The New Republic - December 23, 2019

Welcome to theDecade From Hell, our look back at an arbitrary 10-year period that began with a great outpouring of hope and ended in a cavalcade of despair.

With the 2008 financial crash and the Great Recession, the ideology of neoliberalism lost its force. The approach to politics, global trade, and social philosophy that defined an era led not to never-ending prosperity but utter disaster. “Laissez-faire is finished,” declared French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted in testimony before Congress that his ideology was flawed. In an extraordinary statement, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared that the crash “called into question the prevailing neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years—the orthodoxy that has underpinned the national and global regulatory frameworks that have so spectacularly failed to prevent the economic mayhem which has been visited upon us.”

For some, and especially for those in the millennial generation, the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started a process of reflection on what the neoliberal era had delivered. Disappointment would be an understatement: the complete wreckage of economic, social, and political life would be more accurate. In each of these arenas, looking at the outcomes that neoliberalism delivered increasingly called into question the worldview itself.

Start with the economy. Over the course of the neoliberal era, economies around the world have become more and more unequal. In the United States, the wealthiest 1 percent took home about 8.5 percent of the national income in 1976. After a generation of neoliberal policies, in 2014 they captured more than 20 percent of national income. In Britain, the top 1 percent captured more than 14 percent of national income—more than double the amount they took home in the late 1970s. The story is the same in Australia: The top 1 percent took about 5 percent of national income in the 1970s and doubled that to 10 percent by the late 2000s. As the rich get richer, wages have been stagnant for workers since the late 1970s. Between 1979 and 2008, 100 percent of income growth in the U.S. went to the top 10 percent of Americans. The bottom 90 percent actually saw a decline in their income.

During the neoliberal era, the racial wealth gap did not fare much better. In 1979, the average hourly wage for a black man in the U.S. was 22 percent lower than for a white man. By 2015, the wage gap had grown to 31 percent. For black women, the wage gap in 1979 was only 6 percent; by 2015, it had jumped to 19 percent. Homeownership is one of the central ways that families build wealth over time, yet homeownership rates among African Americans in 2017 were as low as they were before the civil rights revolution, when racial discrimination was legal.

It is also worth putting the 2008 economic crash into perspective—both historical and global. Between 1943 and the middle of the 1970s, the number of bank failures in the country was minimal—never getting above single digits in any given year. Deregulation of the savings and loan associations brought widespread failures and bailouts in less than a decade. Deregulation of Wall Street brought the epic crash of 2008 in less than a decade.

This shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, as neoliberal policies had already wreaked havoc around the world. Looking back at the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the economist Joseph Stiglitz comments that “excessively rapid financial and capital market liberalization was probably the single most important cause of the crisis”; he also notes that after the crisis, the International Monetary Fund’s policies “exacerbated the downturns.” Neoliberals pushed swift privatization in Russia after the Cold War, alongside a restrictive monetary policy. The result was a growing barter economy, low exports, and asset-stripping, as burgeoning oligarchs bought up state enterprises and then moved their money out of the country.

Despite its alleged commitment to market competition, the neoliberal economic agenda instead brought the decline of competition and the rise of close to monopoly power in vast swaths of the economy: pharmaceuticals, telecom, airlines, agriculture, banking, industrials, retail, utilities, and even beer. A study by TheEconomist found that between 1997 and 2012, two-thirds of industries became more concentrated. Even centrist think tanks like the Brookings Institution have recognized the dangerous rise of monopolies and argued that the concentration of economic power brings with it higher prices for consumers, increased economic inequality, and a less dynamic economy. ...
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