Vol.6 No.5, 16 February 2006

How the market is letting us down

Margaret Legum

Cape Times, Business Report, page 2
Tuesday,14 February 2006

This article is the first in a series of articles on New Economics to be published in the Business Report.

New Economics asks questions about why "old" economic theory is not working and looks for alternatives that accord with reality. The unregulated market mechanism should spread wealth, moving it from where it is in surplus to where it is needed. It should allocate resources to where they can produce the greatest output from the least input. That is why old economists advocate an unregulated market.

New economists accept that the market mechanism is the only effective and humane way, generally speaking, to allocate resources to meet human needs. But it is not working "The growth rate, share values, inflation ... explain very little".

Resources flow from people and places most in need to sites of plenty. Capital and goods move relentlessly from poor to rich countries. Wealth concentrates and poverty deepens between and within countries, especially where there is least interference with the market. The most abundant resource - people - is discarded in favour of the scarcest - depleting energy sources that fuel machines. Poverty co-exists with surpluses; hunger with farming losses; unemployment with skills scarcities. The result is incalculable distress, dangerous anger and environmental destruction. Is that efficient?

Why does it happen?

First, allowing capital to flow globally gives it an advantage denied to other resources. Capital's mobility enables capital owners to define the terms of their presence - in a way denied to labour or the earth's resources, which are not mobile.
Capital's conditions include low taxes, low wages and few labour and environmental regulations. So over three decades the reward to capital has been roughly doubled compared with other factors of production, including labour.

Second, that distortion has progressively diminished effective demand outside the capital-owning class. Employed people at all levels globally receive a lower proportion of national income. Relative and even absolute real income levels have fallen for waged and salaried employees. Unemployment has risen, with caveats for India and China. That reduces buying power and therefore the demand for consumer goods.

Third, high proportions of top incomes are not spent into the productive economy that would create employment and spread wealth. The money is entrusted to asset managers, who multiply its value through trading in financial instruments, shares and currencies.Hence the shortage of capital for direct investment, foreign or local: it is more profitable, easier and less risky to speculate on a market that is mostly rising because it is so highly funded.
The result is declining demand for the growing output of modern economies. That explains why the conventional markers that old economists use to predict and correct economic trends do not work.
The rand value, the growth rate, share values, inflation and interest rates, and foreign hot money explain very little, and their manipulation only tinkers with a diseased body. Worse, focus on them takes attention from where it belongs: modern capitalism's flawed relationship with the market mechanism.

The private sector, in the age of digital technology, cannot expand jobs and incomes enough to create demand for its own output. To compete successfully, business must replace labour with technology.It must cut labour costs to attract global capital that expects high returns. So it is forced to reduce its own market, competing for shrinking demand.

But the idea that only private enterprise can efficiently create jobs runs very deep, so old economists continue to seek solutions to make the private sector employ more people. The search for competitiveness, outsourcing, privatisation, second economy and small business are products of that fruitless search for a way that the private sector can reduce unemployment; many make it worse.

A clue to the alternative arises from the private sector's strength: its capacity to create wealth. Using individual ingenuity, it is creative, innovative, responsive, good at finding a way to make something from nothing. The private sector creates far more wealth than can be sold, but not employment. It makes jobless growth and cuts its own throat.

"The growth rate, share values, inflation ... explain very little".

New economists seek ways to harness the wealth creating capacity of the private sector to the job creating capacity of the public and non-profit sectors. Only the public sector can respond to society's need for expanded universal public education, public health and transport, housing, energy, crime prevention, subsidised arts and many others.

These sectors are people-intensive and they carry the ethical, compassionate and communal values of society, which are outside the purposes of the private sector. All society suffers when they are not attended to. The question is how the wealth of the private sector can be used by the other sectors in ways that enhance all of them. This series will consider innovative ways to do that using the market mechanism. It will suggest how government can more effectively deliver goods and services while avoiding bureaucracy. And how it can easily and painlessly raise the necessary much higher revenues.

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© South African New Economics Network 2006. Page generated at 17:23; 24 September 2006