Posts Tagged ‘economics’



This, according to the Obama administration, is what “a broad array of ideological views” [ht: br] looks like:

  • Paul Krugman (Princeton University), Alan Blinder (Princeton University), Claudia Goldin (Harvard University), Anat Admati (Stanford University), Erik Brynjolfsson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Roland Fryer (Harvard University), who were among the economists invited to have lunch with President Obama on 18 June; and
  • Martin Feldstein (Harvard University), Robert Hall (Stanford University), Ben Bernanke (former Federal Reserve Chairman), Edward Glaesar (Harvard University), Luigi Zingales (University of Chicago), Kevin Hassett (American Enterprise Institute), and Melissa Kearney (the Hamilton Project), who were invited for lunch yesterday.

Apparently, that’s what we’ve come to in this country, when “consulting a wide variety of perspectives” is in fact limited to a discussion within a narrow range, from the extreme right to mainstream liberalism. No one who actually offered a real sense of the impending crisis before 2007-08. Nor anyone who is critical of capitalism and is seriously thinking about alternative economic institutions.

The problem is not just that Obama is only listening to a narrow set of views. The list of invitees to the two gatherings also serves as an official stamp of approval—that these economists’ views are worth listening to, and all other approaches to economic analysis can be safely marginalized.


Off today to give a talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, to be held at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

I plan to start my multimedia presentation on how “culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life” with the original 1928 version of Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.


After learning that Joseph Stiglitz had been invited to give a lecture on inequality at the University of Oxford, I asked my friend Stephen Whitefield, Professor of Politics, University Lecturer in Politics, and Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, to offer his sense of Stiglitz’s lecture. I am pleased to publish his comments here.

It was a huge pleasure for me and my college (Pembroke) and my Department (Politics and International Relations), with the support of the UK Fulbright Commission, to welcome Joseph Stiglitz back to the University of Oxford to deliver the 4th Annual Fulbright Distinguished Lecture. Stiglitz had been Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford in the 1970s. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize for his work that shows, as I understand it, that when markets don’t function with perfect information—that is to say, almost always–then there is also always room for government intervention to improve welfare outcomes. That was a huge turn in the debate, even if many mainstream economists and their political allies/masters have yet to catch up.

Stiglitz was in Oxford to talk about “The Causes and Consequences of Inequality and What Can Be Done About It,” which topic marks another great turn in the debate about what kind of political economy we want, from thinking that inequality is irrelevant, since all boats are rising, to thinking that inequality matters, because it makes just about everything worse, at least when it is at very high levels. Stiglitz was of course also central to shifting the current of academic opinion on this topic. And he demonstrated in a brilliant talk—which everyone can link to here (as a podcast or video)—that he is not averse to turning that scholarship into powerful and persuasive accessible language. I have also to add that Stiglitz is a great person to talk to. As Ngaire Woods, his old friend, said in her introduction to his lecture, Stiglitz listens to people.

So, I know he will not be at all put out if he reads me to say that, while his dissection of the causes and consequences of inequality was outstanding, his discussion of what can be done about them was rather light. I told him that myself at dinner afterwards, as did others. I am sure that a lot of that would have been sorted out if he had had more time to talk. After all, he is not at all short of policy prescriptions, as are others like Thomas Piketty, who advocates a global wealth tax. But the problem is not that there is a lack of policies to put forward. In my view, the main problem is with the lack of a clear vision about how to build the political alliances that are necessary to enact those prescriptions. Maybe Stiglitz is right that things look better in places like Brazil and that we can learn things from its experience. Becoming Swedish, however, even if we thought that an attractive proposition—and I still have Per Wahloo in mind when thinking about Swedish Social-Democracy—is just not an option. So, how do we create a winning coalition against inequality that looks plausible and appropriate to our national conditions?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now. But here is a gesture in that direction. First, an irony—that he gave this talk in Oxford where we are of course constantly seeking the support of the 0.01-percenters, including to fund a chair to commemorate Senator Fulbright in my college and department. There were a number of such people in the lecture theatre. But note next something we all know (or strongly believe since Wilkinson and Pickett), that in highly unequal societies even the richest 1 percent appear to have worse health outcomes compared to their counterparts in more equal societies. Stiglitz did not offer a very convincing explanation as to why this is the case. He put it down to stress, which is possible but not very plausible on the face of it. Susan Kelly, who is a medical sociologist at the University of Exeter, puts a more likely hypothesis to my mind: over-treatment. There is apparently a negative correlation at the top end between numbers of physicians and health outcomes. But, who knows? A good question to research. . .

