Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Big government, functional finance and debt sustainability

Teaching the fiscal policy classes of my intermediate macro course. One of the few things that is still not well understood and discussed in manuals is functional finance. Froyen's manual, which is otherwise an old textbook similar to Dornbusch and Fischer or Gordon or any 1970s manual (meaning with short run ISLM and Phillips curve first, and then growth), includes in the policy discussion Partisan Theory and Public Choice, but not Functional Finance or any heterodox approach.

Partisan Theory, developed by Douglas Hibbs, builds on an old idea by Kalecki that political and ideological elements would affect the business cycle. Left of center governments would lead to higher government spending and lower unemployment, and conservative governments would be concerned with inflation, and tend to promote fiscal adjustment. Public choice, more dramatically, suggested that politicians would be guided by selfish desire for re-election, which would lead to a permanent bias for deficits, and accumulation of debt. Big government, and Keynesian ideas, that had unleashed the monster, or so thought James Buchanan, one of the leaders of the Public Choice School, had to be constrained by balanced budget amendments.

When one looks at the data for the United States it is fairly clear that over the last forty something years it has been Republicans that have expanded deficits.
In the graph you can see that with Carter (1977-1980), Clinton (1993-2000) and Obama (2009 to 2012 in the graph) the deficit as a share of GDP has fallen, while it did increase with all Republicans [note that with Reagan they increase, and then fall after taxes were raised]. Also, if you have any doubts, Republicans are the party of big government when it comes to spending.
The graph above shows that also spending actually falls with the three Democrats, and increases with the four Republicans (Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II). This switch on Democratic and Republican views on fiscal issues was discussed here. Obviously there are important differences between the old Democrats, from the New Deal and Kennedy/Johnson era, that wanted big government for social purposes, and the kind of big government promoted by the GOP.

Also, the political economy of why the GOP is for big government, has less to do with Partisan Theory or Public Choice, and more with the starve-the-beast theory, according to which if you cut taxes, then government will eventually be forced to cut spending.

Functional finance, an idea introduced by Abba Lerner, that could be seen as the extension of Keynesian ideas to fiscal policy (Keynes actually had little to say in the General Theory, were he refers vaguely to the socialization of investment rather than fiscal deficits), suggests that deficits should be judged on the basis of their function in the economy. Deficits that promote growth, and take place in an environment of low rates of interest, not only would be sustainable, but would be necessary to promote full employment.

By the way, by historical standards the US net debt (held by the public, i.e. not in the hands of the Fed or the Social Security Trust Fund) is not high at around 70% of GDP, below the peak at the end of the Great Depression and World-War II.
The debt-to-GDP ratio did increase after the 1980s, basically as a result of higher deficits on average (both the starve the beast, and more recently the massive recession), but also because until the collapse of the housing bubble rates of interest were on average higher than rates of growth of the economy. The debt-to-GDP ratio did fall in the late 1990s, as a result of the Clinton surpluses.

Mind you, two important points must be noted. First, historically the period in which rates of interest were consistently below growth rates was during the so-called Golden Age of Capitalism, roughly the post-war period up to the 1970s. In other words, in normal times the economy is in the wrong side of Domar's sustainability condition [that the rate of growth of the ability to repay, economic growth, should be higher than the growth of debt, that is, the rate of interest]. That didn't preclude governments to run deficits and accumulate debt. Note that governments have one advantage over private agents, when it comes to spending, namely: government spending is sufficiently large that by increasing general income it leads to higher tax revenue and an increase of its own income.

The second point, for those concerned with the size of the debt, is that the recession, and the collapse of the bubble have created the political conditions for a low rate of interest, which would be very hard to reverse in the medium term. That is, the Fed is unlikely to hike rates while unemployment remains high. Which basically provides space for fiscal deficits and debt on a relatively cheap basis. Of course chances of that happening are a completely different question.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Galbraith and Deaton Leontief Prize lecture

Jamie Galbraith and Angus Deaton Leontief Prize lectures at the Global Development And Environment Institute (GDAE) last week. Deaton starts at minute 49 or so, and Jamie at around 1:27.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Is Venezuala's SICAD II Resolving Exchange Rate Problems?

