Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

Every time someone like David Leonhardt [ht: ja] writes a review of economic ideas and texts, I realize how narrow their conception of economics truly is—and how, once again, I and many of my friends and colleagues are simply defined out of the discussion.

In the beginning, for Leonhardt, there was Adam Smith. Then, somewhat later, we have the classical liberalism of the Chicago school and the flexible models of Dani Rodrick (who, in his book, refers to Milton Friedman as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest economists”). All three the New York Times writer distinguishes from the contemporary economists Lanny Ebenstein refers as the “utopians working toward and often living in a mythical land, ‘Libertania’”—the contemporary right-wing libertarians.

For writers like Leonhardt, that’s pretty much the beginning and end of economics, the limits of the discipline and of the debate. Everything and everyone else fall outside the walls he and many economists are so intent on erecting and policing.

It’s a view of economic theory focused entirely on markets, as if there are no other ways human beings, now and historically, have organized economic life. It’s a view of economic policy that celebrates markets, with a modicum of government intervention, as if more free-market and more government-regulated forms of capitalism are the limits of the debate of the possible.

That’s the narrow definition of economics that emerges from Ebenstein’s and Rodrick’s books and from Leonhardt’s approving review of those books. Ultimately, it amounts to a call for moderation—in theory and policy—which reduces the relevant debate to one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics.

What Leonhardt and Co. refuse to acknowledge is that mainstream economic theory and policy are what got us into the current mess in the first place, and that mainstream economists have had no answer to the current crises of capitalism—except to impose even more suffering in order to attempt to engineer their particular notion of recovery.

In the end, mainstream economists are the real utopians, who imagine that capitalism works (or can be made to work) properly by being understood through the lens of the correct economic theories, which they alone possess.


Noah Smith argues that something he refers to as the recent “empirical revolution” in economics is challenging “a ton of standard, common theories.” These include:

1. If you slap some quick supply-and-demand graphs on the board, it looks like minimum wages should harm employment in the short term. But the data shows that they probably don’t.

2. If there’s any sort of limits to mobility, then simple labor demand theory says that a big influx of immigrants should depress the wages of native-born workers of comparable skill. But the data shows that in many cases, especially in the U.S., the effect is very small.

3. A simple theory of labor-leisure choice predicts that welfare should make recipients work less. But a raft of new studies shows that in countries around the world, welfare programs barely reduce observable work effort.

4. Most standard econ theory doesn’t assume the existence of social norms. But experiments consistently show that social norms (or morals, broadly conceived) matter to people.

I agree.

I’d only add that some of us have been teaching these and many other challenges to mainstream economics for a very long time. That’s because we were fortunate to learn theories other than those of mainstream economics, which we have then used in our own teaching of economics.

We teach our students that mainstream, neoclassical economics is one story about the economy. And, we also teach them, there are many other stories—based on different entry points and logics, and which arrive at conclusions very different from those of mainstream economics.


The American Economic Association was, in the beginning, a radical organization—founded in 1885, according to Marshall I. Steinbaum and Bernard A. Weisberger, by “Richard Ely, an avowedly Christian Heidelberg-trained professor at Johns Hopkins with a calling to make economics a friend of the working man.” Now, of course, it is anything but radical.

What happened?

Steinbaum and Weisberger’s analysis is that

University presidents seeking stature for their institutions appealed to rich donors among the period’s Robber Barons, and that appeal was unlikely to be successful when rabble-rousers in the economics department were questioning the foundations of American capitalism, in particular the monopolization and labor exploitation that made the Robber Barons rich in the first place. . .

What had happened was that economists realized there was much to be gained in terms of professional stature and influence from making themselves appealing to the establishment, so they banished those elements that tainted them by association. In 1895, one of Ely’s students, Albion Small, the founding chair of the new, Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, did not come to the aid of another Ely student, Edward Bemis, after the latter’s public criticism of the Chicago traction [streetcar] monopoly brought down the wrath of the university’s president William Rainey Harper and its conservative chair of economics, J. Laurence Laughlin. Despite episodes like those of Adams and Bemis, economics was by no means as conservative then as it eventually became starting in the 1970s, but neither would it countenance a direct challenge to the economic status quo nor affiliate itself with radical elements in organized labor or elsewhere. Even Ely himself eventually came around after his own notorious trial before the Wisconsin Board of Regents in 1894. He returned to the AEA as its President in 1900, and though he was long affiliated with the “Wisconsin Idea” and its progressive exponent, Governor Robert LaFollette, he was careful not to stray far from the new, milder orthodoxy.