But, to return to my point about the political coalition to implement a reduction in levels of inequality, what we need to know is this: who are the political actors interested in doing this? This was not addressed in any explicit way by Stiglitz, and it seems to me a characteristic of even progressive policies presented by scholars that the questions of who will implement them and in whose political interests they are enacted are seldom on the table. There is talk—just—in analyses of inequality of class but not much about class interests or class actors. Now, there was an implicit answer in Stiglitz’s talk. Perhaps it is the enlightened rich who will use their massive power to reduce inequality, because they will come to see that it is harmful to their interests. Maybe. I have my doubts. Certainly I would not expect inequality to come down to the levels that I would find economically, socially, or politically appropriate if those were the political forces driving it.

But if not the rich, then who? By the admission of all involved in the analysis of inequality, the period from around 1930 to 1980 was one of declining inequality and of course in the post-WWII period of rapid economic growth as well. A time also, not coincidentally, of strong organised trade unions and a mobilised working class. All that is recognised. Less so is the counterpart in international relations, the existence of the Soviet Union and then the Communist bloc and the international communist movement, which presented an alternative to capitalism that many working-class people found attractive and the rich found terrifying enough to make significant concessions. I suspect it takes a stick as well as a carrot to make the rich see their self-interest differently.

Almost all of that historical moment is gone now, and not all for the bad. As a student of the Soviet system, I only lament it when thinking about the appalling kleptocracy that emerged from its womb, to use Marx’s kind of metaphor—a kleptocracy that aspired to be as rich as our own oligarchs. But we should remember that the creation of unions and left movements was the work of generations of intellectuals—I mean that in the broadest Gramscian terms—to create not just policies but first and foremost social and political actors. Perhaps that is what we now need to concentrate on imagining, not to mention doing.


As if to illustrate the point I made the other day (about earnings at the top being themselves distributions of the income captured by capital), Seth Ackerman put together the chart above (from data in Simon Mohun’s recently published article on unproductive labor) comparing the sum of profits and managerial compensation to non-managerial compensation, both as shares of total net income.

Indeed, in a direct rebuttal of the neoclassical marginal-productivity theory of distribution, capital’s share of income has been growing at the expense of labor’s share since the late-1970s.


The storm unleashed by Chris Giles’s takedown (follow the links) of Thomas Piketty for the Financial Times (with responses now by Piketty himself, Neil Irwin, Simon Wren-Lewis, Steven Pressman, and others) reminds me of two stories.

First, there’s the story of a seminar by Hollis Chenery, one of the pioneers of economy-wide development planning models, at Yale University in the early 1970s. One of the participants in the seminar, who later was one of my professors in graduate school, offered Chenery a large sum of money to put together the appropriate matrix of data—and then an even larger sum of money not to invert the matrix. The point: there are so many mistakes, assumptions, and elements of pure guesswork involved in compiling any set of economic data, it is a fundamental mistake to presume the correct economic policy or strategy can be devised—and then offered as objective and accurate “expert” advice—by simply running the model.

Second, a friend in graduate school, who already had a Ph.D. in mathematics, took it upon himself to work through the mathematics presented in the tenth edition of Paul Samuelson’s famous Foundations of Economic Analysis. He told me he was amazed to find more than one hundred mistakes in the book, even after so many editions. The point of this example: lots of errors are made—and then repeated by authors and overlooked by readers—even in the most famous writings of economists. And the errors committed in Samuelons’ Foundations certainly didn’t stop the mathematization of mainstream economics in the postwar period.

