Posts Tagged ‘markets’

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René Magritte, “La clef des champs” (1936)

Plenty of illusions are being shattered these days, such as the idea that a successful recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression would keep the incumbents in power. A combination of lost jobs, stagnant wages, and soaring inequality put an end to that illusion. Much the same has happened to American Exceptionalism.

Noah Smith has just discovered another shattered illusion: the independence of supply and demand.

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Mainstream economists generally think about the world in terms of supply and demand—at both the micro and macro levels: supply and demand in the market for oranges or labor (which determine the equilibrium price and quantity), as well as aggregate supply and demand for the economy as a whole (which determine the equilibrium level of prices and output). Perhaps even more important, they think about supply and demand as acting independently of one another: a shift in supply or demand in individual markets (which lead to changes in equilibrium prices and quantities) as well as “shocks” to aggregate supply or demand in macro models (which determine changes in the equilibrium level of prices and output). The presumption is that a shift in demand (at the level of individual markets or the economy as a whole) does not cause a shift in supply (at either level), or vice versa.*

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As it turns out, the independence of supply and demand is just an illusion.

As I wrote back in 2009, it’s quite possible that at the micro level—for example, in the case of the labor market—both supply and demand are determined by something else, such as the accumulation of capital.

Thus. . .if the accumulation of capital leads to rightward shifts in both the demand for and supply of labor, wages may not increase (and quite possibly will decrease).

Therefore, supply and demand in individual markets aren’t necessarily independent.

And then, in 2013, I discussed the illusion of the independence of aggregate supply and demand.

In terms of the mainstream model, the collapse of aggregate demand leading to the crash of 2007-08 has also affected the aggregate supply of the economy—thereby shattering the illusion of the independence of the two sides of the macroeconomy. As the authors put it, “a significant portion of the recent damage to the supply side of the economy plausibly was endogenous to the weakness in aggregate demand—contrary to the conventional view that policymakers must simply accommodate themselves to aggregate supply conditions.”

Not only does the destruction of a significant portion of the future growth potential of the U.S. economy challenge the model mainstream economists use to analyze the macroeconomy and to formulate policy; it also forces us to question the rationality of a set of economic arrangements in which trillions of dollars of potential wealth (which might then be used to improve lives for the majority of the population) are sacrificed at the altar of keeping things pretty much as they are.

It represents the indictment both of an academic discipline and of economic system.

So, Smith is right: the shattering of the illusion of the independence of supply and demand means the way mainstream economists teach basic economics is fundamentally wrong.

What he forgets to mention, however, is that an economic system that is governed by supply and demand that are not independent of one another—and thus is subject to considerable instability on a regular basis, with the costs being shouldered by those who can least afford it—is also open to question.

Perhaps Tuesday’s results will serve notice that the time for challenging mainstream economics and the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists has finally arrived.

 

*There can, of course, be simultaneous shifts in supply and demand but the shifts themselves are considered independent of one another.

 

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Right now, lots of people—especially young people—don’t believe in capitalism. And so Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan takes it upon himself to make the counter-argument, that capitalism is actually good: because the “free market” fights poverty.

But it doesn’t. And it can’t.

What Mullainathan describes, when food banks bid on donations (pasta vs. fresh vegetables, for example), is not really a market. As I explained back in 2011, in discussing the work on market design by Alvin Roth and others,

what Roth and others are designing—for schools, kidneys, and so on—are not markets but something else. The nonmarket mechanisms they propose are useful precisely when markets fail or don’t exist, which is often.

In the case of food donations, what’s going on is different food banks (using a virtual currency) register their needs for different kinds of donations.

Food banks sought some items, like diapers, that “sold” at relatively high prices. Some food banks focused on bidding on these items, which had the effect of lowering the prices of staples, like produce. The neediest food banks were able to obtain these staples at bargain prices.

But that’s not a market. It’s just a way of iteratively registering (via a pseudo price mechanism) different availabilities and needs of donated food across the country.

Even if Mullainathan and others want to call it a market, it’s certainly not an argument in favor of capitalism or the market system. As classically defined (by, among others, Karl Polanyi), a market system is a form of social economy in which land, labor, and money have become commodified, and in which the rest of society is subject to the dictates of markets.

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It’s precisely such a market system that is responsible for creating mass poverty and hunger, in the United States and around the world. When people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and receive (if they are successful) low wages (and, when they are not successful, no wages at all), and when in turn they are forced to have the freedom to purchase food as a commodity, many of them (more than 15 percent of the U.S. population in 2014) become food insecure.* Food-insecure households are then forced to rely on federal programs (like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and, when such programs come up short, on private food banks.

So, large numbers of people find themselves in the situation where—because of poverty and food insecurity created by the market system—they need to turn to food banks in order to survive. And no story about using a “market” to allocate donations among food banks can overturn that particular economic truth.

 

*In addition, when people don’t have access to the housing commodity (including the land on which the housing is built), or when they don’t have direct access to the land commodity (especially in countries where small-scale agriculture is still the norm), then they end up living in poverty and finding themselves in a situation of food insecurity. Similarly, the existence of money as a commodity—in the form of mortgage credit, financial derivatives, and the like—has enriched a tiny group at the top and pushed many more people into poverty.

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Has the policy consensus on economics fundamentally changed in recent years?

To read Mike Konczal it has. I can’t say I’m convinced. While some of the details may have changed, I still think we’re talking about different—liberal and conservative—versions of the same old trickledown economics.

But first Konczal’s argument. He begins with a pretty good summary of the policy consensus before the crash of 2007-08:

Before the crash, complacent Democrats, whatever their disagreements with their Republican peers, tended to agree with them that the economy was largely self-correcting. The Federal Reserve possessed the tools to nudge the economy to full employment, they thought. What’s more, government programs, while sometimes a necessary evil, were likely to be an inefficient drag compared with the private market. Inequality was something to worry about, sure, but hardly a crisis, and policies were correspondingly timid and market-focused.

