Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Last year, I was honored to deliver the 9th Annual Wheelright Memorial Lecture at the University of Sydney.

A couple of weeks ago, my longtime friend and collaborator Katherine Gibson presented the 2017 Wheelright Memorial Lecture, “Manufacturing the Future: Cultures of Production for the Anthropocene.”

her work has consistently challenged orthodox and heterodox economics’ primary focus upon the operation of ‘Big-C’ Capitalism. Instead, Gibson has crafted a unique methodological framework she terms ‘participatory action research’, which looks to the diversity of existing community economic arrangements by engaging directly with local subjects.

The method engages with local communities to shed light upon the idiosyncrasies and often non-commercial nature of local modes of provisioning. Rather than accepting the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – the notion of the inevitable degradation of commonly used land and resources – Gibson’s work has revealed the importance of the commons to many existing developmentally diverse communities. She thereby challenges the core tenet of orthodox economics, which prioritises the optimisation of the allocation of scarce resources through facilitating smoothly functioning markets.

Detention-MustNotQuestion-CorporateSchool-Polyp

Mainstream economics lies in tatters. Certainly, the crash of 2007-08 and the Second Great Depression called into question mainstream macroeconomics, which has failed to provide a convincing explanation of either the causes or consequences of the most severe crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But mainstream microeconomics, too, increasingly appears to be a fantasy—especially when it comes to issues of corporate power.

perfect_competition_long_run

Neoclassical microeconomics is based on a set of models that assume perfect competition. What that means, as my students learned the other day, is that, while in the short run firms may capture super-profits (because price is greater than average total cost, at P1 in the chart above), in the “long run,” with free entry and exit, all those extra-normal profits are competed away (since price is driven down to P2, equal to minimum average total cost). That’s why the long run is such an important concept in neoclassical economic theory. The idea is that, starting with perfect competition, neoclassical economists always end up with. . .perfect competition.*

Except, of course, in the real world, where exactly the opposite has been occurring for the past few decades. Thus, as the authors of the new report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have explained, there is a growing concern that

increasing market concentration in leading sectors of the global economy and the growing market and lobbying powers of dominant corporations are creating a new form of global rentier capitalism to the detriment of balanced and inclusive growth for the many.

And they’re not just talking about financial rentier incomes, which has been the focus of attention since the global meltdown provoked by Wall Street nine years ago. Their argument is that a defining feature of “hyperglobalization” is the proliferation of rent-seeking strategies, from technological innovations to mergers and acquisitions, within the non-financial corporate sector. The result is the growth of corporate rents or “surplus profits.”**

Fig6-1

As Figure 6.1 shows, the share of surplus profits in total profits grew significantly for all firms both before and after the global financial crisis—from 4 percent during the 1995-2000 period to 19 percent in 2001-2008 and even higher, to 23 percent, in 2009-2015. The top 100 firms (ranked by market capitalization) also saw the growth of their surplus profits, from 16 percent to 30 percent and then, most recently, to 40 percent.***

The analysis suggests both that surplus profits for all firms have grown over time and that there is an ongoing process of bipolarization, with a growing gap between a few high-performing firms and a growing number of low-performing firms.

Fig6-2

That conclusion is confirmed by their analysis of market concentration, which is presented in Figure 6.2 in terms of the market capitalization of the top 100 nonfinancial firms between 1995 and 2015. The red line shows the actual share of the top 100 firms relative to their hypothetical equal share, assuming that total market capitalization was distributed equally over all firms. The blue line shows the observed share of the top 100 firms relative to the observed share of the bottom 2,000 firms in the sample.

Both measures indicate that the market power of the top companies increased substantially over the 1995-2015 period. For example, the combined share of market capitalization of the top 100 firms was 23 times higher than the share these firms would have held had market capitalization been distributed equally across all firms. By 2015, this gap had increased nearly fourfold, to 84 times. This overall upward surge in concentration, measured by market capitalization since 1995, experienced brief interruptions in 2002−03 after the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and in 2009−2010 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and it stabilized at high levels thereafter.****

So, what is causing this growth in market concentration? One reason is because of the nature of the underlying technologies, which involve costs of production that do not rise proportionally to the quantities produced. Instead, after initial high sunk costs (e.g., in the form of expenditures on research and development), the variable costs of producing additional units of output are negligible.***** And then, of course, growing firms can use intellectual property rights and lobbying powers to protect themselves against actual or potential competitors.