 By Mark Weisbrot
All economies have major structural and policy problems, but some problems are more important and urgent than others at particular times. In Venezuela, the most important economic problem is in the exchange rate system. A fixed exchange rate system with periodic devaluations tends to be more crisis-prone than other exchange rate regimes, especially in a country like Venezuela where inflation has historically been higher than that of its trading partners. This is particularly important right now because opposition leaders who have called for the overthrow of the government have pointed to 57 percent inflation and widespread shortages of consumer goods as justification for (often violent) street protests over the past two months. Although the protests have failed to attract the working and poorer people who are most hurt by the shortages, they are still a major complaint – as is inflation – for most Venezuelans.
Read rest here

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Association for Heterodox Economics thinks INET is marginalizing heterodox economics

"Our main concern is that the positive potential of INET is steadily being closed down. What began as recognition of fundamental problems that require fundamental change is becoming a more modest set of alterations. A sense of failure is, for all intents and purposes, being translated into a context of relative success requiring more limited changes – though these are still being seen as significant. Part of the reason that they are seen as significant is that changes from within mainstream economics do not have to be major in order to appear radical. It is our contention that heterodox economics is being marginalised in this process of ‘change’ and that this is to the detriment of the positive potential for transforming the discipline."
 Worth reading. But can say I'm too surprised though. See my previous post on INET's project of rethinking economics.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

You get what you pay for; but not when it comes to business degrees

Veblen famously doubted whether Law Schools had a place in Universities, and as I noted not too long ago he was not altogether happy with what we would now call Business or Management Schools. He said in The Higher Learning in America:
"A college of commerce is designed to serve an emulative purpose only -- individual gain regardless of, or at the cost of, the community at large -- and it is, therefore, peculiarly incompatible with the collective cultural purpose of the university. It belongs in the corporation of learning no more than a department of athletics. Both alike give training that is of no use to the community,except, perhaps, as a sentimental excitement. Neither business proficiency nor proficiency in athletic contests need be decried, of course. They have their value, to the businessmen and to the athletes, respectively, chiefly as a means of livelihood at the cost of the rest of the community, and it is to be presumed that they are worth while to those who go in for that sort of thing. Both alike are related to the legitimate ends of the university as a drain on its resources and an impairment of its scholarly animus. As related to the ostensible purposes of a university, therefore, the support and conduct of such schools at the expense of the universities is to be construed as a breach of trust."
You would imagine then that at least for those that paid for a business degree it would have a compensation in the form of higher pay after graduation. It is not the case, as the PayScale last college salary report shows. Economics majors make considerably more than accounting, finance and business majors. Funny that enticement of pay opportunities is one of the ways in which business and management schools attract students and try to encroach economic departments in many universities.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On the blogs

Noah Smith on a unified theory of behavioral economics

Gems in The General Theory;  Unlearning Economics

Claude Fischer on what average Americans think about inequality

Krugman, Greider, and the Continuing Saga of Sustained Secular Stagnation; Dean Baker

BBC News article on Minsky

Palley and the case for asset based reserve requirements

Revised paper by Tom Palley available here. From the abstract:

This paper critiques the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) exit strategy which aims to deactivate excess liquidity via higher interest rates on reserves. That is equivalent to giving banks a tax cut at the public’s expense. It also risks domestic and international financial market turmoil. The paper proposes an alternative exit strategy based on ABRR which avoids the adverse fiscal and financial market impacts of higher interest rates. ABRR also increase the number of monetary policy instruments which can permanently improve policy. This is especially beneficial for euro zone countries. Furthermore, ABRR yield fiscal benefits via increased seignorage and can shrink a financial sector that is too large.