Perhaps the causes of the transformation in U.S. economics during the first Gilded Age help explain why academic unfreedom in economics is so prevalent now, in the second Gilded Age.


The distribution of income in the United States is increasingly unequal. We all know that. The problem is, the more we focus on the unequal distribution of income, the more we’re forced to discuss the issue of class.

And that’s a real problem for mainstream economists, who either deny the existence of inequality or deny its connection to class.

That’s the only way of explaining why Jason Furman repeats, in two recent papers (“Global Lessons for Inclusive Growth” [pdf] and, with Peter Orszag, “A Firm-Level Perspective on the Role of Rents in the Rise in Inequality [pdf]), the same argument:

Overall, the 9 percentage-point increase in the share of income of the top 1 percent in the World Top Income Database data from 1970 to 2010 is accounted for by: increased inequality within labor income (68 percent), increased inequality within capital income (32 percent), and a shift in income from labor to capital (0 percent).

In other words, for mainstream economists like Furman who actually do pay attention to rising inequality (e.g., as measured by the share of income going to the top 1 percent), it can’t have anything to do with class (e.g., as measured by changing labor and capital shares).

As it turns out, I’m presenting Marx’s critique of the so-called Trinity Formula in one of my courses this week.* Basically, Marx argued that, if the value of commodities is equal to constant capital plus variable capital plus surplus-value, then both the “profit share” (the “profits of enterprise” plus “interest”) and the “rental share” (“ground rent”) represent distributions of surplus-value. In other words, productive labor—not independent factor services—creates, via exploitation, the incomes of both capitalists and landlords.

Marx’s critique of the Trinity Formula is still relevant today because, even if we assume (as many mainstream economists still do, against all evidence) that wage and profit shares are relatively constant, it’s still possible to show that the rate of exploitation has risen.

Consider the following hypothetical chart:


The blue and red boxes represent profits and wages in 1997 and 2007. However, as we can see, the share of income going to CEOs has risen (Furman’s “increased inequality within labor income”). If we combine profits and CEO salaries as different forms of surplus-value, then indeed it is possible for the rate of exploitation to have risen—even if the conventional measure of profit and wage shares remains the same.

In terms of actual national income data, what we’d want to do is add to corporate profits the distributions of the surplus that go to those at the top (including CEO salaries) in order to to get “capital’s share” and subtract those same distributions from wages to get “labor’s share.”

US labor share

As it turns out, Olivier Giovannoni [pdf] has made something like the latter calculation, by subtracting top 1 percent incomes from the total U.S. labor share. As we can see in the chart above, the real labor share in the United States has fallen dramatically since 1970—from about 77 percent to less than 60 percent—just as it has in Europe and Japan.

The only appropriate conclusion is that the increasingly unequal distribution of income in the United States has a lot to do with the diverging movements of the labor and capital shares, and therefore with class changes in the U.S. economy. And the only way to deal with that problem—that class problem—is not by increasing tax rates at the top or by raising minimum wages, but by eliminating the problem itself: the exploitation of labor by capital.

*For the uninitiated, the Trinity Formula is the classical idea that the “natural price” of commodities is equal to the summation of the natural rates of wages, profit, and rent, that is, the idea that the incomes of workers, capitalists, and landlords are independent of one another. The same idea was later articulated by neoclassical economists, who argue that each “factor of production” receives its marginal contribution to production.


We forget, at our peril, the extent to which academic unfreedom is enforced in departments of economics across North America.

Most departments of economics offer—in the classroom and in terms of research and policy advice—only mainstream economics. By that I mean they hire economists who only teach, conduct research, and offer policy advice defined by one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics. Other approaches to economics—generally, these days, referred to as heterodox economics—simply aren’t recognized by or represented within those departments. That was true in the decades leading up to the crash of 2007-08 and, perhaps even more startling, it has continued to be the case in the years since.

That’s particularly true in departments that have doctoral programs in economics. While heterodox economists are often hired by undergraduate departments (such as, most famously, the University of Southern Maine), you simply won’t find heterodox economics or heterodox economists at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, and Chicago.