Fig6-5

Giant firms can also use their super-profits to merge with and to acquire other firms, a process that has accelerated because—as both a consequence and cause—of the weakening of antitrust legislation and enforcement.

What we’re seeing, then, is a “vicious cycle of underregulation and regulatory capture, on the one hand, and further rampant growth of corporate market power on the other.”

The models of mainstream economics turn out to be a shield, hiding and protecting this strengthening of corporate rule.

What the rest of us, including the folks at UNCTAD, have been witnessing in the real world is the emergence and consolidation of global rentier capitalism.

 

*There’s another reason why the long run is so important for neoclassical economists. All incomes are presumed to be returns to “factors of production” (e.g., land, labor, and capital), equal to their “marginal products.” But short-run super-profits are a theoretical embarrassment. They represent a return not to any factor of production but to something else: serendipity or Fortuna. Oops! That’s another reason it’s important, within a neoclassical world, for short-run super-profits to be competed away in the long run—to eliminate the existence of returns to the decidedly non-productive factor of luck.

**UNCTAD defines surplus profits as the difference between the estimate of total typical profits and the total of actually observed profits of all firms in the sample in that year. Thus, they end up with a lower estimate of surplus or super-profits than if they’d used a strictly neoclassical definition, which would compare actual profits to a zero-rent (or long-run equilibrium) benchmark.

***The authors note that

these results need to be interpreted with caution. More important than the absolute size of surplus profits for firms in the database in any given sub-period, is their increase over time, in particular the surplus profits of the top 100 firms.

****The authors of the study focus particular attention on the so-called high-tech sector, in which they show “a growing predominance of ‘winner takes most’ superstar firms.”

*****Thus, as Piero Sraffa argued long ago, the standard neoclassical model of perfect competition, with U-shaped marginal and average cost curves (i.e., “diminishing returns”), is called into question by increasing returns, with declining marginal and average cost curves.

 

handbook

I just received my copy of the Routledge Handbook of Marxian Economics, edited by David M. Brennan, David Kristjanson-Gural, Catherine P. Mulder, and Erik K. Olsen.

The handbook contains thirty-seven original essays, including two—“Epistemology” and “Postmodernism”—cowritten with my good friend and frequent collaborator Jack Amariglio.

The handbook is too expensive for most people to buy. But professors and students can ask their college or university to purchase a copy for the library.

income  wealth

Inequality in the United States is now so obscene that it’s impossible, even for mainstream economists, to avoid the issue of surplus.

Consider the two charts at the top of the post. On the left, income inequality is illustrated by the shares of pre-tax national income going to the top 1 percent (the blue line) and the bottom 90 percent (the red line). Between 1976 and 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of income at the top soared, from 10.4 percent to 20.2 percent, while for most everyone else the share has dropped precipitously, from 53.6 percent to 39.7 percent.

The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal, as illustrated in the chart on the right. From 1976 to 2014, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the purple line) rose dramatically, from 22.9 percent to 38.6 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent (the green line) tumbled from 34.2 percent to only 27 percent.

The obvious explanation, at least for some of us, is surplus-value. More surplus has been squeezed out of workers, which has been appropriated by their employers and then distributed to those at the top. They, in turn, have managed to use their ability to capture a share of the growing surplus to purchase more wealth, which has generated returns that lead to even more income and wealth—while the shares of income and wealth of those at the bottom have continued to decline.

But the idea of surplus-value is anathema to mainstream economists. They literally can’t see it, because they assume (at least within free markets) workers are paid according to their productivity. Mainstream economic theory excludes any distinction between labor and labor power. Therefore, in their view, the only thing that matters is the price of labor and, in their models, workers are paid their full value. Mainstream economists assume we live in the land of freedom, equality, and just deserts. Thus, everyone gets what they deserve.

Even if mainstream economists can’t see surplus-value, they’re still haunted by the idea of surplus. Their cherished models of perfect competition simply can’t generate the grotesque levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth we are seeing in the United States.

That’s why in recent years some of them have turned to the idea of rent-seeking behavior, which is associated with exceptions to perfect competition. They may not be able to conceptualize surplus-value but they can see—at least some of them—the existence of surplus wealth.

