Posts Tagged ‘neoclassical’

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post is for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics (following on from the previous posts, here, here, here, and here).

Limits of Mainstream Economics Today

Keynes’s criticisms of neoclassical economics set off a wide-ranging debate that came to define the terms of—and, ultimately, the limits of debate within—mainstream economics.

On one side are neoclassical economists, who celebrate the invisible hand and argue that markets are the best way to efficiently allocate scarce resources. On the other side are Keynesian economists, who argue instead for the visible hand of government intervention to move markets toward full employment.

That tension, between the theories and policies of neoclassical and Keynesian economics, is the reason why in most colleges and universities the principles of economics are taught in two separate courses: microeconomics and macroeconomics. Moreover, the tension between the two schools of thought plays out within every area of economics, including (but certainly not limited to) microeconomics and macroeconomics.

One way of understanding the differences between the two approaches is to think about them as conservative and liberal interpretations of mainstream economics. Conservative mainstream economics tend to presume that the basic assumptions of neoclassical economics hold in contemporary capitalism, while liberal mainstream economists think they don’t.

Let’s consider two examples. First, within microeconomics, conservative mainstream economists (such as the late Milton Friedman) believe that individuals make rational decisions within perfectly competitive markets. Therefore, if markets exist, they should be allowed to operate within any regulations; and, if a market doesn’t exist, it should be created. Liberal mainstream economics (such as Joseph Stiglitz), on the other hand, see both individual decisions and markets as being imperfect—because individuals have limited or asymmetric information, some firms have more market power than others, and so on. Therefore, they argue, markets need to be guided to the best outcome.

The second example is from macroeconomics. The view of conservative mainstream economists (such as Thomas J. Sargent) is that capitalism operates at or close to full employment (where, in the chart above, aggregate demand intersects the vertical portion of the aggregate supply curve), whereas liberal mainstream economists (such as Paul Krugman) believe that unregulated markets often lead to considerable unemployment (where aggregate demand intersects the horizontal portion of the aggregate supply curve, at level of output less than full employment).*

To attempt to reconcile the two competing views, many mainstream economists argue for a “middle position”—somewhere between the opposed neoclassical and Keynesian views. There (in the red portion of the aggregate supply curve), mainstream economists find a tradeoff between increases in output and changes in the price level, that is, between inflation and unemployment.

And the predominant view within mainstream economics shifts back and forth between the two poles. Sometimes, as in the years before the crash of 2007-08, mainstream economics moved closer to the neoclassical approach. That’s when policies such as deregulation, privatization, the reduction of government deficits, welfare reform, and so on were all the rage, within both academic and political circles. After the crash, when the neoclassical approach was said to have failed, mainstream economics swung back in other direction. That’s when there were calls for more government intervention and fewer worries about budget deficits and the like.

In the midst of the Pandemic Depression, much the same kind of debate between advocates of the two poles of mainstream economics has been taking place. On one side, conservative mainstream economists have argued in favor of rescuing banks and corporations, such that an economic recovery would “trickle down” to workers and their households. Liberal mainstream economists, on the other hand, have favored direct payments to workers who were furloughed or laid off—an idea that was attacked by their conservative counterparts, because such payments were seen as providing a “disincentive” for workers to return to their jobs.

Every time capitalism enters into crisis, the same kind of debate breaks out between conservative and liberal economists (and, of course, between different groups of politicians and voters).

If mainstream economists are so divided between the two approaches, what in the end unites them into what I have been calling mainstream economics? Like all such labels, it is defined in part by what it includes, and in part by what it excludes.

What mainstream economics includes is the idea that neoclassical and Keynesian approaches establish the limits within which theoretical and policy debates can and should take place. Together, they define what is in the “economic toolkit,” and therefore what it means to “think like an economist.” Moreover, the two groups of economists argue that capitalist markets are the way a modern economy can and should be organized. They may disagree about the relevant approach—for example, the “invisible hand” of free markets versus the “visible hand” of government intervention. But they all agree on the goal: to create the appropriate institutional environment so that capitalist markets work properly.

They also share the view that the only way capitalism operates falls below its general equilibrium, full-employment potential is because of some external “shock.” In other words, all economic downturns, such as recessions and depressions, are due to external causes, not because of anything internal to the normal workings of capitalism.

