Some Big Things Ha-Joon Chang Doesn’t Tell You About Capitalism

The popular neo-Keynesian Cambridge (United Kingdom) economist Ha-Joon Chang is a clever man who might do well to think and/or care more about the ecological catastrophe that the modern disaster called capitalism[1] has all too characteristically cooked up for humanity – and a few other things about that system along the way. Don’t get me wrong. Chang’s recent bestselling book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism deserves some success.  In one often entertaining chapter after another, Chang exposes deadly falsehoods in many of the prevalent neoliberalism’s supposedly self-evident “free market” truths. His volume’s market accomplishment makes sense in the wake of epic global economic crisis of 2008-2009 – capitalism’s worst meltdown since the Great Depression, what the perceptive Marxist analyst David McNally calls (in a much better book that could never become a bestseller under the existing social relations of North American book production and distribution) “the first systemic crisis of the neoliberal stage of capitalism.” [2] The crisis  – far from over beneath comforting media and political blather about “recovery”[3]– has significantly damaged the credibility of mainstream neoliberal economic theory, allowing books with titles like The Myth of the Rational Market to receive considerable and positive attention in places like the Washington Post, Financial Times, and even The Economist. 4


Political Economy

Beneath Chang’s exercise lay a simple but important idea: “all economic choices are also political ones and it’s time for us to be honest about them.”  Yes. We have a political economy, even when the masters of that economy and economic “science” claim to act and think in purely objective accord with technically neutral, strictly economic requirements.  This is a reasonably refreshing thing to hear in a time when the leading mainstream economists and the many policymakers they influence and apologize for routinely proclaim that their supposedly non-ideological and apolitical understanding of economic reality requires public decisions that just happen to dangerously concentrate wealth and power into ever fewer hands and to spread poverty and inequality within, across, and between nations.

Contrary to the anti-planning claims and biases of “free market” doctrine, Chang also usefully reminds us that “capitalist economies are in large part planned by capitalist governments and by “large hierarchical corporations that plan their activities in great detail.”  As Chang observes, “the question is not to plan or not.  It is about planning the right thing at the right levels” (p. 200)…It is [about] appropriate levels and forms of planning for different activities” (209). Neoliberal economics, sold as purely economic market rationality, is in fact political intervention and directed activity on behalf of the rich and powerful.


Ha-Joon Chang to Neoliberal Wisdom: WRONG

That regressive model of planning (sold as anti-planning) thrives on belief in, and the dissemination of a number of ideas that Chang shows (in the 23 chapters that match his title and provide the major substance of his book) to be woefully wrongheaded:

* Government must never interfere with “the free market.” (Chang says WRONG: modern economies would collapse without numerous forms of government intervention. Smart capitalists know very well that “there is no such thing as a free market.”)

* Companies should always be run in the interests of their owners/shareholders (WRONG: shareholders often damage the long-term prospects of companies by over-emphasizing short-term profit.)

* Economic health req

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