even partisan division in Congress mitigate representational inequality and boost responsiveness to the preferences of the broader public. At a time when economic and political inequality in the United States only continues to rise, Affluence and Influence raises important questions about whether American democracy is truly responding to the needs of all its citizens.

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Read also: Income Inequality: Economic Disparities and the Middle Class in Affluent Countries

Written by Giorgio Bertini

August 28, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Inequality, Politics, Wealth

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Economics 2.0 – The Natural Step Towards a Self-Regulating, Participatory Market Society

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Despite all our great advances in science, technology and financial innovations, many societies today are struggling with a financial, economic and public spending crisis, over-regulation, and mass unemployment, as well as lack of sustainability and innovation. Can we still rely on conventional economic thinking or do we need a new approach? Is our economic system undergoing a fundamental transformation? Are our theories still doing a good job with just a few exceptions, or do they work only for “good weather” but not for “market storms”? Can we fix existing theories by adapting them a bit, or do we need a fundamentally different approach? These are the kind of questions that will be addressed in this paper. I argue that, as the complexity of socio-economic systems increases, networked decision-making and bottom-up self-regulation will be more and more important features. It will be explained why, besides the “homo economicus” with strictly self-regarding preferences, natural selection has also created a “homo socialis” with other-regarding preferences. While the “homo economicus” optimizes the own prospects in separation, the decisions of the “homo socialis” are self-determined, but interconnected, a fact that may be characterized by the term “networked minds.” Notably, the “homo socialis” manages to earn higher payoffs than the “homo economicus.” I show that the “homo economicus” and the “homo socialis” imply a different kind of dynamics and distinct aggregate outcomes. Therefore, next to the traditional economics for the “homo economicus” (“economics 1.0”), a complementary theory must be developed for the “homo socialis.” This economic theory might be called “economics 2.0” or “socionomics.” The names are justified, because the Web 2.0 is currently promoting a transition to a new market organization, which benefits from social media platforms and could be characterized as “participatory market society.” To thrive, the “homo socialis” requires suitable institutional settings such a particular kinds of reputation systems, which will be sketched in this paper. I also propose a new kind of money, so-called “qualified money,” which may overcome some of the problems of our current financial system. In summary, I discuss the economic literature from a new perspective and argue that this offers the basis for a different theoretical framework. This opens the door for a new economic thinking and a novel research field, which focuses on the effects, implications, and institutional requirements for  global-scale network interactions and highly interdependent decisions.

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Our Obsolete Market Mentality – Civilization Must Find a New Thought Pattern

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Karl Polanyi: “The market mechanism moreover created the delusion of economic determinism as a general law for all human society.. To attempt to apply economic determinism to all human societies is little short of fantastic. Nothing is more obvious to the student of social anthropology than the variety of institutions found to be compatible with practically identical instruments of production. Only since the market was permitted to grind the human fabric into the featureless uniformity of selenic erosion has man’s institutional creativeness been in abeyance.”

Karl Polanyi considers this article to represent his first significant advance over the thesis presented in The Great Transformation, which attracted international attention as an original analysis of the dilemma of free enterprise capitalism as it affects our entire Western society. Dr Polanyi was born in Vienna in 1886, and was from 1924 to 1934 on the staff of the Oesterreichische Volkswirt, a leading financial weekly. When the clerical dictatorship was established, he emigrated to England, where he lectured at Oxford and the University of London, co-edited Christianity and Social Revolution, and wrote The Essence of Fascism. He was at Bennington College from 1940 to 1943, and will return to the United States this month as visiting professor at Columbia University. This article is twelfth in the series, “The Crisis of the Individual“.

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Read also: The Power of Market Fundamentalism – Karl Polanyi’s Critique

Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2014 at 9:28 am

Posted in Capitalism, Polanyi

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The Power of Market Fundamentalism – Karl Polanyi’s Critique

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What is it about free-market ideas that give them tenacious staying power in the face of such manifest failures as persistent unemployment, widening inequality, and the severe financial crises that have stressed Western economies over the past forty years? Fred Block and Margaret Somers extend the work of the great political economist Karl Polanyi to explain why these ideas have revived from disrepute in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, to become the dominant economic ideology of our time.

Polanyi contends that the free market championed by market liberals never actually existed. While markets are essential to enable individual choice, they cannot be self-regulating because they require ongoing state action. Furthermore, they cannot by themselves provide such necessities of social existence as education, health care, social and personal security, and the right to earn a livelihood. When these public goods are subjected to market principles, social life is threatened and major crises ensue.

Despite these theoretical flaws, market principles are powerfully seductive because they promise to diminish the role of politics in civic and social life. Because politics entails coercion and unsatisfying compromises among groups with deep conflicts, the wish to narrow its scope is understandable. But like Marx’s theory that communism will lead to a “withering away of the State,” the ideology that free markets can replace government is just as utopian and dangerous.

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Written by Giorgio Bertini

June 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

Posted in Capitalism, Polanyi

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