The latest is Mordecai Kurz, who has shown that modern information technology—the “source of most improvements in our living standards”—has also been the “cause of rising income and wealth inequality” since the 1970s.

For Kurz, it’s all about monopoly power. High-tech firms, characterized by highly concentrated ownership, have managed to use technical innovations and debt to erect barriers to entry and, once created, to restrain competition.

d7c290116b17732db276c7a508a98911.16-9-xlarge.1

Thus, in his view, a small group of U.S. corporations have accumulated “surplus wealth”—defined as the difference between wealth created (measured as the market value of the firm’s ownership securities) and their capital (measured as the market value of assets employed by the firm in production)—totaling $24 trillion in 2015.

Here’s Kurz’s explanation:

One part of the answer is that rising monopoly power increased corporate profits and sharply boosted stock prices, which produced gains that were enjoyed by a small population of stockholders and corporate management. . .

Since the 1980s, IT innovations have largely been software-based, giving young innovators an advantage. Additionally, “proof of concept” studies are typically inexpensive for software innovations (except in pharmaceuticals); with modest capital, IT innovators can test ideas without surrendering a major share of their stock. As a result, successful IT innovations have concentrated wealth in fewer – and often younger – hands.

In the end, Kurz wants to tell a story about wealth accumulation based on the rapid rise of individual wealth enabled by information-based innovations (together with the rapid decline of wealth created in older industries such as railroads, automobiles, and steel), which differs from Thomas Piketty’s view of wealth accumulation as taking place through a lengthy intergenerational process where the rate of return on family assets exceeds the growth rate of the economy.

The problem is, neither Kurz nor Piketty can tell a convincing story about where that surplus comes from in the first place, before it is captured by monopoly firms and transformed into the wealth of families.

Kurz, Piketty, and an increasing number of mainstream economists are concerned about obscene and still-growing levels of inequality, and thus remained haunted by the idea of a surplus. But they can’t see—or choose not to see—the surplus-value that is created in the process of extracting labor from labor power.

In other words, mainstream economists don’t see the surplus that arises, in language uniquely appropriate for Halloween, from capitalists’ “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.”

MFG

Both Donald Trump and Eduardo Porter would have us believe the U.S. trade deficit is a serious problem—and that, if it can brought back into balance, jobs for American workers will be restored.

Nonsense!

Yes, I know, Trump’s attacks on free trade did in fact resonate among working-class voters. And, as I have argued, there is clear evidence that that a tiny group at the top has captured most of the benefits of trade agreements and other measures that have allowed U.S. corporations to engage in increased international trade, both importing and exporting commodities that have boosted their bottom-line.

It’s possible then to make the case (as I did here) that mainstream economists, in their zeal to push globalization forward, ignored those problems and concerns, thus paving the way for Trump’s victory—and, at the same time, that the solutions for those real issues will not come from reducing the trade deficit and supporting a renewal of the manufacturing sector.

First, we have to understand, the U.S. trade deficit has risen and U.S. manufacturing output has fallen not because of the “blind forces” of international trade. For decades now, U.S. corporations have decided to increase their profits by a combination of shifting production to other countries and automating many of the production processes that remain in the United States. And they’ve left the American working-class behind.

Second, there’s no guarantee that increasing manufacturing output within the United States will be accompanied by an equivalent number of new jobs. Just look at the chart at the top of the post. Since 2009, U.S. manufacturing output has increased by more than 38 percent but jobs in the manufacturing sector have only risen by 8.2 percent.

The U.S. trade balance is thus not the problem. The forces of U.S. capitalism have sacrificed the American working-class on the altar of higher profits. They did so before Trump was elected—and they’ve continued to do so since.

Let’s see Trump and Porter balance that.

Sometimes we just have to sit back and laugh. Or, we would, if the consequences were not so serious.

I’ve been reading and watching the presentations (and ensuing discussions) at the Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy conference recently organized by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Quite a spectacle it appears to have been, with an opening paper by famous mainstream macroeconomists Olivier Blanchard and Larry Summers and a closing session—a “fireside chat” without the fire—with the very same doyens of the field.

The basic question of the conference was: does contemporary macroeconomics, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, require a few reforms or does it need a wholesale revolution? Blanchard lined up in the reform camp, with Summers calling for a revolution—with the added spice of Adam Posen referring to himself as Trotsky to Summers’s Lenin.

