Posts Tagged ‘economics’

global

There is perhaps no more cherished an idea within mainstream economics than that everyone benefits from free trade and, more generally, globalization. They represent the solution to the problem of scarcity for the world as a whole, much as free markets are celebrated as the best way of allocating scarce resources within nations. And any exceptions to free markets, whether national or international, need to be criticized and opposed at every turn.

That celebration of capitalist globalization, as Nikil Saval explains, has been the common sense that mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, have adhered to and disseminated, in their research, teaching, and policy advice, for many decades.

Today, of course, that common sense has been challenged—during the Second Great Depression, in the Brexit vote, during the course of the electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—and economic elites, establishment politicians, and mainstream economists have been quick to issue dire warnings about the perils of disrupting the forces of globalization.

I have my own criticisms of Saval’s discussion of the rise and fall of the idea of globalization, especially his complete overlooking of the long tradition of globalization critics, especially on the Left, who have emphasized the dirty, violent, unequalizing underside of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.*

However, as a survey of the role of globalization within mainstream economics, Saval’s essay is well worth a careful read.

In particular, Saval points out that, in the heyday of the globalization consensus, Dani Rodrick was one of the few mainstream economists who had the temerity to question its merits in public.

And who was one of the leading defenders of the idea that globalization had to be celebrated and it critics treated with derision? None other than Paul Krugman.

Paul Krugman, who would win the Nobel prize in 2008 for his earlier work in trade theory and economic geography, privately warned Rodrik that his work would give “ammunition to the barbarians”.

It was a tacit acknowledgment that pro-globalisation economists, journalists and politicians had come under growing pressure from a new movement on the left, who were raising concerns very similar to Rodrik’s. Over the course of the 1990s, an unwieldy international coalition had begun to contest the notion that globalisation was good. Called “anti-globalisation” by the media, and the “alter-globalisation” or “global justice” movement by its participants, it tried to draw attention to the devastating effect that free trade policies were having, especially in the developing world, where globalisation was supposed to be having its most beneficial effect. This was a time when figures such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had given the topic a glitzy prominence by documenting his time among what he gratingly called “globalutionaries”: chatting amiably with the CEO of Monsanto one day, gawking at lingerie manufacturers in Sri Lanka the next. Activists were intent on showing a much darker picture, revealing how the record of globalisation consisted mostly of farmers pushed off their land and the rampant proliferation of sweatshops. They also implicated the highest world bodies in their critique: the G7, World Bank and IMF. In 1999, the movement reached a high point when a unique coalition of trade unions and environmentalists managed to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

In a state of panic, economists responded with a flood of columns and books that defended the necessity of a more open global market economy, in tones ranging from grandiose to sarcastic. In January 2000, Krugman used his first piece as a New York Times columnist to denounce the “trashing” of the WTO, calling it “a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of – yes! – denying opportunity to third-world workers”.

The irony is that Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of his research and publications that called into question the neoclassical idea that countries engaged in and benefited from international trade based on given—exogenous—resource endowments and technologies. Instead, Krugman argued, those endowments and technologies were created historically and could be changed by government policies, including histories and policies that run counter to free trade and globalization.

Krugman was thus the one who gave theoretical “ammunition to the barbarians.” But that was the key: he considered the critics of globalization—the alter-globalization activists, heterodox economists, and many others—”barbarians.” For Krugman, they were and should remain outside the gates because, in his view, they were not trained in or respectful of the protocols of mainstream economics. The “barbarians” could not be trusted to understand or adhere to the ways mainstream economists like Krugman analyzed the exceptions to the common sense of globalization. They might get out of control and develop other arguments and economic institutions.

But then the winds began to shift.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the cracks began to show in the consensus on globalisation, to the point that, today, there may no longer be a consensus. Economists who were once ardent proponents of globalisation have become some of its most prominent critics. Erstwhile supporters now concede, at least in part, that it has produced inequality, unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Nuances and criticisms that economists only used to raise in private seminars are finally coming out in the open.

A few months before the financial crisis hit, Krugman was already confessing to a “guilty conscience”. In the 1990s, he had been very influential in arguing that global trade with poor countries had only a small effect on workers’ wages in rich countries. By 2008, he was having doubts: the data seemed to suggest that the effect was much larger than he had suspected.