What the definition of mainstream economics excludes is any approach, such as Marxian economics, that is based on a theoretical approach that lies outside the protocols of neoclassical and Keynesian economics. So, for example, the idea of class exploitation is generally overlooked or ignored within mainstream economics. Similarly, imagining and creating ways of allocating resources other than through capitalist markets are pushed to or beyond the margins by mainstream economists.

Together, the inclusions and exclusions contained within the definition of mainstream economics serve to define what mainstream economists think and do in their theoretical practice as well as in the policy advice they offer.

———

*As many contemporary Post Keynesian economists have noted, when neoclassical and Keynesian were combined in a single approach to economics (for example, in the “neoclassical synthesis” in the decades following World War II), many of the critical aspects of Keynes’s writings—including the notion of uncertainty and the idea that much stock market investment was merely speculation and added little to the productive capacity of the “real” economy—were downplayed or ignored altogether.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post is for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics (a short addendum to a previous post on Economic Theories and Systems).

The relation between economic theories and economic systems is even more dynamic. The various economic theories of capitalism are not just different ways of making sense of that particular economic system. They emerge, develop, and change over time as capitalism itself changes—and, in turn, they have effects back on capitalism.

The history of economic thought shows that both mainstream economics and the Marxian critique of mainstream economics first appeared—and then grew or declined in influence, were debated and questioned, gave rise to new concepts and methods, and so on—as capitalism first came into existence and then changed over time. Thus, for example, after the crash of 2007-08, mainstream economics was widely questioned: because its theories and policies, in part, created the conditions that led to the crash; because it failed to include even the possibility of such a crash in its models; and because, once the crash occurred, it had little to offer in the way of effect remedies.

At the same, there was a resurgence of interest in theories that presented criticisms of mainstream economic theory and capitalism, including Marxian economics. Many people, inside and outside the academy, went back to ideas, including those associated with the Marxian critique of political economy, to make sense of what was going on. Precisely because they didn’t find answers to such pressing questions as capitalist instability, the role of finance, growing inequality between the top 1 percent and everyone else, a wide variety of professors, students, activists, and pundits questioned the theories and policies of mainstream economics and expressed renewed interest in Marxian and other non-mainstream approaches to economics that had been sidelined or ignored in recent years.

But the relation between economic theories and economic systems doesn’t go in only one direction. The ideas of different schools of thought within economics also have an impact on the economic systems they’re designed to analyze. This is what is often called the “performativity” of economics. The ideas that are produced by professional economists (as well as noneconomists, inside and outside the academy) often lead to changes in capitalism itself.

This is particularly true, as neoclassical economist Milton Friedman famously wrote, in times of crisis.

Only a crisis‐—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. (Capitalism and Freedom, xiv)

Economic theories are not just out there, as a matter of academic curiosity and endeavor (or, sometimes for students, a necessary evil to be learned and recited on an exam). They often lead to changes in capitalism, especially if they influence the way people think about their role in capitalism and attract the attention of influential economic and social groups who run capitalism’s key institutions.

In fact, economic theories are designed to do exactly that. When, for example, mainstream economists argue that free markets are the best solution to various economic and social problems—whether budget deficits or poverty or unemployment—they are saying that the world should have more of such markets. And, when changes are made to introduce more markets, mainstream economics has performed its role.

The Marxian critique of mainstream economics also has that performative dimension—with one key difference: whereas mainstream economists want to create a world of which their theory is a better representation, Marxian economists want to do exactly the opposite. They want to contribute to the project of eliminating capitalism, and when that happens, Marxian economics will no longer have a reason to exist.

The performativity of the Marxian critique of political economy is precisely to be its own grave-digger.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post is for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics (following on from the previous post).

Mainstream Economics Today

Readers today will be more familiar with contemporary mainstream economics than with the mainstream economics of Marx’s day. So, let’s start there.

Mainstream economics is the predominant approach that is taught in academic courses, applied in government policymaking, and used in media stories about economic ideas and events. Today, what we refer to as mainstream economics is a combination of neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics.

