Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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You know the story: Xi and his San tribe are “living well off the land.” They are happy because of their belief that the gods have provided plenty of everything, and no one among them has any wants. One day, a Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane and falls to Earth unbroken. But the bottle eventually causes unhappiness within the tribe, leading the elders to believe it’s an “evil thing” which the gods were “absent-minded” to send them. Xi then travels to  the edge of the world and throws the bottle off the cliff. He then returns to his tribe and receives a warm welcome from his family.

I wonder if Paul Krugman expects to receive a warm welcome from the economics family after throwing the prediction bottle over the cliff.

Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.

I actually agree with Krugman on this point. Economic prediction is, in fact, impossible and the really crazy feature of mainstream economic models is the fact that endogenous crises simply can’t occur. Exogenous factors, sure, but nothing internal to the models can lead to a crash. Their idealized vision of capitalism, absent an external event (such as a credit crunch or an increase in the price of oil), simply leads to a full-employment, price-stable equilibrium.

But, wait, doesn’t the entire edifice fall when—on its own terms—the ability to correct predict is dispensed with? The whole rationale of giving up realistic assumptions about the economic system has been the ability to accurately and correctly predict the movements of the economy. That’s the mantle of predictive science that has been used, since at least the mid-1950s, to expunge all other economic theories and approaches from the discipline.

Mainstream economists can’t have it both ways: to celebrate their models for their predictive ability and then to dispense with prediction when, as in 2007-08 (just as in 1929), their models clearly failed. We need something better.

As for their track record since the crisis broke out, well, they haven’t fared much better—at least to judge by where we stand right now. Krugman, for his part, wants to stick with the hydraulic mechanisms of the textbook economic models, which “did a pretty good job of predicting how things would play out in the aftermath,” and declare that “too many influential” economists must be crazy.

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10494557_10152674250669060_2797219256561015093_n Martin Rowson 07.09.14

 

Here’s a second video with Antonio Callari (the first is here)—this one on Marx’s intervention into the arena of philosophy and the idea of freedom as the basis of a Marxian project of transforming the world.

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Like Jonathan Chait [ht: sm], I haven’t yet had the chance to work my way through the new book by Edward BaptistThe Half Has Never Been Told. Still, in reading about slavery over the years, from Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery to Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy, it doesn’t surprise me that a scholarly work on the topic of American slavery would reveal that “the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States,” that the violence of slavery made it possible for the United States to become “a wealthy nation with global influence,” and that a combination of “survival and resistance. . .brought about slavery’s end.”

But apparently that argument was too much for the Economist (which, in recent decades, has become a British-edited business magazine for mostly American readers), which first published and then retracted its review of Baptist’s book.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

 

Update

For a different angle on the nexus between slavery and capitalism in the United States, one that focuses not just on how the slave plantation produced commodities that fueled the broader national economy but also how it generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management, see the piece by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman:

As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.

The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law.

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The answer, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, is: you can’t handle institutions!

Certainly not Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson [pdf]—and not, for that matter, Branko Milanovic. They simply can’t handle the institutions Marx refers to and analyzes throughout his oeuvre.

Milanovic discusses many of the problems in Acemoglu and Robinson’s treatment of Piketty’s book I noticed when I read their critique: dismissing the role institutions play in Piketty’s analysis (although, to be honest, I would have preferred to see less on elite educational institutions and more on the institutions that are the sources of the income and wealth of the 1 percent), the facile equation of Piketty and Marx (and thus, in their mind, guilt by association), the failure to understand what it means that labor income plays a role in driving the inequality of the 1 vs 99 percent (do we really want to treat the salaries of the 1 percent in the same way as we do the labor incomes of the other 99 percent?), and so on. And, of course, there’s Milanovic’s quite-accurate dismissal of Acemoglu and Robinson’s own attempt to conduct an institutional analysis of Sweden and South Africa:

I do not discuss Acemoglu-Robinson  analysis of South Africa vs. Sweden increase in inequality because I really fail to see a great virtue in it. As I unfortunately have to confess, I often find reading Acemoglu-Robinson descriptions of political changes quite superficial: they read like Wikipedia entries with regressions. I had the same feeling here too.