And yet, as Saval points out, mainstream economists’ recognition of the unequalizing effects of capitalist globalization has come too late: “much of the damage done by globalisation—economic and political—is irreversible.”

The damage is, of course, only irreversible within the existing economic institutions. Imagining and enacting a radically different way of organizing the economy would undo that damage and benefit those who have been forced to have the freedom to submit to the forces of capitalist globalization.

But Rodrik and Krugman—and mainstream economists generally—don’t seem to be interested in participating in that project, which would give the “barbarians” a say in creating a different kind of globalization, beyond capitalism.

 

*Back in 2000—and in a series of articles, book chapters, and blog posts since then—I have attempted to rethink the relationship between capitalist globalization and imperialism. Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik has also made the case for the continuing relevance of imperialism as an analytical construct for understanding and challenging effectively the logic and dynamics of contemporary capitalism.

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Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

unions

When I ask my students that question, they don’t really have an answer. That’s because, like much of the rest of the U.S. population, they don’t have much experience with unions, either directly or indirectly—not when the union membership rate has fallen to below 11 percent nationwide and is only 6.4 percent in the private sector.

And if you pose that question to neoclassical economists, the response is: labor unions cause unemployment, by setting a wage rate that exceeds the equilibrium price for labor. According to the neoclassical story,

while union workers (“insiders”) may benefit, unemployed non-union workers (“outsiders”) lose out. So, their overall conclusion is, unions ultimately hurt workers and cause increased inequality. Unions should therefore be discouraged.

For my students who have taken a course in mainstream economics, that’s pretty much the only answer that will be offered to them.*

But what if we look back to the heyday of unions—to the period that begins during the first Great Depression (when the Wagner Act was passed and unionization rates once again began to rise) and extends through the 1950s?

According to a new study by Brantly Callaway and William J. Collins, who utilize a novel dataset compiled from archival records of a survey of male workers in five non-Southern cities conducted in 1951, unions played an important role in reducing inequality, especially at the bottom of the wage scale.

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Thus, for example, at the 10th percentile, union workers earned 20.3 log points more than comparable non-union workers—while the difference at the median was smaller and, at the 80th, the difference turns negative.

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For less-educated workers (those with less than a high-school education), the premium at the bottom was similar (at 19.1 log points) but the advantage persisted across all percentiles. And the union wage premium was relatively large, and it remained so, throughout the Black income distribution. The clear indication is that the emergence of industrial unions after 1935, which sought to unionize production workers along industry rather than craft lines, opened more better-paying union job opportunities for both less-educated and Black workers.

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Callaway and Collins also conduct some counterfactual estimations concerning wage inequality, by looking at what would happen if union workers had been paid according to the non-union wage schedule. Their Table 4 (Panel A), shows that in terms of all measures—overall inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and the 10th percentile), lower-tail inequality (the difference between the 50th percentile and the 10th percentile), and upper-tail inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and 50th percentile)—inequality is significantly higher in the counterfactual “no union” scenario than in reality. In other words, the overall wage distribution was considerably narrower in 1950 than it would have been if union members had been paid like non-union members with similar characteristics.

As I see it, there are two lessons that can be drawn from the Callaway and Collins study. First, in terms of U.S. history, unions played a significant role in mitigating the effects of competition among workers, both raising workers’ wages and reducing inequality among workers. Second, with respect to economic theory, their research shows that simple supply-and-demand stories (which neoclassical economists use to attempt to explain inequality in terms of skills and levels of education) are profoundly misleading precisely because they leave out institutions.

One of the most important institutions in the postwar period in the United States, when economic inequality was much lower than today, were labor unions.

 

*If students were exposed to something other than neoclassical economics, they’d learn that unions do many other things, including helping non-union workers, through: (1) the threat of unionization (nonunion employers worried about a possible unionization drive may match union pay scales to reduce the demand for organization), (2) the ripple effect (like minimum-wage increases, union wage rates for production workers can lead to increases in wages for those above them, e.g., their managers), and (3) the moral economy (unions help institute norms of fairness regarding pay, benefits, and worker treatment that can extend beyond the unionized core of the workforce). They might also learn that, historically and by examining the experience in other countries, unions have often defended and promoted the larger interests of workers—in their enterprises (by demanding a say in decisions about such things as safety and jobs), nationally (by contributing time and money to political parties and campaigns), and internationally (by cooperating with and assisting unionization efforts in other countries).