Most people would think it’s about time. They know that mainstream macroeconomics failed spectacularly in recent years: It wasn’t able to predict the onset of the crash of 2007-08. It didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash occurring. And it certainly hasn’t been a reliable guide to getting out of the crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

So what are the problems according to Blanchard and Summers? In their view, “the events of the last ten years have put into question the presumption that economies are self stabilizing, have raised again the issue of whether temporary shocks can have permanent effects, and have shown the importance of non linearities.”

Only mainstream macroeconomists could possibly have thought that capitalism is self stabilizing. The rest of us—who have read Marx and Keynes as well as the work of Robert Clower, Hyman Minsky, and Axel Leijonhufvud—actually knew something about the roots of capitalist instability: the various ways a monetary commodity-producing economy might (but not necessarily) generate imbalances and instabilities based on the normal workings of the system.

Yes, of course, temporary shocks can have permanent effects. How could they not, when tens of millions of people are thrown out of work and, especially in the wake of the most recent crash, inequality has soared to new heights?

And then there are those “non linearities,” the idea that financial crises are characterized by feedback effects such that shocks, even small ones, “are strongly amplified rather than damped as they propagate.” Bank runs are the quintessential example—whether customers demanding their deposits in the first Great Depression or the run on financial institutions (including insurance companies that issued credit default swaps) that occurred in the midst of the second Great Depression. But that’s not all: when corporations, facing a declining profit rate, choose to sell but not purchase, they make individually rational decisions that can have large-scale social ramifications—for workers, indebted households, and other corporations (on both Main Street and Wall Street).

So mainstream macroeconomists appear to be waking up from their slumber and seeing capitalism as it is—and as it has functioned for 150 years or so.

You’d think, then, with all the rhetoric of reform and revolution, they’d be in favor of questioning the entire edifice of their theories and models. What we get instead is a bit of tinkering, along the lines of the following: (a) monetary policy is limited because of low interest-rates (although it’s still expected to provide generous liquidity in the even of another shock); (b) more active financial regulation, which still may not be able to keep up with the quickly changing and complex structure of the financial sector and actually prevent financial risks; thus (c) fiscal policy should once again be important, both because of the limits on monetary policy and financial regulation and because, with low interest-rates, government debt is less significant.

No, you’re not mistaken, it sounds a lot like a mainstream version of Keynesian macroeconomic policy, which is consistent with the subtitle of the Blanchard and Summers paper: “Back to the Future.”

That’s it? That’s all we’ve learned in the last ten years? Not a word in their paper about the international dimensions of macroeconomics—nothing about international contagion (e.g., the fact that the crisis started in the United States and then engulfed the rest of the world) or cross-border capital flows. And, perhaps even more important, there’s no discussion of inequality and the role it played both in creating the conditions for the crisis or the way it has characterized the nature of the recovery.*

There’s no reform being proposed here, let alone a revolution. It’s just business as usual, which is exactly the way the recovery itself has been treated.

In the end, Blanchard, Summers, and the other participants in the conference are the macroeconomists who developed the current models and policies. Thus, for all they might venture some mild criticisms of the pre-crisis orthodoxy and call for some new ideas, they are so invested in the status quo, no one should expect a truly radical rethinking from them.

To expect otherwise is just laughable.

 

*Yes, there was one paper in the conference on inequality, by Jason Furman, but it was about growth, not macroeconomic policy. The theme of inequality was not taken up in the rest of the conference—and it was even ridiculed (e.g., in terms of the research currently being conducted in the IMF) by Summers in the final session.

 

1440_shop-therefore-i-am

Lots of folks have been asking me about the significance of the so-called Nobel Prize in economics that was awarded yesterday to Richard Thaler.

They’re interested because they’ve read or heard about the large catalog of exceptions to the usual neoclassical rule of rational decision-making that has been compiled by Thaler and other behavioral economists.

One of my favorites is the “ultimatum game,” in which a player proposes an allocation of an endowment (say $5) and the second player can accept or reject the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, both players get paid according to the proposal; if the proposal is rejected, both players get nothing. What Thaler and his coauthors found is that most of the second players would reject proposals that would give them less than 25 percent of the endowment—even though, rationally, they’d be better off with even one penny in the initial offer. In other words, many individuals are willing to pay a cost (i.e., get nothing) in order to punish individuals who make an “unfair” proposal to them. Such a notion of fairness is anathema to the kind of self-interested, rational decision-making that is central to neoclassical economic theory.

