Posts Tagged ‘neoclassical’


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.


In discussing the textbook treatment of the minimum wage, James Kwak provides a perfect example of how contemporary mainstream economics “can be more misleading than it is helpful.”

Kwak refers to the problem as “economism.”* For me, borrowing from a different tradition, it is a case of “vulgar economics.”

The argument against increasing the minimum wage often relies on what I call “economism”—the misleading application of basic lessons from Economics 101 to real-world problems, creating the illusion of consensus and reducing a complex topic to a simple, open-and-shut case. According to economism, a pair of supply and demand curves proves that a minimum wage increases unemployment and hurts exactly the low-wage workers it is supposed to help. The argument goes like this: Low-skilled labor is bought and sold in a market, just like any good or service, and its price should be set by supply and demand. A minimum wage, however, upsets this happy equilibrium because it sets a price floor in the market for labor. If it is below the natural wage rate, then nothing changes. But if the minimum (say, $7.25 an hour) is above the natural wage (say, $6 per hour), it distorts the market. More people want jobs at $7.25 than at $6, but companies want to hire fewer employees. The result: more unemployment. The people who are still employed are better off, because they are being paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. But society as a whole is worse off, as transactions that would have benefited both buyers and suppliers of labor will not occur because of the minimum wage. These are jobs that someone would have been willing to do for less than $6 per hour and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than $6 per hour. Now those jobs are gone, as well as the goods and services that they would have produced.

That’s exactly the argument presented by Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw in his best-selling textbook Principles of Microeconomics. He uses neoclassical economic theory to distinguish (as in the figure above) a “free labor market,” where the market is in equilibrium and there is full employment, and a “labor market with a binding minimum wage,” where there is a surplus of labor or unemployment. In the latter, at a minimum wage above the equilibrium wage, the quantity demanded of labor (by employers) is less than the quantity supplied of labor (by workers). Thus, in his view,

the minimum wage raises the incomes of those workers who have jobs, but it lowers the incomes of workers who cannot find jobs.

Mankiw then supplements his discussion of the negative effects of the minimum wage by asserting it “has it greatest impact on the market for teenage labor.” Low wages, he argues, are appropriate for such workers because they “are among the least skilled and least experienced members of the labor force.”**

Only after presenting the model of unemployment created by a minimum wage and focusing on teenage workers does Mankiw admit that the minimum wage “is a frequent topic of debate” among economists, who “are about evenly divided on the issue.”***

Nowhere does Mankiw discuss the history of the minimum wage nor the determinants of either the supply of or demand for workers who are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work for a wage at or below the minimum wage. He is thus content, like many nineteenth-century economists, to “interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations.”

That is the very definition, in our own time, of vulgar economics.


*I hesitate to use Kwak’s term economism because, in my view, it signifies something different: the reduction of all social phenomena, in the first or last instance, to the economy (or some part thereof, such as the relations or forces of production). In other words, economism is an economic determinism—the positing of some kind of economic essence. The irony, of course, is that neoclassical economics represents an essentialism but of a different sort: it reduces all economic and social phenomena to a given human nature. Neoclassical economics is therefore a theoretical humanism.

**Later, he adds that such teenagers are “from middle-class homes working at part-time jobs for extra spending money.” Even less reason, then, to worry about such low-wage workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, minimum-wage workers do tend to be young. But they’re not just teenagers. In 2015, more than 2.5 million workers in the United States received wages at or below the federal minimum wage (3.3 percent of the labor force), of whom 1.4 million were 25 years or older (2.2 percent of the labor force).

***The 2006 survey Mankiw refers to was conducted only among members of the American Economic Association, the main organization of mainstream economists in the United States. It is interesting that the minimum wage is one of the few issues on which there was no consensus, even among mainstream economists. About 38 percent wanted it increased, while 47 percent wanted it eliminated entirely.


The stock-in-trade of neoclassical economists, like Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, is that free markets are the most efficient way of allocating scarce resources. Therefore, they spend a great deal of time celebrating free markets, and criticizing any kind of regulation of or intervention into markets.

Rent control is a good example, one that is taught to thousands of undergraduate students every semester. According to Mankiw, when governments establish price ceilings on rental housing, they cause a shortage of rental units. In the short run (as in the chart on the left above), when the supply of rental housing is fixed, the shortage may be relatively small. But in the long run (as in the chart on the right above), when both the supply of and the demand for rental housing are more “elastic” (that is, more sensitive to changes in price), the shortage grows.

When rent control creates shortages and waiting lists, landlords lose their incentive to respond to tenants’ concerns. Why should a landlord spend money to maintain and improve the property when people are waiting to get in as it is? In the end, tenants get lower rents, but they also get lower-quality housing. . .

In a free market, the price of housing adjusts to eliminate the shortages that give rise to undesirable landlord behavior.