Mainstream economists argue that time makes money. According to the Austrians, production takes time, because of “roundabout” methods, which creates the additional value that flows to capital. Neoclassical economists have a different theory: the return to capital is the reward for savings created by time-deferred consumption. However, in both cases, time is the basis of the value that is captured as profits.*

In Cosmopolis, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo (adapted for the cinema by David Cronenberg in 2012), Erik Packer’s “chief of theory,” Vija Kinski, explains they have it backwards:

“Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently.”. . .

“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today,” she said, looking slyly into her hands. “To correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.”

DeLillo (via Kinski), as it turns out, is right—at least when it comes to healthcare in the United States.

According to a series of reports in the most recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet (confirming the results of a study I wrote about last year), increasing inequality means wealthy Americans can now expect to live up to 15 years longer than their poor counterparts.

As economic inequality in the USA has deepened, so too has inequality in health. Almost every chronic condition, from stroke to heart disease and arthritis, follows a predictable pattern of rising prevalence with declining income. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening since the 1970s, with the difference between the richest and poorest 1% now standing at 10.1 years for women and 14.6 years for men.

The obscenely unequal distribution of income and wealth in the United States is responsible for increasingly unequal health outcomes.**

In addition, both structural racism (the “systematic and interconnected web of institutions and factors that lead to adverse health outcomes”) and mass incarceration (on prisoners, their families, and their communities), according to two other studies, exacerbate class-based health inequalities.

While the authors of one of the studies argue that “the health-care system could soften the effects of economic inequality by delivering high-quality care to all,” they conclude that the U.S. system falls “far short of this ideal.” That’s because disparities in access to care—based on income, race, and unequal rates of imprisonment—are far wider in the United States than in other wealthy countries.

Moreover, according to another study, even after the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion, twenty-seven million Americans remain uninsured and, even for many with insurance, access to affordable care remains elusive. At the same time, unneeded and even harmful medical interventions remain common (due, in part, to the fragmented health-care delivery system), corporate administration consumes nearly a third of health spending, and wealthy Americans consume a disproportionate and rising share of medical resources.

Thus, the editors of the series conclude,

Although a Series about health published in a medical journal may seem far removed from the political arena where much of the decision making about how to address these factors lies, the message of this collection of papers transcends that distance. . .it is no radical statement to say that Americans deserve better and, most importantly, the time for action has arrived.

It is time, in other words, to make the necessary changes so that money is available to provide decent healthcare for all Americans.

 

*One neoclassical economist, the late Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow (pdf), did have the intellectual honesty to admit that the absence of future markets represented a severe shortcoming of capitalism, a coordination failure, and supported the case for a socialist economy.

**The authors also note that the medical system in the United States itself influences inequality, as an employer of nearly 17 million Americans. Although physicians and nurses are generally well paid, many other health-care workers are not:

The health-care system employs more than 20% of all black female workers; more than a quarter of these health-care workers subsist on family incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and 12.9% of them are uninsured.

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Back in 2003, in Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics, Jack Amariglio and I set out to identify and unsettle some of the key binaries that structure the work of modern economists. Vijay Prashad [ht: ja] has just done something similar with respect to conceptions of modern violence.

Our view, in a nutshell, was that many approaches to modern economics, however different they might be in terms of methods and conclusions, shared certain foundational axes—especially binary oppositions concerning stability, rationality, and order. Thus, for example, neoclassical economists tell a story about the emergence of order from disorder via the “invisible hand.”

