Writer and Poet Roya Hakakian arrived in the United States from Iran in 1985. Her most recent book is A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious (2021). The most recent issue of Capitalism and Society publishes a short excerpt from the book titled “When New Immigrants First Go to an American Supermarket.” Here, I’ll give an excerpt of that excerpt.
About visiting a US grocery story, Hakakian writes:
In one particular aisle, you find cans of beef, chicken, and fish priced much lower than others you had seen in previous aisles. Pleased with your find, you pile them into your cart. Then you hesitate when you see a picture of a dog or a cat on each can. You remember the feral cats and emaciated dogs that used to roam your streets. They were sometimes hunted, sometimes banned for being unclean, and always unloved. It is not until you see leashes, rubber bones, and miniature sweaters in a large bin in the same aisle, all 40 percent off, that you realize the unthinkable is true: Americans feed proper food to their pets here, and even dress them. To think that you were about to stock your cabinets with animal feed! What would your former countrymen say if they got wind of this? You can hear the wisecracks: He went all the way to America to eat dog food! It will be years until you learn that pets are venerated in this country, at times even as much as, if not more than, children. For now, you gingerly put the cans back and hurry into the next aisle.
There you will be mystified once more. On shelf after shelf, you will find enough boxes to declare a republic of cereal. All your life, you had known cereal to have only one shape, color, and flavor, at the most two. It came in a smaller box than the ones before you, with only a few words written on each. As if the supersized boxes were not enough, the many sentences make you feel there is something far more respectable than mere cereal inside. In the face of all the variety, you wonder if you really knew cereal before. Do not let this imposing lineup crowd your vision and get in the way of seeing what transcends mere cereal. While so much variety rightly strikes you as frivolous, you must remember it is the presence of variety that matters. Simply put, the past was a black-and-white picture, and America, Technicolor. Cereal is proof that you have left the universe of Manichaean options, where you usually had to consider between bad and mediocre. (The quality of good had plummeted, since it was always all that was available.) You are in the land of choice, where you must think and select according to your own taste. Open the floodgates of inhibition.
I was also intrigued by Hakakian description of being surrounded by a nation of fund-raisers for small causes:
You used to give a coin or two to the poor of your city, or drop a banknote in the collection box at your place of worship, or help a neighbor or a friend with a loan. But these were a few small exercises at best. Here, people give regularly. Squirrels collect acorns, and Americans raise money. It is as natural as any instinct for them. Children offer lemonade on sidewalks to raise money for the kittens at the animal shelter. Girl Scouts go door-to-door selling cookies so other aspiring girls can become Scouts too, and do the same. Mothers organize bake sales to help pay for a new neighborhood playground. Teens give to the GoFundMe campaign of a filmmaker working on a documentary about the endangered aardvarks of Angola. Even Santa, the nation’s gift giver in chief, appears at the threshold of major department stores every December, ringing a bell at the side of a siren-red donation bucket. Overworked cashiers will not scan your items before listlessly asking if you would like to donate a dollar to the fight against something or other. Once a year, arsonists take a day off so firefighters can stand at intersections holding up their rubber boots, charming drivers into pitching in a few dollars. At the registers of greasy gas stations, two things are always guaranteed: the noxious smell of fuel and the cardboard quarter receptacle for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In some movie theaters, films cannot start unless the ushers have walked aisle to aisle passing the empty popcorn container to collect money for whatever the star in the public service announcement
urged the viewers to donate to. Entertainers hold telethons to raise money for this disease or that. Rock bands compose songs for disaster victims and give them their proceeds. Radio broadcasts are interrupted so the hosts can make appeals for a donation, which the local attorney or dermatologist matches. Runners run, bikers bike, and comics crack jokes, all to help raise money for the needy. Politicians bombard their supporters with emails, asking them to give five, ten, twenty, or more dollars toward making a better tomorrow, when, in addition to a higher minimum wage and universal healthcare, there will also surely be more emails asking you to donate again. Corporations have charitable arms. Dignitaries ask for money to build homes for the destitute. In television commercials, celebrities, holding doe-eyed babies in their arms, urge viewers to adopt a child on another continent through a monthly contribution. Anything is possible in America, even raising a baby by subscription.
When Americans do not raise money, they raise necessities. They have book drives, blood drives, food drives, turkey drives, even car drives. If they cannot solicit you in person, they send you letters. Heaps of envelopes arrive in America’s mailboxes every week asking the
citizens to donate to one organization or another. Fundraising is a behemoth as vast as any industry. … You may be naturalized already, but unless you begin writing checks for people you have never met, living in places you would never visit, you are not a real American.
