Santa Fe economist Samuel Bowles says you better get used to it
By Corey Pein
Consider these two numbers. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.
The first number is 3,500.
The second is 32.
The first is how many jobs Santa Fe County lost in 2009, according to
the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
The second number is how many jobs the state Economic Development
Department claims to have created in Santa Fe last year.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that something is wrong with this equation.
But Samuel Bowles is a genius—or, at least, a certified smart person.
Bowles heads the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe
Institute, which is home to dozens of big brains imported from all
over the world. If he’s right, those troubling job numbers are only
the start of New Mexico’s problems.
Indeed, if Bowles is right, the state needs to completely rethink the
way it does economic development.
“Bowles is a very well-educated guy with a real interesting
background. He’s not of the ilk of most economists up in Santa Fe,”
Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and
Poverty, says. “His ideas are not always run-of-the-mill.”
With haves becoming have-nots at an alarming rate, now is a terrible
time for run-of-the-mill ideas.
Like most states, New Mexico’s economic policy is aimed at attracting
corporations—and the bigger the better. In his Jan. 19 State of the
State speech to the New Mexico state Legislature, Gov. Bill Richardson
promised to “oppose any tax increase that hurts our efforts to keep
the state economically competitive and create new jobs—such as
increasing personal income taxes, rolling back our capital gains tax
cuts or decreasing business tax incentives.”
He isn’t far out of step with President Barack Obama who, in his State
of the Union speech nine days later, called for the elimination of
“all capital gains taxes on small business investment” and a new “tax
incentive for all businesses, large and small, to invest in new plants
There is brainpower behind both arguments.
“Most economists would support the argument the governor has made,”
Tom Clifford, chief economist for the Legislative Finance Committee,
tells SFR. “Sam Bowles would probably disagree.”
In so many words, yes. Bowles steers clear of politics, but his
findings—gleaned from decades of poring over demographic surveys,
other economists’ research and in-person visits to places like the
slums of India—have obvious relevance to lawmakers’ debates within the
Especially when it comes to how those thousands of out-of-work New
Mexicans might regain respectable livelihoods.
As becomes evident within a few minutes in his company, Bowles is a
man in demand—at least by his SFI comrades. Institute staff, students
and fellow faculty stop him every few minutes to ask about this
upcoming meeting or that piece of data.
In the kitchen, a colleague asks about buying a textbook: Should she
get it from Amazon or download the Kindle version? Bowles quickly
rules out the Kindle because it makes the text impossible to share.
Reading between the lines, Bowles’ choice reveals the hidden symbolism
of each medium: If the paperback is Karl Marx, the Kindle is Ayn Rand.
A lifelong academic, Bowles, 70, lacks the polish and quotability of
today’s celebrity economists, such as Freakonomics author Steven
Levitt, “creative class” prophet Richard Florida or New York Times
columnist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman. However, Bowles tackles
bigger questions than the pop economists. “Its scope is cosmic,” he
says of his work at SFI.
Bowles’ most recent paper, published in the October 2009 issue of
Science, was a huge project with 25 collaborators. It examines how
wealth is transferred from parents to children in hunter-gatherer
societies versus agricultural societies.
That might seem distant from the busy unemployment offices on
Guadalupe Street. But everyone can relate to his chosen subject:
inequality. He studies the economic differences between people with
the same discipline that Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees or Stephen
Hawking studies the cosmos.
Bowles’ course was set in 1968, when he was an assistant professor at
Harvard, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to his
department looking for advice on the next stage of his social justice
“We were just elated that we could use economics, which we had so
painstakingly learned, to answer questions that Dr. King thought were
important,” Bowles tells SFR. “We were also extremely angry that we
were totally unable to answer the questions on the basis of having
gotten a PhD at Harvard.”
King’s assassination that year cut short the equality movement.
It was also the year that Bowles’ intellectual nemesis, Milton
Friedman, proposed the idea of a “natural” rate of unemployment, a
concept still employed by federal bureaucrats. Friedman, who died in
2006, was the father of a free-market school of economics at the
University of Chicago. Friedman popularized the notion that government
intervention in the economy does more harm than good. When Richardson
talks about keeping taxes low, he’s channeling the conventional
economic wisdom that evolved after Friedman.
Most economists in 1968 thought of inequality as “somebody else’s
problem,” Bowles tells SFR. “I actually was denied the right to teach
a graduate course in inequality because it was said not to be
It wasn’t always thus.
“The founders of the discipline of economics, almost to a man—and they
were only men—thought that the problem of distribution between
classes—they used the word classes—was the key to understanding why
nations grew or not,” Bowles says.
What Bowles sees as the essence of his profession—problems of wealth
distribution—the Friedmanites see as the road to hell.
In the years of easy credit, Friedmanites had the advantage. The
recession has shifted the debate in favor of thinkers like Bowles.
