Tag Archives: Postcapitalism

The Next Wave

As part of my summer reading, I finished Paul Mason’s book “PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future” and although it’s an engaging read with many thoughtful insights, the concluding chapters on the future and policy implications were disappointing.

Mason points to many of the same issues as Martin Wolf did in his book (see post) as reasons for our current situation, namely the inherent instability in allowing private profit seeking banks to create fiat money, ineffective regulation (and the impossibility of effective regulation), increased financialization, global flow imbalances, aging populations, climate change and the disruptive impact of new information technologies. This 2005 paper from Gretta Krippner on the financialization of the US economy and reports from S&P (here and here) on the policy implementations of aging demographics are interesting sources cited in the book.

It is on the impact of the information technology and networks that Mason has the most interesting things to say. Mason uses Nikolai Kondratieff’s long wave theory on structural cycles of 50-60 years to frame the information technological age as the 5th wave. The graphic below tries to summarise one view of Kondratieff waves (and there are so many variations!) as per the book.

click to enlargeHistory Rhyming in Kondratieff Waves

The existence of such historical cycles are dismissed by many economists and historians, although this 2010 paper concludes there is a statistical justification in GDP data for the existence of such waves.

Mason shows his left wing disposition in arguing that a little known theory from Karl Marx’s 1858 notebook called the Fragment on Machines gives an insight into the future. The driving force of production is knowledge, Marx theorises, which is social and therefore the future system will have to develop the intellectual power of the worker, enhancing what Marx referred to as the general intellect. Mason contends that the intelligent network we are seeing unfold today fits into Marx’s theory as a proxy for the general intellect.

Mason also promotes the labour theory of value, as espoused by Marx and others, where automation is predicted to reduce the necessary labour in production and make work optional for many in a post-capitalist world. To highlight the relevance of this possibility, a 2013 study asserted that 47% of existing jobs in the US would be replaced by automation. References to Alexander Bogdanov’s sci-fi novel Red Star in 1909 may push the socialist utopia concept driven by the information age too far although Mason does give realistically harsh assessments of Soviet communism and other such misguided socialist experiments.

The network effect was first discussed by Theodore Vail of Bell Telephone 100 years ago with Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet switch, claiming in 1980 that a network’s value is the number of users squared. Mason argues that the intelligent network, whereby every person and thing (through the internet of things) is wired to the network, could even reduce the marginal cost of energy and physical goods in the same way the internet has for digital products. Many of these ideas are also present in Jeremy Rifken’s 2014 book “Zero Marginal Cost Society”. Mason further argues that the network makes it possible to organise production in a decentralized and collaborative way, utilizing neither the market nor management hierarchy, and that info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected person.

The weakest part of the book are the final chapters on possible policy responses which Mason calls Project Zero with the following aims: a zero carbon energy system, the production of products and services with near zero marginal costs, and the goal of pushing the necessary labour time close to zero for workers. Mason proposes a trial and error process using agent based modelling to be adopted by policy makers to test post-capitalism concepts. He refers to a Wiki-State, a state that acts like the business model of Wikipedia nurturing new economic forms without burdensome bureaucracies. Such a state should promote collaborative business models, suppress or socialize info-monopolies, end fractional banking (as per the Chicago Plan), and follow policies such as a minimum basic wage for all to accommodate the move to new ways of working. All very laudable but a bit too Red Star-ish for me!

Nonetheless, Mason’s book has some interesting arguments that make his book worth the read.

 

An aside – As highlighted above, there are many variations on the Kondratieff long wave out there. An interesting one is that included in a 2010 Allianz report which, using the 10 year average yield on the S&P500 as the determinant, asserts that we are actually entering the 6th Kondratieff wave (I have updated it to Q3 2015)!

click to enlarge6th Kondratieff Wave

Looking through some of the mountain of theories on long waves reminds me of a 2004 quote from Benoit Mandelbrot that “Human nature yearns to see order and hierarchy in the world. It will invent it if it cannot find it.

Summer Blues

After the holidays, it’s time to pack the bucket and spades away and get back into the routine. It has been a volatile August.  A bear call in a post in early May is looking pertinent (as is the post on a suggested tie-up between Paddy Power and Betfair!) given the 7% drop in the S&P500 since then, although it is more likely dumb luck.

The market concern is centred on the prospects for China’s economy. Growth is widely believed to be a lot lower than the official 7% with exports down, concerns about zombie loans and the political ramifications of managing a lower growth economy. The Economist, in an article this week, highlighted the potential impact of a slow-down in China and other emerging markets on global growth, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeGlobal GDP Growth Breakdown 1980 to 2015

Amongst the usual holiday reading, I brought two books on economics for the beach. The first was the FT’s Martin Wolf’s “The shifts and the shocks” from late in 2014 and the second is the recently published “Postcapitalism” by Paul Mason. Although often a laboured read, I did manage to finish the former whilst I only got to start the latter (which is a much easier read).

Reading Wolf’s book as the China led volatility was unfolding only led to an enhanced feeling of negativity from the themes of the book, namely the lessons as yet unlearned from the crisis. Wolf competently covers much of the causes of the crisis and its aftermath – a global savings glut and associated global imbalances, an expansionary monetary policy that ignored asset prices and credit, an unstable liberalized financial system supervised by naïve regulation. The following graph from the IMF reminds of the global imbalances that proved so toxic when combined with a rampant financial sector.

click to enlargeGlobal Current Account Imbalances 1980 to 2013

Wolf questions the “belief that government borrowing is the illness for which private borrowing is the cure has survived all that has happened”. Some of the solutions that Wolf proposes include much higher capital requirements for banks than is currently being implemented under Basel III, deleveraging initiatives such as tax incentives towards equity and away from debt, corporate tax changes to encourage corporate investment, changes in debt contracts to convert to equity on macro-economic metrics, policies to address income inequality and to promote research and education.

A more radical reform of the financial system, along the lines of the Chicago Plan for 100% reserve banking whereby the ability to create money is taken away from profit seeking banks and given solely to central banks, is a step that Wolf favours but believes is unrealistic given the realpolitik of the developed world system. On the globalised financial system, Wolf believes that the “obvious truth that unless regulation and the supply of fiscal backstops is to be much more global, finance should be far less so” and suggests a greater segmentation of the world’s financial system.

There are many themes in Wolf’s book that got me thinking and I am hoping that Mason’s book will do the same, albeit from a totally different perspective. I think the market volatility has more time to play out and hopefully my summer reading, although yet to be completed, will assist in understanding what may come next.