That’s the world according to neoclassical economic theory. And in reality?

philly-income philly-poverty


Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love—aka the nation’s poorest big city, and among the most racially segregated—according to Caitlin McCabe [ht: ja], “is increasingly becoming a renter’s haven.”

But what happens when too many renters, many of them higher-income, flood the market?

In cities such as Philadelphia, lower-income residents feel the squeeze. And it could be getting worse for them

A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia shows that, as a result of gentrification, Philadelphia lost one-fifth of its low-cost rental-housing stock—more than 23,000 units renting for $750 a month or less—between 2000 and 2014.

Even more, the study found, the affordable housing that remains in the city is in danger, too—

since 20 percent of the city’s federally subsidized rental units will see their affordability restriction periods expire within the next five years. Of these rental units, more than 2,300 are in gentrifying neighborhoods.



The short-term result of gentrification and the loss of low-cost rental housing is that Philadelphia is now the fifteenth-most-expensive rental city in the nation, with a median rent (for a one-bedroom apartment) of $1,400. In the long run, the shrinking stock of affordable housing leaves lower-income renters saddled with higher rent burdens, greater financial distress, and insecure housing arrangements, which combine to reinforce residential patterns that are already highly segregated by income and socioeconomic status.

As the Philadelphia Fed explains,

The pockets of gentrification in Philadelphia appear to reinforce these patterns in several ways. First, gentrifying neighborhoods become less accessible to lower-income movers, limiting their housing search to more distressed and less central neighborhoods. Vulnerable residents who remain in these upgrading neighborhoods often face higher housing costs and are less likely to see improvements in their financial health. In addition, vulnerable residents in neighborhoods that are in more advanced stages of gentrification may even become more likely to move out of these neighborhoods. Each of these consequences of gentrification reflects the impact of increasingly burdensome housing costs, driven by losses of both low-cost rental units and units with subsidized affordability.

The market for rental housing in Philadelphia is increasingly becoming a neoclassical economist’s dream—but a nightmare for low-income renters in the City of Brotherly Love.


I’m always pleased when Marx’s critique of political economy and the theory of value are topics of discussion, especially since students are rarely exposed to those ideas in their usual mainstream economics courses. Their professors generally don’t know about any theory of value other than the neoclassical economics they learned and preach—and, as a consequence, students aren’t taught that there is a fundamental critique of the neoclassical theory of value that stems from Marx’s work.

The result is, in fact, quite embarrassing. When I ask students to compare Marx’s theory of profits with the neoclassical theory of profits, they have no idea what I’m talking about. The way they learn economics from my neoclassical colleagues, profits are competed away. “So,” I ask them, “what you have is a theory of capitalism according to which there are no profits”? Then, of course, I have to start all over, teach them the neoclassical theory of profits (as the normal return to capital, rK, where r is the profit rate and K the amount of capital) and only then explain to them the Marxian critique of neoclassical profits (based on s, the amount of surplus-value that arises through exploitation). I am forced to make up for mainstream economists’ poor understanding and explanation of their own theory.

So, good, we now have a new discussion of Marx’s approach—first in the form of Branko Milanovic’s “primer” and then in Fred Moseley’s response to Milanovic. Both are well worth reading in their entirety—and I agree with many of the ideas they put forward.

But I do have a few major disagreements with their treatments. Milanovic, for example, insists that Marx develops his theory through three kinds of production: non-capitalism, “petty commodity production,” and capitalism. I read Marx differently. My view is that Marx starts with the commodity and then proceeds to develop, step by step (across volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Capital), the conditions of existence of capitalist commodity production, which is the goal of the analysis. These are not different historical stages or kinds of production but, rather, different levels of abstraction. So, conceptually, Marx starts from one proposition (that the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the amount of socially necessary abstract labor-time embodied in their production), then proceeds to another (where the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the value of capital, both variable and constant, and surplus-value embodied in the commodity during the course of production), and finally to a third level (where value and exchange-value can’t be equal, since the price of production, p, now includes an average rate of return on capital).

My other two concerns pertain to both authors. Milanovic and Moseley assert that Marx’s focus was mainly at the macro level, “the determination of the total profit (or surplus-value) produced in the capitalist economy as a whole.” I didn’t understand that idea back in 2013 and I remain unconvinced today. As I see it, Marx focused on both the micro and macro level and in fact worked to make his theory consistent at the two levels. Starting with the value of individual commodities (as I explained above), Marx concluded that, at the aggregate level, two identities needed to hold: the total value of commodities equaled the sum of their prices, and total surplus-value equalled total profits. That’s both a micro theory and a macro theory, a theory of value, price, and profit at both levels.*

The second, and perhaps most important, idea missing from Milanovic’s and Moseley’s interpretations of Marx’s approach is critique. Both authors proceed as if Marx developed his own theory of labor value, instead of seeing it as a critique of the classicals’ theory of value (which, we must remember, is the sub-title of Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”). In my view, Marx begins where the classicals leave off (with an “immense accumulation of commodities,” Adam Smith’s wealth of nations) and then shows how the production of wealth in a capitalist society involves the performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.

