Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

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Economic inequality is arguably the crucial issue facing contemporary capitalism—especially in the United States but also across the entire world economy.

Over the course of the last four decades, income inequality has soared in the United States, as the share of pre-tax national income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart above) has risen from 10.4 percent in 1976 to 20.2 percent in 2014. For the world economy as a whole, the top 1-percent share (the green line), which was already 15.6 percent in 1982, has continued to rise, reaching 20.4 percent in 2016. Even in countries with less inequality—such as France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom—the top 1-percent share has been rising in recent decades.

Clearly, many people are worried about the obscene levels of inequality in the world today.

In a famous study, which I wrote about back in 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans both underestimate the current level of inequality in the United States and prefer a much more equal distribution than currently exists.*

In other words, the amount of inequality favored by Americans—their ideal or utopian horizon—hovers somewhere between the level of inequality that obtains in modern-day Sweden and perfect equality.

What about contemporary economists? What is their utopian horizon when it comes to the distribution of income?

Not surprisingly, economists are fundamentally divided. They hold radically different views about the distribution of income, which both inform and informed by their different utopian visions.

For example, neoclassical economists, the predominant group in U.S. colleges and universities, analyze the distribution of income in terms of marginal productivity theory. Within their framework of analysis, each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) within perfectly competitive markets according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, inequality is simply not a problem, as long as each factor is rewarded according to its productivity. Since in the real world they see few if any exceptions to perfectly competitive markets, their view is that the distribution of income within contemporary capitalism corresponds to—or at least comes close to matching—their utopian horizon.

Other mainstream economists, especially those on the more liberal wing (such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty), hold the exact same utopian horizon—of just deserts based on marginal productivity theory. However, in their view, the real world falls short, generating a distribution of income in recent years that is more unequal, and therefore less fair, than is predicted within neoclassical theory. So, bothered by the obscene levels of contemporary inequality, they look for exceptions to perfectly competitive markets.

Thus, for example, Stiglitz has focused on what he calls rent-seeking behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets because some agents are able to capture rents that exceed their marginal contributions to production.** If such rents were eliminated—for example, by regulating markets—the distribution of income would match the utopian horizon of neoclassical economics.***

What about Marxian theory? It’s quite a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are diametrically opposed. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume and work to achieve), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts.” That’s because Marxian economics is informed by a radically different utopian horizon.

Let me explain. Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

That’s because the Marxian critique of political economy is informed by a radically different utopian horizon: the elimination of exploitation. Marxian economists don’t presume that, under capitalism, the distribution of income will be equal. Nor do they promise that the kinds of noncapitalist economic and social institutions they seek to create will deliver a perfectly equal distribution of income. However, in focusing on class exploitation, they both show how the unequal distribution of income in the world today is affected by and in turn affects the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value and argue that the distribution of income would likely change—in the direction of greater equality—if the conditions of existence of exploitation were dismantled.

In my view, lurking behind the scenes of the contemporary debate over economic inequality is a raging battle between radically different utopian visions of the distribution of income.

 

*The Ariely and Norton research focused on wealth, not income, inequality. I suspect much the same would hold true if Americans were asked about their views concerning the actual and desired degree of inequality in the distribution of income.

**It is important to note that, according to mainstream economics, any economic agent can engage in rent-seeking behavior. In come cases it may be labor, in other cases capital or even land.

***More recently, some mainstream economists (such as Piketty) have started to look outside the economy, at the political sphere. They’ve long held the view that, within a democracy, if voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income, they will support political candidates and parties that enact a redistribution of income. But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades—not in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France—and the question is why. Here, the utopian horizon concerning the economy is the neoclassical one, or marginal productivity theory, but they imagine a separate democratic politics is able to correct any imbalances generated by the economy. As I see it, this is consistent with the neoclassical tradition, in that neoclassical economists have long taken the distribution of factor endowments as a given, exogenous to the economy and therefore subject to political decisions.

NEWSWEEK FEB. 16 COVER

Just nine years ago, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, Newsweek declared that “we are all socialists now.”

Now, it’s true, editor-in-chief Jon Meacham demonstrated little understanding of the term socialism, identifying it simply with more government spending and regulation in a capitalist economy—something akin to “a modern European state.”