Drawing upon Adam Smith as the original source, neoclassical economists begin with the premise that civil society, rather than being governed by an overarching religious authority or state, is fractured into a plethora of individuated and competing human atoms who take actions on their own behalf without knowing in advance either the actions of others or, for that matter, the potential consequences of their own actions. Then, the apparent chaos that is suggested by the interaction of the teeming mass of individual actors is shown to converge toward a well ordered, “general equilibrium” solution—in which social welfare is maximized—by virtue of decentralized markets. Thus, the modernist paradox is solved by showing that (a) economic coordination can be achieved (market transactions are mostly orderly processes) as the outcome of (b) the unintended (or not-necessarily intended) actions of self-interested, rational agents. Thus, the initial premise of apparent anarchy or disorder is overcome by the order that is taken to be both an essential attribute and the necessary effect of market processes. The unfolding of this story gives rise to the characteristic optimism and progressivism—the utopian vision—of mainstream economic modernism since it confirms post-Enlightenment beliefs in the efficacy and social beneficence of rationally directed, free, and individual choice.

Marxian economists are, of course, quite critical of the neoclassical story. They consider the story to be a pure fiction: capitalism cannot possibly achieve the harmonious coordination or produce the socially beneficial outcomes foretold by most mainstream economists. As it turns out, however, the contrast between order and disorder contained within the neoclassical master narrative also helps to constitute much of the alternative Marxian crisis theory. Thus, Marxists have often reduced the difference between capitalism and socialism to the choice between one system (capitalism) characterized by instability, irrationality, and disorder and the other (socialism) defined by stability, rationality, and order. We find these tensions played out in a variety of ways in the Marxian tradition—in the differentiations and oppositions between production and circulation, the conception of competition, the opposition of markets and planning, and the role of subjectivity—with dubious theoretical and political effects.

According to Prashad, the asymmetry of Western media’s reporting on recent acts of violence—including, hours apart, Khalid Masood’s attack in London and the U.S. bombing of the al-Badia school in the Syrian town of Raqqa—is a reminder that a series of binaries “operate to blind thinking about violence in the world.”

Our days have become hallucinations, with violence always at the edge of consciousness. But violence is understood through these binaries in ways that befuddle those who believe in a universal humanity, those who believe—in concrete terms—that people in Kabul deserve empathy and sympathy as much as people in Berlin. In fact, the scale of the violence in Kabul is so much greater than in Berlin that you would imagine greater sympathy for those in far more distress. But actually the logic of these binaries moves consciousness in the opposite direction.

Here are some of binary oppositions identified by Prashad:

Eastern Malevolence / Western Benevolence

There is standard belief amongst reporters—for example—that Western actions are motivated by the highest values and are therefore benevolent. The loftiest values of our time—democracy and human rights—are sequestered inside the concept of the West. The East—bedraggled—is treated as a place without these values. It is bereft, a bad student. There is what Aimé Césaire calls “shy racism,” for it suggests that Easterners cannot be given the benefit of doubt when they act, or that Westerners could not also be malevolent in their objectives. The way this logic runs it is the Eastern bombing of Syria’s Aleppo, conducted by the Oriental despot Bashar al-Asad, that is inhumane, while it is the Western bombing of Iraq’s Mosul (250 to 370 civilians killed in the first week of March) that is humane. It would pierce the armor of Western self-regard to admit that its armed forces could—without sentiment of care—bomb mosques and schoolhouses.

State Legality / Non-State Illegality

States do not normally act outside the confines of international law. If they do, then it is in error. Or there are some states that are not proper states, but “rogue states” that do not behave according to the principles of civilization. Normal states, not rogue states, the logic of shy racism goes, never intentionally violate the laws of war and behave in a barbaric way. Their acts of murder are always unintentional because it would be too costly for them to intentionally murder civilians.

Violence to Heal / Violence to Hurt

When the US military conducted its massive bombing run against Iraq in March 2003 under the name “Shock and Awe,” it was considered to be in the service of human rights and security. But the language used by its architects was genocidal. . .

The violence of the Iraqi insurgency, on the other hand, was immediately considered to be violence intended to hurt, to create problems not only for the United States, but for Iraq itself. The violence of the West is prophylactic, while the violence of the East is destructive.

