Jun 24th 2020

The Main Street Manifesto 

by Nouriel Roubini

 

Nouriel Roubini is CEO of Roubini Macro Associates and Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University.

 

NEW YORK – The mass protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer are about systemic racism and police brutality in the United States, but also so much more. Those who have taken to the streets in more than 100 American cities embody a broader critique of President Donald Trump and what he represents. A vast underclass of increasingly indebted, socially immobile Americans – African-Americans, Latinos, and, increasingly, whites – is revolting against a system that has failed it.

This phenomenon is not limited to the US, of course. In 2019 alone, massive demonstrations rocked Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Pakistan, among other countries. Though these episodes each had different triggers, they all reflected resentment over economic malaise, corruption, and a lack of economic opportunities.

The same factors help to explain populist and authoritarian leaders’ growing electoral support in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis, many firms sought to boost profits by cutting costs, starting with labor. Instead of hiring workers in formal employment contracts with good wages and benefits, companies adopted a model based on part-time, hourly, gig, freelance, and contract work, creating what the economist Guy Standing calls a “precariat.” Within this group, he explains, “internal divisions have led to the villainization of migrants and other vulnerable groups, and some are susceptible to the dangers of political extremism.”

The precariat is the contemporary version of Karl Marx’s proletariat: a new class of alienated, insecure workers who are ripe for radicalization and mobilization against the plutocracy (or what Marx called the bourgeoisie). This class is growing once again, now that highly leveraged corporations are responding to the COVID-19 crisis as they did after 2008 employment: taking bailouts and hitting their earnings targets by slashing labor costs.

One segment of the precariat comprises younger, less-educated white religious conservatives in small towns and semi-rural areas who voted for Trump in 2016. They hoped that he would actually do something about the economic “carnage” that he described in his inaugural address. But while Trump ran as a populist, he has governed like a plutocrat, cutting taxes for the rich, bashing workers and unions, undermining the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and otherwise favoring policies that hurt many of the people who voted for him.

Before COVID-19 or even Trump arrived on the scene, some 80,000 Americans were dying every year of drug overdoses, and many more were falling victim to suicide, depression, alcoholism, obesity, and other lifestyle-related diseases. As economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton show in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, these pathologies have increasingly afflicted desperate, lower skilled, un- or under-employed whites – a cohort in which midlife mortality has been rising.

But the American precariat also comprises urban, college-educated secular progressives who in recent years have mobilized behind leftist politicians like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. It is this group that has taken to the streets to demand not just racial justice but also economic opportunity (indeed, the two issues are closely intertwined).

This should not come as a surprise, considering that income and wealth inequality has been rising for decades, owing to many factors, including globalization, trade, migration, automation, the weakening of organized labor, the rise of winner-take-all markets, and racial discrimination. A racially and socially segregated educational system fosters the myth of meritocracy while consolidating the position of elites, whose children consistently gain access to the top academic institutions and then go on to take the best jobs (usually marrying one another along the way, thereby reproducing the conditions from which they themselves benefited).

These trends, meanwhile, have created political feedback loops through lobbying, campaign finance, and other forms of influence, further entrenching a tax and regulatory regime that benefits the wealthy. It is no wonder that, as Warren Buffett famously quipped, his secretary’s marginal tax rate is higher than his.

Or, as a satirical headline in The Onion recently put it: “Protesters Criticized for Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First.” Plutocrats like Trump and his cronies have been looting the US for decades, using high-tech financial tools, tax- and bankruptcy-law loopholes, and other methods to extract wealth and income from the middle and working classes. Under these circumstances, the outrage that Fox News commentators have been voicing over a few cases of looting in New York and other cities represents the height of moral hypocrisy.

It is no secret that what is good for Wall Street is bad for Main Street, which is why major stock-market indices have reached new highs as the middle class has been hollowed out and fallen into deeper despair. With the wealthiest 10% owning 84% of all stocks, and with the bottom 75% owning none at all, a rising stock market does absolutely nothing for the wealth of two-thirds of Americans.

As the economist Thomas Philippon shows in The Great Reversal, the concentration of oligopolistic power in the hands of major US corporations is further exacerbating inequality and leaving ordinary citizens marginalized. A few lucky unicorns (start-ups valued at $1 billion or more) run by a few lucky twenty-somethings will not change the fact that most young Americans increasingly live precarious lives performing dead-end gig work.

To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry.

The new proletariat – the precariat – is now revolting. To paraphrase Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto: “Let the Plutocrat classes tremble at a Precariat revolution. The Precarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Precarious Workers of all countries, unite!”


Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is Chairman of Roubini Macro Associates and host of NourielToday.com. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org
 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Casualties are very high. A very conservative estimate of overall Russian losses is that they have lost more troops killed since February 24 than in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. This implies well over 40,000 men taken out of the fight, including the wounded." ----- "Away from the cauldron of Donbas, Belarus has been rattling its somewhat rusty sabre by deploying troops to its border with Ukraine. This is unlikely to trouble Kyiv. The Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, is well aware that he may need them at home to shore up his shaky regime."
May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"