Read more here. Jane D'Arista has also made the case of ABRR, for example here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Economy Adds 192,000 Jobs in March; Long-Term Unemployment Rate Unchanged

In two recent posts (here and here), it was noted that educational credentials have had next to zero significant causal influence on structural unemployment, and that stagnation is primarily due to lack of adequate effective demand and appropriate fiscal policy. According to CEPR,
[with] population growth implying labor force growth in the neighborhood of 90,000, the economy is cutting into the backlog of unemployed workers at the rate of 90,000 a month. With the economy still down close to 7 million jobs from trend levels, this would imply that we would reach full employment some time in 2020. 
Read rest here

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Long-Term Unemployment High, Regardless of Education

By Heidi Shierholz
Job opportunities have been so weak for so long that jobless workers continue to get stuck in unemployment for unprecedented lengths of time. Currently 3.7 million unemployed workers have been searching for a job for more than six months, more than three times the number of long-term unemployed there were in 2007, before the recession began. We often hear the claim that long-term unemployment in this recovery is due to unemployed workers not having the education or skills for the jobs that are available. A look at the data, however, shows that this is not what’s driving today’s long-term unemployment crisis. 
Read rest here
And for another post on the issue, see here 

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Wall-Street/Silicon-Valley/Beltway complex

Eisenhower once warned us of the dangers of the Military-Industrial Complex. A bit more sardonically, globalization champion, and Columbia Professor, Jagdish Bhagwati coined the Wall Street-Treasury Complex, often referred to with the addition of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) at the end. When it comes to inequality in the US maybe we should talk about a Wall-Street/Silicon-Valley/Beltway complex or at least that is what the data presented by Galbraith and Hale here suggests.

Looking at inequality between economic sectors the paper suggests that between 1990 and 2012, three sectors are crucial, information technology, finance and the public sector. They argue that there are few main trends in the data:
One is the rise of professional, scientific and technical services in the information-technology boom through 2000. Another is the waning of the public sector, both federal and local, from 1990 to 2000 and then its recovery as a significant contributor to inequality in the early 2000s. It is notable that the Democratic years under Presidents Clinton and Obama were not banner ones for government; this sector fared better under the Republicans. A third trend is the rising importance of finance and insurance during the boom years from 1990 until 2001 but even more so during the run up to the financial crisis in 2007. Thereafter, the relative weight of the financial sector shrinks – and overall inequality also declined a bit. Taken as a whole, the period from 1990 to 2012 was one of rising earnings inequality, with a peak in 2000 and again in 2007. Inequality then subsides, but quickly recovers and by 2012 it was near or at its previous peak.
By the way, the importance of the public sector during the GOP governments goes hand in hand with the fact that Republicans are, for a long time, the party of big government (mostly for corporate welfare and tax cuts for the rich).

More interesting from the point of view of policy, Galbraith and Hale debunk the notion that education is the solution for inequality. They say:
When public discourse admits inequality to be a problem, education is often given as the cure... This is a view with powerful support among economists. But the simple inter-sector dynamics show clearly that, as a solution to inequality, education is a bust.

As we’ve shown, the last two decades have seen significantly slower job growth in the high- earnings-growth sectors than in the economy at large. So even if large numbers of young people do “acquire the skills needed to advance” there is no evidence that the economy will provide them with jobs to suit. Many will simply end up not using their skills.
Inequality is not just the result of lack of skills, since several skilled workers would end up with no jobs, or low paying jobs, and effective demand and government policy are necessary to reduce it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

John Eatwell on the theoretical lessons from the crisis

It's from 2012, but still very much relevant. Short and to the point about the limitations of the mainstream to understand the crisis. I would put less emphasis on the Sonnenschein–Mantel–Debreu theorem, and more on the Sraffa-Garegnani critique of General Equilibrium, but that's a detail. He is correct in pointing out to Keynes' Principle of Effective Demand (PED), and to the insidious role of finance.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lars P. Syll: Piketty and the Cambridge capital controversy

By Lars P. Syll
Piketty wants to provide a theory relevant to growth, which requires physical capital as its input. And yet he deploys an empirical measure that is unrelated to productive physical capital and whose dollar value depends, in part, on the return on capital. Where does the rate of return come from? Piketty never says. He merely asserts that the return on capital has usually averaged a certain value, say 5 percent on land in the nineteenth century, and higher in the twentieth.  The basic neoclassical theory holds that the rate of return on capital depends on its (marginal) productivity. In that case, we must be thinking of physical capital—and this (again) appears to be Piketty’s view. But the effort to build a theory of physical capital with a technological rate-of-return collapsed long ago, under a withering challenge from critics based in Cambridge, England in the 1950s and 1960s, notably Joan Robinson, Piero Sraffa, and Luigi Pasinetti.
Read rest here.