This is not to say that berets will be all the rage this spring, or that Obama has promised a croissant in every toaster oven. But the simple fact of the matter is that the political conversation, which shifts from time to time, has shifted anew, and for the foreseeable future Americans will be more engaged with questions about how to manage a mixed economy than about whether we should have one.

And that may be what millions of Americans—especially young Americans—think of when they express a favorable image of socialism. But I suspect there’s something more to it, and that their interest in socialism also includes a desire for less inequality and more fairness in economic and social outcomes and support for proposals that others (including probably Meacham himself) consider utopian: universal healthcare, free public higher education, large increases in workers’ wages, a guaranteed basic income for all, and so on.

But that still leaves us a large step removed from—and frankly far behind—the trenchant criticisms and ambitious projects of the utopian socialists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteen centuries. I’m thinking of such figures as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. They sought both to radically remake people’s understanding of how human beings and social relations operate and to transform society itself by designing new economic and social institutions, all in an attempt to improve the condition of the working-classes of the time. They criticized everything, from private property and the structure of the family to the role of money and the degradation of workers being forced to submit to their employers and then sought to correct those problems—not just by promoting more government involvement, but by imagining and implementing radically different ways of organizing economic and social life.

There is a great deal to admire, then, in the ambitious theoretical and practical work of that first generation of utopian socialists. And yet today, utopian is a label that is invoked to dismiss any and all suggestions that things could be radically different—that socialism, however defined (beyond, of course, Meacham’s restrictive conception), is simply a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, people continue to hold to the idea that Marx and Engels, still the most important source for contemporary socialist thinking, likewise dismissed the ideas of the utopian socialists as unattainable or fanciful hopes or schemes. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

The main source of that view is, of course, the Communist Manifesto—specifically, chapter 3 on “socialist and communist literature.” There, Marx and Engels do in fact refer to “castles in the air” and the “fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.” But they’re only talking about the disciples of the utopian socialists, those who in the middle of the nineteenth century continued to “hold fast by the original views of their masters,” because from the perspective of Marx and Engels they attempted “to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms.”

But the authors of the Manifesto held a much more positive view of the writings of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. Marx and Engels credited them with attacking “every principle of existing society.”

Hence, they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.

They used the utopian label to refer to the practical measures proposed by the early socialists—”such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the function of the state into a more superintendence of production”—that did not lead to “political action on the part of the working-class,” which by the mid-nineteenth century was beginning to take place.

The voluminous writings of Marx and especially Engels include many other discussions of the utopian socialists, many of them much more flattering than in the polemical Manifesto.

For example, Engels, of scientific socialism renown, wrote a series of articles on the development of radical social movements on the continent, between 1842 and 1844 in, of all places, Robert Owen’s periodical The New Moral World. They include this paragraph on Fourier:

Nearly at the same time with Saint-Simon, another man directed the activity of his mighty intellect to the social state of mankind — Fourier. Although Fourier’s writings do not display those bright sparks of genius which we find in Saint-Simon’s and some of his disciples; although his style is hard, and shows, to a considerable extent, the toil with which the author is always labouring to bring out his ideas, and to speak out things for which no words are provided in the French language — nevertheless, we read his works with greater pleasure; and find more real value in them, than in those of the preceding school. . .It was Fourier, who, for the first time, established the great axiom of social philosophy, that every individual having an inclination or predilection for some particular kind of work, the sum of all these inclinations of all individuals must be, upon the whole, an adequate power for providing for the wants of all. From this principle, it follows, that if every individual is left to his own inclination, to do and to leave what he pleases, the wants of all will be provided for, without the forcible means used by the present system of society.

We also need to take into account a much later text, the three chapters of Engels’s 1878 Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, which were published two years later as the famous pamphlet, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.”

There, Engels explains the appearance of utopian socialism in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries by the disappointment with the social and political institutions created by the “triumph of reason” of the French Revolution.

All that was wanting was the men to formulate this disappointment, and they came with the turn of the century. In 1802, Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared; in 1808 appeared Fourier’s first work, although the groundwork of his theory dated from 1799; on January 1, 1800, Robert Owen undertook the direction of New Lanark.

