An Undergraduate’s Question about Economic Policy

By Thomas Palley

Cross-posted from the author’s blog.  Note: for a primer on neoliberalism, see our two-part article by David Kotz (here). 

I received an e-mail from an undergraduate economics student who was curious about economic policy in Washington, DC. His question says a lot about the current state of affairs. Here it is with my reply.

From: Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx [mailto:xxxxxxxxxxxxxx@xxxx.com]
Sent: Saturday, October 1, 2016 10:56 AM
To: mail
Subject: Question from an undergraduate
Dear Dr. Palley,
I am a first-year undergraduate in economics and political theory, and a longtime admirer of your work.
What are your thoughts on how Keynesian/Post-Keynesian ideas are treated in current political discourse?

I was in Washington D.C. recently and I had conversation with a Brookings fellow who told me that he thought Joseph Stiglitz was an “extremist who isn’t taken seriously by anyone who knows their way around the Beltway.”

Does it worry you that ideas which used to be considered “mainstream” (like social democracy) are now increasingly considered “extreme”?
Deeply grateful for your time and attention
Sincerely
Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx

From: Thomas Palley [mailto:mail@thomaspalley.com]
Sent: Saturday, October 1, 2016 3:59 PM
To: ‘Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx’
Subject: RE: Question from an undergraduate

Dear Xxxxxxx,

Thanks for your e-mail.

I am saddened (but not surprised) to hear Joe Stiglitz described in that way. And yes, I worry that ideas which used to be “mainstream” are now considered “extreme”.

Economics, like all social thought, is a contested space. Neoliberals have an interest in controlling economics since control helps them advance their political and economic project by helping them sell their policy ideas.

Brookings is a core neoliberal institution in Washington DC, so it does not surprise me that a Brookings fellow would describe Stiglitz as an extremist. That is how neoliberals perceive him, and it is also a way they try to discredit him.

In my view they are profoundly wrong. Our challenge is to open space (in the academy and public discourse) for all ideas (including neoliberal ideas) that make passable sense of the economy. After that comes political debate about which ideas we will believe and be guided by. That is the function of politics, and different political parties will be guided by different economic ideas.

Neoliberals try to close down the space of political debate and social possibility by excluding all except neoliberal ideas. The tragedy of the past forty years is they have been succeeding. In the academy there is a neoclassical monopoly, and in politics Labor and Social Democratic parties have been captured by the Trojan horse of the Third Way, creating a neoliberal political monopoly.

Reversing this state of affairs is a massive challenge. The academy is a club that will refuse to include those who disagree, and politics has been significantly captured by the one percent owing to the importance of money in politics. That is a toxic combination: the academy delegitimizes ideas opposed to neoliberalism, while the neoliberal political monopoly blocks alternative ideas getting on to the political table.

This noose has been tightening for years, but the inequality and stagnation that neoliberalism has produced is generating a political backlash from below. That is a hopeful opportunity, but it is also dangerous because backlashes are unpredictable and can go horribly wrong.

Lastly, I am a great fan of the student movement for change in economics. Their case is right. However, I fear the club of academic economists will either belittle the students, ignore them, or deceptively disarm them by appointing milquetoast critical economists who produce “gattopardo” change (i.e. change that keeps things the same).

Best wishes with your studies,
Tom Palley

The Clean Power Plan’s Day in Court

 

By Elizabeth A. Stanton

Cross-posted from the author’s blog, lizstantonconsulting.com and at our sister blog Triple Crisis

In one week, the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals will begin hearing oral arguments regarding the Clean Power Plan—that’s the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants that the Supreme Court put on hold in February. In staying the rule, the Supreme Court flagged concerns that EPA had failed to take the rule’s economic impacts into account. The 27 states challenging the rule have focused their arguments instead on its legal niceties claiming that the federal government is overstepping its authority.

Of the 27 states suing the EPA, 21 have already achieved their 2024 emission reduction targets and 18 have enacted policies that put them on track to reach their 2030 targets. Reuters quotes EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as saying, “We are seeing reductions earlier than we ever expected. It’s a great sign that the market has already shifted and people are invested in the newer technologies, even while we are in litigation.” Economics are driving large-scale adoption of wind and solar generation around the country at the same time that low natural gas prices mean less reliance on coal-fired generators.

Carbon emission are falling and will continue to fall in the electric sector—without help from federal climate regulation. But in the absence of a strong national climate policy these reductions will not cut emissions quickly enough for the United States to play its essential role in keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. It is no exaggeration to say that the decisions made by the D.C. Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court will set a precedent for federal regulation of carbon pollution that will have long lasting impacts felt around the world.

The quality of public debate sparked by the Clean Power Plan’s day in court will benefit from a grounding in facts not just about climate change and the U.S. role in changing the composition of our global atmosphere, but also in the legal issues at the core of the challenge to and stay of the rule. Here’s some recommended reading to that end:

·        A helpful blog piece from the Institute for Policy Integrity explaining the challenge in the context of U.S. law and history

·        A brief history lesson from the Law360 website describing the U.S. legal decisions that paved the way for the Clean Power Plan