Now, there have been a few departments of economics over the years that have been defined in terms of a significant presence (although generally still a minority view) of heterodox economics. The University of Massachusetts Amherst was certainly one of them (which, to offer the appropriate disclosure, is where I did my doctoral work). The list also includes the New School for Social Research, the University of California-Riverside, American University, and, more recently, the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

I was in fact hired by another of those departments, at the University of Notre Dame, which as readers of this blog know was first split off as a separate department (in 2003) and then (in 2010) simply dissolved by the administration of the university.

What was extraordinary about that episode was the length mainstream economists (and their allies within the university administration) were willing to go to stamp out any and all forms of nonmainstream economics. Not, to be clear, because there was any kind of financial crisis, but simply to first marginalize and then remove entirely the existence of heterodox economics from the curriculum, research profile, and policy recommendations of the department.

I note that history because it was invoked in the extensive investigation of academic freedom in the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (pdf).* The department at Manitoba is the only place in Canada where doctoral students can receive significant training in nonmainstream or heterodox economics. According to the report,

Prior to 2006, the Department of Economics approached hiring, curriculum and pedagogical issues with an approach that made room for heterodox, as well as mainstream views, although the heterodox group remained a minority of the department. This was achieved through a solid degree of good will that permeated the Department.

After that, the “solid degree of good will that permeated the Department” was undermined by the orthodox or mainstream members of the department who, in various ways, sought to “to change the direction of the Economics Department by moving to a more mainstream/orthodox emphasis.” The problem of academic freedom within the department, according to the student newspaper, has still not been resolved.

What is extraordinary in all of this is how few departments there are in all of North America where doctoral students can be exposed to and learn—not to mention, after they complete their degrees and then find a job, teach, conduct research, offer policy advice associated with—heterodox approaches to economics. And, on top of that, in the few departments where both mainstream and heterodox approaches are in fact represented, the length to which mainstream economists (and, as I wrote above, their allies within university administrations) will go to marginalize or eliminate heterodox approaches to economics.

The University of Manitoba is just the latest example in the long line of attempts to define, impose, and police the rules of academic unfreedom in the discipline of economics in North America.

*Just to correct the historical record, though, the 2003 decision to split the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame was opposed by 11 of the 16 members of the department, a group that included both mainstream and heterodox economists. Because they were opposed to the split, they were not invited to join the new Department of Economics and Econometrics, which defined itself from the beginning as a purely neoclassical program.


I understand: the only relevance of Karl Marx for the likes of the Wall Street Journal is to poke fun at Marxists who bristle at the idea of paying a fee to visit his gravesite.

“The Friends” of the cemetery are also anticipating an uptick in interest in Marx and in complaints from Marxists. This graveyard, in a leafy, genteel part of north London, typically sees around 200 visitors a day. Most ask to see Marx.

As it turns out, it’s that “uptick” in interest that is, in fact, more interesting.

Clearly, if all were going well for capitalism, there wouldn’t be any interest in Marx. But it isn’t, by a long shot—certainly not when global capitalism appears to be entering a new recession [ht: ja] and a variety of liberal supporters, from Robert Reich to Hillary Clinton, find it necessary to endeavor to “save capitalism from itself.”

Chris Dillow certainly thinks Marx is relevant today, for a variety of reasons: financialization, secular stagnation, the negative effects of inequality on productivity, and the situation of workers. In fact, Dillow argues, there’s a side of Marx that is particularly relevant for us today:

If you start from Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England and start reading Capital not from the beginning but from chapter 10, another Marx emerges – one whose thinking was rooted in empirical facts about the working lives of the worst off and in an urge to improve these. It is this Marx which is still relevant today.

Certainly, the interest shown by Marx (and, of course, Engels) in the real situation under capitalism of the working-class—aided by Leonard Horner’s “undying service to the English working-class”—puts most contemporary economists to shame.*

But there’s another side of Marx that is at least as relevant today: the critique of political economy. The fact is, Marx didn’t invent an entirely new method to analyze capitalism. He started where mainstream economists (in his day, the classical political economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo) left off and then, based on their own assumptions, developed his critique of their theories. Marx started with an “immense accumulation of commodities” (what today we call GDP) and “just deserts” (that is, the idea that everyone gets what they deserve and the distribution of income under capitalism is “fair”) and then showed how the growth of the wealth of nations was based on “the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” on the part of capitalists. Therefore, what is an incontrovertible “good” for mainstream economists (more stuff, more commodities) can be seen as a “bad” (since it means more ripping-off of surplus-value by capitalists from the workers who create it). And that class exploitation can, in turn, be directly tied to financialization, secular stagnation, the negative effects of inequality, the situation of workers under capitalism, and much more.