“In the wake of what happened in the last year, it’s much easier for
an economist to describe himself as being liberal, maybe even Social
Democratic,” Henry Farrell, a political science associate professor at
George Washington University, tells SFR. “Sam Bowles is still
unashamedly and unabashedly a radical—God bless him.”
However, Farrell says, Bowles’ radicalism kept him from finding a
Now it’s the free marketeers who have a hard time being taken
seriously. Last month, The New Yorker described defections and
“turmoil” within the Chicago School. Even former Federal Reserve
Chairman Alan Greenspan, a hero to free marketeers, admits that his
way of understanding the world was wrong.
Bowles is keenly aware that this crisis presents an opportunity. “It’s
not just that the Chicago School is on the ropes—it’s that people are
much more sympathetic to people who have less income,” Bowles says.
“That attitude—‘Hey, it could happen to me’—is something the Great
Depression taught us.”
Sympathy was forgotten in the boom times. But thanks to the hardships
of today, “it’s coming back with a vengeance,” Bowles says.
With it, the influence of what Farrell calls “the Santa Fe approach to
economics” may also be growing.
Last year, Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom became the first
woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. “She’s not a radical by any
stretch of the imagination but, in terms of the methods she uses and
the questions she’s interested in, she’s closer to Bowles than
anybody. She is probably the only Nobel Prize winner in the last 20
years to have cited Bowles extensively and to be genuinely influenced
by him,” Farrell says.
Ostrom doesn’t distance herself from that assessment. “I have great
respect for professor Samuel Bowles,” she writes in an email to SFR.
“I have worked with several of his PhDs who do simply outstanding
If Bowles has a following among people who think for a living, the
people who actually make decisions have some catching up to do.
And so here, in plain English, is the implication of Bowles’ basic
ideas: The US and New Mexico will keep falling behind until they learn
to share the wealth.
More numbers, for your consideration:
The first number is the “Gini coefficient” for New Mexico. The Gini is
an expression economists use to measure equality or inequality in a
Zero describes the ultimate level playing field, a nonexistent land in
which everyone has all the same stuff. A completely unequal society,
in which one person has sole control of literally everything, would
have a Gini of 100. New Mexico’s Gini score (45.7) reveals this state
is more unequal than most. Utah is the most egalitarian state (with a
41.3 Gini), while the District of Columbia (53.7) is the most
economically polarized, according to the most recent Census report,
The second figure, 23, is the Gini for Sweden, the world’s most
egalitarian country. Whereas most of Europe, Canada and Australia have
Ginis in the low 30s, the US has over the past several decades
developed inequalities usually found only in poor countries with
So what? Isn’t inequality merely the price of America being No. 1?
“That’s almost certainly false,” Bowles tells SFR. “Prior to about 20
years ago, most economists thought that inequality just greased the
wheels of progress. Overwhelmingly now, people who study it
empirically think that it’s sand in the wheels.”
Bowles can take some credit for that shift, but he hasn’t won the
battle. Many economists don’t study things empirically—that is, by
looking at things in the real, physical world. Instead, they stay
safely within the land of theory.
Theoryland may be the only place the “equality-efficiency trade-off”
really works. Just to prove it wrong, Bowles charts the concept on a
whiteboard at SFI.
The vertical axis is economic output. The horizontal axis is equality.
The curve shows the theoretical trade-off. “So we’re here”—point A,
high on the curve—“and we want to go to point B because we’re
egalitarian. And [the theory says] that’s kind of too bad because
we’re going to suffer the loss of income,” he says.
Bowles draws another dot inside the curve—point C—symbolically
destroying the clean, simple world represented by the model.
“Basically, it assumes that the economy is already efficiently
organized,” Bowles explains. “But most economies are at point C. They
have both more inequality and less income than they could have because
The fan club for Bowles’ reality-based approach to economics includes
Ona Porter, executive director of Community Action New Mexico. She
first encountered his work while reading the Stanford Social
Innovation Review. “It’s really my job to be paying attention to what
cutting-edge theory and practice is,” she says.
Among other projects, Community Action lobbies the New Mexico Public
Regulation Commission on behalf of low-income residents, opposing rate
increases by the Public Services Company of New Mexico. “Constantly,”
Porter says, “it’s our voice against the suits.”
Her on-the-ground experience supports a message Bowles has pushed all
these years in academia.
“Inequality,” she says, “really holds us back.”
Bowles offers a key reason why this is so. “Inequality breeds
conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources,” he says.
In short, in a very unequal society, the people at the top have to
spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and
Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor.” In a
2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an
assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an
astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow
citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.
The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work
discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from
slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa
Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.
The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it
requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with
relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of
guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.
The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains
“illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy. All of
the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more
productive with their time—perhaps starting their own businesses or
helping to reduce the US trade deficit with China.