Mainstream economics is a framework of analysis that encompasses both microeconomics and macroeconomics. It also extends far beyond them, to include a wide variety of topics, from labor markets through capitalist instability to globalization.

In this chapter, we’ll look at the basic building blocks of mainstream economic theory, as well as the key criticisms from the perspective of Marxian economic theory. In later chapters, we will take up some of the principal extensions of the theory and the various ways it is challenged by Marxian economists.

Neoclassical Economics

Neoclassical economic theory came first, having emerged simultaneously in the writings of three economists in three different countries: William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882), in England; the French-born Léon Walras (1834-1910) in Switzerland; and Carl Menger (1840-1921) in Austria. Capitalism had already produced and been subsequently transformed by the First Industrial Revolution (the birth of capitalist industry lasting, following Eric Hobsbawm, from the 1780s to the 1840s) and was on the cusp of launching the Second Industrial Revolution (the revolutionizing of capitalist industry, which took place from 1870 to the beginning of World War I), in Europe and the United States.

Separately, but roughly at the same time, Jevons, Walras, and Menger were the major contributors to what we now call the Marginalist Revolution in economics. Their goal was to create a theory of economic value that mimicked the scientific protocols of nineteenth-century physics.

You have probably read about the paradox of diamonds and water? The idea is that diamonds are not as useful as water but they do tend to fetch a much higher price on markets. Why is that? Neoclassical economists argued that is not the total usefulness but the extra or marginal utility gained from consuming an object that matters in determining the prices of commodities. Overall, water is much more abundant and useful than diamonds. But the larger marginal utility of less-abundant diamonds—the extra usefulness of the last unit consumed—compared to that of water is what explains its higher price.

There, in a nutshell, we can see the foundations of what has become neoclassical economic theory—a theory of economic value based on scarcity, utility, and decisions at the margin (along with the corresponding mathematics, calculus). The result is a celebration of capitalism, an economic system based on private property and free markets.

Without going into unnecessary detail, let’s see how neoclassical economics works.

The usual starting point is the supply-and-demand conception of markets. Neoclassical economists assume that there are markets for all goods and services—not only butter and banking services, but also the “factors of production,” land, labor, and capital. Each has a corresponding set of supply (SS) and demand (DD) curves and an equilibrium price (P0) and quantity (Q0), as in the diagram above.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. In order for the model to work, each of the supply and demand curves has to be tied back to their ultimate determinants.

In neoclassical economics, the given or exogenous determinants of supply and demand reside in nature—mostly human nature, but also physical nature. Thus, for example, the demand for goods and services is determined by human preferences (along with consumers’ incomes). Those preferences are assumed to be given, from outside the economy, and to behave in predictable ways (as in the marginal utilities of the diamond-water paradox).

Households are assumed to maximize utility in choosing between different bundles of commodities in the “celestial supermarket.” When they make their purchases at the market equilibrium, the prices in markets can be shown to correspond to those given preferences or utilities.*

Household incomes, meanwhile, derive from the sum of wages, profits, and rent they obtain when they sell labor, capital, and land to the firms that are producing the goods and services they purchase. Those “factor” incomes are determined, like all other commodities, by supply and demand in markets. Firms demand labor, capital, and land according to their marginal productivity, in order to maximize profits.

Meanwhile, households are assumed to make utility-maximizing choices in selling those services to firms. The result is that consumer incomes also correspond to nature—human nature in terms of individual preferences, along with the physical nature of land. And the more labor, capital, and land they choose to sell, the higher their incomes, and the more commodities they can purchase.

The final neoclassical assumption is perfect competition, such that all consumers and firms are said to be “price-takers.” They don’t set prices but, instead, take the prices as given when they make their utility-maximizing and profit-maximizing decisions as households and firms.**

The neoclassical conclusion is that not only is each market in equilibrium, the economy as a whole is assumed to reach a general equilibrium. What this means is that the economy-wide equilibrium represents a perfect balance between the limited means of available resources and the unlimited desires of consumers. Production is at its maximum and full employment is achieved. Moreover, the set of equilibrium prices can be said to correspond to the preferences of consumers, that is, to human nature.

Ethics

As will be evident to readers, that’s a very powerful conclusion! Starting with atomistic individuals, directed only by their own self-interest, neoclassical economists conclude that the economy as a whole reaches a position where no one can be made better off without making someone worse off.***

But neoclassical economics is not only a theory about the efficiency of capitalism or the way it solves the problem of scarcity or, for that matter, a proof that market prices correspond to human nature. Implicit within neoclassical economics, as in all economic theories, is also a particular theory of ethics or economic justice.

The first key ethical claim made by neoclassical economists is that everyone is equal. Households may have vastly different amounts of income or wealth (because of their different utility-maximizing decisions to sell labor, capital, and land to firms) but they are all fundamentally equal. That’s because they are all assumed to be price-takers and, as if by an “invisible hand,” they are led to make decisions such that their individual utilities are the same as those of everyone else.****

According to neoclassical economists, capitalism is also characterized by “just deserts”—the idea that everyone gets what they deserve. This is shown in two ways. First, consumers purchase commodities at prices that are equal to their preferences. Second, the incomes households use to buy goods and services are the sum of the wages, profits, and rents they receive for selling factor services to firms. And those factors—labor, capital, and land—are remunerated according to their marginal contributions to production.***** What that means is that households receive incomes and firms pay for factor services according to their contributions to production. So, in both product markets and factor markets, everyone within capitalism—households as well as enterprises—receives the appropriate reward for their decisions and actions.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, then, capitalism promotes both equality and fairness. That’s true even if there is considerable inequality among households—in terms of either income or wealth. Those inequalities are due to the different decisions households make, as well as their different initial endowments, which are considered to be determined outside the economy. Therefore, according to neoclassical economists, capitalism, even if it delivers different levels of remuneration, as long as they correspond to to the decisions and abilities of individual households, still delivers economic justice.

There is one final ethical principle that is prominent within neoclassical economics, and that’s the notion of freedom. It stems from what is considered a more Austrian interpretation of neoclassical theory (in a line that runs from Menger through such economists as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman). Dispensing with some of the arguments above (such as general equilibrium and economy-wide efficiency), Austrian economists emphasize the freedom that capitalism grants to individuals—whether households or firms—to decide on their appropriate actions. They alone (and not, for example, governments) have the knowledge of their particular circumstances and, to the extent they are free to choose what is best for themselves within markets, capitalism can be said to be just.

———

*Technically, the ratio of prices (p1/p2) is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities (MU1/MU2), where the subscripts 1 and 2 represent two different commodities.

**An obvious question immediately arises: if everyone is assumed to be a price-taker, then who sets the prices of commodities? The neoclassical answer is the “auctioneer.” That’s the name given to the fictional entity that calls out different sets of prices until all markets are in equilibrium.

***This is known as Pareto Efficiency, named after the Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) who succeeded Walras to the chair of Political Economy at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

****The way this works is, the ratio of prices (p1/p2) is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities of each and every individual (MU1/MU2)A. . .(MU1/MU2)N, where the subscripts 1 and 2 represent two different commodities and the superscripts A through N represent all individuals.

*****In more technical terms, the real wage rate is equal to the marginal product of labor, that is, the extra contribution to production by the last unit of labor hired; the real profit rate is equal to the marginal product of capital; and the real rental rate is equal to the marginal product of land.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous two posts, is for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

Beyond the Mainstream

This is certainly not the first time people have looked beyond mainstream economics. There is a long history of criticisms of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism from the very beginning. Although students won’t have read about them in traditional economics textbooks.

Those texts are generally written with the presumption there’s only one economic theory and one economic system. The existence of Marxian economics opens up the debate, creating space for both multiple ways of thinking about economics and a variety of different economic systems.

Criticisms of Mainstream Economic Theory

In the history of economic thought, criticisms of the mainstream approach were formulated early on. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others (such as Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus, and John Stuart Mill) developed classical political economy in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, when the new economic system we now call capitalism was just getting off the ground—and almost immediately their approach was debated and challenged.

The classical political economists developed a labor theory of value to analyze the value of commodities, the goods and services that were bought and sold on markets. They utilized that labor theory of value to then argue that capitalism, based on increasing productivity and free international trade, would lead to the growth of industry and an increase in the wealth of nations.