And it’s true: the debate about the conditions and consequences of the crash—after Occupy Wall Street, in the midst of the Second Great Depression—challenged that consensus, by focusing much more attention on inequality and disrupting the idea that the growing gap between rich and poor is somehow natural and necessary and by calling into question the idea that capitalist markets are self-stabilizing and full employment can be guaranteed by relying on markets.

In all honesty, that’s the least that can be expected, especially on the liberal side of mainstream political and economic thinking in the United States.

But then, when Konczal outlines the policies that make up what he calls the “new liberal economics,” embodied in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the current Democratic Party, the evidence is very thin. In terms of specific policies—like following the dual mandate for the Fed of stabilizing prices and maximizing employment and supporting paid family and medical leave—the new liberal economics looks a lot like the old liberal economics of the Great Society programs (and, for that matter, of the Nixon administration). And while the policies Democrats support are certainly different from those of current Republicans (which Konczal summarizes as a “mix of Kempism, austerity, and favorable taxes and regulations for businesses that characterizes Paul Ryan’s ideas” and “Trump’s agenda of mercantilism and a chauvinistic welfare state”), they aren’t evidence the existing policy consensus represents a radical change.

That’s because the consensus before the crash, and now seven years into the recovery, has been based on trickledown economics. On both sides of the political and economic aisle.

The overarching idea, shared by liberals and conservatives, is that the existing economic system—with the surplus being appropriated by a small group at the top, who then decide what to do with it—will eventually deliver benefits to everyone, including those at the bottom (through, e.g., more jobs and higher incomes).

There are differences, of course. While the conservative view of trickledown economics emphasizes individual decisions and private markets, the liberal view is based on the idea that individual decisions are constrained by larger institutions and structures and and government programs are necessary to achieve desirable social outcomes. But, in both cases, the benefits created by existing economic arrangements are supposed to start at the top and trickle down to the bottom.

The consensus before the crash was that the liberal and conservative approaches to trickledown economics represented the limits of the relevant debate about economic policy. And now, seven years into the recovery from the crash, the debate that takes place between those limits remains the policy consensus.*

So, to my mind, there’s nothing new about the “new liberal economics.” It’s just a different mix of policies that together make up the latest version of liberal trickledown economics.

 

*If the existing policy consensus has been disrupted, it’s only because Donald Trump has highlighted the fact that trickledown economics, in both its versions, represents an unfair hustle.

Joseph Stiglitz usefully explains that there’s more than one theory of the distribution of income. One theory, he writes, focuses on competitive markets (according to which “factors of production” receive their marginal contributions to production, the “just deserts” of capitalism); the other, on power (“including the ability to exercise monopoly control or, in labor markets, to assert authority over workers”).

In the West in the post-World War II era, the liberal school of thought has dominated. Yet, as inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works. So, today, the second school of thought is ascendant.

I think Stiglitz is right: with the obscene levels of inequality we’ve seen emerge over the course of the past four decades, the notion of “just deserts” is being called into question, thereby creating space for other theories of the distribution of income to be recognized.

The only major problem with Stiglitz’s account is he leaves out a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income (which the late Stephen Resnick begins to explain in the lecture above).

According to this class or Marxian theory of the distribution of income, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.

That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there is no monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.

But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: health insurance. In the case where employers are purchasing health insurance for their employees (the dominant model in the United States, at least for those with health insurance), those employers are forced to transfer some of the surplus-value they appropriate from their own employees to the insurance oligopolies. As a result, the rate of profit for the insurance companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).*

The analysis could go on.** My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over the distribution of income—a theory that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the grotesque levels of inequality we’re seeing in the United States today.

And, of course, that third approach has policy implications very different from the others—not to force workers to increase their productivity in order to receive higher wages through the labor market or to hope that decreasing market concentration will make the distribution of income more equal, but instead to attack the problem at its source. That would mean changing both markets and power with the goal of eliminating class exploitation.

 

*This is one of the reasons capitalist employers might support “affordable” healthcare, to raise their rates of profit.

**The analysis of wage or consumer goods would be a bit different. But I don’t have the space to develop that here.

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Special mention

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There’s no doubt, after the crash of 2007-08, students—including those in middle schools—could use more economics education.

Unfortunately, they’re not getting it. They’re just being exposed to propaganda.

“What is the basic economic problem all societies face?” April Higgins asks her sixth-grade class.

Ava Watson, raises her hand: “Scarcity.”

The teacher asks for a definition and the class responds, in unison: “People have unlimited wants but limited resources.”

Not bad for a bunch of sixth-graders.

What April Higgins is engaged in is not economics education. It’s just neoclassical economics.

You see, there is no single “economic problem.” It all depends on which theory we’re looking at. According to neoclassical economists, all societies in all places and times have faced the same problem: scarcity. And, of course, private property and markets are their proposed solution.

But that’s not the economic problem as defined by Keynesians (how to analyze and use the visible hand of government to get out of less-than-full-employment equilibria) or Marxists (how is the surplus produced, appropriated, and distributed and how can exploitation be eliminated) or many other schools of thought.

The fact is, middle-school economics education (like high-school, undergraduate, and graduate economics education) is dominated by one school of thought, one approach among many, that is presented as “economics.” In the singular.

And that’s because it’s run by the Council for Economic Education and stipulated, in some instances, by government decree:

The Texas education code states that economics must be taught with an emphasis on the free market system and its benefits.

Economics education, at any level, means exposing students to and having them grapple with the assumptions and consequences of different economic theories and systems. Focusing only on one approach and system—neoclassical economic theory and capitalism—is just propaganda.