What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?


Edmund S. Phelps in The New York Review of Books:

Our prevailing political economy is blind to the very concept of inclusion; it does not map out any remedy for the deficiency. A monograph of mine and a conference volume I edited are among the few book-length studies of ways to remedy failure to include people generally in an economy in which they will have satisfying work.3

Commentators are talking now about injustice of another sort. Workers in decent jobs view the economy as unjust if they or their children have virtually no chance of climbing to a higher rung in the socioeconomic ladder. And moving up appears harder now. Even in the Gilded Age, many of the moguls came up from the bottom. (The rungs were far apart, yet the ladder was climbed.) The feeling of injustice comes from a sense of unfair advantages: that those above are using their connections to stay there—or to ensure that their children can follow them. The bar to upward mobility is always the same: barriers to competition put up by the wealthy, the connected, corporations, professional associations, unions, and guilds.

But the truth is that no degree of Rawlsian action to pull up low-end wages and employment—or remove unfair advantages—could have spared the less advantaged from a major loss of inclusion since Rawls’s time. The forces of productivity slowdown and globalization have been too strong. Moreover, though the injustices in the West’s economies are egregious, they ought not to be seen as a major cause of the productivity slowdowns and globalization. (For one thing, a slowdown of productivity started in the US in the mid-1960s and the sharp loss of manufacturing jobs to poorer countries occurred much later—from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.) Deeper causes must be at work.

More here.