As for Piketty, my view is, first, we need to give him credit for making all of his data, mistakes and all, freely available on-line. Second, even if in one or another country, during one or another period of time, the distribution of wealth has not become more unequal, the fact remains that the distribution of wealth is and remains profoundly and grotesquely unequal. Even Giles can’t dispute that point. And finally, I can only imagine what the reaction would be if Piketty had actually collected data not on wealth, but on capital in the twenty-first century, and had attempted to calculate changes in the rate of exploitation over time.


It’s clear we are in the midst of an acute period of inequality: not only of grotesque levels of economic inequality (which are now well documented) but also of a wide-ranging discussion of the conditions and consequences of that extreme inequality (which appears to be taking off).

There are, of course, the deniers, like my dear friend Deirdre McCloskey. What inequality, is her mantra. The only thing that matters is economic growth, such that the amount of stuff people have today is much more than they’ve had throughout much of human history. OK, but that doesn’t tell us much about how that growth took place (it’s the surplus, Deirdre) or what it’s consequences are (on the majority who actually produce the surplus versus the tiny minority who appropriate it).

And then there are those who are actually thinking seriously about inequality, some of whose work is published in the latest issue of Science (a lot of which, unfortunately, is behind a paywall). Leave aside the silly article on econophysics (really, the existing distribution of income is a kind of “natural inequality,” which is what you would get from entropy?), the article that focuses on the psychological pathologies of the poor (what about those of the rich?), and the fact that all the economics is narrowly confined to mainstream theories (which have done more to deflect attention from, as against the wide range of heterodox theories that have actually focused on, inequality over the course of the past three decades). Just the fact that a special issue of such a prestigious journal is devoted to the problem of inequality tells us something about how it has risen to the top of our agenda.

And it offers lots here to think about: the types of inequality that can be found in the archeological record (Heather Pringle), the absence of fundamental inequalities in hunter-gatherer societies (Elizabeth Pennisi), the devastating effects of inequality on health (Emily Underwood), growing inequality in developing countries (Mara Hvistendahl and Martin Ravallion), the intergenerational transmission of inequality via unequal maternal circumstances and health at birth (Anna Aizer and Janet Currie), and finally a dire warning about what will happen if current inequalities continue to grow (Angus Deaton):

The distribution of wealth is more unequal than the distribution of income, and very high incomes will eventually pupate into very large fortunes, ultimately leading to a hereditary dystopia of idle rich.

The pair of articles by economists—one by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the other by David Autor—tells us a great deal about how the issue of inequality is being framed within mainstream economics (since, as I wrote above, all the various types of nonmainstream economics are simply ignored in the issue). For Piketty and Saez, it’s all about the inequality (both income and wealth) that separates the top 1 percent (and, within that, the top .1 percent and .01 percent) from everyone else, while Autor’s piece focuses on the inequality of earnings within the bottom 99 percent. The debate comes down to seeing inequality as a result of high CEO incomes and returns on accumulated wealth (especially when the rate of return on wealth is greater than the overall growth rate, leading to more concentration of wealth) versus the inequality that derives from earnings based on different levels and kinds of skill (presuming that earnings are equal to marginal productivities). In other words, it’s a (mostly) classical approach—which focuses on scarce wealth concentrated in the hands of the already richversus a (thoroughly) neoclassical approach—according to which scarce skills attract higher earnings. The solution from the classical perspective is a global tax on wealth; from the neoclassical viewpoint, all we need is an increase in education and skills for those at the bottom.

Here’s what I find interesting about the debate, not only between the economists but throughout the entire special issue: it’s all about economic inequality—what it is (absolute or relative), how it can be measured (within and across nations, and over time), what its causes and consequences are (including not only the health of individuals but also of society as a whole), and so on—but there’s not a single mention of class.

Not literally. The word class doesn’t appear in any of the articles or reviews. But class is the specter that, in my view, haunts this entire debate. We saw it back in the First Great Depression. And now we’re seeing it rear its ugly head once again, in the midst of the Second Great Depression. We didn’t solve it then. Perhaps, now, we’re ready to tackle it.

And, if we don’t, we’ll be faced with even more inequality all the time.