Precious Life / Disposable Life

When news broke of the failed US raid on the village of al-Jineh (Yemen), the Western media concentrated on the death of Ryan Owens who was a Seal Team 6 member. There was a great deal of discussion on his death and little mention of the civilians who were killed by Owens’ comrades in that raid. If they were mentioned it was as a number: twenty-eight or thirty. There were no names in the stories, no way to make these people into human beings. Nothing about Mohammad Khaled Orabi (age 14), Hasan Omar Orabi (age 10), Ahmad Nouri Issa (age 23), Mustapha Nashat Said al-Sheikh (age 23), Ali Mustapha (age 17), Abd al Rahman Hasim (age 17), and not even Nawar al-Awlaki (age 8) whose father and brother had been killed in earlier raids. No mention of the names of the forty-two Somali refugees gunned down by a Saudi helicopter gunship, a weapons system provided by the United States. To offer these names would be to give these people humanity.

Legible Narrative / Illegible Narrative

It would be an illogical narrative to suggest that Western generals want to raze cities. That is not their motivation. When the US flattened Fallujah (Iraq) in 2004, under the command of then Major General James Mattis of the 1st Marine Division, this was not the intent. That the use of Depleted Uranium led to cancer rates fourteen times higher than in Hiroshima (Japan) after the atom bomb was dropped there was incidental, not deliberative. It is impossible to imagine an American, for instance, being cruel in military strategy. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine a Syrian general, such as General Issam Zahreddine, being systematically vicious. It is not possible to see both as ferocious. It would be an illegible narrative if these two stories were set side by side. One is so obviously a better man (Mattis) than the other (Zahreddine). The character of the man of the West always surmounts the character of the man of the East.

Prashad’s point is that the distinctions created in and through these binary oppositions serve to erect and naturalize a set of differences—for example, between terrorism and counter-terrorism—that see an Enlightenment logic behind all Western states’ acts of violence and something else, the motivations emanating from some “darker world,” behind al-Qa’ida and other such forces.

To break down the distinctions between them represents, as in the case of the binaries that structure modern economics, “a scandal against civilization itself.”

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I’m often asked—by students and readers of this blog—why I include Keynesian economics, alongside neoclassical economics, within mainstream economic theory.

The major reason I do so is because the mainstream debate within the discipline of economics is mostly confined within limits defined by neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics—between (as I explained last year), the conservative invisible hand of free markets and the more liberal visible hand of government intervention.

It’s basically what most students of economics are exposed to their in their micro and macro courses:

At the microeconomic level, capitalism (or, as liberals generally refer to it, the market system) has the potential of achieving an efficient allocation of resources. As for the macroeconomy, capitalism is capable of providing stable growth and full employment. Capitalism, therefore, promises the best possible outcomes both for individuals and for the economy as a whole.

Now, while conservative mainstream economists believe that efficiency, growth, and full employment stem from allowing markets to operate freely, liberal mainstream economists argue that markets are often imperfect and therefore the only way to achieve (or at least approximate) those goals is to intervene in and regulate markets. Those are the terms of the mainstream debate in economics, from the origins of modern economic discourse in the late-eighteenth century right on down to the present.

Keynesian economics was, of course, born as a critique of neoclassical economics, in the midst of the First Great Depression, when the allocation of resources was anything but efficient and capitalism provided neither stable growth nor full employment. Far from it!

Keynes introduced new ideas into economic discourse, emphasizing the role of economic and social structures (such as collective bargaining and, from later Keynesians, imperfect competition), mass psychology (especially with respect to investors and stock-market speculators), and fundamental uncertainty (it was impossible to make rational decisions in the face of an unknown—and unknowable—future).

However, as recent essays by Michael Roberts and Chris Dillow remind us, Keynesian economics has severe shortcomings.

While I think Roberts begins by overstating his case (I, for one, am not convinced that “Keynes is the economic hero of those wanting to change the world”), he does convincingly argue that Keynes’s economic prescriptions are based on a fallacy:

The long depression continues not because there is too much capital keeping down the return (‘marginal efficiency’) of capital relative to the rate of interest on money.  There is not too much investment (business investment rates are low) and interest rates are near zero or even negative. The long depression is the result of too low profitability and so not enough investment, thus keeping down productivity growth.  Low real wages and low productivity are the cost of ‘full employment’, contrary to all the ideas of Keynesian economics.  Too much investment has not caused low profitability, but low profitability has caused too little investment.