What follows is what can only be considered effusive praise for the ideals and ideas of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and especially Owen. Here he expresses his admiration at some length for Owen:

At this juncture, there came forward as a reformer a manufacturer 29-years-old – a man of almost sublime, childlike simplicity of character, and at the same time one of the few born leaders of men. Robert Owen had adopted the teaching of the materialistic philosophers: that man’s character is the product, on the one hand, of heredity; on the other, of the environment of the individual during his lifetime, and especially during his period of development. In the industrial revolution most of his class saw only chaos and confusion, and the opportunity of fishing in these troubled waters and making large fortunes quickly. He saw in it the opportunity of putting into practice his favorite theory, and so of bringing order out of chaos. . .Whilst his competitors worked their people 13 or 14 hours a day, in New Lanark the working-day was only 10 and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. . .

In spite of all this, Owen was not content. The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. “The people were slaves at my mercy.” The relatively favorable conditions in which he had placed them were still far from allowing a rational development of the character and of the intellect in all directions, much less of the free exercise of all their faculties. . .

His advance in the direction of Communism was the turning-point in Owen’s life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honor, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. . .But when he came out with his Communist theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage.

He knew what confronted him if he attacked these – outlawry, excommunication from official society, the loss of his whole social position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without fear of consequences, and what he had foreseen happened. Banished from official society, with a conspiracy of silence against him in the press, ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working-class and continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.

I could go on. Clearly, Engels admired both Owen and his utopian socialist proposals and projects.

There’s no doubt that Marx and Engels engaged in running battles with other radical (socialist, anarchist, and so on) thinkers of their own time, reserving particular scorn for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (best exemplified by the Poverty of Philosophy) but, even then, they retain their respect for the utopian socialists, both of which we can see in Marx’s 1866 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann:

Proudhon has done enormous harm. His pseudo-critique and his pseudo-confrontation with the Utopians (he himself is no more than a philistine Utopian, whereas the Utopias of such as Fourier, Owen, etc., contain the presentiment and visionary expression of a new world) seized hold of and corrupted first the ‘jeunesse brillante’ the students, then the workers, especially those in Paris, who as workers in luxury trades are, without realising it, themselves deeply implicated in the garbage of the past.

But we do know, of course, that Marx and Engels did in fact reject “utopian socialism” for their own time, in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the formation and development of the First International. On what basis?

As I see it, their rejection of utopian socialism (and their defense of so-called scientific socialism) rests on two main pillars: the role of the working-class and the project of critique.

There’s no doubt, Marx and Engels envisioned the movement beyond capitalism not in terms of realizing some ideal scheme, no matter how well inspired and worked-out, but as the task of the growing working-class. In other words, the idea was that capitalism produces its own grave-diggers. The growth of capitalism—the widening and deepening of capital—was accompanied by the growth of a class that had both the interest and the means to overturn the rule of capital. A class that could challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to criticize and eventually abolish the wages system itself and lay the basis for a different, noncapitalist way of organizing economic and social life.

Today, as capitalism continues to produce ever more obscene levels of inequality and to leave workers in ever greater depths of despair, we need both to defend utopian thinking—to recover the radical spirit of earlier utopian socialists and their critics—and to take up the challenge of defining what a socialism for our own time will look like.

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I have often argued—in lectures, talks, and publications—that every economic theory has a utopian dimension. Economists don’t explicitly talk about utopia but, my argument goes, they can’t do what they do without some utopian horizon.

The issue of utopia is there, at least in the background, in every area of economics—perhaps especially on the topic of control.

Consider, for example, the theory of the firm (which I have written about many times over the years), which is the focus of University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales’s lecture honoring Oliver Hart, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for economics, at this year’s Allied Social Science Association meeting.

One of the many merits of Oliver’s contribution is to have brought back the concept of power inside economics. This is a concept pervasive in political science and sociology, and pervasive in Marxian economics, but completely absent from neoclassical economics. In fact, Oliver’s view of the firm is very reminiscent of the Marxian view, but where Marx sees exploitation, Oliver sees an efficient allocation.

