Posts Tagged ‘neoclassical’

Alston

Last month, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (whose important work I have written about before), issued a tweet about the new poverty and healthcare numbers in the United States along with a challenge to the administration of Donald Trump (which in June decided to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council after Alston issued a report on his 2017 mission to the United States).

The numbers for 2017 are indeed stupefying: more than 45 million Americans (13.9 percent of the population) were poor (according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure*), while 28.5 million (or 8.8 percent) did not have health insurance at any point during the year.

But the situation in the United States is even worse than widespread poverty and lack of access to decent healthcare. It’s high economic inequality, which according to a new report in Scientific American “negatively impacts nearly every aspect of human well-being—as well as the health of the biosphere.”

As Robert Sapolsky (unfortunately behind a paywall) explains, every step down the socioeconomic ladder, starting at the very top, is associated with worse health. Part of the problem, not surprisingly, stems from health risks (such as smoking and alcohol consumption) and protective factors (like health insurance and health-club memberships). But that’s only part of the explanation. But that’s only part of the explanation. The rest has to do with the “stressful psychosocial consequences” of low socioeconomic status.

while poverty is bad for your health, poverty amid plenty—inequality—can be worse by just about any measure: infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more. Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.

It’s not only bodies that suffer from inequality. The natural environment, too, is negatively affected by the large and growing gap between the tiny group at the top and everyone else. According to James Boyce (also behind a paywall), more inequality leads to more environmental degradation—because the people who benefit from using or abusing the environment are economically and politically more powerful than those who are harmed. Moreover, those at the bottom—with less economic and political power—end up “bearing a disproportionate share of the environmental injury.”

Social and institutional trust, too, decline with growing inequality. And, as Bo Rothstein explains, societies like that of the United States can get trapped in a “feedback loop of corruption, distrust and inequality.”

Voters may realize they would benefit from policies that reduce inequality, but their distrust of one another and of their institutions prevents the political system from acting in the way they would prefer.

But what are the economics behind the kind of degrading and destructive inequality we’ve been witnessing in the United States in recent decades? For that, Scientific American turned to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz for an explanation. Readers of this blog will be on familiar ground. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here), Stiglitz criticizes the “fictional narrative” of neoclassical economics, according to which everyone gets what they deserve through markets (which “may at one time have assuaged the guilt of those at the top and persuaded everyone else to accept this sorry state of affairs”), and offers an alternative explanation based on the shift from manufacturing to services (which in his view is a “winner-takes-all system”) and a political rewriting of the rules of economic game (in favor of large corporations, financial institutions, and pharmaceutical companies and against labor). So, for Stiglitz, the science of inequality is based on a set of power-related “market imperfections” that permit those at the top to engage in extracting rents (that is, in withdrawing “income from the national pie that is incommensurate with societal contribution”).

The major problem with Stiglitz’s “science” of economic inequality is that he fails to account for how the United States underwent a transition from less inequality (in the initial postwar period) to growing inequality (since the early 1980s). In order to accomplish that feat, he would need to look elsewhere, to the alternative science of exploitation.

While Stiglitz does mention exploitation at the beginning of his own account (with respect to American slavery), he then drops it from his approach in favor of rent extraction and market imperfections. If he’d followed his initial thrust, he might have been able to explain how—while New Deal reforms and World War II managed to engineer the shift from agriculture to manufacturing, reined in large corporations and Wall Street, and bolstered labor unions—what was kept intact was the ability of capital to appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by workers. Thus, American employers, however regulated, retained both the interest and the means to avoid and attempt to undo those regulations. And eventually they succeeded.

What is missing, then, from Stiglitz’s account is a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income. According to this science of exploitation or class, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.

That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there are not market imperfections such as monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.

But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: Big Pharma. In the case where giant pharmaceutical companies are able to sell the commodities they produce at a price greater than their value, they are able to appropriate surplus from their own workers and to receive a distribution of surplus from other companies, when they pay for the drugs covered in their health-care plans. As a result, the rate of profit for the pharmaceutical companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can change their healthcare plans or cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).**

The analysis could go on. My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over growing inequality in the United States—a theory that is missing from Stiglitz’s article and from Scientific American’s entire report on inequality, a science that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the obscene levels of inequality that are destroying nearly every aspect of human well-being including the natural environment in the United States today.

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

 

*The official rate was 12.3 percent, which means that 39.7 million Americans fell below the poverty line.

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

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Nicola Headlam is, I think, right with respect to “how the rules of the economy are set”:

“Somehow, someone, somewhere made these rules up. They aren’t laws of nature.” And they determine “who’s got what and where and why”.

The question is, how do we teach economics so that that message gets through?

Aditya Chakrabortty [ht: ja] reports on one way of doing it—a makeshift classroom in a converted church, with nine “lay people” and two facilitators (Headlam and Anne Hines, who are donating their time), in the Levenshulme area of Manchester, England.

Part of what makes the course interesting, at least to me, are the participants:

Those doing the Levenshulme crash course don’t look like your typical seminar room attendees. Not only are they decades older; all but one is a women. The average undergraduate economics course, according to the Royal Economic Society, is about 67% male and 25% privately educated (compared with 7% of the population). After the class, a charity van pulls up outside, offering three bags of short-dated food for £6. Several “students” collect their groceries for the week.