That’s Marx’s class critique of political economy, which pertains as much to the mainstream economics of our time as to his.


*I don’t have the space here to explain how, for any individual commodity, the amount of value embodied during the course of its production won’t generally be equal to the amount of value for which the commodity exchanges. It is conceptually important that individual commodities have both numbers—value and exchange-value—attached to them, especially when they are not quantitatively equal at the micro level. It speaks to the fact that surplus-value is both appropriated (by capitalists from workers, through exploitation) and redistributed (among capitalists, within and across industries).


Mark Tansey, “Invisible Hand” (2011)

Yesterday, I explained that the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom because, through their neoclassical version of contract theory, they “proved” that capitalist firms—employers hiring labor to produce commodities in privately owned corporations—were the most natural, efficient way of organizing production.

It should come as no surprise, then, that mainstream economists—initially in tweets, then in full blog posts—have heaped praise on this year’s award.


Paul Krugman couldn’t believe Hart and Holmstrom hadn’t won the prize already, while Justin Wolfers considered them “an unarguably splendid pick.”

Tyler Cowen also expressed his conviction that the new Nobel laureates are “well-deserving economists at the top of the field.” (He then explains, in separate posts, the significance for neoclassical theory of Hart’s and Holmstrom’s research on the theory of the firm.) The other member of the Marginal Revolution team, Alex Tabarrock, follows up by criticizing the one instance in Hart’s work in which he actually criticizes private enterprise. Hart (in a piece with two other economists) argues one of the downsides of private prisons is that they sacrifice quality for cost—but, according to Tabarrock, “private prisons appear to be cheaper than public prisons but they are not significantly cheaper and the quality of private prisons is comparable to that of public prisons and maybe a little bit higher.”

And then there’s Noah Smith, who follows suit by praising “the new exciting tools that have been developed in the micro world,” including by the new Nobel laureates. He refers to that work in microeconomics as the “real engineering”—as against macroeconomics, “whose scientific value is still being debated.”

The fact is, the value of both areas of mainstream economics is still being debated, as it has been from the very beginning. There is nothing settled (except, perhaps, in the minds of mainstream economists) about either the theory of the firm or the causes of recessions and depressions, the determinants of a commodity’s value or the prospects for long-term capitalist growth, whether the labor market or the economy as a whole is in any kind of equilibrium.

Smith overlooks or ignores those debates, most of which occur between mainstream economists and other, nonmainstream heterodox economists. But then, in attempting to explain why this year’s prize went to microeconomists, Smith displays his real misunderstanding of the history of economics—arguing that “macro developed first.”

Economists saw big, important phenomena like growth, recessions and poverty happening around them, and they wrote down simple theories to explain what they saw. The theories started out literary, and became more mathematical and formal as time went on. But they had a few big things in common. They assumed the people and the companies in the economy were each very tiny and insignificant, like particles in a chemical solution. And they typically assumed that everyone follows very simple rules — companies maximize profits, consumers maximize the utility they get from consuming things. Pour all of these tiny simple companies and people into a test tube called “the market,” shake them up, and poof — an economy pops out.

Here’s the problem: macroeconomics didn’t develop first. Indeed, it wasn’t invented until the 1930s, when John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. This should not be surprising, given the fact that the world was in the midst of the Great Depression, with at least 25 percent unemployment, after neoclassical microeconomists (following their classical predecessors, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jean-Baptiste Say) had attempted to prove that markets would always be in equilibrium, which of course ruled out economic depressions and massive unemployment. Oops!

Since then, we’ve seen a mainstream tradition that combines (in different, shifting ways) neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics—a tradition that failed miserably both in the lead-up to and following on the second Great Depression.

But no matter, at least from the perspective of mainstream economics, because its leading practitioners—sometimes from the macro side, this year from the micro side—continue, as if by contract, to be awarded Nobel prizes.


source (pdf)

On one hand, Dave Elder-Vass is absolutely right: “we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of ‘many distinct but interconnected practices’.”*

As I have explained before, that view of the “iceberg economy”—which has been highlighted in the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham—represents a fundamental challenge to neoclassical economists, for whom

the entire economy is visible and consists of capitalist markets—or unwarranted constraints on capitalist markets, which should be eliminated. According to iceberg economists, capitalist markets are only the tip of the iceberg, and there’s a proliferation of noncapitalist economies below the waterline.

But Elder-Vass also uses it against Marxists who, in his view, see “one central mechanism in the economy: the extraction of surplus from wage labour by capitalists” and leave out ethical issues.

