Monday, October 16, 2006

Dynamic Capitalism

An interesting article by Dr. Edmund Phelps of Columbia, the winner of the 2006 Nobel prize for Economics, in today's WSJ. A&L Daily introduced this article thus:
Social policy should be formed, said John Rawls, with an eye toward how it affects society’s least advantaged members. Does this entail left liberal politics? Maybe not...
That intrigued me enough to read it ... I confess I don't understand a lot of it ... but gosh, how I wish more priests, religious and church workers had some basic introductory knowledge of economics? Here's a taste:
The issues swirling around capitalism today concern the consequences of its dynamism. The main benefit of an innovative economy is commonly said to be a higher level of productivity--and thus higher hourly wages and a higher quality of life. There is a huge element of truth in this belief, no matter how many tens of qualifications might be in order. Much of the huge rise of productivity since the 1920s can be traced to new commercial products and business methods developed and launched in the U.S. and kindred economies. (These include household appliances, sound movies, frozen food, pasteurized orange juice, television, semiconductor chips, the Internet browser, the redesign of cinemas and recent retailing methods.) There were often engineering tasks along the way, yet business entrepreneurs were the drivers.
The U.S. economy might be said to suffer from incomplete inclusion of the disadvantaged. But that is less a fault of capitalism than of electoral politics. The U.S. economy is not unambiguously worse than the Continental ones in this regard: Low-wage workers at least have access to jobs, which is of huge value to them in their efforts to be role models in their family and community. In any case, we can fix the problem.

Why, then, if the "downside" is so exaggerated, is capitalism so reviled in Western Continental Europe? It may be that elements of capitalism are seen by some in Europe as morally wrong in the same way that birth control or nuclear power or sweatshops are seen by some as simply wrong in spite of the consequences of barring them. And it appears that the recent street protesters associate business with established wealth; in their minds, giving greater latitude to businesses would increase the privileges of old wealth. By an "entrepreneur" they appear to mean a rich owner of a bank or factory, while for Schumpeter and Knight it meant a newcomer, a parvenu who is an outsider. A tremendous confusion is created by associating "capitalism" with entrenched wealth and power. The textbook capitalism of Schumpeter and Hayek means opening up the economy to new industries, opening industries to start-up companies, and opening existing companies to new owners and new managers. It is inseparable from an adequate degree of competition. Monopolies like Microsoft are a deviation from the model.
Actual capitalism departs from well-functioning capitalism--monopolies too big to break up, undetected cartels, regulatory failures and political corruption. Capitalism in its innovations plants the seeds of its own encrustation with entrenched power. These departures weigh heavily on the rewards earned, particularly the wages of the least advantaged, and give a bad name to capitalism. But I must insist: It would be a non sequitur to give up on private entrepreneurs and financiers as the wellspring of dynamism merely because the fruits of their dynamism would likely be less than they could be in a less imperfect system. I conclude that capitalism is justified--normally by the expectable benefits to the lowest-paid workers but, failing that, by the injustice of depriving entrepreneurial types (as well as other creative people) of opportunities for their self-expression.

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