Guard labor supports what one might call the beat-down economy.
Community Action’s Porter sees it all the time.
“We have based almost everything we have done on the idea that we
always need a part of our workforce that is marginalized—that we can
call this group into action at any time, pay them nothing and they
will do anything that needs to be done,” she says.
More discouraging, perhaps, is the statistical fact that a person born
into this workforce has little chance of rising beyond it.
Again with the numbers:
The first number is the likelihood, expressed as a percentage, that a
child born to parents whose incomes fall within the top 10 percent of
Americans will grow up to be at least as wealthy.
The second is the percentage likelihood that a person born into the
bottom 10 percent of society will stay at the bottom.
Just to drive the point home, here’s a third number: 1.3
That’s the percentage likelihood that a bottom 10 percenter will ever
make it to the top 10 percent. For 99 out of 100 people, rags never
lead to riches.
These estimates come from research by one of Bowles’ former students,
American University economist Tom Hertz, published in Unequal Chances,
a 2004 book co-edited by Bowles. To arrive at these figures, Hertz
mined the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a survey of 4,800 American
families that’s been updated each year since it began in 1968, the
year Martin Luther King inspired Bowles to study inequality.
It may not come as a shock that rich kids who grow up learning to sail
eventually buy yachts, while the offspring of burger-flippers might
hope to rise to be the night managers for whole crews of
burger-flippers. What’s troubling about this research is that poverty
tends to persist through generations, no matter how individuals try to
improve their circumstances.
So, much of what Americans tell their children is wrong. It doesn’t
really matter how long you go to school or even necessarily how hard
you work. The single most important factor to success in America is
“one’s choice of parents,” as a contributor to Unequal Chances wryly
What about natural intelligence? “The problem with IQ is that it’s
just not very important in determining who’s rich and who’s poor. And
most people don’t believe that,” Bowles says.
What about education?
“Being willing to sit in a boring classroom for 12 years, and then
sign up for four more years and then sign up for three or more years
after that—well, that’s a pretty good measure of your willingness to
essentially do what you’re told,” Bowles says.
This bodes ill for the American Dream of upward mobility. It also puts
the lie to a can-do cliché underpinning much US economic policy:
namely, that people in need should get a “hand up” rather than a “hand
The economic rationale for putting a cap on unemployment benefits and
severely restricting welfare, even for the poorest Americans, is that
people won’t look for work if the government is too generous.
If Bowles is right, however, the answer is more handouts, not less.
More importantly: handouts for whom?
The first number is the annual unemployment benefit (before taxes)
that can be claimed by an average New Mexico wage earner.
The second number is the minimum in state subsidies “green”
manufacturing company C/D² Enterprises will receive for each employee
it hires at its new plant in McKinley County. Most of the jobs will go
to Navajo tribal members.
The first number represents a modest government grant to individuals
on the condition that they keep looking for a wage-paying job.
The second represents a taxpayer-funded subsidy that virtually
guarantees the owners of C/D² will make a profit.
Gov. Richardson and Economic Development Secretary Fred Mondragón
announced the C/D² project on Jan. 21, at a press conference that did
not lack for horn-tooting.
“My notes say your pro-business attitude makes my job a little
easier,” Mondragón said to the governor. “It makes it a lot easier.”
Richardson drove the point home with a message to state lawmakers,
who—budget deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars—are weighing
higher taxes against program cuts.
The message? Don’t cut spending on incentives that attract
out-of-state corporations—“like the high-wage tax credit, like the job
training tax incentives, like the capital gains [tax cut], like the
personal income tax [cut],” Richardson said.
“These are working. They’re bringing jobs. Let’s not mess with these.”
Sure, Richardson’s policies have created some jobs. But the facts
suggest a strategy focused on attracting businesses simply cannot cope
with the recession.
In exchange for untold hundreds of thousands in tax incentives, C/D²
hopes to hire 40 employees within three years. There are 2,300
unemployed people—at least—in McKinley County.
Their benefits will eventually run out. Then what? With credit still
hard to come by, it’s unlikely they’ll start their own businesses. The
frightening prospect of ever-deepening poverty means that unemployment
is actually quite useful to corporations like C/D²: The fear creates
what Bowles calls “labor discipline.”
The Economic Development Department’s annual report provides no clear
accounting of how much the state spent to fulfill the department’s
mission of job creation. It only provides a table of results. Even by
its own yardstick, the department fell short with its key employment
effort, the Job Training Incentive Program.
Last year, the EDD report says, that program “assisted” in the
“creation” of 4,570 jobs statewide (though the definitions are fuzzy)
[News, July 22, 2009: “Incentive Dis”]. That’s well short of the
department’s 6,000-job goal.
Even if EDD had met its goal, its efforts would’ve paled next to the
25,900 existing jobs that disappeared last year across the state,
according to the Department of Workforce Solutions.
