Posts Tagged ‘neoclassical’


Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.


When I ask my students that question, they don’t really have an answer. That’s because, like much of the rest of the U.S. population, they don’t have much experience with unions, either directly or indirectly—not when the union membership rate has fallen to below 11 percent nationwide and is only 6.4 percent in the private sector.

And if you pose that question to neoclassical economists, the response is: labor unions cause unemployment, by setting a wage rate that exceeds the equilibrium price for labor. According to the neoclassical story,

while union workers (“insiders”) may benefit, unemployed non-union workers (“outsiders”) lose out. So, their overall conclusion is, unions ultimately hurt workers and cause increased inequality. Unions should therefore be discouraged.

For my students who have taken a course in mainstream economics, that’s pretty much the only answer that will be offered to them.*

But what if we look back to the heyday of unions—to the period that begins during the first Great Depression (when the Wagner Act was passed and unionization rates once again began to rise) and extends through the 1950s?

According to a new study by Brantly Callaway and William J. Collins, who utilize a novel dataset compiled from archival records of a survey of male workers in five non-Southern cities conducted in 1951, unions played an important role in reducing inequality, especially at the bottom of the wage scale.


Thus, for example, at the 10th percentile, union workers earned 20.3 log points more than comparable non-union workers—while the difference at the median was smaller and, at the 80th, the difference turns negative.


For less-educated workers (those with less than a high-school education), the premium at the bottom was similar (at 19.1 log points) but the advantage persisted across all percentiles. And the union wage premium was relatively large, and it remained so, throughout the Black income distribution. The clear indication is that the emergence of industrial unions after 1935, which sought to unionize production workers along industry rather than craft lines, opened more better-paying union job opportunities for both less-educated and Black workers.


Callaway and Collins also conduct some counterfactual estimations concerning wage inequality, by looking at what would happen if union workers had been paid according to the non-union wage schedule. Their Table 4 (Panel A), shows that in terms of all measures—overall inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and the 10th percentile), lower-tail inequality (the difference between the 50th percentile and the 10th percentile), and upper-tail inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and 50th percentile)—inequality is significantly higher in the counterfactual “no union” scenario than in reality. In other words, the overall wage distribution was considerably narrower in 1950 than it would have been if union members had been paid like non-union members with similar characteristics.

As I see it, there are two lessons that can be drawn from the Callaway and Collins study. First, in terms of U.S. history, unions played a significant role in mitigating the effects of competition among workers, both raising workers’ wages and reducing inequality among workers. Second, with respect to economic theory, their research shows that simple supply-and-demand stories (which neoclassical economists use to attempt to explain inequality in terms of skills and levels of education) are profoundly misleading precisely because they leave out institutions.

One of the most important institutions in the postwar period in the United States, when economic inequality was much lower than today, were labor unions.


*If students were exposed to something other than neoclassical economics, they’d learn that unions do many other things, including helping non-union workers, through: (1) the threat of unionization (nonunion employers worried about a possible unionization drive may match union pay scales to reduce the demand for organization), (2) the ripple effect (like minimum-wage increases, union wage rates for production workers can lead to increases in wages for those above them, e.g., their managers), and (3) the moral economy (unions help institute norms of fairness regarding pay, benefits, and worker treatment that can extend beyond the unionized core of the workforce). They might also learn that, historically and by examining the experience in other countries, unions have often defended and promoted the larger interests of workers—in their enterprises (by demanding a say in decisions about such things as safety and jobs), nationally (by contributing time and money to political parties and campaigns), and internationally (by cooperating with and assisting unionization efforts in other countries).


I’m often asked—by students and readers of this blog—why I include Keynesian economics, alongside neoclassical economics, within mainstream economic theory.

The major reason I do so is because the mainstream debate within the discipline of economics is mostly confined within limits defined by neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics—between (as I explained last year), the conservative invisible hand of free markets and the more liberal visible hand of government intervention.

It’s basically what most students of economics are exposed to their in their micro and macro courses:

At the microeconomic level, capitalism (or, as liberals generally refer to it, the market system) has the potential of achieving an efficient allocation of resources. As for the macroeconomy, capitalism is capable of providing stable growth and full employment. Capitalism, therefore, promises the best possible outcomes both for individuals and for the economy as a whole.

Now, while conservative mainstream economists believe that efficiency, growth, and full employment stem from allowing markets to operate freely, liberal mainstream economists argue that markets are often imperfect and therefore the only way to achieve (or at least approximate) those goals is to intervene in and regulate markets. Those are the terms of the mainstream debate in economics, from the origins of modern economic discourse in the late-eighteenth century right on down to the present.

Keynesian economics was, of course, born as a critique of neoclassical economics, in the midst of the First Great Depression, when the allocation of resources was anything but efficient and capitalism provided neither stable growth nor full employment. Far from it!

Keynes introduced new ideas into economic discourse, emphasizing the role of economic and social structures (such as collective bargaining and, from later Keynesians, imperfect competition), mass psychology (especially with respect to investors and stock-market speculators), and fundamental uncertainty (it was impossible to make rational decisions in the face of an unknown—and unknowable—future).