Everyone here brings their own lived experience of economics. In her motorised wheelchair, Joanne Wilcock notes how “everything is much more expensive when you’re disabled”. Bang on, yet you hardly ever read that in an article on the latest inflation figures. Bhatt knows that Levenshulme is supposed to be gentrifying – “fancy cars, flash weddings” – but notices his neighbours can’t afford to do up their own houses. “All fur coat and no knickers!” he concludes, and the room cracks up.

Another is the pedagogy:

That impulse may now be dressed up in polite euphemism – but it lives on. “So many thinktanks and MPs come up with good ideas to change our economy, but they’re all stuck in their political bubble,” says the head of Economy, Joe Earle. “Ordinary people barely get a say in the thing that rules their lives.”

Contrast that with this class and its polite horizontalism, where no one is presumed to be a total expert and everyone is treated as if they have something valuable to say. . .

At the end of the class, each participant tells the rest the best thing they have learned. There’s a pause when it gets to Aklima Akhter, who only came to this country in 2013 and has been sitting so benignly quiet in her white headscarf. She starts haltingly: “It is difficult for me, you know … the subject, the language.”

All around her are faces pursed in little moues of encouragement, but then Akhter speeds up with fluency. “But my favourite word was ‘nationalisation’. Because when things are privatised it is the rich who get all the benefit.” And for once in this room, no one is laughing.

The contrast to the usual economics classroom couldn’t be more stark—in terms of both the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the students and the commitment on the part of the facilitators to recognizing the “everyday” questions and viewpoints the students bring to learning about economics.

The usual method, at least these days (and outside of for-profit colleges and universities, which tend to attract older students), is to teach mostly young male undergraduates (according to Claudia Goldin [pdf]) in a vertical manner.* What I mean by the latter is the presumption that the ideas students bring to the classroom are probably wrong, and need to be replaced by the “correct” methods and models. And, for the most part, that means pushing students through the chapters of a traditional textbook of economics, and therefore teaching them a narrow version of economics, consisting almost entirely of neoclassical and Keynesian theories, approaches, and policies.

That way of teaching economics has the effect of naturalizing a capitalist economy. First, it reduces the universe of relevant economic thought to contemporary mainstream economics. No other economic theories, now or in the past, need apply. (Nor, for that matter, should knowledges about the economy beyond mainstream economics, from either disciplines or from outside the academy.) Second, the methods and models are taught in a “common sense” manner. As I discussed back in May, markets have a magical, quasi-mystical status within mainstream economics. They are the original starting-point of neoclassical theory—presented as being “just there,” with the requisite price and quantity axes and supply and demand schedules, as the origin and focus of economic analysis. As for macroeconomics, which I discussed this past April, the premise and promise of both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability. In both cases, at the micro and macro levels, the rules governing the economy are considered to be natural laws, which are correctly captured within the models of mainstream economics—and then, of course, meant to be respected and obeyed.

As I explained in 2011, after 70 students walked out of Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics class, my approach couldn’t be more different (all of my course syllabi are publicly available here):

For almost 30 years, I have focused on teaching neoclassical economic theory, which I present both as one story about the economy among many and as the hegemonic story among economists inside and outside the academy. I start with economic history and then present neoclassical theory from its basic assumptions (such as the assumptions about human nature) through its most important theoretical conclusions and policy recommendations (such as general equilibrium and Pareto efficiency). Then, after I present some of the extensions of neoclassical theory (such as imperfect competition, game theory, and international trade), I discuss some of the basic criticisms of neoclassical theory (from the endogeneity of preferences through the concept of capital to the distribution of income), a couple of lectures on Marxian economic theory, and the consequences for theory and policy of the differences among economic theories.

Now, I understand, my approach to teaching economics is specific to its context (in an American research university, with full-time undergraduate students, during the past three-plus decades). It might not work in a Levenshulme community center or a labor college or elsewhere. But, even in those circumstances, I would insist on history (and thus highlight the radical changes in both economic thought and economic institutions over time) and a discussion of the differences among economic theories today (neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian, based on different entry points and methods), as well as the different theoretical and social consequences of those theories.

My hope is that students would learn, if nothing else, that the rules of the economy aren’t—and never have been—”laws of nature.”

 

*Chakrabortty refers to the fact that “Not so long ago, a Levenshulme resident could learn economics – or any number of other subjects – through the adult evening classes offered by the University of Manchester. The extramural programme stretched as far afield as Wigan and Burnley, and by the 1970s employed more than 30 academic staff. Then followed decades of cuts, until the entire department was shut down in 2006.” In the United States, students haven been able to study economics in a variety of settings, such as labor colleges (including the Work People’s College [1904-41] in Duluth, Minnesota, Brookwood Labor College [1921-37] in Katonah, New York, and Commonwealth College [1923-41] near Mena, Arkansas, as well as the National Labor College, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, which closed in 2014) and centers of popular education (including, still, the Center for Popular Economics and the Highlander Center).