Zingales is right: Hart’s neoclassical treatment of control informs a theory of the firm that stands diametrically opposed to a Marxian theory of the firm. And those contrasting theories of the firm are both conditions and consequences of different utopian horizons. Thus, Hart both envisions and looks to move toward an efficient use of control within the firm such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents (workers) can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal (capitalists). Marxists, on the other hand, see the firm as a site of exploitation—capitalists extracting surplus-value from the workers they hire—and look to create the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

In my view, those are very different utopias—the efficient allocation of resources versus the absence of exploitation—that both inform and are informed by quite different theories of the firm.

As is turns out, the issue of control—and, with it, utopia—comes up in another, quite different context. As George DeMartino and Deidre McCloskey explain, in their rejoinder to Anne Krueger’s attack on their recent edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics,

When you have influence over others you take on ethical burdens. Think of your responsibilities to, say, your family or friends. And when you fail to confront those burdens openly, honestly, and courageously you are apt to make mistakes. As professional economists we have influence, and we do develop conversations about how we operate. Yet there is no serious, critical, scholarly conversation about professional economic ethics—never has been. That’s not good.

While the DeMartino and McCloskey volume includes contributions from both mainstream and heterodox economists (a point that Krueger overlooks in her review), it is still the case that the discipline of economics, dominated as it has been by mainstream economics, has never had a serious, sustained conversation about ethics.

Consider this: it is possible to get a degree in economics—at any level, undergraduate, Master’s, or doctorate—without a single reading or lecture, much less an entire course, on ethics. And yet economists do exercise a great deal of power over others: over other economists (through hiring, research funding, and publishing venues), their students (in terms of what can and cannot be said, talked about, and theorized in their courses), and the wider society (through the dissemination of particular theories of the economy as well as the policies they advocate to governments and multilateral institutions). In fact, they also exercise power over themselves, in true panopticon fashion, as they seek to adhere to and reinforce certain disciplinary protocols and procedures.

Economics is saturated with power, and thus replete with ethical moments.

Once again, the issue of control is bound up with different utopian horizons. Most economists—certainly most mainstream economists—are not comfortable with and have no use for discussions of ethics. That’s because, in their view, economists adhere to a code of objectivity and scientificity and an epistemology of absolute truth. So, there’s no room for an ethics associated with “influence over others.” That’s their utopia: a free-market of ideas in which the “truth,” of theory and policy, is revealed.

Other economists have a quite different view. They see a world of unequal power, including within the discipline of economics. And the existence of that unequal power demands a conversation about ethics in order to reveal the conditions and especially the consequences of different ways of doing economics. If there is no single-t, absolute truth—and thus no single standard of objectivity and scientificity—within economics, then the use of one theory instead of another has particular effects on the world within which that theorizing takes place. Here, the utopian horizon is not a free market of ideas, but instead a reimagining of the discipline of economics as an agonistic field of incommensurable discourses.

And, from a specifically Marxian perspective, the utopian moment is to create the conditions whereby the critique of political economy renders itself no longer useful. Marxists recognize that they may not be able to control the path to such an outcome but it is their goal—their ethical stance, their utopian horizon.

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And the Republican Congress. . .

The premise and promise of the House and Senate versions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are that lower corporate taxes will lead to increased investment and thus more jobs and higher wages for American workers.

Marx, it seems, would have endorsed the idea:

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! “Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.” Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity? If to classical economy, the proletarian is but a machine for the production of surplus-value; on the other hand, the capitalist is in its eyes only a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital. Political Economy takes the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest.

Except for one thing (as Bruce Norton has explained): Marx never presumed capitalists would follow any kind of fixed rule, including using their surplus-value to accumulate capital. That’s only what the mainstream economists of his day—classical political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo—attributed to, or at least hoped from, capitalists. They’re the ones who thought capitalists had a “historical mission” of accumulating capital.

As I explained to students in class yesterday, you only get the accumulation of more capital out of corporate tax cuts if you assume everything else constant.

Consider, for example, the general law of capitalist accumulation:

K* = r – λ

where K* is the rate of capital accumulation (∆K/K), r is the rate of profit (surplus-value divided by the sum of constant and variable capital, s/[c+v]), and λ is the rate of all other distributions of surplus-value (including taxes to the state, CEO salaries, stock buybacks, dividends to stockholders, payments to money-lenders, and so on).