Dillow, for his part, explains that Keynes “was largely silent about three related issues: class, power and profits, or least he dismissed them lightly.” In a sense, then,

Keynesianism was profoundly conservative. In believing that technocratic governments could provide workers with decent wages and full employment, Keynesianism did away with the need for industrial democracy: one of the achievements of Keynes was to eclipse movements such as guild socialism. It wasn’t Keynes himself who said “the man in Whitehall knows best” but one of his disciples, Douglas Jay – and that encapsulated a key part of Keynesian ideology, its belief in top-down management.

Populism, of course, is a backlash against just this. That slogan “take back control” and the dismissal of experts represent a rejection of Keynesianism; the baby of decent macroeconomic policy is being thrown out with the bathwater of elitism. It’s far from clear that Keynesianism has the intellectual or political resources to fight back.

In my view, neither neoclassical nor Keynesian economics turns out to have the intellectual or political resources to effectively respond to the issues that motivate and resonate within contemporary populism. If anything, they have served to create the problems that have brought right-wing nationalist populism to the fore.

For good reason, both wings of mainstream economics have ceased to be persuasive.

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Those of us of a certain age remember the right-wing political slogan, “America, love it or leave it.” I’ve seen it credited to journalist Walter Winchell, who used it in his defense of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. But it’s heyday was in the 1960s, against the participants in the antiwar movement in the United States and (in translation, ame-o ou deixe-o) in the early 1970s, by supporters of the Brazilian military dictatorship.*

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that slogan in reading the recent exchange between the anonymous author of Unlearning Economics and Simon Wren-Lewis (to which Brad DeLong has chimed in, on Wren-Lewis’s side).

Unlearning Economics puts forward an argument I’ve made many times on this blog (as, of course, have many others), that mainstream economics deserves at least some of the blame for the spectacular crash of 2007-08 (and, I would add, the uneven nature of the recovery since then).

the absence of things like power, exploitation, poverty, inequality, conflict, and disaster in most mainstream models — centred as they are around a norm of well-functioning markets, and focused on banal criteria like prices, output and efficiency — tends to anodise the subject matter. In practice, this vision of the economy detracts attention from important social issues and can even serve to conceal outright abuses. The result is that in practice, the influence of economics has often been more regressive than progressive.

Therefore, Unlearning Economics argues, a more progressive move is to challenge the “rhetorical power” of mainstream economics and broaden the debate, by focusing on the human impact of economic theories and policies.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well, Wren-Lewis, for one (and DeLong, for another). His view is that the only task—the only progressive task—is to criticize mainstream economics on its own terms. Even more, he argues that we need mainstream economics, because there should only be one economic theory, on which everyone can and should agree.

Now imagine what would happen if there was no mainstream. Instead we had different schools of thought, each with their own models and favoured policies. There would be schools of thought that said austerity was bad, but there would be schools that said the opposite. I cannot see how that strengthens the argument against austerity, but I can see how it weakens it.

The alternative view is that the discipline of economics has a hegemonic economic discourse (constituted, at least in the postwar period, by an ever-changing combination of neoclassical and Keynesian economics) and a wide variety of other, nonmainstream economic theories (inside the discipline of economics, as well as in other academic disciplines and outside the academy itself). Reducing the critique of austerity (or any other economic policy or strategy) to the issues raised by mainstream economists actually impoverishes the debate.

Sure, there’s a mainstream critique of austerity: cutting government expenditures in the midst of a recession reduces (at least in most cases) the rate of economic growth. But there are also other criticisms, which don’t and simply can’t be formulated by mainstream economists. From a Marxian perspective, for example, austerity (of the sort we’ve seen in recent years in Europe and even to some extent in the United States, not to mention all the other examples, especially as part of IMF-sponsored stabilization and adjustment programs, around the world) often serves to raise the rate of exploitation. Feminist economists, too, have lodged criticisms of austerity, since it often shifts the burden of adjustment onto women. Radicals, for their part, worry about the effects on power relations. And the list goes on.

They’re all different—perhaps overlapping but not necessarily mutually compatible—criticisms of austerity policies. They raise different issues, precisely because they’re inspired by different, mainstream and heterodox, economic theories.

Wren-Lewis, in his response to Unlearning Economics, wants to limit the debate to the terms of mainstream economics, which is the disciplinary equivalent of “love it or leave it.”

 

*There’s also the awful song by Jimmie Helms, recorded by Ernest Tubb: