Posts Tagged ‘Minsky’

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.

 

 

Apparently, there’s a new documentary film [ht: ja]—Boom Bust Boom, directed by Monty Python’s Terry Jones—whose aim is to to popularize the work of Hyman Minsky.

Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.

This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external.

This is the latest attempt, in a long sequence since the crisis of 2007-08, to rediscover and examine the implications of Minsky’s work (which I’ve discussed many times on this blog).

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Most mainstream economists are not on the Left. Most wouldn’t know heterodox economics if it bit them on the proverbial nose. And most heterodox economists do identify with some kind of left-wing politics.

Yet, Chris Dillow (with whom I have found myself in agreement on many occasions) just can’t seem to disentangle the relationship among mainstream economics, heterodox economics, and the Left.

Let’s see if I can’t offer a bit of assistance. First, most mainstream economists with whom I’m familiar (at least the sort one finds in the U.S. academy) tend to locate themselves somewhere in the center of the political spectrum—some more to the liberal side (like Arrow, Solow, Tobin, and Samuelson, the economists named by Dillow), others to the more conservative side (like Mankiw, Cochrane, Taylor, and so on). But they’re certainly not on the Left, if by that we mean critical of the capitalist system and supportive of one or another kind of socialism (a pretty traditional definition of the Left for much of the past century, it seems to me).

Mainstream economists also don’t know much, if anything, about heterodox economics. Perhaps a previous generation did (if only for having studied the history of economic thought) but not the current generation. A friend of mine reported the following story from the most recent meetings of the American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association meetings:

On Monday morning I was hanging out in the exhibition hall at ASSA, at a table shared by Dollars and Sense and the Heterodox Economics Network. About once an hour, some professional economist looked perplexedly at the banner saying “Heterodox Economics” and asked what that meant. They genuinely, honestly did not know.

The current generation of mainstream economists don’t know because they weren’t exposed to heterodox economics as undergraduate or graduate students, it doesn’t appear in the journals they read, and they simply aren’t forced to learn about it. Ever.

Heterodox economists are in a very different situation. They may reject mainstream economics but, as I’ve written before, they have to know it—and know it even better than mainstream economists themselves. Why? Because they have to teach it (often alongside their own, quite different approaches) and they have to engage it in public debate (precisely because mainstream economics dominates the debate within the academy, the media and policymaking circles).

Finally, most heterodox economists do, in my experience, identify with some kind of left-wing politics. Not the Austrians, of course—although it’s not clear they’re not part of mainstream economics these days. But all the other heterodox economists—of the sort one will find on the Heterodox Economics Directory—are located somewhere on the Left (in the way I define it above). The names may have changed over time—when I was young, we were called “radicals,” now it seems “heterodox” is the more accepted term—but the support for left-wing politics doesn’t seem to have changed.

So, what distinguishes liberal mainstream economists from left-wing heterodox economists? To my mind, it comes down to focusing on market imperfections (which can, at least in principle, be fixed within capitalism) versus focusing on the problems with capitalism as a system (which require, for a solution, the creation of noncapitalist practices and institutions).

Here’s the definition of heterodox economics I gave back in 2010:

Heterodox economics comprises all those theories that academic economists and others use to criticize and develop alternatives to mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) approaches. Heterodox and mainstream theories differ in terms of their starting points, methodologies, and conclusions. Thus, for example, Marxian economists start with class and use Marxian value theory to criticize capitalism, whereas neoclassical economists start with a set of given preferences, technology, and resource endowments and use a framework of supply and demand to celebrate capitalism. The problems of capitalism and mainstream economic theories, now as throughout their history, create the space for and interest in heterodox approaches.

To practice that kind of left-wing heterodox economics means one does have to know something about Marx, Kalecki, Sraffa, and Minsky—because their work (and that of many others) constitutes the foundations (or at least some of the foundations) of nonmainstream, heterodox analysis.

Heterodox economists reject economic orthodoxy not, as Dillow believes, because they’re ignorant of what the orthodoxy is or because of some kind of halo effect, but because, when they look at the world through the lens of Marx, Kalecki, Sraffa, and Minsky, they see an economic and social system that continues to discipline and punish the vast majority of people in order to benefit a tiny minority at the top. They see, in other words, an economy that is inherently unstable, fundamentally unequal, and profoundly unjust.

Hence, heterodox economists see that another economics—another economic theory as well as another economic system—is both necessary and possible. Mainstream economists, for their part, don’t.

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My better half has insisted for years that I not be too hard on Paul Krugman. The enemy of my enemy. Popular Front. And all that. . .

But enough is enough.

I simply can’t let Krugman [ht: br] get away with writing off a large part of contemporary economic discourse (not to mention of the history of economic thought) and with his declaration that Larry Summers has “laid down what amounts to a very radical manifesto” (not to mention the fact that I was forced to waste the better part of a quarter of an hour this morning listening to Summers’s talk in honor of Stanley Fischer at the IMF Economic Forum, during which he announces that he’s finally discovered the possibility that the current level of economic stagnation may persist for some time).

Krugman may want to curse Summers out of professional jealousy. Me, I want to curse the lot of them—not only the MIT family but mainstream economists generally—for their utter cluelessness when it comes to making sense of (and maybe, eventually, actually doing something about) the current crises of capitalism.

So, what is he up to? Basically, Krugman showers Summers in lavish praise for his belated, warmed-over, and barely intelligible argument that attains what little virtue it has about the economic challenges we face right now by vaguely resembling the most rudimentary aspects of what people who read and build on the ideas of Marx, Kalecki, Minsky, and others have been saying and writing for years. The once-and-former-failed candidate for head of the Federal Reserve begins with the usual mainstream conceit that they successfully solved the global financial crash of 2008 and that current economic events bear no resemblance to the First Great Depression. But then reality sinks in: since in their models the real interest-rate consistent with full employment is currently negative (and therefore traditional monetary policy doesn’t amount to much more than pushing on a string), we may be in for a rough ride (with high output gaps and persistent unemployment) for some unknown period of time. And, finally, an admission that the conditions for this “secular stagnation” may actually have characterized the years of bubble and bust leading up to the crisis of 2007-08.

That’s where Krugman chimes in, basking in the glow of his praise for Summers, expressing for the umpteenth time the confidence that his simple Keynesian model of the liquidity trap and zero lower bound has been vindicated. The problem is, Summers can’t even give Alvin Hansen, the first American economist to explicate and domesticate Keynes’s ideas, and the one who first came up with the idea of secular stagnation based on the Bastard Keynesian IS-LM model, his due (although Krugman does at least mention Hansen and provide a link). I guess it’s simply too much to expect they actually recognize, read, and learn from other traditions within economics, concerning such varied topics as the role of the Industrial Reserve Army in setting wages, political business cycles, financial fragility, and much more.

And things only go down from there. Because the best Summers and Krugman can do by way of attempting to explain the possibility of secular stagnation is not to analyze the problems embedded in and created by existing economic institutions but, instead, to invoke that traditional deus ex machina, demography.

Now look forward. The Census projects that the population aged 18 to 64 will grow at an annual rate of only 0.2 percent between 2015 and 2025. Unless labor force participation not only stops declining but starts rising rapidly again, this means a slower-growth economy, and thanks to the accelerator effect, lower investment demand.

You would think that a decent economist, not even a particularly left-wing one, might be able to imagine the possibility that a labor shortage might cause higher real wages, which might have myriad other effects, many of them really, really good—not only for people who continue to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work but also for their families, their neighbors, and for lots of other participants in the economy. But, apparently, stagnant wages (never mind supply-and-demand) are just as “natural” as Wicksell’s natural interest rate.

And then, finally, this gem:

The point is that it’s not hard to think of reasons why the liquidity trap could be a lot more persistent than anyone currently wants to admit.

No, it’s not hard to think of many such reasons. But when the question is asked in the particular way Krugman poses it—in terms of natural rates of this and that, of interest-rates, population, wages, innovation, and so on—the only answers that need be admitted into the discussion come from other members of the close-knit family (and thus from Summers, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Gordon). All of the other interesting work that has been conducted in the history of economic thought and by contemporary economists concerning in-built crisis tendencies, long-wave failures of growth, endogenous technical innovation, financial speculation, and so on is simply excluded from the discussion.

It is no wonder, then, that mainstream economists—even the best of them—are so painfully inarticulate and hamstrung when it comes to making sense of the current economic malaise.

I’ll admit, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just a matter of professional jealousy and their not being able to analyze what is going on except through the workings of a small number of familiar assumptions and models. They talk as if it’s only their academic reputations that are on the line. But we can’t forget there are millions and millions of people, young and old, in the United States and around the world, whose lives hang in the balance—well-intentioned and hard-working people who are being made to pay the costs of economists like Krugman attempting to keep things all in the family.

What happens when Hyman Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis is read through a neoclassical lens?

Steve Keen explains:

My good friend and long term fellow rebel in economics Professor Rod O’Donnell once remarked that neoclassical economists are incapable of reading Keynes: they look at his words and then spout Walras instead. A similar phenomenon applies here: neoclassicals like Krugman read Minsky, and then proceed to build equilibrium models without banks, and think they’re modelling Minsky.

No they’re not: they’re creating an equilibrium-obsessed Walrasian hand puppet and calling it Minsky—just as they did to Keynes with DSGE modelling.

And I would add: just as they did to Marx, when his critique of political economy was taken to be a theory of market prices that corresponded to labor values.

Hyman Minsky’s papers are available here [ht: Naked Keynes].

That’s one less excuse for mainstream economists to ignore his work on financial fragility.

Update

And here’s a link to John Cassidy’s 2008 article on the relevance of Minsky’s “financial-instability hypothesis.”

Many of Minsky’s colleagues regarded his “financial-instability hypothesis,” which he first developed in the nineteen-sixties, as radical, if not crackpot. Today, with the subprime crisis seemingly on the verge of metamorphosing into a recession, references to it have become commonplace on financial Web sites and in the reports of Wall Street analysts. Minsky’s hypothesis is well worth revisiting.

This has to be a first: Hyman Minsky, whose work on financial fragility most mainstream economists have never heard of, is part of the Occupy Comics Anthology.