But let me take issue with one of Acemoglu and Robinson’s assertions, with which Milanovic agrees: that there’s no institutional analysis of capitalism in Marx’s texts.

Acemoglu and Robinson do admit that Marx allowed for “feedback from politics and other aspects of society to the forces of production” in the Eighteenth Brumaire but that’s it. They can’t seem to find any other institutional analysis worth its name in the rest of Marx’s oeuvre—nor do they even bother to mention Engels (ever hear of The Condition of the Working Class in England, The Peasant War in Germany, or The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State?) or the work of generations of Marxian scholars (on a wide variety of local, national, and international institutions).

But let’s stick with Marx for the time being. Do they want institutions? Admittedly, they won’t find much in the 1844 Manuscripts or the German Ideology. But they might take a look at Marx’s journalism (with Engels, for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, or Marx alone in the New York Daily Tribune). Or beyond the journalism: The Civil War In France and The Paris Commune. And the list could go on.

But maybe Acemoglu and Robinson and Milanovic are just confining themselves to volume 1 of Capital. Surely, they’ve read the institutional detail in Marx’s discussion of such topics as The Working-Day, National Differences of Wages, the Industrial Reserve Army, and, of course, the entire section on the so-called Primitive Accumulation of Capital, in which Marx analyzes the institutional detail surrounding the Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land, the Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing down of Wages by Acts of Parliament, the Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer, the Reaction of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. Creation of the Home-Market for Industrial Capital, the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, the Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation, and The Modern Theory of Colonisation.

They want institutions? Then try this vivid summary (from Chapter 31) of the institutions that gave rise to capitalism:

Tantae molis erat, to establish the “eternal laws of Nature” of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between labourers and conditions of labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage labourers, into “free labouring poor,” that artificial product of modern society. If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

Acemoglu and Robinson and Milanovic (not to mention Piketty) can’t, it seems, handle that kind of institutional analysis.

Heinrich Kley, "Sabotage" (Betriebsstorung)

Heinrich Kley, “Sabotage” (Betriebsstorung)

I have long argued (e.g., here and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the top 1 percent in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and full employment.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of full employment appears to be falling prey to the prospect of secular stagnation.

That’s the worry expressed in a new ebook edited by Richard Baldwin and Coen Teulings published by Vox. While secular stagnation can be defined in different ways, the basic idea is that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global crises of 2007-08. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by great inequality and financial stability.

If it becomes a reality, secular stagnation represents the end of the pact with the devil. It’s going to be impossible to keep any of the promises—just deserts, economic stability, and full employment—that have maintained capitalism’s legitimacy.

I don’t know if the members of the 1 percent are aware of or concerned about the extent to which secular stagnation may be their undoing (because, in fact, they may hold out the hope that more austerity can successfully be imposed to keep pumping out the surplus). But, to judge from many of the contributions to the Vox volume, the prospect of secular stagnation certainly appears to be worrying mainstream macroeconomists.

Why? Because their own promise was to analyze the uneven and shifting patterns of the macroeconomy and to devise the appropriate set of monetary and fiscal policies to ensure the continuation of the pact with the devil. However, secular stagnation—including the idea that the real rate of interest would have to be negative to maintain an equilibrium of savings and investment—calls into question the efficacy of the kinds of macroeconomic policies that have long held sway among mainstream macroeconomists. Now, they’re not sure they’ll be able to maintain the promise of creating a just distribution of income, avoiding financial instability, and creating enough jobs to ensure every able-bodied person who wants a decent, well-paying job can have one.

Actually, as we’ve seen, they haven’t been able to fulfill that promise for the past 7 years. And now, the threat of secular stagnation means they won’t able to do it anytime in the near future.

There just may not be a happy Disney ending to this one. . .