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Austin O’Brien is a J.D. Candidate (Class of 2019) at the Fordham University School of Law and a former student of mine at the University of Notre Dame. He sent the following response to my recent piece on “utopia and markets,” which I am pleased to publish here as a guest post.

Dear Professor Ruccio,

I have been enjoying your recent blog posts on various dimensions of utopia. The one about “utopia and markets” struck a particular chord with me as I had my Corporations exam last Tuesday. Throughout the course, I noticed that corporate law itself has certain utopian elements. The very notion of a fiduciary duty to the corporation and shareholders (and creditors, when the business is on the brink of insolvency or is insolvent) enshrines the notion that an officer or director should maximize shareholder value, that is, the surplus to which they have access through their holdings and dividends. But, what I find to be most interesting is the flipside of this: it is not only the case that officers/directors should maximize value, but also that they are obliged to do so and, when a shareholder prevails in demonstrating that this duty has been breached, the breaching party must be punished. I think this counters the notion that profit-maximizing behavior is “natural.” The utopia that these duties try to build is one where officer/directors maximize (surplus) value at the behest of those who have claims on the surplus. So, the maintenance of capitalism takes extraordinary (legal) efforts just to compel officers/directors to act in the manner prescribed (as opposed to merely discovered or described) by neoclassical theory. Thus, the hegemonic economic utopian project is an active project that makes legal recourse an option when officer/directors take actions that do not allow investors to benefit from the exploitation that is at the heart of the firm’s consumption of labor power.

Let me try to explain what I mean. Corporate law is premised on the notion that it governs voluntary exchanges among sophisticated parties who seek to maximize profits.  Those individuals subject to corporate law are none other than the economic actors that fit neoclassical economists’ understanding of human nature: rational decision-makers who maximize utility or profits under conditions of scarcity. Well, that is at least the set of individuals corporate law deems itself to oversee. Perhaps it is more likely that this type of actor is the type of actor that corporate law intends to create. This rational actor is the dream of corporate law. Indeed, perhaps this homo economicus is proscribed by corporate law. In fact, if corporate law is largely in place to assist in profit-maximization, then this is the type of actor it must demand so that its project may succeed

The very heart of corporate governance lays bare corporate law’s project. At least with regard to the enforcement of particular norms among corporate officers and directors, the notion of a fiduciary duty is central to corporate law. Fiduciary duties arise in many contexts. In corporate law specifically, a fiduciary duty typically refers to the duty owed by a corporate officer or director to the corporation’s shareholders. The duty of care (i.e., the duty to make informed business decisions) and duty of loyalty (i.e., the duty to not use their position as officer or director to further their private interests) are hallmark examples of such a fiduciary duty. Now, the idea of these fiduciary duties is that they protect a corporation’s shareholders by ensuring that a corporation’s officers and directors are actually acting for the benefit of the shareholders and, more generally, the corporation itself. And what is the benefit of being a shareholder of a corporation? In short: a share of the profits. Shareholders benefit from a corporation’s increasing (rate of) profit(s), especially when profits are used to issue dividends.

This seems fairly innocuous at first glance. It is this mass of shareholders, after all, who vote for and elect the directors. And, it is this group of directors who select the corporation’s officers. But the tension is hidden in plain sight. If corporate law (and neoclassical economics) takes as given the idea that firms maximize profit and that such behavior is natural, then why the need to ensure that profit-maximization occurs? While corporate law is premised upon the notion that it oversees the activities of sophisticated rational individuals interested in profits, the ultimate scandal is when an officer or director is this very individual who behaves accordingly but to the detriment of the class that has claims on a corporation’s profits. See, the problem for corporate law is the possibility that a rogue officer or director might maximize their own gains to the detriment of the shareholders.

In trying to address this tension, corporate law, by way of imposing and enforcing fiduciary duties, unwittingly brings in class through the back door. One of the many problems with capitalism is, of course, rooted in the fantastical belief that self-interested individuals acting selfishly somehow bring about, in the aggregate, the best possible social results. Well then, why the need to punish these self-interested officers and directors? Shouldn’t it be the case that, by the invisible hand, capitalists benefit in the aggregate when capitalists act selfishly? The answer is, simply, no because capitalism is a class system that must be vigorously maintained to reproduce itself across time. In this case, it is maintained not only by proscribing (as opposed to merely discovering) how corporate officers and directors behave, and not only obliging them to act to the benefit of a specific class of capitalists, but also legally punishing such officers and directors when they do not act to the benefit of corporate shareholders. For the maintenance of capitalism, this is a necessary fix. It is a needed measure to build the neoclassical utopia by ingraining specifically neoclassical values into the decision-making of corporate officers and directors. So, when corporate officers and directors do act for the benefit of the corporate shareholders, they are not doing so because of some innate nature, but rather according to a specifically proscribed set of values that are enforced by the specter of shareholders seeking legal recourse for a breach of a fiduciary duty.

It becomes increasingly clear that corporate law itself is an active project shaping the way corporate actors behave as economic agents. In the end, if corporate shareholders are not able to successfully lay claim to a share of the profits arising out of the private and productive consumption of labor power, then what good is it to be a capitalist? For capitalism to (re-)produce itself across time and space while maintaining legitimacy within the capitalist class itself, capitalists must be able to do as capitalists do: extract surplus-value from the production process through the consumption of labor power.