The early critics of classical political economy included a wide variety of writers, especially in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, from Thomas Carlyle (an English Romantic who expressed his opposition to the market system, because it rewarded “salesmanship” and not hard work) and John Barton (a British Quaker who argued that the introduction of labor-saving machinery would permanently displace workers who would not be absorbed by other branches of industry) to Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi (a Swiss historian who viewed capitalism as being detrimental to the interests of the poor and particularly prone to crisis brought about by an insufficient general demand for goods) and Thomas Hodgskin (an English socialist, critic of capitalism, and defender of both free trade and early trade unions).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx (along with his friend and frequent collaborator Friedrich Engels) became a close student of classical political economy, developing his now-famous critique. During the course of his writings, he expressed both admiration for and opposition to the methods and the conclusions of the classical political economists. Over the course of this book, we will examine in considerable detail the ways Marx and later Marxian economists both built on and broke from classical political economy.

But the debate about early mainstream economics didn’t stop there.

In the late 1800s, a new school of economic thought, neoclassical economics was created, which represented both an extension of and break from classical political economy, although in a manner quite different from that of Marx. The early neoclassicals—such as William Stanley Jevons, Karl Menger, and Léon Walras—rejected the classicals’ labor theory of value, in favor of consumer utility, but accepted the classicals’ celebration of capitalism’s rising productivity and free trade. Hence, both the “neo” and the “classical” of their name.

The neoclassical economists’ basic argument was that, if all markets are allowed to operate freely, all consumers would maximize utility, all firms would maximize profits, and the economy as a whole would reach full employment. The “invisible hand” became the central thesis of contemporary mainstream microeconomics.

And it had general validity within mainstream economics until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when in the United States and elsewhere capitalist economies crashed and the unemployment rate soared to over 25 percent. Not surprisingly, the neoclassical orthodoxy was challenged at the time by many economists, including John Maynard Keynes. Keynes’s idea was that, because of fundamental uncertainty, especially on the part of investors, it was highly likely that capitalist economies would regularly operate at less-than-full employment. The need for the “visible hand” of government intervention to achieve full employment was the basis of the mainstream macroeconomics.

Attempts to combine neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics—the invisible hand of markets and the visible hand of government fiscal and monetary policy—have defined mainstream economics ever since. That’s why, today, in most departments, mainstream economics is still taught in two separate courses, microeconomics and macroeconomics. And very few of them include any references to other approaches, especially Marxian economics.

Criticisms of Capitalism

Just as mainstream economic theory has been challenged from the very beginning, so has capitalism, the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists.

Perhaps the most famous early mass movement against capitalism was directed by the Luddites, a radical faction of English textile workers who in the early-nineteenth century attacked mills and destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest against low pay and harsh working conditions. While the name has come to be associated with anyone opposed to the use of new technologies, the actual historical movement objected to machinery that was introduced to speed up production and change the terms of negotiation in favor of employers and against workers.

Later, when workers were able to form labor unions—against a great deal of opposition from their employers and governments that backed those employers—they developed new strategies to challenge the ways they were considered and treated within capitalism. They often demanded higher pay, more secure employment, additional benefits, and even a say in how the enterprises in which they worked were managed. Depending on the situation, they set up picket lines, went on strike, occupied their workplaces, and organized unemployed workers. In many cases, while the workers were primarily concerning with meeting their daily needs, their activities were treated as attacks on capitalism itself.

That was certainly the case in the campaign for an eight-hour workday, which reached its peak in May 1886 in Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally to limit the length of the workday (at the time, workers were regularly required to labor much longer—often 10, 12, or more hours a day, without overtime pay) and then, when the police intervened to disperse the gathering, it became a full-on riot with a number of casualties. Ironically, in commemoration of the rally, 1 May has come to be celebrated around the world as Labor Day—except as it turns out, in the United States, where Labor Day was pushed back to the first Monday in September and no law has ever been passed to limit the length of the workday.

While many of the movements that have challenged capitalism have emerged from, been based on, or allied with workers and labor unions, many others have not. Students may recognize the names of some of the early utopian socialists and utopian experiments (although you probably read about them in courses other than economics): Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and Henry George. Beginning in the nineteenth century, in the United States and around the world, groups of individuals (often, but not always, influenced by various strands of socialist thinking) formed “intentional communities” and cooperative societies. The Shakers (in the United States) and Mondragón (in Spain) are perhaps the best known.