As if on cue, the latest issue of the American Spectator focuses on what they consider to be the “new class warfare”—using as a threat the universal symbol of “off with their heads.”

For which Gavin Mueller offers the only appropriate response:

Remember this: no matter how many country clubbers flip through Piketty’s book, at bottom, the rich hate usThey disdain usThey mock us. And they fear us, even though the current balance of forces favors them overwhelmingly and sometimes “common ruin of the contending classes” seems like an optimistic outcome.

Yet I have to fall back on some advice I got as a kid: If the American Spectator wants to cry about class warfare, we should give them something to cry about.


Benjamin Wallace-Wells [ht: sm] argues that the broad interest in Thomas Piketty’s book (along with the attention to Nate Silver’s data) is a sign that we’re now speaking the language of economics.

What is up isn’t a mystery. It makes perfect sense to be seeking economic explanations in the years just after the economy has imploded, and while the presidency is preoccupied with trying to fix it. I suspect there’s something else contributing, too — a desire for an objective, numerate authority when elites and their subjective authority are so broadly distrusted.

I suspect that’s true, which is one of the reasons I’ve tried to convince my colleagues that what we should be teaching is critical economic literacy—an ability to understand how economic theories work, and how dependent the conclusions economists arrive at are on the assumptions and concepts of the different economic theories they use.

Wallace-Wells appears to be concerned that economics language is squeezing out other languages and ways of viewing the world. My concern is a bit different: it’s that the hegemony of one economic language serves to marginalize other economic languages. Because that’s the point: there is not a single language of economics, but rather multiple languages. And when the language of mainstream economics is predominant, the ways of looking at and intervening to change the world are confined to a small box. Inequality, for example, becomes narrowly understood in terms of the incomes received by individuals and varying percentiles of the population, while proposals to solve the problem of inequality focus on ways individuals at the bottom can improve their chances and/or how some of the income can be redistributed from the top toward the bottom. But the basic economic structure is never in question—either in terms of how it continues to generate such grotesque levels of inequality or how it might be changed to effect more equal outcomes.

And that’s because the language of mainstream economics has come to dominate our discussions of inequality and much else. So, if Wallace-Wells is right and “the work of one department, economics, is always on the front pages,” then at least let’s make it clear that economists—both academic and everyday—speak in multiple languages. And learning to speak in languages other than that of mainstream economics may just allow us to break through the “curious kind of hesitancy and conditionality on the rest of intellectual culture.”


And, I almost forgot: Yahya M. Madra and Fikret Adaman have published a very useful piece in the current issue of Antipode (behind paywall) in which they argue the economization of the social in the language of neoliberal economic theory (in its different Austrian, Chicago, and post-Walrasian versions) lead to its depoliticization—by cultivating individual “opportunism” as the only sound basis for policy. In my view, what Madra and Adaman demonstrate is that the mainstream language of economics (even when, and perhaps precisely because, it admits of variations in how that language is deployed) reduces the scope for both understanding and doing something about the economic problems that plague us today.


There’s probably a story here but, for the life of me, I don’t know what it is.

A nude portrait of University of Cambridge economics fellow Victoria Bateman [ht: ja] has gone on display in London’s Mall Galleries as part of an exhibition by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Commissioned by Bateman in celebration of her own birthday, the portrait was painted by Anthony Connolly.

Best I can tell, Bateman is an unremarkable economist (with an econometric paper [pdf] on grain prices in early modern Europe and a book, Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe, on a related topic). And her own comments on the portrait are not particularly insightful (in terms of either the aesthetics of the painting itself or the context for exhibiting the portrait). But kudos to her for citing the work of Dobb, Hobsbawm, Brenner, and Wallerstein in her paper (since they’re rarely cited in mainstream economic history), and for having the courage to present her portrait to the public (how many academics, let alone academic economists, would have the nerve?).

As for myself, while there aren’t a lot of mainstream economists I’d like to see in the nude (whether represented in painting, photography, or some other artistic medium), I do think that, after the crises of 2007-08 and in the midst of the Second Great Depression, the lot of them should be disrobed and hung in a gallery.

The rogues gallery.