Thus, celebrating when ill-behaved corporate directors are caught and punished as if such a victory is yet one more blow to the legitimacy of capitalism misses the point: punishing such actors maintains, indeed even reinforces and reinvigorates, the capitalist organization of society. Shareholders taking legal actions for a director’s or officer’s breach of a fiduciary duty is part and parcel of furthering the utopia envisioned by neoclassical economists. The ideal corporate officer or director, according to the neoclassical utopian vision, is a quasi-religious one that directly contradicts the neoclassical view of human nature: an officer or director who acts selflessly to the benefit of the shareholders. Of course, such directors and officers are far and few between. It should then come as no surprise that corporate directors regularly bestow lavish compensation packages upon corporate officers to ensure that these officers take actions to maximize (surplus) value for shareholders. And, if a director or officer does breach their duties, they are a bad capitalist who are nearly certain to be replaced by a good capitalist, that is, one who maximizes corporate profits. So, a bad corporate actor, at least in the terms of corporate law, is really an actor who fails to uphold specifically neoclassical values that sustain the capitalist system of relations. And one should not forget that, in light of the Marxian critique of these capitalist social relations, this fight over profits is a fight over the surplus-value extracted from workers.

Perhaps one can readily imagine a different set of values and an alternative alignment of duties. Imagine a scenario in which workers are the shareholders and elect the boards of directors. This would be remarkably different. Rather than being incentivized to further extract value in the consumption of labor power, directors (and their corporations’ duly appointed officers) would have an incentive to reward workers with the value created by the workers’ very labor. But this is antithetical to capitalism and corporate law as they stand today. This set of values would turn the system on its head. And turning this system on its head means first pointing out corporate law’s blind spots, tensions, contradictions, and values that it takes for granted yet furthers in its quest to build a very particular vision of society. This task of criticism is rooted in the recognition that corporate law actively maintains capitalism all the while providing active measures to bring legal actions to those with claims on the surplus against those officers and directors who stand in the way of shareholders enjoying the fruits of others’ labor.

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From the beginning, mainstream macroeconomics has been a battleground between the visible and the invisible hand.

Keynesian macroeconomics, represented on the left-hand side of the chart above, has an aggregate supply curve with a long horizontal section at levels of output (Y or real GDP) below full employment (Yfe). What this means is that the aggregate demand determines the actual level of output, which can be and often is at less than full employment (e.g., when AD falls from AD1 to AD2, output to Y1, and prices to P2), with no necessary tendency to return to full employment and price stability. Therefore, according to Keynesian economists, the visible hand of government needs to step in and, through a combination of fiscal and monetary policy, move the economy toward full employment (at Yfe) and stable prices (at P1).

Neoclassical macroeconomists, like their classical predecessors, have a very different view of the macroeconomy, which is represented on the right-hand side of the chart. They start with a vertical aggregate supply curve at a level of output corresponding to full employment. Therefore, according to their theory—often referred to as Say’s Law or “supply creates its own demand”—aggregate demand does not determine the level of output; instead, it determines only the price level. Thus, for example, if aggregate demand falls (e.g., from AD1 to AD2), output does not change (it remains at Yfe)—only the price level falls (from P1 to P2). On the neoclassical view, the invisible hand of the market maintains full employment (through the labor market) and reverses price deflation (through the so-called real-balance effect) by boosting aggregate demand (back to AD1 from AD2).

Anyone who has read or heard the intense debates concerning capitalism’s recurrent crises, recently and going back to the 1930s, knows that there are significant theoretical and policy differences between Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomists. For example, Keynesians focus on uncertainty (especially the uncertain knowledge of investors) and the important role of government (especially fiscal) policy, while neoclassicals emphasize the supply side (especially the role of correct “factor prices,” particularly wages) and the necessity of getting government out of the way of markets (relying, instead, on rules-driven monetary policy).*

But there are equally significant similarities between the two approaches. For example, both Keynesian and neoclassical economists tend to blame economic downturns on exogenous events. There is nothing in either theory that recognizes capitalism’s inherent instability. Instead, mainstream macroeconomists of both stripes direct their attention to equilibrium outcomes—of less-than-full employment in the case of Keynesians, of full employment for neoclassicals—such that only something outside the model can shift the underlying variables and cause the economy to move away from equilibrium. That’s why neither group was able to foresee the crash of 2007-08, let alone the other eighteen recessions and depressions that have haunted capitalism during the past century. Their theories literally don’t include the possibility, endogenously created, of capitalism’s ongoing crises.

There’s another, perhaps even more important, similarity I want to draw attention to here: their shared utopianism. The premise and promise of both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability. Those are the shared goals of the two theories. And their criteria of success. Thus, each group of macroeconomists is able to claim a position of expertise when the actual performance of the economy achieves, or at least moves closer and closer to, a utopia characterized by levels of output and a price level that corresponds to full employment and price stability.