And the list of critics of capitalism—both individuals and movements—goes on. It includes, of course, a wide variety of left-wing populist, socialist, and communist political parties (some of which have come to power, either through democratic elections or revolutions). A fundamental questioning of the capitalist system has also emerged from and influenced many other individuals, groups, and traditions, from civil rights leaders (such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States) and religious groups (for example, the liberation theologians in Latin America) to independence movements (Angola and Mozambique are cases in point) and transnational protests (like Occupy Wall Street).

What can we conclude from this brief survey? From the very beginning, both mainstream economic thought and capitalism have brought forth their critical others.

We’re back at it again: “the economy” has broken down and we’re all being enlisted into the effort to get it back up and working again. As soon as possible.

The Congressional Budget Office has announced that it expects the U.S. economy will contract sharply during the second quarter of 2020:

    • Gross domestic product is expected to decline by more than 7 percent during the second quarter. If that happened, the decline in the annualized growth rate reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis would be about four times larger and would exceed 28 percent. Those declines could be much larger, however.
    • The unemployment rate is expected to exceed 10 percent during the second quarter, in part reflecting the 3.3 million new unemployment insurance claims reported on March 26 and the 6.6 million new claims reported this morning. (The number of new claims was about 10 times larger this morning than it had been in any single week during the recession from 2007 to 2009.)

Just as in the aftermath of the spectacular crash of 2007-08, the supposedly shared goal is to do whatever is necessary to engineer a recovery so that the economy can start operating normally again.

That presumes, of course, that we were satisfied with the normal workings of the economy before, and that such a state of normality is what we all desire moving forward.

But before I attempt to address that issue, it’s important that we stop and think a bit more about what we mean when we refer to this thing called “the economy.” In a fascinating recent interview, Anat Shenker-Osorio [ht: ja], argues that the economy is often portrayed as an all-powerful, personified entity.*

Previously, we would hear politicians admonish that we can’t pass X policy because it will “hurt the economy” — as if it were a being to which we owe our efforts and loyalties. And now, all the more brazenly, Republicans tell us we must sacrifice ourselves or perhaps our elders to the economy.

Another oft-used metaphor for the economy is the human body.

Conservatives, aided and abetted by progressives who also unwittingly employ the metaphor, tend to talk about the economy as a body. You can hear this expressed in language like “it’s suffering” or “the economy is thriving.” We have a “recovery bill” to get the economy “off life support” and “restore it to health.” What this metaphor suggests is that in grave cases, we must “resuscitate the patient” (perhaps with a stimulus bill.)

It seems to me, there’s a third common metaphor for the economy: a machine. Often, especially in conservative political discourse and neoclassical economic theory, the economy-as-machine is said to be functioning on its own, in a technical manner, with all its parts combining to produce the best possible outcome.** Unless, of course, there’s some kind of monkey wrench thrown into the works, such as a government intervention or natural disaster. However, according to liberal politics and Keynesian economics, the economic machine by itself tends to break down and needs to be regulated and guided, through some kind of government policy or program, so that it gets back to working properly.

As Shenker-Osorio correctly observes, the metaphor of “the economy” that is shared by both sides of mainstream political and economic discourse puts progressives at a distinct disadvantage:

we see progressives attempt to make arguments about how social welfare programs will “grow the economy” in the hopes of sounding like the reasonable adults in the room. This tacitly reaffirms the toxic idea that our purpose ought to be to serve the economy — that the correct evaluation of policy is how it affects the GDP

Much the same argument is made in favor of other liberal or progressive programs: raising minimum wages, extending health insurance, anti-poverty programs, education and job training, and so on. All are justified as contributing to making the economic machine work better, more productively, by including everyone.

So, what’s the alternative? One possibility, which Shenker-Osorio offers, is to reject the existing metaphors and refuse to continue to debate “who loves the economy best” and, instead, force “the far more relevant discussion: What is best for people.”

I don’t disagree with Shenker-Osorio’s goal but I wonder if there might not be another way of proceeding, by teasing out the implications of thinking about the economy as a machine.