No nation so rich has ever asked for more money. They do not need the order or the permission of some authority to tell them what to raise and for what cause. They take matters into their own hands and wage campaigns to save the pandas, protect the bees, or reverse beach erosion. What is at the heart of all this fundraising is the same thing that is at the heart of all other perfectly American things—an irrepressible self.
For interested readers, here’s the full Table of Contents for this most recent issue of Capitalism and Society, with abstract and links to papers.
Recent Research on Income Distribution: An Overview of the Field
By Gerald Auten
The distribution of income in the United States has long been of interest to economists. Using data on tax returns, Piketty and Saez (2003) concluded that top income shares had more than doubled since 1980. This paper helped trigger broader public concerns about rising inequality and stagnating incomes for lower- and middle-class households. But this paper was criticized by academics for using a narrow definition of income that failed to account for the dramatic growth of Social Security, Medicare, and other transfer programs and for ignoring the effects of declining marriage rates and smaller household size. More recent work by Piketty, Saez, and Zucman (2018) addressed some of these issues using a broader income measure based on national income but still found dramatic increases in top income shares. Their new analysis has also been criticized for overstating top income shares due to certain assumptions used to allocate income not reported on tax returns. This paper examines these issues in measuring the distribution of income, compares the analysis and results of recent studies, and presents a more nuanced view of income inequality over time. While there is always uncertainty about distributional analysis, the best available evidence suggests that top income shares are lower and have increased less than some have claimed and that real incomes have increased over time for all income groups, though not necessarily for every household. Click here to read the paper.
Markets and Regulation in the Age of Big Tech
By Kaushik Basu, Aviv Caspi, and Robert Hockett
The digital revolution, along with the growth of the companies known collectively as Big Tech, is transforming the global economy and giving rise to novel policy challenges. This paper analyzes the microeconomic foundations of this change, particularly how the natures of competition and oligopolistic equilibria are changing as a result of the large returns to scale and the global connectivity made possible by these new technologies. We then discuss how these changes fit into the existing regulatory landscape and argue that, for certain kinds of large digital-platform firms, existing antitrust laws may not be adequate. We conclude by considering more radical reform, such as requiring certain platform firms to be organized as nonprofits or public utilities.
Click here to read the paper.
The Pursuit of Coherence in Mainstream Macroeconomic Methodology
By Sheila Dow
The coherence of mainstream macroeconomics is threatened by inconsistency between the core theoretical model and the empirically grounded models used for policy advice. The field has evolved in response to policy demands in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. But this evolution has been constrained by the emphasis of the core theoretical approach on a particular representation of microfoundations. Yet the notion of internal consistency by which this microfoundations project is justified is challenged by a broader philosophical notion of consistency. The long-running expression of opposition in mainstream macroeconomics between logical and empirical coherence (or between rigor and realism) accordingly requires further examination of how real economic systems are understood and how knowledge about them is to be built and assessed. If mainstream macroeconomics is to continue to deviate from the core model by virtue of open-system ontology, then in order to ensure coherence, the characteristics of that system need to be articulated, and their implications for methodology worked out. Click here to read the paper.
On the Economics of Economic Knowledge
By Dominique Foray
In this paper, we argue for building a research agenda to analyze economic knowledge as an
economic good and explore the socioeconomic institutions that can be relied upon to produce, distribute, and use economic knowledge in an efficient manner. In our opinion, the benefits of such an approach, as well as the value of its future contributions to the understanding of the foundations of the economic dynamic, are obvious. Click here to read the paper.
When New Immigrants First Go to an American Supermarket
By Roya Hakakian
When newly arrived immigrants first glance into an American supermarket, shock may well be their first reaction. So writes Roya Hakakian, author and poet, in her new book A Beginner’s
Guide to America for the Immigrant and the Curious (2021), which walks the reader through the immigrants’ first moments on American soil to the final ceremony of hard-earned
naturalization. In those early days after the immigrant first arrives, the tiniest details can
register at great magnitudes, from the head-spinning varieties of cereal to highway signs.
According to Hakakian, these are the things that make the newly arrived so keenly aware of
the contrasts between their lives before and after immigration. She draws a portrait that
showcases America as a land of abundance, while unpacking the meanings behind the plenty.
Click here to read the paper.
Can Free Trade Be Part of Green, Resilient, and Inclusive Development?
