In Democracy and Prosperity, Iversen and Soskice contrast the emerging knowledge economy with the system that preceded it in the mid-20th century.
The “Fordist” political economy
What many economists call the “Fordist” system was dominated by giant manufacturing corporations such as the Ford Motor Company. They performed a range of functions from “production to logistics and sales and marketing,” and usually had a very hierarchical structure of decision-making.
Assembly-line technology featured “strong complementarities in production between skilled and semiskilled workers. The companies needed large numbers of both, and either of them could obstruct production if they were well organized but dissatisfied. By the 1970s, unionization was at a peak in the advanced capitalist democracies, and so was “wage coordination,” the cooperation of large numbers of workers and companies in setting wages and working conditions.
Economic inequality declined during this period, as even workers with limited educations could quickly acquire the skills needed for many industrial jobs. Poverty declined, even for segregated racial and ethnic groups. “The Fordist economy was…by and large a force of integration and equalization of incomes across industries, skill groups, and geographic space.” The most advanced companies were concentrated in big cities, but peripheral areas often supplied them with materials or components for their products.
National governments helped organize and maintain the system. They supported the collective bargaining rights of labor. They provided a safety net of unemployment and retirement benefits, which gave workers a source of security in addition to short-term wage demands. They invested in public goods like infrastructure and education. They often engaged in Keynesian economic policies, using government spending to stimulate the economy and maintain low unemployment. It was a period of rapid economic growth and relative harmony among business, labor and government.
The knowledge economy
Much of this has changed since around 1980. Information and communication technologies have not affected all jobs equally, but have most easily substituted for routine semiskilled tasks. In some ways, this is a blessing, as such work was often deadly dull and uncreative. But, “As less-skilled workers became increasingly segregated into a growing tier of low-productivity service sector occupations–especially in low-end personal and social services–the complementarities between high- and low-skilled workers unraveled.” Inequality generally increased in advanced capitalist democracies, although with important variations to be discussed later.
New technologies can put a lot of computational power into the hands of individual workers, if they have the analytic skills to use it. In organizations of knowledge workers, decision-making becomes less vertical (hierarchical) and more horizontal (network-based), and relational skills also become more important. Knowledge workers benefit by participating in skill clusters, in which they can play specialized roles, and yet find other work within the cluster when and if a particular role is no longer needed.
These skill clusters are also embedded in larger social networks in which educated workers participate. “Big-city agglomerations” of knowledge are the “dynamic drivers” of the knowledge economy. They are usually places that already had a range of professional services and a strong university or two. Fordist-era cities whose prosperity rested on a single manufacturing industry, such as steel, have had trouble adapting, and many smaller cities have been left behind altogether. (Rapid transit between thriving cities and peripheral areas would help, but people who are already doing fine in the city may not have much incentive to support it with their tax dollars.)
The fact that education, urbanization and high incomes tend to go together increases the inequality among both households and places. Educated people live and work with other educated people, and also socialize with them and marry them, often forming affluent, two-income households. By clustering together, affluent households drive up the cost of good schools and housing in the successful cities, creating barriers to entry for the less educated.
The dynamic cities in the advanced economies of America, Europe and Asia compete with one another to attract capital and market their innovations. “Multinationals play a central role in tapping into multiple skill clusters and tying together complementarities of knowledge. The result is a major increase in multinational investment, trade and competition.
The “embedded knowledge”-based political economy
A central point of Iversen and Soskice’s argument is that knowledge within the knowledge economy is geographically embedded in innovative urban centers within the advanced democratic countries. That gives governments some power over activities that cannot easily be moved from where they are. It also gives them an incentive to support the knowledge sectors of their economies, for the good of the nations where they reside.
The availability of information and communication technologies does not automatically transform an economy. The authors believe that the Soviet Union collapsed partly because it resisted the decentralizing power implied by the new technologies. “It was felt necessary to maintain prohibitions on personal computers until the late 1980s.” The lesson to be drawn: “Without politically initiated reforms economies stagnate, even when they possess the necessary technologies and know-how.”
Beginning in the 1980s, advanced capitalist democracies made a number of “strategic choices” to promote the growth of their knowledge sectors. “Knowledge economies have been enabled by a different political economic framework from that which supported Fordism. We describe this framework as “embedded knowledge-based liberalism.” (In Britain and the United States, many of the leaders in this effort–Thatcher, Reagan–are known as conservatives, but they were working to liberate economic activity from what they saw as outdated restrictions. In that way, they were acting in the tradition of classical liberalism.)
Governments generally worked to reduce barriers to competition, free trade and international flows of capital. The authors measure this with an index of regulation covering eighteen regulatory domains, including such matters as trade barriers, differential treatment of foreign suppliers, and administrative burdens on creating new enterprises. The U.S. and Britain led the way toward competitiveness and away from protectionism, and the rest of Europe followed.
Governments also worked to transform the financial and insurance sectors, so that they went beyond their traditional financial products to provide more complex and customized services for knowledge workers and enterprises. Greater access to credit was important for new businesses, but also for workers following more complicated careers, with many changes in jobs, periods of schooling, and shifts in work/family arrangements.
Governments shifted their macroeconomic priorities from fighting unemployment to fighting inflation. One reason for this was the decline of unions and large-scale wage coordination, which had provided a degree of predictability and moderation to wage demands. A tight monetary policy was a more centralized way of curbing wage-price spirals. Another reason was to stabilize the exchange rates among national currencies for purposes of global trade and investment. Other countries would not be eager to invest in America if they couldn’t count on receiving their returns in dollars with a stable value.
And of course, governments continued to work for an educated workforce, again with important variations to be discussed later. Over the past twenty-five years, attainment of higher education has more than doubled in the ACDs.
Such policies have been most responsive to the needs of knowledge industries and knowledge workers, but less so to the needs of less-educated workers displaced or threatened by new technologies. “Unlike the Fordist economy, there is nothing that binds together the interest of the main social classes. A majority gains, and a small minority gains a great deal, but a large minority loses.” Whether that continues to be the case is an important question for the future.