It is precisely in this sense that the economic utopianism of mainstream macroeconomics conditions and is conditioned by an epistemological utopianism. Because they know how the macroeconomy works—because of their theoretical and modeling certainty—both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomists claim for themselves the mantle of scientific superiority. These are the lords of macroeconomic policy, domestically and internationally, moving back and forth among their positions as academics, corporate advisers, and policy experts. Hence the persistent claim on both sides that, if only the politicians and policymakers listened to them and adopted the correct economic policies, everything would be fine. Not to mention the ongoing complaints, again on the part of both groups of mainstream macroeconomists, that their advice has been ignored.

That, of course, is where the critique of mainstream macroeconomics begins—with a radically different utopian horizon. When the explanations and policies of either side are said to have failed, there’s a shift to the opposing viewpoint. Thus, for example, neoclassical macroeconomics held sway (in the United States and elsewhere) in the run-up to the crash of 2007-08—just as it had in the years preceding the first Great Depression. Leading macroeconomists and their students had moved away from and largely ignored anything that had to do with Keynesian macroeconomics (including, most notably, Hyman Minsky’s writings on financial instability). Then, of course, the tables were turned and at least some mainstream macroeconomists went back and discovered (many for the first time) the theories and policies associated with the Keynesian tradition.

It’s a familiar back-and-forth pendulum swing that we’ve seen in many other countries, in other times. From neoclassical free markets and deregulation to government stimulus and one or another form of reregulation—and back again. But we also need to recognize that the failures of mainstream macroeconomics, when examined from an alternative perspective, have actually succeeded. As I wrote back in 2010, the failure of neoclassical macroeconomists were apparent to many: they

failed to see the onset of the current crises; they have had little to offer in terms of understanding how the crises occurred even after the fact; and they certainly haven’t had much in the way of good policy advice to solve the problems of unemployment, poverty, and inequality. . .

On another level, mainstream economists have succeeded. Not only have they maintained their hegemony within the discipline; their models and policy advice have kept the discussion confined to tinkering with the existing set of capitalist institutions. In terms of policy: a bail-out of Wall Street and a mild set of financial reforms, a small stimulus program, and an expansionary monetary policy. And intellectually: a rediscovery of Keynes and an allowance of behavioral approaches to finance. They haven’t proposed even the public works programs and financial reorganization of the New Deal, let alone an honest debate about capitalism itself.

In this sense, the continued failure of mainstream economists has become a success for capitalism.

That’s why we need to question the shared utopianism of the two sides of mainstream macroeconomics. What has gone missing from much of the current debate, even outside the mainstream, is that full employment and price stability are consistent with the worst abuses of contemporary capitalism. As David Leonhardt recently explained,

The headlines may talk about growth, but we are living in a dark economic era. For most families, income and wealth have stagnated in recent decades, barely keeping pace with inflation. Nearly all the bounty of the economy’s growth has flowed to the affluent.

And if you somehow doubt the economic data, it’s worth looking at the many other alarming signs. “Deaths of despair” have surged. For Americans without a bachelor’s degree, one social indicator after another — obesity, family structure, life expectancy — has deteriorated.

There has been no period since the Great Depression with this sort of stagnation. It is the defining problem of our age, the one that aggravates every other problem. It has made people anxious and angry. It has served as kindling for bigotry. It is undermining America’s vaunted optimism.

In fact, an even stronger argument can be made: the various attempts to move the economy toward full employment and price stability have created the conditions whereby capitalism has both broadened and deepened its presence and made the lives of the vast majority of people even more unstable and insecure.

The utopianism of mainstream macroeconomics represents a dystopia for “most families” attempting to survive within contemporary capitalism.

What’s left then is a critique of the assumptions and consequences of mainstream macroeconomics—of both neoclassical and Keynesian economic theories. The goal is not just to tinker with the theories (e.g., by bringing finance into the discussion) or the policies (such as technocratic changes to the tax code and raising the level of productivity). Recognizing how narrow the existing discourse has become means we need to question the entire edifice of mainstream macroeconomics, including its utopian promise of full employment and price stability.

Only then can we begin to recognize how bad things have gotten under both the successes and failures of mainstream macroeconomics and to imagine and invent a radically different set of economic institutions.

That’s the only utopian horizon currently worth pursuing.

 

*Throughout I refer to two groups of Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomists. But, of course, both theories have changed over time. Today, the two opposing sides of mainstream macroeconomics are constituted by new Keynesian and new classical theories, with increased attention to the “microfoundations” of macroeconomics. The former emphasizes market imperfections (such as price stickiness and imperfect competition), while the latter dismisses the relevance of market imperfections (and emphasizes, instead, flexible prices and rational expectations). And then, of course, there’s the ever-shifting middle ground, which is the basis of a macroeconomics according to which new Keynesian and new classical are both valid, at different points in the business cycle. Like the earlier neoclassical synthesis, the middle ground of “new consensus macroeconomics” is the approach presented to most students of economics.

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General views of Seattle-based grafitti artists Jonathan Matas and Zach Rockstad's mural called "Up and Down" depicting Karl Marx and Adam Smith located on Mott Street just north of Houston Street in

Mainstream economists refer to it as price theory, everyone else value theory. But whatever it’s called, it’s at the center of economists’ differing explanations of what happens in (and alongside) markets.

As I see it, price/value theory serves as the framework to explain a wide range of phenomena, from how and for how much commodities are exchanged in markets through the determinants of the distribution of incomes to the outcomes—for the economy and society as a whole—of the allocation of resources and commodities through markets.

And each price/value theory has a utopian dimension. It’s not just an accounting for and an explanation of the conditions and consequences of commodity exchange; it’s also a way of thinking about the fairness and justice of markets. It therefore informs (and is informed by) a utopian horizon within and beyond markets.

Let me explain. Mainstream economists today generally rely on a price theory that has been produced, disseminated, and revised by neoclassical economists in a tradition that dates from the late-nineteenth century. Students know it as what they learn in the typical microeconomics course, the rest of us by the celebration of free markets in mainstream theory and policy.*

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The starting point of neoclassical value theory is that commodities exchange on markets at a price (p*) that is determined by supply and demand.** But that’s only the beginning. According to neoclassical economists, supply and demand are ultimately determined by human nature—a combination of tastes and preferences (utility), know-how (technology), and resources (factor endowments)—which are taken as given or exogenous.

And that leads to one of the major conclusions of neoclassical theory: the prices of goods and services, as well as the distribution of income, are ultimately determined by—and therefore reflect—human nature. That’s important because, if for whatever reason you don’t like the existing set of prices of commodities or the distribution of income, you face the formidable task of changing human nature.

Other significant conclusions also follow from neoclassical price theory, including:

  • Everyone gets what they pay for (since price is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities).
  • Everyone is equal (since, via the invisible hand, everyone’s marginal rate of substitution is equal to that of everyone else).
  • Everyone benefits from markets (since utility-maximation and profit-maximization lead to Pareto efficiency, i.e., a situation in which no one can be made better off without making someone worse off).

That’s an extraordinary set of conclusions—about commodities, markets, and capitalism—which is why, as I explain to my students, so much theoretical work has to be done to go from the initial assumptions to the final results.

That set of conclusions is the basis of the utopianism of neoclassical price theory.  According to neoclassical economists, the capitalist distribution of income is fundamentally fair. If every factor of production (e.g., capital and labor) is remunerated according to its marginal contribution to production, and each individual sells to firms the amount of each factor they desire (because of utility-maximization), the resulting distribution represents “just deserts.” It’s fair on an individual level and it represents justice for society as a whole. Let free markets operate, without any external intervention (e.g., by the state), and the result will be both fair and just.

It’s that powerful conclusion that serves as the starting point for value theory, the critique of the core of mainstream economics—with, of course, very different results.

Take the case of Marxian value theory. Marxian economists accept the notions of fairness and justice, a standard upheld by mainstream economists, and then shows that commodities and markets can’t but fail to achieve those goals. They do this, first, by showing that every commodity has two numbers attached to it—exchange-value and value—not just the one—price—and showing how those two numbers are equal only under a very particular set of assumptions. Then, second, they demonstrate that, even if the two numbers are equal (such that the form of value in exchange equals the value of commodities in production), the production of commodities is based on a “social theft,” that is, the exploitation of workers.

Here’s the idea: assume that all commodities exchange at their values (that is, the kind of world—of free markets, private property, perfect information, and so on—presumed by mainstream economists). Labor power, too, is allowed to be bought and sold at its value. But after the value of labor power is realized in exchange and is set to work, more value is extracted than it costs employers to purchase it. In other words, an extra value—a surplus-value—is created by laborers (during the course of production) and appropriated by capitalists (and then realized, when the finished commodities are sold, in exchange).

My view is that the critique of capitalist class exploitation forms the utopian horizon of Marxian value theory. Since exploitation violates the social norms of fairness and justice (of “just deserts,” i.e., that everyone within capitalism gets what they deserve), it points in a quite different direction: the possibility of creating the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

The differences between neoclassical price theory and Marxian value theory couldn’t be more stark. The differences are even more dramatic when we compare their utopian horizons. Whereas neoclassical price theory leads to a utopian celebration of capitalist markets, Marxian value theory both informs and is informed by a utopian critique of capitalist exploitation—and therefore a movement beyond capitalism.

In both cases—neoclassical price and Marxian value theory—the story about commodity exchange, and therefore the analysis of the form that wealth takes under capitalism, has a utopian dimension. The two theories have that in common. Where they differ is the form that utopian dimension takes. Neoclassical price theory is guided by a utopianism according to which free markets and private property represent the best possible way of organizing an economy—and therefore should be created and defended by any means necessary. Marxian value theory, as I interpret it, serves as a critique of all such utopianisms. It marks their failure, on their own terms, and points in a different direction—toward the possibility (but certainly not the necessity) of eliminating the exploitation that serves as the basis of capitalist wealth, and therefore of creating a different standard of fairness and justice.

As is well known, for generations of Marxian economists that utopian horizon has been summarized as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

 

*To be clear, modern neoclassical price theory extends some important aspects of the theory originally elaborated by Adam Smith—such as the focus on individuals and the general praise for free markets—but it also represents a fundamental break from Smith’s theory—especially from the classical labor theory of value Smith and other classical economists (such as David Ricardo) utilized.