So, yes, if you hold everything else constant, corporate tax cuts, and thus a lower λ, will lead to a higher K*.

But that only works if everything else is held constant. If capitalists choose to use the tax cuts to increase CEO salaries, stock buybacks, and/or dividends to stockholders, then all bets are off. The Tax Cuts part of the act will not lead to the Jobs part of the act.

And even if capitalists do use some portion of the tax cuts to accumulate capital, that will only result in new jobs if technology is held constant. However, if they use it to invest in newer constant capital (e.g., automation and other labor-displacing technologies), then again we’ll see few if any new jobs.

And even if and when new jobs are created, the effect on workers’ wages will depend on the Reserve Army of Unemployed, Underemployed, and Low-Wage workers.

Clearly, there are lots of hidden steps and assumptions between slashing corporate taxes and more jobs.

That’s why Donald Trump and House and Senate Republicans have decided not to even attempt to justify the tax cuts but only to ram it through Congress in the shortest possible time.

They pretend they’re taking “the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest” but, in the end, they’re just attempting to line their benefactors’ pockets.

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.

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.

 

political-22

To judge by Christopher Snyder’s attempt to defend contemporary economists, the answer is clear: nothing!

Yes, Snyder is right, economists have expanded their domain, to analyze such issues as art auctions and corruption. But then he goes off the rails.

That’s because the only kind of economics Snyder appears to know about and give credence to is mainstream economics—in terms of what he argues are the “core concepts” that underlie what he presumes to be all economists’ thinking.

What are those core concepts, around which all of us supposedly organize our theories and models?

For starters, Snyder thinks the most important one is “scarcity”:

Devoting resources to one project—say, preventing diabetes—means some other worthy project—curing cancer—goes unserved. So, in determining whether a choice should be undertaken, one of the functions of economics is to argue that its benefits should not be considered in isolation but weighed against its costs. Costs put a dollar value on what has to be given up when one choice is made over another.

But he never even considers the possibility that scarcity is institutionally created, not a given. And different economies are characterized by different kinds of scarcities, which are endogenously produced and reproduced. Thus, capitalism both creates and is characterized different scarcities from other economic systems, such as slavery and feudalism. Where is that in Snyder’s definition of what economists do and the core concepts they supposedly hold.

And then there’s “value,” which for Snyder “is the result of the interaction of several impersonal market forces,” illustrated in the usual fashion:

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But there’s no mention of long-run “natural” prices (of the sort classical economists such as David Ricardo or, more recently, Piero Sraffa focused on) or a class theory of value (emphasizing surplus labor, which Karl Marx developed in his critique of political economy)—or any one of a large number of other ways value can be, has been, and is being analyzed within economics.

Finally, Snyder, discusses “modern empirical research” and the attempt to uncover “true causal relationships rather than overinterpreting apparent correlations as causation.”

Uncovering causal relationships is difficult in economics. Opportunities to run experiments are limited by the expense and ethics involved in controlled interventions in markets (although these opportunities are growing, owing to an explosion of interest in laboratory and field experiments).

Once again, Snyder overlooks the many alternative approaches—concerning both “facts” and “causation”—within economics.

Sure, mainstream economists might claim they’ve finally solved the problem of “causal identification” (as they’ve claimed so many other times in the past). But they still fail to acknowledge the possibility that different economic theories produce different sets of facts. Nor do they consider the idea that economists actually use different notions of causation: some limit themselves to essentialist, one-way causation (from given causes to effects), while others, criticize essentialism and look at mutual effectivity (in which everything is seen to be both cause and effect).

The existence of different notions of scarcity, value, and causation within economics doesn’t prove that mainstream economists are wrong. It merely shows that reducing economics to a set of core concepts that pertain only to what mainstream economists do is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that’s the only set of concepts to which generations of students, who have been taught by mainstream economists, have been exposed. And Snyder just continues that tradition.

In the end, mainstream economists are good for nothing precisely because they exclude all other ways of thinking about and doing economics.