However, as recent essays by Michael Roberts and Chris Dillow remind us, Keynesian economics has severe shortcomings.

While I think Roberts begins by overstating his case (I, for one, am not convinced that “Keynes is the economic hero of those wanting to change the world”), he does convincingly argue that Keynes’s economic prescriptions are based on a fallacy:

The long depression continues not because there is too much capital keeping down the return (‘marginal efficiency’) of capital relative to the rate of interest on money.  There is not too much investment (business investment rates are low) and interest rates are near zero or even negative. The long depression is the result of too low profitability and so not enough investment, thus keeping down productivity growth.  Low real wages and low productivity are the cost of ‘full employment’, contrary to all the ideas of Keynesian economics.  Too much investment has not caused low profitability, but low profitability has caused too little investment.

Dillow, for his part, explains that Keynes “was largely silent about three related issues: class, power and profits, or least he dismissed them lightly.” In a sense, then,

Keynesianism was profoundly conservative. In believing that technocratic governments could provide workers with decent wages and full employment, Keynesianism did away with the need for industrial democracy: one of the achievements of Keynes was to eclipse movements such as guild socialism. It wasn’t Keynes himself who said “the man in Whitehall knows best” but one of his disciples, Douglas Jay – and that encapsulated a key part of Keynesian ideology, its belief in top-down management.

Populism, of course, is a backlash against just this. That slogan “take back control” and the dismissal of experts represent a rejection of Keynesianism; the baby of decent macroeconomic policy is being thrown out with the bathwater of elitism. It’s far from clear that Keynesianism has the intellectual or political resources to fight back.

In my view, neither neoclassical nor Keynesian economics turns out to have the intellectual or political resources to effectively respond to the issues that motivate and resonate within contemporary populism. If anything, they have served to create the problems that have brought right-wing nationalist populism to the fore.

For good reason, both wings of mainstream economics have ceased to be persuasive.


Those of us of a certain age remember the right-wing political slogan, “America, love it or leave it.” I’ve seen it credited to journalist Walter Winchell, who used it in his defense of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. But it’s heyday was in the 1960s, against the participants in the antiwar movement in the United States and (in translation, ame-o ou deixe-o) in the early 1970s, by supporters of the Brazilian military dictatorship.*

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that slogan in reading the recent exchange between the anonymous author of Unlearning Economics and Simon Wren-Lewis (to which Brad DeLong has chimed in, on Wren-Lewis’s side).

Unlearning Economics puts forward an argument I’ve made many times on this blog (as, of course, have many others), that mainstream economics deserves at least some of the blame for the spectacular crash of 2007-08 (and, I would add, the uneven nature of the recovery since then).

the absence of things like power, exploitation, poverty, inequality, conflict, and disaster in most mainstream models — centred as they are around a norm of well-functioning markets, and focused on banal criteria like prices, output and efficiency — tends to anodise the subject matter. In practice, this vision of the economy detracts attention from important social issues and can even serve to conceal outright abuses. The result is that in practice, the influence of economics has often been more regressive than progressive.

Therefore, Unlearning Economics argues, a more progressive move is to challenge the “rhetorical power” of mainstream economics and broaden the debate, by focusing on the human impact of economic theories and policies.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well, Wren-Lewis, for one (and DeLong, for another). His view is that the only task—the only progressive task—is to criticize mainstream economics on its own terms. Even more, he argues that we need mainstream economics, because there should only be one economic theory, on which everyone can and should agree.

Now imagine what would happen if there was no mainstream. Instead we had different schools of thought, each with their own models and favoured policies. There would be schools of thought that said austerity was bad, but there would be schools that said the opposite. I cannot see how that strengthens the argument against austerity, but I can see how it weakens it.

The alternative view is that the discipline of economics has a hegemonic economic discourse (constituted, at least in the postwar period, by an ever-changing combination of neoclassical and Keynesian economics) and a wide variety of other, nonmainstream economic theories (inside the discipline of economics, as well as in other academic disciplines and outside the academy itself). Reducing the critique of austerity (or any other economic policy or strategy) to the issues raised by mainstream economists actually impoverishes the debate.

Sure, there’s a mainstream critique of austerity: cutting government expenditures in the midst of a recession reduces (at least in most cases) the rate of economic growth. But there are also other criticisms, which don’t and simply can’t be formulated by mainstream economists. From a Marxian perspective, for example, austerity (of the sort we’ve seen in recent years in Europe and even to some extent in the United States, not to mention all the other examples, especially as part of IMF-sponsored stabilization and adjustment programs, around the world) often serves to raise the rate of exploitation. Feminist economists, too, have lodged criticisms of austerity, since it often shifts the burden of adjustment onto women. Radicals, for their part, worry about the effects on power relations. And the list goes on.

They’re all different—perhaps overlapping but not necessarily mutually compatible—criticisms of austerity policies. They raise different issues, precisely because they’re inspired by different, mainstream and heterodox, economic theories.

Wren-Lewis, in his response to Unlearning Economics, wants to limit the debate to the terms of mainstream economics, which is the disciplinary equivalent of “love it or leave it.”