Other exceptions include the “endowment effect” (for the tendency of individuals to value items more just because they own them), the theory of “mental accounting” (according to which individuals can overcome cognitive limitations by simplifying the economic environment in systematic ways, such as using separate funds for different household expenditures), the planner-doer model (in which individuals are both myopic doers for short-term decisions and farsighted planners for decisions that have long-run implications), and so on—all of which have implications for a wide variety of economic behavior and institutions, from consumption to financial markets.

So, what is the significance of Thaler’s approach economics?

As I see it, there are three stories that can be told about behavioral economics. The first one is the official story, as told by the Nobel committee, which starts from the proposition that “economics involves understanding human behaviour in economic decision-making situations and in markets.” But, since “people are complicated beings,” and even though the neoclassical model “provided solutions to important and complicated economic problems,” Thaler’s work (alone and with his coauthors) has contributed to expanding and refining economic analysis by considering psychological traits that systematically influence economic decisions—thus creating a “a flourishing area of research” and providing “economists with a richer set of analytical and experimental tools for understanding and predicting human behavior.”

A second story is provided by Yahya Madra (in Contending Economic Theories, with Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick): behavioral economics forms part of what he calls “late neoclassical theory” that both poses critical questions about neoclassical homo economicus and threatens to overrun the limits of neoclassical theory by offering “a completely new vision of how to specify the economic behavior of individuals.” Thus,

Based on its psychological explorations, behavioral economics confronts a choice: will it remain a research field that merely catalogs various shortcomings of the traditional neoclassical model and account of human behavior or will it break from neoclassical theory to formulate a new theory of human behavior?

A third story stems from a recognition that behavioral economics challenges some aspects of neoclassical economics—by pointing out many of the ways individuals are guided by forms of decisionmaking that violate the rule of self-interested rationality presumed by traditional neoclassical economists—and yet remains within the strictures of neoclassical economics—by focusing on individual behavior and using rational decision-making as the goal.

Thus, Thaler’s work and the work of most behavioral economists focuses on the limits to individual rationality and not on the perverse incentives and structures that plague contemporary capitalism. There’s no mention of the ways wealthy individuals and large corporations, precisely because of their high incomes and profits, are able to make individually rational decisions that—as in the crash of 2007-08—have negative social ramifications for everyone else. Nor is there a discussion of the different kinds of rationalities that are implicit in different ways of organizing the economy. As I wrote back in 2011, “is there a difference between how capitalists (who appropriate the surplus for doing nothing) and workers (who actually produce the surplus) might decide to distribute the surplus to others?”

Moreover, while behavioral economics have compiled a long list of exceptions to neoclassical rationality, they still use the neoclassical ideal as the horizon of their work. This can be seen in what is probably the best known of Thaler’s writings (with coauthor Cass Sunstein), the idea of “libertarian paternalism.” According to this view, “beneficial changes in behavior can be achieved by minimally invasive policies that nudge people to make the right decisions for themselves.” Thus, for example, Thaler proposed changing the default option in defined-contribution pension plans from having to actively sign up for the plan (which leads to suboptimal outcomes) to automatically joining the plan at some default savings rate and in some default investment strategy (which approximates rational decision-making).

The problem is, there’s no discussion of the idea that workers would benefit from an alternative to defined-contribution plans—whether defined-benefit plans or the expansion of Social Security. It’s all about taking the institutional structure as given and “nudging” individuals, via the appropriate design of mechanisms, to make the kinds of rational decisions that are presumed within neoclassical economics.

Paraphrasing that nineteenth-century critic of political economy, we can say that economic decision-making appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. We might credit Thaler and other behavioral economists, then, for having taken a first step in challenging the traditional neoclassical account of rational decision-making. But they stop far short of examining the perverse incentives that are built into the current economic system or the alternative rationalities that could serve as the basis for a different way of organizing economic and social life. And, in terms of economic theory, they appear not to be able to imagine another way of thinking about the economy, as a process without an individual subject.

However, taking any of those steps would never be recognized with a Nobel Prize in economics.