“Most of the job growth in the state is unrelated to these economic
development programs,” Legislative Finance Committee Chief Economist
Tom Clifford says. “They say, ‘Well, these jobs with this company
wouldn’t have come here without the incentive.’ That’s often
overstated, in my view.”
To be fair, JTIP does succeed in one regard: It pads corporate balance
sheets by an average of $10.5 million a year, by shifting the cost of
workers’ wages from employers to taxpayers.
If Bowles has the history of wealth figured out all the way back to
the Stone Age, shouldn’t he have some practical advice?
Indeed he does. Here, one number will suffice.
OK, that’s a figure Bowles picked out of the air. It’s how much each
person might receive under a key economic reform he supports:
It could also be called direct government investment in everyone.
After all, taxpayers already invest in strangers’ children through the
public schools before turning them loose with nothing.
“Suppose instead what we did is this: We said, ‘Look, when somebody
turns 18, he gets a quarter of a million dollars and, after that,
you’re on your own,’” Bowles says. “Once you’ve got your
quarter-million, you’ve got to make a decision: ‘Should I go to
college or do I want to start a business?’—which you could do with a
quarter of a million.”
This is a variant of an old idea, more recently popularized—at least
in Europe—by the Belgian economist Philippe Van Parijs. Under his
“basic income grant” proposal, the government would redistribute
wealth so that everyone has enough to live.
“They just get a check. And they get it no matter what—Rockefeller,
the poorest person in America, everybody gets it,” Bowles says.
“There’s nothing you can do to get more; there’s nothing you can do to
Such a system eliminates the disincentives to work in the current
social safety net. “The problem with the welfare system is that as
soon as you get a job, they start taking your money,” Bowles says.
“This basically says, ‘You’ve got this nest egg and, if you go out and
get a job, you keep the whole thing—except for whatever taxes you
Can you hear the Friedmanites groaning? “It sounds very radical,”
Bowles says, “but it’s very consistent with economic ideas.”
It makes as least as much sense as giving hundreds of billions of
dollars to Wall Street’s largest banks—some of which helped cause the
recession—so that the banks can lend it back to taxpayers at
outrageous interest rates.
Bowles’ suggestions—radical yet oddly conservative—also mesh well with
his general approach to economics. The SFI professor isn’t as easy to
pigeonhole or dismiss as other lefties who believe the assumptions of
mainstream economics—for instance, that people behave rationally—are
“Sam Bowles is somebody who straddles the boundary. He maintains the
idea that there should be radical redistribution—that the current
system is a terrible system in a variety of ways—but he’s also
somebody who believes the methodological tools of economics have some
real value,” GWU’s Farrell says. “I think what he’s doing is very
smart. And it actually has some promise for a future, coherent
There’s also promise in some Bowlesian projects that are already underway.
For instance, in the past few years, Community Action New Mexico has
helped approximately 800 New Mexicans set up “individual development
accounts”—basically savings accounts on steroids. After completing a
financial-ed class, IDA holders eventually have their savings matched
4-to-1, giving them a start toward buying a home, paying tuition or
starting a business.
Community Action’s Porter calls it economic development “that works
for the individual as well.” The IDAs, she says, have led to 93 new
businesses and 67 home purchases, and have sent 110 people to college.
The state’s investment so far has totaled approximately $2,500 per
IDA. If you divide New Mexico’s contribution by the number of jobs
created by homegrown, IDA-supported businesses, Community Action’s
approach is approximately $10,000 cheaper per job than the corporate
subsidies Richardson supports.
The IDAs aren’t ideal. Not everyone qualifies. And what if somebody
starts a business that fails, buys a home that falls in value or
decides to study a vanishing trade (say, journalism)?
This is where Bowles has yet to be heard.
Liberals tend to think of inequality as a matter of class and race—and
that’s true, he says. But individual success hinges on a big X factor:
“There’s a lot of luck involved,” Bowles says.
No politician’s promise can remove that element of unpredictability.
Which means the smart policy, in Bowles’ view, is for the government
to care for people who suffer misfortune through no fault of their
own. This is social security in the small “s” sense—an idea that was
forgotten when the dominant Chicago School put thinkers like Bowles in
“The whole idea of social security,” Bowles says, “is to insure the
unlucky by having the lucky pay a little extra.”
Three more numbers, none of them lucky:
The first is how many years have passed since Bowles was inspired by
King to “put his heart and his head together” and study economic
The second is the Gini measure of inequality for the US back then, a
level comparable to other wealthy nations like Japan or Israel today.
The third is the most recent US Gini, as calculated by the Census
Bureau. It’s at a level comparable to the Philippines, a former colony
of islands where every other person lives on less than $2 a day, or
Rwanda, an even poorer country in Central Africa that was home to a
genocide 16 years ago—a country whose name is often synonymous with