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“As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth... Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had... drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. ...In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.”
This is from Robert Reich’s book Aftershock. It is a very good summary of what happened in 2008. Except that it isn’t Reich himself and it isn’t about 2008. Reich is quoting long-ago Fed chairman Marriner Eccles. And Eccles was writing not about 2008 but about 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
Reich was Labor Secretary in Clinton’s first administration and is now Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley. His diagnosis, as set out in Aftershock, is simple; it is that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few will make everyone poorer, because the rich don’t spend anything like enough to generate employment – that needs a mass market, with everyone participating. In fact, the process of wealth concentration had been going on for years before 2008. “The wages of the typical American hardly increased in the three decades leading up to the Crash of 2008, considering inflation. In the 2000s, they actually dropped,” says Reich, and goes on to explain that the economy has grown so much over that period that, had the benefits been divided equally, the typical person would be 60% better off.
If that’s the case, how come no-one seemed to notice this was happening for 30 years? Reich argues that the relative decline in income for most people was masked by longer hours; the participation of women as well as men in the workforce, generating dual incomes; and, most dangerously, by an explosion of credit. A quick look at house prices over the last 30 years suggests where much of that credit went. When the property bubble burst, the game, indeed, stopped.
This is a lucid and persuasive book. Reich writes well; his talent is to explicate and illuminate, rather than lecture. The same can be seen in the film Inequality for All, which arose from the book and sets out the same ideas; Reich comes across as a man of some warmth and humour and a natural communicator.
This book isn’t just a diagnosis, however; it’s a prognosis and prescription as well. And it’s on these two latter that the book does come unstuck a little.
The prognosis, Reich warns, is that if we’re unlucky Americans will at last say “Hell, we were screwed” but then draw quite the wrong conclusion from that, electing a right-wing, isolationist, populist and frightening President. (He is wise enough to make this a fictional character, though she slightly resembles a sort of Palin-Thatcher cross.) Losers of rigged games, as Reich rightly says, tend to get angry. His scenario may come true, but it is just as likely that Americans, and Brits, will vote for governments who see the need for greater equality, but that those governments will be hamstrung by markets, trade treaties and, in the US, legislative stasis. In that case people will, quietly first and then in greater numbers, drift away from the system, and society will lose its cohesion; government will become ineffective; and the Western world will slide into senescence and irrelevance.
Prof Reich also suggests a number of measures to address inequality. One is a “reverse income tax” that will subsidise the middle class (why does the US not appear to have a working class, one wonders?). The money would be added to paychecks. This reminds one of the system of poor relief devised by magistrates at Speenhamland in Berkshire at the end of the 18th century. “Speenhamland” was, when I was young, always taught as an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It simply allowed employers to lower wages, thus accumulating wealth for themselves while making the public pay their wage bill. In fact, recent research has suggested that Speenhamland’s outcomes were not so clear-cut. Still, with many lower-paid workers in Western countries now drawing welfare to supplement their wages, one wonders whether we already have Speenhamland writ large. Wouldn’t we be better off having a much higher, and strongly enforced, minimum wage? Far from bankrupting employers, it’ll make us all richer in the end.
Reich also proposes a carbon tax to fund this wage subsidy. He suggests an indirect tax set at $35 a ton. In suggesting this, he is rather going where angels fear to tread. The whole argument of carbon tax vs. carbon market is a big messy one, and governments have so far had a hard time applying either. The price of carbon on the open market is nothing like $35; moreover permission to emit it is effectively a raw material for industry. Taxing what is, in effect, a raw material at way above its market value may not be a good idea; you wouldn't do it with steel. It's far better to offset emissions with credits bought on the market, as this means positive as well as negative credits can be accrued, giving a much bigger incentive to reduce emissions. I’d argue that the carbon question shouldn't get mixed up with wages; it needs its own solution, and is best left in the separate box where it belongs.
The author also does not really address the whole question of governance. True, he clearly perceives poor governance as a driver of inequity; many of the evils of the last 30-odd years would not have arisen if the privileged hadn’t been able to buy power and influence through lobbyists, or hold politicians in thrall through campaign contributions. Reich therefore suggests measures to get money out of politics, and he is clearly right. What he does not discuss is the weakness of electoral systems that give voters a limited choice between at most two candidates, both of which will in effect be part of the system he deprecates. You want to throw the bums out? Give us a system that allows alternatives.
Reich’s prognosis and prescription are incomplete, and are the reason why I give this book four stars and not five. But in a way that is not the point of Aftershock. There can be no prognosis or prescription without diagnosis, and the diagnosis in this book is spot-on. What is more, it is (as in the film) delivered with clarity, warmth and charm. Anyone who wants to know how we got into such a mess in 2008, and 1929, should read this book, then think for themselves – long and hard – about where we go next.