By Mari Pangestu and Enrique Aldaz-Carroll
Trade has been a means to development by generating jobs, spurring economic growth, and reducing poverty. However, the gains from trade have shown to be less than equally distributed, hurting at times some localities and segments of countries’ populations. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown that global value chains (GVCs) are susceptible to serious disruptions. The climate crisis has raised attention on carbon emissions from the transportation of merchandise exports and imports. If trade is to remain a driving force for growth, job creation, and poverty reduction and part of countries’ effort to set a new path towards green, resilient and inclusive development, understanding how the gains from trade are distributed and how the impacts of trade can be better managed is of critical importance. This paper reviews the evidence bearing on these concerns and considers policy responses that could enable trade, and particularly GVCs, to contribute more to a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for developing countries. What is needed is the combination of old policies like trade facilitation, business environment, and skills with new and green policies including a new treatment of carbon, emphasis on diversification, social-protection measures, and improvements in the international trade order. Click here to read the paper.
The Quest for Economic Freedom in India
By Shruti Rajagopalan
This paper studies the 1991 reforms, as the beginning of the transition towards a market
economy from the socialist policies in the first four decades of the Indian republic. Tracking
the major reforms in the three decades since 1991, I argue that economic control and statist
policies are the norm and that reforms enhancing economic freedom are the outliers. After an excellent start by the Rao-Singh team in 1991, and a gaining of momentum during the Vajpayee government (1999-2004), India’s liberalization and reform process has slowed down
considerably in the last decade. The slowdown in the reform process, ad hoc regulation, as well as disastrous policies like demonetization, have become the new trend in Indian economic policy. Simultaneously, India’s high rates of growth post-liberalization have also slowed down, especially in the last five years, a trend that was visible before the pandemic. The reason is that Indian policymakers pursued socialism for the first four decades after independence and never fully committed to the pursuit of economic freedom after the initial set of reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s. The main lesson from the history of India’s reforms is that the problem is systemic and structural and requires a deeper commitment to markets to fix its upside-down state-market relationship. Click here to read the paper.
An Equilibrium Model of Corporate Environmental and Social Governance
By Richard Robb, Vinay Viswanathan, and Martin Sattell
We develop a formal model to study the consequences for firms of adopting environmental and social governance (ESG) constraints. In the presence of information asymmetries, we find that a firm may reduce earnings variability by binding itself to ESG rules, thereby lowering the interest rates that creditors charge and raising expected profits. The gains are likely to be far greater when ESG constraints not only reassure creditors but also limit the ability of self-serving managers to work against the interests of shareholders. For most parameter values, though, we find that adherence to ESG lowers returns and increases risk. The predictions of our model contrast with those of two influential studies by Morgan Stanley. In the first, Morgan Stanley (2015) claims that ESG systematically raises investors’ returns. In the more recent, it claims that ESG reduces investors’ downside risk (Morgan Stanley 2019). We summarize our earlier critique (Robb and Sattell 2016) showing that the results of the first Morgan Stanley study cannot be replicated, and we go on to show that the results of the second study arise from two errors: (1) Morgan Stanley uses the default benchmark (S&P 500 Total Return Index) supplied by Morningstar Direct rather than the benchmark appropriate to each fund, and (2) the conclusions drawn from median returns are an artifact of microfunds, many with less than $10 million under management. Upon correcting these errors, we arrive at the opposite conclusion, one consistent with the literature: ESG investors sacrifice a small amount of return for any amount of risk. A great deal remains to be done to determine whether ESG is effective or ineffective in addressing social concerns. Our contribution here is to propose a versatile, tractable model that can start to address vital questions in a more rigorous framework than we find in the literature. In particular, we show how ESG might raise social welfare by multiples of the private costs and how our model can quantify the trade-off. Click here to read the paper.
Three Myths about US Economic Inequality and Social Mobility
By Xi Song, Michael S. Lachanski, and Thomas S. Coleman
Income inequality has increased dramatically in the United States since the 1970s. However, we argue in this paper that many common perceptions about causes and consequences of rising inequality are misleading or even false. Using first-hand empirical analyses and meta- analyses of previously published work, we present and demystify three key facts about the rise in US inequality that have been given too little attention in recent debates. First, inequality has risen throughout the distribution. Post-tax and transfer income levels have grown in the middle and bottom of the distribution, not the top alone – the top 1% does not take all. Second, the trend in intergenerational social mobility has remained largely stable over the last four decades. The relative gap in mobility opportunities between children from poor and rich families has barely changed – the “Great Gatsby curve,” which predicts a general negative relationship between income inequality and intergenerational mobility, does not apply to the US. Third, changes in the return to human capital caused by shifts in the supply and demand for educated and skilled labor have played a crucial role in the rise in income inequality since the 1970s – rising corporate concentration and employer market power (monopsony) do not appear to be a key culprit. Click here to read the paper.