**It’s actually a pretty complicated set of steps, which most students are never taught. The key is that p*, the equilibrium price, is determined not just by supply and demand, but by the imposition of a third condition—a market-clearing equation—such that the quantity supplied is arbitrarily assumed to be equal to the quantity demanded.

 

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The dystopia of the American healthcare system certainly invites a utopian response—a ruthless criticism as well as a vision of an alternative.

As I showed last week, the left-wing response involves a critique of the conditions and consequences of the capitalist organization of U.S. healthcare and the fashioning of a radical alternative. Single-payer, which uses tax revenues to finance the purchase of adequate healthcare services for everyone, is one possibility. On top of that, it is necessary to expand the diversity of healthcare providers, which would include more democratic, cooperative or worker-owned healthcare enterprises.

That’s how activists, educators, and policymakers informed by heterodox economics can begin to rethink the U.S. healthcare system. What about mainstream economics?

Given the persistent attacks on and attempts to replace Obamacare by Republican legislators—against a “government takeover” of healthcare in the name of “free markets”—one would expect mainstream economists to provide a theoretical justification based on their usual utopianism—of an efficient allocation of scarce resources in an economy characterized by private property and individual decisions in unregulated markets.

However, as it turns out, they can’t. And that’s all because of Kenneth Arrow.

Consider, for example, the 2017 New York Times column by Greg Mankiw.

In Econ 101, students learn that market economies allocate scarce resources based on the forces of supply and demand. In most markets, producers decide how much to offer for sale as they try to maximize profit, and consumers decide how much to buy as they try to achieve the best standard of living they can. Prices adjust to bring supply and demand into balance. Things often work out well, with little role left for government. Hence, Adam Smith’s vaunted “invisible hand.”

Yet the magic of the free market sometimes fails us when it comes to health care.

Mankiw, who is known to celebrate free markets in everything, is forced to allow for an exception when it comes to healthcare. (Fellow mainstream economist John Cochrane, in a sharp riposte, argued that “For once, I think Greg got it wrong.”)

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The reason is because, back in 1963, future Nobel Laureate Arrow published “Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care.” Mankiw’s column (and the longer treatment for his textbook [pdf]) is basically a restatement of the issues raised by Arrow over a half century ago.

According to Arrow, healthcare is characterized by a set of “special features,” all of which stem from the “prevalence of uncertainty.” These include the following:

  • an irregular, unpredictable demand for medical care
  • an element of trust in the relationship between patient and provider
  • considerable uncertainty as to the quality of the healthcare provided as well as asymmetry of knowledge concerning that quality
  • a restricted supply (e.g., because of licensing)
  • a combination of price discrimination (e.g., between the insured and uninsured) and price-fixing

In consequence, the healthcare industry cannot be expected to operate along the lines of, or to deliver the same results as, the canonical neoclassical model of perfect competition.

Thus, Arrow concludes,

It is the general social consensus, clearly, that the laissez-faire solution for medicine is intolerable. . .

The logic and limitations of ideal competitive behavior under uncertainty force us to recognize the incomplete description of reality supplied by the impersonal price system.

Neither Arrow nor Mankiw suggests what the alternative is. But it’s clear that, from the perspective of mainstream economics, healthcare cannot be shoehorned into the neoclassical model of perfect competition they use to analyze all other commodities and markets. What we can say is their theory of the economics of healthcare leaves open the possibility of considerable extra-market intervention and regulation.

Healthcare is where the utopianism of neoclassical economics fails.

But then we can ask, where does that utopianism not fail? Why should it hold any better when it comes to other capitalist commodities, such as labor power, money, and land? And, if it does not, then neither the modes of analysis nor the policy conclusions that are central to mainstream economics retain any validity.

In my opinion, that’s why the issue of utopia and healthcare is so important.

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Donald Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs—on solar panels and washing machines now, and perhaps on steel and aluminum down the line—has once again opened up the war concerning international trade.

It’s not a trade war per se (although Trump’s free-trade opponents have invoked that specter, that the governments of other countries may retaliate with their import duties against U.S.-made products), but a battle over theories of international trade. And those different theories are related to—as they inform and are informed by—different utopian visions.

In one sense, Trump and his supporters are right. Capitalist free trade has destroyed cities, regions, livelihoods, and industries. The international trade deals the United States has signed in recent decades have been rigged for the wealthy and have cheated workers. They are replete with marketing scams, hustles, and shady deals, to the advantage of large corporations and a small group of individuals at the top.

But Trump, like all right-wing populists, as I explained recently, offers a utopian vision that looks backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of U.S. workers was employed in manufacturing and American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries. The turn to import tariffs is a way of invoking that nostalgia, the selective vision of a utopia that was exceptional, in terms of both U.S. and world history, and that conveniently conceals or overlooks many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

It should come as no surprise that mainstream economists, today and in a tradition that goes back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, oppose Trump’s tariffs and hold firmly to the gospel of free international trade. Once again, Gregory Mankiw has stepped forward to articulate the neoclassical view (buttressed by classical antecedents) that everyone benefits from free international trade:

Ricardo used England and Portugal as an example. Even if Portugal was better than England at producing both wine and cloth, if Portugal had a larger advantage in wine production, Portugal should export wine and import cloth. Both nations would end up better off.