Both mainstream economic theory and capitalism have, of course, changed since middle of the nineteenth century. That’s why the theoretical claims and empirical observations contained in Capital can’t simply be transferred to our own time. What is relevant, it seems to me, is the example of the “ruthless criticism” of political economy—the critique of both mainstream economic thought and of capitalism itself.

That two-fold critique, as exemplified in Marx’s writings, is precisely what is relevant today.

*Of course, their own Adam Smith puts them to shame, as in this passage on the negative effects of the division of labor on workers from Book 5 of the Wealth of Nations:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

René Magritte,

René Magritte, “Song of the Storm” (1937)

Are we seeing the signs of a global economic meltdown?

Marxist and other radical economists often remind people of the inherent instability of capitalism—unlike their mainstream counterparts, who tend to focus on equilibrium and the invisible hand of free markets.

But, right now, the warnings about new sources of instability are coming from quarters that are anything but radical. And they’re all saying pretty much the same thing: National monetary policy is increasingly ineffective. Central banks are largely impotent. The IMF points to increased global economic risk because of impossible amounts of debt that will never be repaid. Creditors are way too overextended. Finance capital is out of control. Growth everywhere is threatened. China and emerging-market nations are mostly to “blame.” And so on and so forth.

Here’s a recent sample of three recent articles [ht: ja]: from the BBC, Reuters, and the Guardian.

Andrew Walker (for the BBC) cites the latest IMF World Economic Outlook, according to which emerging and developing economies will register slowing growth in 2015 for the fifth consecutive year, to argue that (a) economic growth in China is slowing down (and helping to pull down the rest of the world, both directly and indirectly) and (b) lackluster growth in rich countries is failing to pull the rest of the world along. In addition, according to the latest IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report, the explosion of dollar-denominated credit in recent years, along with the rise in the value of the dollar, is going to make it difficult to repay those debts, a growing problem which is in turn exacerbated by the reverse “flight to safety” of financial capital. And then, of course, there are the negative effects—in Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, and elsewhere—of falling oil prices.

David Chance (for Reuters) cites the recent report by the Group of Thirty according to which low interest-rate rates and money creation not only were not sufficient to revive economic growth, but risked becoming problems in their own right.

The flow of easy money has inflated asset prices like stocks and housing in many countries even as they failed to stimulate economic growth. With growth estimates trending lower and easy money increasing company leverage, the specter of a debt trap is now haunting advanced economies.

At the same time, we’re listening to a growing chorus, at least in the United States (first from Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard and then Fed governor Daniel Tarullo) against the prospect of changing central bank policy and raising interest-rates anytime soon.

Finally, Will Hutton (for the Guardian) warns that capital flight and bank fragility threaten to create new asset bubbles and the eventual bursting of such bubbles—and there’s no prospect of global coordination to prevent the resulting economic dislocations.*

The emergence of a global banking system means central banks are much less able to monitor and control what is going on. And because few countries now limit capital flows, in part because they want access to potential credit, cash generated out of nothing can be lent in countries where the economic prospects look superficially good. This provokes floods of credit, rather like the movements of refugees.

The upshot? My view is these three commentators are on to something, backed up by the research taking place within the IMF and other international entities. Clearly, they are concerned that the anarchy of production—the anarchy of both “real” production and of finance, within and across countries—and the absence of any new ways for central bankers to regulate that anarchy are creating new fissures and cracks within the global economy.

The problem of course is, the same search for profits mainstream economists and policymakers hoped would lead the recovery from the crash of 2007-08, along with the initially hesitant and then increasingly desperate measures central bankers have adopted to enhance the prospect of that search, now seems to be undermining that fragile recovery.

That’s the gathering storm they—and we—should be worried about.

*I do have one bone to pick with Hutton, who argues that excessive credit is created by banks lending out money based on existing deposits, which in turn is based on “the truth that not all depositors will want their money back simultaneously.” The latter may be the case but Hutton gets the order wrong: it’s bank credit that creates deposits (like fairy dust), not the collection of deposits that serves as the basis for the expansion of credit.