*There’s also the awful song by Jimmie Helms, recorded by Ernest Tubb:


It comes as no surprise, at least to most of us, that corporations are getting larger and increasing their share in many different industries. We see it everyday—when we buy plane tickets or try to take out a loan or just make a purchase at a retail store.

We know it. And now, it seems, economists and the business press have finally taken notice.

According to recent research by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely,

More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago.

That’s right. As Figures 1-A and 1-B above show, the level of concentration (measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index) has been steadily increasing over the course of the past twenty years, together with a decrease in the number of public firms.


And the average size of firms, as shown in Figure 1-C, has also been growing.

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.


Noah Smith is right about one thing: mainstream economists tend to use the word “capital” pretty loosely.

It just means “anything you can spend resources to build, which lasts a long time, and which also can be used to produce value.” That’s really broad. For example, it could include society itself. It also typically includes “human capital,” which refers to people’s skills, talents, and knowledge.

But then Smith proceeds, like the neoclassical equivalent of Humpty Dumpty, to make his definition of human capital the master—because, in his view, “it helps to convey some important truths about the world.”

Human capital, as I’ve explained in some detail before, is a profoundly misleading concept.

I don’t want to repeat those arguments here. But I do want to make two additional points.

First, if Smith wants to invoke human capital to say “education and skills are a form of wealth,” then why not include other ways people are able to earn more or less than their counterparts? Why not, for example, go beyond his reference to credentials (he has a Stanford degree) and intellectual abilities (apparently, he can do math well and write well) and refer to some of the other important ways people are sorted out within existing economic relations. I’m thinking of such things as gender, race and ethnicity, immigration status, and so on. They’re all ways workers are able to receive more or less income that have nothing to do with the effort they put into their jobs. Does Smith want to argue that masculinity, whiteness, and native birth are forms of human capital?

No, I didn’t think so.

Second, there’s the issue of capital itself. When capital is treated as a thing (which is what one finds in Smith’s account, as in most versions of mainstream economics), then it’s possible to forget about or overlook the historical and social conditions necessary for those things to operate as capital. Buildings, machinery, and raw materials, robots and computer software, even skills, talents, and knowledge—they only operate as capital within particular economic relations. Only when workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, only then does capital become a means to extract surplus labor from those workers. Once appropriated, that surplus labor then assumes a variety of different, seemingly independent forms—from capitalist profits to land rents, including payments to merchants and finance, the super-profits of oligopolies, taxes to the state, and, yes, the salaries of CEOs and supervisors.

But those payments are not “returns” to independent forms of capital, human or otherwise. They’re all distributions of the surplus-value that both presume and produce the conditions under which laborers work not for themselves, but for their capitalist employers.

They, and not the various meanings neoclassical economists attribute to capital, are the real masters.


It is extraordinary that the hegemonic economic theory in the world today—neoclassical economics—still lacks an adequate theory of the firm.

It beggars belief both because neoclassical economics is the predominant theory that is taught to hundreds of thousands of students every year and used to make sense of the world and formulate policy in countless think thanks and government agencies and because the firm (or enterprise or corporation) is one of the central institutions of capitalism. It’s where many (but of course not all) goods and services are produced, value and surplus-value are created, and profits generated for capitalists.

And yet the neoclassical notion of the firm, even when developed by Nobel Prize-winning economists (such as Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom), is not much more than an empty box—without any real history and, as it turns out, without any links to politics.

Daniel Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Director of Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, certainly thinks that’s a problem in terms of making sense of how firms came to be constituted historically and what their effects are on contemporary society.

Q: The neoclassical theory of the firm does not consider political engagement by corporations. How big an omission do you think this is?

 I think it’s an immense omission. For one, we can’t even talk about the historical origins of many firms without talking about corporate charters, limited liability arrangements, zoning, public contracts and grants, and so on. To view these processes as legal and not political is a significant mistake. I’m currently writing a lot on the history of petitioning in Europe and North America, and in areas ranging from railroads, to technology-heavy industries, to extractive industries, to banking, firms (or their investors) had to bring a case before the legislature, or an agency of government, or both. They usually used petitions to do so. 

 Beyond the past and into the present, there are a range of firm activities that we can’t understand without looking at politics. Industrial organization considers regulator-firm interactions, but does not theorize the fact that now most firms have regulatory affairs and compliance offices, or the fact that firms hire not just lobbyists but lawyers to do a lot of political work for them.

 And in the future, the profitability and survival prospects of many firms in the coming years will depend heavily, in a polarized environment, on the political skills of managers. The theory of the firm was developed in an era (1950s – 2000) when globalism was the rule. What might it look like if Trump and Brexit are the new norm?

Today, of course, many citizens are concerned about the corrupt links between the capitalist firms in which they work and the governments that are supposed to represent the people. In my view, that concern was one of the causes of the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.

The problem is, neither the post-Brexit British government nor the Trump administration has given any indication they’re going to solve the problem of the firm. Quite the opposite. Both have tied themselves to the very same capitalist firms that have wreaked havoc on society for decades now.

Meanwhile, neoclassical economists continue to build their models based on a theory of the firm that bears no relationship to the way firms operate in the real world, manipulating market rules and political actors to their own ends.