The same principle applies to people. Given his athletic prowess, Roger Federer may be able to mow his lawn faster than anyone else. But that does not mean he should mow his own lawn. The advantage he has playing tennis is far greater than he has mowing lawns. So, according to Ricardo (and common sense), Mr. Federer should hire a lawn service and spend more time on the court.

That’s the basis of neoclassical utopianism—the gains from trade: when international trade is unregulated, and every country specializes according to its comparative advantage, more commodities can be produced at a lower cost and as a result average living standards around the world are improved.

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Like Mankiw, most mainstream economists, who are the only ones represented in the IGM Economic Experts panel, oppose import tariffs (as seen in the chart above) and celebrate the utopianism of free international trade.

That’s true even among mainstream economists who have argued that, in reality, the causes and consequences of international trade may not coincide with the rosy picture produced within the usual textbook versions of neoclassical economic theory.

For example, Paul Krugman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his work demonstrating that the relative advantages most neoclassical economists take as given are in fact products of history. Thus, it is possible for countries to enhance their trade advantages (through creating internal economies of scale) by regulating international trade. But Krugman was also quick to belittle “a steady drumbeat of warnings about the threat that low-wage imports pose to U.S. living standards” and, then, in his first New York Times column, to denounce the critics of the World Trade Organization.

A few years later Paul Samuelson, widely recognized as the dean of modern mainstream economics, published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in which he challenged the presumed universal benefits of free trade. It is quite possible, Samuelson argued, that if enough higher-paying jobs were lost by American workers to outsourcing, then the gains from the cheaper prices may not compensate for the losses in U.S. purchasing power. In other words, the low wages at the big-box stores do not necessarily make up for their bargain prices. And then Samuelson was immediately taken to task by other mainstream economists, most notably Jagdish Bhagwati (along with his coauthors, Arvind Panagariya and T.N. Srinivasan [pdf]), who argued that “that outsourcing is fundamentally just a trade phenomenon [and] leads to gains from trade.”

Finally, Dani Rodrick, the mainstream economist who has been most critical of the role his colleagues have played as “cheerleaders” for capitalist globalization, still defends the standard models of international trade:

It has long been an unspoken rule of public engagement for economists that they should champion trade and not dwell too much on the fine print. This has produced a curious situation. The standard models of trade with which economists work typically yield sharp distributional effects: income losses by certain groups of producers or worker categories are the flip side of the “gains from trade.” And economists have long known that market failures – including poorly functioning labor markets, credit market imperfections, knowledge or environmental externalities, and monopolies – can interfere with reaping those gains.

But Rodrick, like Krugman, Samuelson, and other mainstream economists who have identified problems with the story told by Mankiw, Bhagwati, and other free-traders—who have “consistently minimized distributional concerns” and “overstated the magnitude of aggregate gains from trade deals”—still holds to the neoclassical utopianism that, with “all of the necessary distinctions and caveats,” more international trade can and should be promoted. Thus, as Rodrick argued just last week,

If our economic rules empower corporations and financial interests excessively, then the correct response is to rewrite those rules — at home as well as abroad. If trade agreements serve mainly to reshuffle income to capital and corporations, the answer is to rebalance them to make them friendlier to labor and society at large.

The goal is to make sure everyone, not just “corporations and financial interests,” benefits from international trade.

But recent criticisms of trade deals from within mainstream economics still don’t include the possibility that capitalism itself, with or without free international trade and multinational trade agreements, however the rules are written, privileges one class over another. Capital gains at the expense of workers because it is able to extract a surplus for literally doing nothing. That kind of social theft occurs—both when international trade is regulated and controlled and when it is allowed to operate free of any such interventions.

That’s why Karl Marx ironically came out in support of free trade in his famous speech to the Democratic Association of Brussels at its public meeting of 9 January 1848:

If the free-traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentlemen also refuse to understand how within one country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.

Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticizing freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection.

One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

Moreover, the protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade. Besides this, the protective system helps to develop free trade competition within a country. Hence we see that in countries where the bourgeoisie is beginning to make itself felt as a class, in Germany for example, it makes great efforts to obtain protective duties. They serve the bourgeoisie as weapons against feudalism and absolute government, as a means for the concentration of its own powers and for the realization of free trade within the same country.

But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.

That’s because Marx’s critique of political economy embodied a utopian horizon radically different from the utopianism of classical and neoclassical economics. He sought to transform economic and social institutions in order to eliminate capitalist exploitation. And if free trade was the quickest way of getting to the point when workers revolted and changed the system, then he would vote against protectionism and in favor of free trade.

As it turns out, as Friedrich Engels explained forty years later, both protectionism and free trade serve, in different ways, to produce more capitalist producers and thus to produce more wage-laborers. In our own time, Trump’s protective tariffs may do that in the United States, just as free trade has accomplished that in other countries that have increased their exports to the United States.

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But neither protectionism nor free trade can succeed in undoing the “elephant curve” of global inequality, which in recent decades has shifted the fortunes of workers in the United States and Western Europe and those in “emerging” countries and still left all of them falling further and further behind the top 1 percent in their own countries and globally.

Reversing that trend is a goal, a utopian horizon, worth fighting for.