If we continue with the machine metaphor then, first, we can demonstrate that the existing machine, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, is simply not working. It is an unproductive machine. For example, the U.S. economy-as-machine hasn’t been able to protect people’s health, for example, by providing adequate personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors, ventilators for patients, and masks for everyone else. Even more, it has put many people’s health at additional risk, by forcing many workers to continue to labor in unsafe workplaces and to commute to those jobs using perilous public transportation. Finally, it has expelled tens of millions of American workers, through furloughs and layoffs, and thus deprived them of wages and health insurance precisely when they need them most.

Second, we can read the decisions of the Trump administration—both its months-long delay in responding to the pandemic and then its refusal to enact a nationwide shutdown when it finally did admit a health emergency—as precisely enacting the general logic of the economic machine: that nothing should get in the way of production, circulation, and finance. It fell then to individual states to decide whether and when to shutdown parts of the economic machine and to distinguish between “essential” and “nonessential” sectors.

Finally, we can interpret the repeated calls to reopen the economy—not only by Trump and his advisors, but also by a wide variety of others, from Lloyd Blankfein, the billionaire former CEO of Goldman Sachs, to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—as a rational but unconvincing gesture, based on no other reason than that the machine needs to keep operating. It expresses the rational irrationality of the existing economy-machine.

All of which leaves us where? It seems to me, their continued reference to the economy as a machine creates the possibility of our demanding, in the first place, that the machine should remain closed down—for health reasons. People’s health should not be put under any further stress as long as the pandemic continues to ravage individual lives and entire communities.

And in second place, it becomes possible to imagine and invent other assemblages of the existing economy-machine, and even other machines, instead of obeying the logic of the current way of organizing economic and social life in the United States. In fact, while many of the changes to people’s lives have been designed to keep the existing machine functioning (for example, by working at home), it is also possible that people are taking advantage of the opportunity to experiment with how they work and live and creating new spaces and activities in their lives.***

If the common refrain these days is that “nothing will be the same” after the pandemic, perhaps one of the outcomes is that the economy-machine will finally be seen as an empty signifier, unmoored from the reality of people’s lives and incapable of organizing their desires.****

Then, maybe, the existing economy-machine will stop functioning. Before it kills any more of us.

 

*As in the episode of South Park, “Margaritaville” (the third episode in the thirteenth season, broadcast in March 2009), which Shenker-Osorio discusses in her 2012 book, Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy.

**There is also, of course, an ethics of the economy-as-machine. As I explained back in 2018,

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.

For Keynesian economists, the machine can be made to operate fairly, and therefore in an ethical manner, when the state can step in (e.g., via fiscal and monetary policy) to create full employment.

***I understand, some of those changes may be experienced as losses—of laboring alongside fellow workers, of certain leisure activities, and so on. But people are inventing all kinds of new ways, even at a physical distance, of provisioning, socializing, and much else.

****And, yes, for those who are interested, as I prepared to write this post, I did go back and reread some of the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, including AntiOedipusCapitalism and Schizophrenia.

The same day I wrote that capitalism was coming apart at the seams, indicated by the shocking disparity between the compensation of corporate CEOs and workers, the Business Roundtable published its new statement of purpose of a corporation.*  The 180 or so corporate executives who signed the statement declared that all their stakeholders, not just owners of equity shares, were important to their mission.

Many business pundits, such as Andrew Ross Sorkin, greeted the new statement as a sign that the era of shareholder democracy (what he refers to as “shareholder primacy”) had finally come to an end and that a “significant shift” in corporate responsibility to society would be ushered in. Readers, however, had their doubts, most of them echoing JDK’s response to Sorkin’s piece: “Talk is cheap.”

fredgraph

The fact is, over the past three decades, net dividend payments to shareholders have soared—from $178 billion in 1989 to $1.3 trillion in 2019 (that’s an increase of 630 percent, for those keeping track).** And much of the responsibility is laid at the feet of mainstream economists like Milton Friedman (pdf), who famously declared that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits” and the only responsibility of corporate executives is to their employers, the shareholders—and corporate raiders such as Carl Icahn.

