An Economist Who Believes Only Government Can Save Capitalism

“People, Power, and Profits” goes beyond diagnosis to treatment. At the core of Stiglitz’s plan is the strengthening of the state. “The view that government is the problem, not the solution, is simply wrong. To the contrary, many if not most of our society’s problems, from the excesses of pollution to financial instability and economic inequality, have been created by markets.” He proposes a whole host of reforms, including significant investments in public goods like basic research, more stringent regulation of firms and measures to preserve and protect the voting franchise.

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A cruel irony of “People, Power, and Profits” is that in arguing the free market has declined, Stiglitz is competing in an extremely crowded marketplace. The genre of “How has America gone wrong?” is overstuffed; we are living in a golden age of authors telling Americans that we no longer live in a golden age. Given the plethora of books on this topic, does Stiglitz’s stand out?

One of his book’s comparative advantages is that while Stiglitz has impeccable economic credentials, he also recognizes some of his profession’s blind spots. He observes, correctly, that standard textbook economics talks a lot about competition but little about economic power. He also excels at swatting away bromides about the miracles of markets and the failures of governments. He notes, for example, that the Social Security Administration is far more efficient at disbursing retirement benefits than private pensions.

Stiglitz could have done much better, however, if he had narrowed his focus to the sharpest arguments in his policy quiver. For instance, he discusses the idea that taxes on carbon or financial transactions “can simultaneously increase economic performance and raise revenue.” This sounds like the progressive doppelgänger of the Laffer Curve, that is, a concept that would be good policy and good politics. Stiglitz should be selling the hell out of it; instead, he breezes through it in one page.

Some of his other ideas seem less thought out or more politically toxic. On antitrust, for example, he encourages a doctrine of pre-emption: “Regulation of mergers must take into account the likely future shape of markets.” This would require considerable foresight, so it is a problem that 75 pages later Stiglitz allows that “often there is far from perfect information about where a market will be evolving, and the world turns out to be different from what we expected.” He fails to explain how regulators would handle this conundrum. Another of Stiglitz’s ideas — a public mortgage financing system that could access an individual’s I.R.S. and Social Security data — sounds unpalatable in the current low-trust political environment.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/books/review/joseph-e-stiglitz-people-power-profits.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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