The problem is, while Elder-Vass credits J. K. Gibson-Graham, especially their book The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It), with the idea that unified, totalizing metaphors of the economy (like a “capitalist market system”) can make it difficult to think outside the box and imagine alternatives, he forgets that Gibson-Graham themselves used the categories of the Marxian tradition—including the idea of class defined in terms of surplus labor—to decenter the economy.**

He also overlooks the fact that Gibson-Graham (as well as others who have worked with and alongside them in the larger Rethinking Marxism tradition) have insisted on the ethical dimensions of the Marxian critique of political economy—which includes, but of course is not limited to, a critique of the social theft associated with capitalist and all other forms of exploitation (that is, areas of the economy—whether capitalist, slave, feudal, and so on—in which those who perform surplus labor are excluded from appropriating their surplus labor).

In fact, according to two of Gibson-Graham’s close associates, Jack Amariglio and Yahya Madra, ethics are central to Marx’s critique of capitalism and mainstream economics.*** But Marx’s commitment to communism is not governed by an actual model or a fixed morality. Rather, they argue,

The ethical is embodied in Marx’s enduring faithfulness to sustaining a critical position toward the existing state of affairs, not in his particular and changing dismissals of capitalism or in his obscure, partial formulations of the shape communism might take. The lesson of Marx is that, facing the abyss of an unknown communism, the ethical is the will to risk a different social organization of surplus.

To put it in terms of the iceberg economy, the ethical is the will both to recognize the noncapitalist forms of economy below the waterline and to risk a different social organization in which capitalist exploitation ceases to be the exclusive or even predominant mode of appropriating and distributing the surplus.

Contrary to Elder-Vass, then, seeing the economy “not simply as a capitalist market system” is consistent with the Marxian critique of political economy, including the ethical stance that is informed by and embodied in that critique.


*I will try to be careful here because I have not yet had a chance to read Elder-Vass’s book,  Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. I am relying, instead, on Daniel Little’s review of the book and Elder-Vass’s response.

**Gibson-Graham also borrowed from other traditions, such as feminism, queer theory, and poststructuralism to create their iceberg economy.

***See their entry on “Karl Marx” in the Handbook of Economics and Ethics, ed. J. Peil and I. van Staveren, 325-32 (Edward Elgar, 2009).


According to the norms of both neoclassical economic theory and capitalism itself, workers’ wages should increase at roughly the same rate as their productivity.* Clearly, in recent years they have not.

The chart above, which was produced by B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shows that labor compensation has grown slowly during the recovery of the U.S. economy from the 2007-09 recession. In fact, real labor compensation per hour in the nonfarm business sector was 0.5 percent lower 20 quarters after the start of the recovery, while labor productivity had increased by 6 percent.

Clearly, the gap between worker compensation and productivity has grown during the current recovery.


But the authors go even further, showing that the gap in the United States between compensation to workers and their productivity has been growing for decades.

labor productivity has been growing at a higher rate than labor compensation for more than 40 years. As Figure 3 shows, labor productivity in 2016:Q1 is 3.8 times as high as that in 1950:Q1; labor compensation, on the other hand, is only 2.7 times as high. In other words, the gap between labor productivity and compensation has been widening for the past four decades. The slower growth in labor compensation relative to labor productivity during the recovery from the two most recent recessions is part of this long-term trend. (reference omitted)

The data in Figure 3 show that the productivity-compensation gap—defined as labor productivity divided by labor compensation—has been increasing on average by approximately 0.9 percent per year since 1970:Q1. Based on this long-term trend, the gap would have been 51 percent higher in 2016:Q1 compared with 1970:Q1; in the data, the gap is actually 47 percent higher.

The fact is, labor compensation has failed to keep up with labor productivity after the Great Recession. But, as it turns out, there’s nothing unique about this period. The gap has been growing for more than four decades in the United States.**

Clearly, the recent and long-term trends of productivity and labor compensation challenge the norms of neoclassical economics and of capitalism itself. But we are also seeing the growth of another gap—between the promises of both neoclassical theory and capitalism and the reality workers have faced for decades now.


*Neoclassical economics—in particular, the marginal productivity theory of distribution—is based on the idea that the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and so on) receive in the form of income what they contribute to production. So, for example, as labor productivity increases, real wages should also rise. Similarly, capitalism is based on the idea of “just deserts.” That idea—that everyone gets what they deserve—is essential to the very idea of fairness or justice in the way the economy is currently organized.

**The authors’ analysis is based on the gap between labor compensation and productivity. If we look at real wages (as in the chart below) instead of compensation (which includes benefits, and therefore the portion of the surplus employers distribute to pension plans, healthcare insurers, and others), the gap is even larger.


According to my calculations from Fed data, since 1979, productivity has grown by 60 percent while real wages have increased by less than 5 percent.