As I see it, the idea of shareholder democracy has merely served as a cover for any and all corporate decisions and strategies. When pushed to take on other responsibilities, or to make other decisions, the corporate defense has long been that it ran counter to the mission of maximizing profits or shareholder value.

In reality, corporations have never attempted to achieve just one objective or to maximize one value. One issue is that the usual objectives or values ascribed to corporate managers are ill-defined. There is neither singular meaning of profits (since, as they’re reported, they’re largely the result of a particular set of accounting conventions, defined over the fuzzy boundaries of the inside and outside of a corporate entity) nor a unique time frame (over what period are profits or dividends maximized—a week, quarter, year?).*** But the defense of such a corporate mission has served as a convenient excuse to resist pressures to make different decisions or adopt alternative strategies—such as increasing worker pay, improving working conditions, implementing environmentally sustainable practices, and so on.

My view, as I argued back in 2013, is that corporations have never done just one thing or followed a single rule. They do make profits (at least sometimes, depending on the definition and timeframe). But they also seek to grow their enterprises and destroy the competition and maintain good public relations and buy government officials and reward their CEOs and squeeze workers and lower costs and reward shareholders and implement new forms of automation and build factories that collapse and. . .well, you get the idea. In other words, they appropriate and distribute surplus-value in all kinds of ways depending on the particular conditions and struggles that take place over the shape and direction of their enterprises.

The problem inherent both in the new Business Roundtable statement of purpose and in the attempts by corporate critics to argue that corporations should take on additional social responsibilities is that corporations are already too central to the U.S. economy and society. They’re the main institution where the surplus is appropriated and then distributed—with all the consequent effects on the wider society. The private decisions of corporate entities, as decided by the boards of directors and implemented by the chief executives, are responsible for the Second Great Depression, the grotesque levels of economic inequality that have been growing for decades now, the global-warming crisis, and so much more. Why would anyone want to give corporations even more power or scope to decide how to solve those problems when they’re the root of the problem in the first place?

No, the only viable strategy is make corporations less important, to decenter the American economy and society from the decisions made by corporate directors and executives. That begins with fostering the growth of other types of firms (such as worker-owned cooperatives) and making sure that the workers employed by corporations play a significant role in corporations (including how much surplus there will be and how it will be utilized). That’s the best way of moving beyond the era of shareholder democracy to a real economic democracy.

Anything else is just cheap talk.

 

*I certainly don’t want to imply that the Business Roundtable was responding to my blog post. No, the fact that they felt it necessary to issue such a new statement of purpose is an indication that American corporations—and, with them, U.S. capitalism—have lost a great deal of legitimacy in recent years. As Farhad Manjoo [ht: ja] recently wrote,

A recession looms, and the nation’s C.E.O.s are growing fearful.

It isn’t the potential of downturn itself that has them alarmed — downturns come and downturns go, but whatever happens, chief executives, like cats, tend to land on their comfortably padded feet.

Instead, the cause of their fear appears to be something more fundamental. . .They’re worried that when the next recession breaks, revolution might, too. This could be the hour that the ship comes in: The coming recession might finally prompt the masses to sharpen their pitchforks and demand a reckoning.

**During that same period, average hourly earnings (for production and nonsupervisory workers) increased by only 140 percent—but corporate profits (after tax) rose by 570 percent.

***As I have long explained to students, that’s the myth that serves as the foundation of the neoclassical theory of the profit-maximizing firm: what exactly are corporate profits and over what time frame are they supposed to be maximized? The assumption of a profit-maximizing firm is equivalent to what one hears from many so-called radical economists, that “capitalists accumulate capital.” Again, no. Accumulating capital (that is, purchasing new elements of constant and variable capital) is only one of the many possible forms in which capitalists distribute the surplus-value they appropriate from their workers. Sometimes they accumulate capital, and other times they don’t. The presumption that they always seek to accumulate capital is the heroic story proffered by classical economists (so that, in their view, capitalist growth would take place), much as neoclassical economists today presume that capitalists maximize profits (so that, in their view, an efficient allocation of resources will result). Marxists presume neither that capitalists maximize profits nor that they always and everywhere accumulate capital.

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.

Keynes-2

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).

maxresdefault

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.

AScontroversy2

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.

econschools