Gary Becker’s recent death has provoked widespread praise (for example, from Peter Lewin through Justin Wolfers to Amita Etzioni) for his role in initially creating and then extending “economics imperialism.”

The basic idea (as presented on Wikipedia, by Edward P. Lazear [pdf], and in this interview with Becker himself) is that economics imperialism refers to an “economic analysis of seemingly non-economic aspects of life,” such as crime, law, the family, racial discrimination, tastes, religion, and war.*

Actually, that’s wrong. Economics imperialism is not the economic analysis of supposedly noneconomic behaviors and institutions; it’s the extension of neoclassical economics to those domains. Economics imperialism is, in this sense, the highest stage of neoclassical economics.

There are lots of different ways of making sense of the economic dimensions of our individual and social lives. What Becker and his followers set out to do was to analyze various aspects of individual decisionmaking and social institutions through the lens of neoclassical theory. This has meant reducing those decisions and institutions to individual, rational, self-interested calculations of costs and benefits, under conditions of scarcity, such as to arrive at efficient, equilibrium solutions.

The imperialist extension of neoclassical theory to supposedly noneconomic phenomena was predicated on the formation of a neoclassical monopoly within the discipline of economics. Once that monopoly over teaching, research, publications, and funding was achieved within the traditional domain of the discipline in the postwar period, it became possible to branch out and colonize the rest of the space of social theory. (I should note that the monopoly of neoclassical theory within the discipline was never complete, and has been contested throughout the postwar period.) That’s what economics imperialism was all about: to attempt to create a theoretical monopoly across the social sciences by exporting the methods of neoclassical economics to other domains. This is what made it different from the previous period, when it was the conclusions of neoclassical economics that were exported to other disciplines; now, it was the method that was being exported.

The result, of course, was not to unify social theory across the disciplines but to create new divisions within the disciplines. It’s no longer a battle between, say, economists and sociologists but, instead, between neoclassical economists and sociologists, on one hand, and non-neoclassical economists and sociologists, on the other. Much the same is true in political science, anthropology, psychology, and so on. And it’s not just a battle over the use of some of the key concepts and tools closely identified with neoclassical economics (such as mathematical modeling, rational choice, equilibrium, and so on) but over the actual entry points of social analysis. Because, in the end, that’s what Becker’s neoclassical analysis privileges: the reduction of the social space to the decisions and actions of individual subjects.

The real challenge to economics imperialism—inside and outside the discipline of economics—is, as Louis Althusser put it, the idea of a process without a subject.


*What I didn’t remember, or perhaps never knew, is that Becker understood his work to be a critique of and an alternative to Marxism (or at least what he took to be Marxism). It’s right there at the beginning of his Nobel lecture [pdf] and the interview with Religion and Liberty:

R&L: You are sometimes called an “economic imperialist.” What is meant by this?

Becker: That refers to my belief that economic analysis can be applied to many problems in social life, not just those conventionally called “economic.” The theme of my Nobel lecture, based on my life’s work, is that the horizons of economics need to be expanded. Economists can talk not only about the demand for cars, but also about matters such as the family, discrimination, and religion, and about prejudice, guilt, and love. Yet these areas have traditionally received little attention in economics. In that sense, it’s true: I am an economic imperialist. I believe good techniques have a wide application. Adam Smith and many others believed that as well.

On the other hand, my economic imperialism doesn’t have anything to do with crude materialism or the view that material status is the sum total of a person’s value. That view has much more in common with Marxist analysis.

Robert Jacob Hamerton, illustration from Punch, 29 July 1843

No, I haven’t had a chance to read Thomas Piketty’s book yet. But I’ve just finished my end-of-semester grading. So, soon…

In the meantime, Thomas Frank [ht: ra] offers a few things to look out for, such as:

1. Piketty’s critique of the discipline of economics.

One of the best things about Piketty’s masterwork is his systematic demolition of his own discipline. Academic economics, especially in the United States, has for decades been gripped by a kind of professional pretentiousness that is close to pathological. From time to time its great minds have grown so impressed by their own didactic awesomeness that they celebrate economics as “the imperial science”— “imperial” not merely because economics is the logic of globalization but because its math-driven might is supposedly capable of defeating and colonizing every other branch of the social sciences. Economists, the myth goes, make better historians, better sociologists, better anthropologists than people who are actually trained in those disciplines. One believable but possibly apocryphal tale I heard as a graduate student in the ’90s was that economists at a prestigious Midwestern university had actually taken to wearing white lab coats—because they supposedly were the real scientific deal, unlike their colleagues in all those soft disciplines.

