When I first started reading blogs a decade ago (I’m pretty sure the first blogpost I ever read was one of these Eschaton posts on Trent Lott) there was a distinctly truncated Left in the blog world, especially on economics. Just mainstream liberals, conservatives, and libertarians as far as the eye could see. Which, what else is new, right? Except that it really wasn’t true of mailing lists, the predecessor medium, where you had super active lists like PEN-L and LBO Talk. I used to wonder if there was something specific about the formats that made mailing lists more hospitable to radical politics. Like, flatteringly, maybe we prefer collective discussions rather than one-man shows? Anyway, the question is moot now, because there’s certainly no shortage of left/radical blogs now, economics-oriented and otherwise.
All of which is a long-winded introduction to introducing a new progressive economics blog, Wonkupy. It’s by “Rotwang,” a very sharp comrade who needs to remain pseudonymous for professional reasons. It bills itself as “Occupy for wonks,” but my sense is it’s going to be more the other way round; well worth reading either way.
That said, I have some disagreements with his current post, arguing that criticism of private equity is a distraction. I put them in comments there, but since it touches on some regular themes at the Slack Wire, I thought I’d post an abridged version here.
Rotwang’s argument is that it’s wrong to suggest that buyouts and takeovers of firms by private equity funds and the like have any systematic effect on the way those firms are managed: profit maximization at the expense of workers and the pubic is the order of the day whether the bosses are vulture capitalists or just the regular kind. (It’s sort of a political-economic version of the Modigliani-Miller theorem.) Rotwang:
In [private equity] discussions, it is easy to focus on outright theft, abuse of borrowing, and inefficient government subsidies. We suggest this is not unique to PE, but is generic to Capitalism. One could imagine regulatory responses to such problems, but we insist the problems are part of the system, not tumorous growths on something otherwise fundamentally healthy. A narrow focus on PE glosses over the features it shares in common with Capitalism in general, now and throughout history. The narrow view plays to limited and ineffective remedies that fail to engage the long-standing, systematic problems of capital markets.
I disagree — tentatively on the substance, but emphatically on this way of framing it.
Suppose for the moment it’s true that the problems with private equity are no different from the problems with capitalism in general. I still don’t think that’s a valid reason to not talk about private equity in particular. After all, “X in general” is just all the specific instances of X. To the extent that the way productive enterprises are treated by PE firms like Bain is a representative example of why an economy oriented around the private pursuit of profit is incompatible with a humane and decent society, I don’t see what’s wrong with starting with it as a particularly vivid and timely example. Of course you have to then move on to a more general critique — there’s nothing that stops management at companies that aren’t subject to buyouts from acting like Bain, and many do — but a ban on discussion of particular cases doesn’t smooth the way to that general critique.
The other question is, is it really true that there is no difference between what a firm like Bain does and what a “normal” capitalist firm does? Rotwang writes, “From the worker’s standpoint, it makes little difference if her life is ruined by PE or by old management,” which is inarguable. But are we sure ruination is equally likely in either case?
It seems to me that while capitalist firms always pursue profit, and this pursuit is always ultimately inimical to the interests of workers, it’s not always equally single-minded. Managers want their firms (and themselves personally) to make money, but they also want them to survive, to grow, to gain market share, to be perceived as prestigious, cutting-edge, etc., and, in a non-trivial number of cases, to make genuinely good products by whatever objective standard of the business that they’re in. To the extent that finance exercises more active control of the firm, those other motives get subordinated to pure pursuit of profits. And I think that does tend to make life worse for their workers, and communities and customers, and everyone else who depends on the business as an ongoing enterprise.
No question, there is (or was; is Occupy still a thing?) a strong anti-finance vibe around OWS. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing that — especially in its weirder Ron Paulish forms — but it seems to me this is a case where “Yes, and” is distinctly preferable to “no, but”. For some people, a criticism of private equity may be an alternative to a broader critique of capitalism, but for many more, I suspect, it’s a starting point towards it.