One of the great advantages of economics graduate programs outside the mainstream (like the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I did my Ph.D.) is we were encouraged to read, listen to, and explore ideas outside the mainstream—especially the liberal mainstream.
The liberal mainstream at the time, not unlike today, consisted of neoclassical microeconomics (with market imperfections) and a version of Keynesian macroeconomics (which was, in the usual IS-LM models, best characterized as hydraulic or bastard Keynesianism). Essentially, what liberal economists offered was a theory of a “mixed economy” that could be made to work—both premised on and promising “just deserts” and stable growth—with an appropriate mix of private property, markets, and government intervention.
For many of us, liberal mainstream economics was a dead end—uninspired and uninspiring both theoretically and politically. Theoretically, it marginalized history (both economic history and the history of economic thought) and ignored the exciting methodological debates taking place in other disciplines (from discussions of paradigms and scientific revolutions through criticisms of essentialism and determinism to fallibilist mathematics and posthumanism). And politically, it ignored many of the features of real capitalism (such as poverty, inequality, and class exploitation) and rejected any and all alternatives to capitalism (in a liberal version of Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative”).
Then as now, what liberal economists offer was, as Gerald Friedman has recently pointed out, a “political economy of despair.”
The reaction to my paper — the casual and precipitous conclusion that it must be wrong because it projects a sharply higher rate of GDP growth — comes from the assumption that the economy is already at full employment and capacity output. It is assumed that were output significantly below full employment, then prices would fall to equilibrate the two. This is the political counsel of despair. It is based on classical economic theory and the underlying acceptance of Say’s Law of Markets (named for the great Classical economist Jean-Baptiste Say), which says that total supply of goods and services and the total demand for goods and services will always be equal. The shoe market creates the right amount of demand for shoes — it works out so neatly that the true measure of the supply of shoes, of potential output, can be taken by measuring actual output. This concept is used as a justification for laissez-faire economics, and the view that the market mechanism finds a harmonious equilibrium. . .
There is, of course, a politics as well as a psychology to this economic theory. If nothing much can be done, if things are as good as they can be, it is irresponsible even to suggest to the general public that we try to do something about our economic ills. The role of economists and other policy elites (Paul Krugman is fond of the term “wonks”) is to explain to the general public why they should be reconciled with stagnant incomes, and to rebuke those, like myself, who say otherwise before we raise false hopes that can only be disappointed.
Fortunately, back in graduate school and continuing after we received our degrees, we were encouraged to look beyond liberal economics—both outside the discipline of economics (in philosophy, history, anthropology, and so on) and within the discipline (to strains or traditions of thought that developed criticisms of and alternatives to liberal mainstream economics).
Marx was, of course, central to our theoretical explorations. But so were other thinkers, such as Axel Leijonhufvud (whose work I’ve discussed before). He—along with others, such as Robert Clower and Hyman Minsky—challenged the orthodox interpretation of Keynes, especially the commitment to equilibrium. Leijonhufvud was particularly interested in what happens within a commodity-producing economy when exchanges take place outside of equilibrium.
The orthodox Keynesianism of the time did have a theoretical explanation for recessions and depressions. Proponents saw the economy as a self-regulating machine in which individual decisions typically lead to a situation of full employment and healthy growth. The primary reason for periods of recession and depression was because wages did not fall quickly enough. If wages could fall rapidly and extensively enough, then the economy would absorb the unemployed. Orthodox Keynesians also took Keynes’ approach to monetary economics to be similar to the classical economists.
Leijonhufvud got something entirely different from reading the General Theory. The more he looked at his footnotes, originally written in puzzlement at the disparity between what he took to be the Keynesian message and the orthodox Keynesianism of his time, the confident he felt. The implications were amazing. Had the whole discipline catastrophically misunderstood Keynes’ deeply revolutionary ideas? Was the dominant economics paradigm deeply flawed and a fatally wrong turn in macroeconomic thinking? And if this was the case, what was Keynes actually proposing?
Leijonhufvud’s “Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes” exploded onto the academic stage the following year; no mean feat for an economics book that did not contain a single equation. The book took no prisoners and aimed squarely at the prevailing metaphor about the self-regulating economy and the economics of the orthodoxy. He forcefully argued that the free movement of wages and prices can sometimes be destabilizing and could move the economy away from full employment.
That helped understand the Great Depression. At that period, wages [were] highly flexible and all that seemed to occur as they fell was further devastating unemployment. Being true to Keynes’ own insights, he argued, would require an overhaul of macroeconomic theory to place the problems of coordination and information front and center. Rather than simply assuming that price and wage adjustments would cause the economy to restore an appropriate level of output and employment, he suggested a careful analysis of the actual adjustment process in different economies and how the economy might evolve given these processes. As such, he was proposing a biological or cybernetic approach to economics that saw the economy more as an organism groping forward through time, without a clear destination, rather than a machine that only occasionally needed greasing.
That “path not taken” might also have helped us understand the Second Great Depression and the uneven—and spectacularly unequalizing—recovery that liberal mainstream economists have supervised and celebrated in recent years.
Meanwhile, the rest of us continue to look elsewhere, beyond the liberal political economy of despair, for economic and political ideas that create the possibility of a better future.