Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- The Global Alliance for Tax Justice examines the most common tax evasion practices used to allow the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. And Desmond Cohen points out how our current estimates of inequality underestimate exactly how much is being hidden.

-  David Macdonald anticipates and criticizes the Bank of Canada's increased interest rates by pointing out that Canadians have already been sorely lacking for more increased wages. And Andrew Jackson argues for a higher minimum wage by pointing to our relatively low wages when compared to other developed countries.

- Meanwhile, UFCW highlights a report on how Guatemalan agricultural workers are being exploited in Quebec.

- Gillian Steward discusses the developing electric car industry - and the reality that no public policy can prevent fossil fuel-powered vehicles (and the oil and gas industry's profits connected to them) from taking a turn toward obsolescence within a decade.

- Finally, John Rapley warns against unwarranted belief in neoliberal economic dogma due to both its failure to explain actual economic outcomes, and its failure to take into account necessary interests and values:
For decades, neoliberal evangelists replied to such objections by saying it was incumbent on us all to adapt to the model, which was held to be immutable – one recalls Bill Clinton’s depiction of neoliberal globalisation, for instance, as a “force of nature”. And yet, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the consequent recession, there has been a turn against globalisation across much of the west. More broadly, there has been a wide repudiation of the “experts”, most notably in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum.
It would be tempting for anyone who belongs to the “expert” class, and to the priesthood of economics, to dismiss such behaviour as a clash between faith and facts, in which the facts are bound to win in the end. In truth, the clash was between two rival faiths – in effect, two distinct moral tales. So enamoured had the so-called experts become with their scientific authority that they blinded themselves to the fact that their own narrative of scientific progress was embedded in a moral tale. It happened to be a narrative that had a happy ending for those who told it, for it perpetuated the story of their own relatively comfortable position as the reward of life in a meritocratic society that blessed people for their skills and flexibility. That narrative made no room for the losers of this order, whose resentments were derided as being a reflection of their boorish and retrograde character – which is to say, their fundamental vice. The best this moral tale could offer everyone else was incremental adaptation to an order whose caste system had become calcified. For an audience yearning for a happy ending, this was bound to be a tale of woe.

The failure of this grand narrative is not, however, a reason for students of economics to dispense with narratives altogether. Narratives will remain an inescapable part of the human sciences for the simple reason that they are inescapable for humans. It’s funny that so few economists get this, because businesses do. As the Nobel laureates George Akerlof and Robert Shiller write in their recent book, Phishing for Phools, marketers use them all the time, weaving stories in the hopes that we will place ourselves in them and be persuaded to buy what they are selling. Akerlof and Shiller contend that the idea that free markets work perfectly, and the idea that big government is the cause of so many of our problems, are part of a story that is actually misleading people into adjusting their behaviour in order to fit the plot. They thus believe storytelling is a “new variable” for economics, since “the mental frames that underlie people’s decisions” are shaped by the stories they tell themselves.

Economists arguably do their best work when they take the stories we have given them, and advise us on how we can help them to come true. Such agnosticism demands a humility that was lacking in economic orthodoxy in recent years.

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