Piketty blasts it all to hell. His fellow economists may have mastered the art of spinning abstract mathematical fantasies, he acknowledges, but they have forgotten that measuring the real world comes first. In the book’s Introduction this man who is now the most famous economist in the world accuses his professional colleagues of a “childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation”; he laughs at “their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.” In a shocking reversal, he calls on the imperial legions of economic pseudo-science to lay down their arms, to “avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists”; the six-hundred-page book that follows, Piketty declares, is to be “as much a work of history as of economics.”

2. His lack of knowledge of U.S. history.

Whenever Piketty moves away from numbers and tries to describe life in the United States, things go wrong in a hurry. The worst example first: Piketty tells us that, unlike the French, Americans feel “no nostalgia for the postwar period” because our economy didn’t grow rapidly in those years. In fact, American GDP often grew by 5 and 6 percent in the ’50s and ’60s and Americans have felt intense sweet wistfulness for those days ever since “American Graffiti” came out in 1973. To be fair, Piketty corrects himself several hundred pages on, but then not because he’s looked around and noticed the four decades of ’50s-revival crap Americans have so eagerly consumed, but because of a stray nostalgic remark by his fellow economist Paul Krugman. It’s all moot, I guess, because before long and without any explanation he reverts to his original position of nostalgia denialism.

Piketty’s command of American political history is, quite simply, abysmal. He announces that the U.S. “never became a colonial power,” which would be news to the people of the Philippines, not to mention the Sioux. He describes Herbert Hoover as a “liquidationist” though that was Hoover’s own term for the policies that Hoover rejected. About the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt—ordinarily an important period for students of inequality—Piketty seems to know almost nothing, except that FDR used wage and price controls during World War II. At one point, he comes close to denying the existence of Rooseveltian liberalism altogether, writing that for we benighted Americans “the twentieth century is not synonymous with a great leap forward in social justice.” As for the great right turn of the Eighties, he asserts repeatedly and with virtually no documentary evidence that it happened because America was falling behind Germany and Japan in economic growth—in other words, that the galaxy of nutty anxieties that fuel modern right-wing politics can be easily deduced from a few lines on a graph.

3. And Piketty’s blind spot when it comes to unions.

Turning to the problem of income inequality here in the United States, there is an even simpler solution, by which I mean a more realistic solution, a solution that builds on familiar American traditions,that works by empowering average people, that requires few economists or experts, that would involve a minimum of government interference, and that proceeds by expanding democracy and participation rather than by building some kind of distant and unapproachable global tax authority: Allow workers to organize. Let people have a say on the basic issues affecting their lives.

Piketty’s biggest blind spot is that he has virtually nothing to say about labor unions. He starts Chapter 1 of “Capital” with an anecdote about a bloody strike in South Africa and he returns to that same tragic episode at the very end of the book, but in between he addresses the matter almost not at all. Piketty talks a good game about democracy, but like other economists who have made inequality their subject, he prefers solutions that are handed down from the lofty heights of expertise.

The best remedy for inequality, however, is the one that comes up from below. Economists may not think very highly of those hardened people in SEIU t-shirts—some of them smoke too much, some are suspicious of “free trade,” some of them (gasp!) didn’t go to college—but the fact remains that in nearly every particular they represent the obvious and just about the only social force on the ground in America that might bend the inequality curve the other way.

In all honesty, one can go even further than Frank. Letting people have a say on the basic issues affecting their lives means more than forming unions. It means letting them having a say in the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed in their workplaces. Now, that’s a solution to the battle between capital and labor that has been going on since the mid-nineteenth century.