Mark Weisbrot: Will Venezuela's New Floating Exchange Rate Curb Inflation?

Since Venezuela exports petroleum and petroleum byproducts and imports most of what it needs, the exchange rate is crucial for economic stability. Food scarcity and inflation has been cited among the reasons why there is ongoing protests in Venezuela. Hoping to quell some of this protest, last week the Bank of Venezuela introduced another exchange system, Sicad II, hoping to take control of inflation and scarcity of essential goods.To discuss all this and more is our guest, Mark Weisbrot, who recently returned from Venezuela. Mark Weisbrot is an economist and codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Was Marx right? Nice of you to ask, but...

The New York Times asked five economists whether Marx's economics was right, even if his politics was all wrong. By the way, the latter would be unquestionably true as a result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. I am no Marx scholar, but I'll try to give my two cents on this debate. At any rate, it seems I read more of Marx's works than most of the commentators in the Times.

It is a bit disingenuous to suggest that Marxist economics, or classical political economy for that matter, since Marx was building on the work of the surplus approach authors, stands or falls with the Soviet Union [for a discussion of the causes of the Soviet collapse go here]. In fact, Marx has very little to say about communism, and many of the 10 policy proposals in the Communist Manifesto are now well-established consensual views in civilized societies, like the idea of a "heavy progressive or graduated income tax" ... or the provision of "free education for all children in public schools" and the "abolition of children’s factory labor."

Even if some of Marx's propositions are less well viewed in today's political climate, like the "abolition of private property," or the expansion of the "factories and instruments of production owned by the State," or the "centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank," these were instruments used to some degree by almost all successful experiences of industrialization in the world. One might as well suggest that the accomplishments of the Welfare State, in Western Europe and in the US (yes, even here), and some of the successful experiences in the developing world, are associated to Marx ideas. In fact, without the unity that he recommended to the working men of all countries, none of the advantages of the Welfare State would have taken place. The success of Sweden, so to speak, is as much a measure of the success of Marx's political ideas as the failures of the Soviet Union would be of his intellectual failure.

But, be that as it may, it is the actual economic thinking of Marx, about the functioning of capitalism, a mode of production, that he was the first to define and to try to explain its origins from a previous mode of production (feudalism), that matters in order to understand whether his contributions are relevant or not. The comments by the two academic economists in the New York Times, Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowen, are poor at best. Their views reveal, no surprise here, that their contact with Marx's works is minimal, if any, and that what they do know is some form of pop Marxism, filled with naïve simplifications of what Marx actually said.

Brad suggests that Marx was a second rate theorist. Why? In his words: "Marx's fixation on the labor theory of value made his technical economic analyses of little worth." I've already dealt significantly with the question of the labor theory of value (LTV) here, but it's worth remembering that while Sraffa provided a coherent solution for the labor theory of value's problems, in which long term normal prices can be determined as proportional to the labor commanded by the standard commodity (for the latter go here), the neoclassical problems to show that prices in the long term are determined by supply and demand, forced them to abandon the traditional method of economics, and embrace the intertemporal General Equilibrium model, in which all prices are short run ones, and there is no tendency to a uniform rate of profit. In other words, the LTV (or at least a version of it) theoretically stands on firmer ground than the neoclassical supply and demand theory. That is one of the results of the capital debates.

Also, note just for the sake of the argument, that while Brad dismisses Marx as a second rate theorist, he embraces Adam Smith (e.g. he says: "Adam Smith is the founder of economics because he has a great and extraordinary insight: that the competitive market system is a remarkably powerful social calculating and organizing mechanism"). And yet Adam Smith did use the labor theory of value, which should make his analysis of little worth, one would imagine. Mind you, for Smith, as much as for Marx, the competitive market system led prices to their long run equilibrium determined by the labor theory of value (labor commanded in Smith, incorporated in Marx). One is forced to assume that the reasons for dismissing Marx are not related to the LTV, and are political, or are based in a misunderstanding of the LTV, which would include the work of Smith (my history of thought students in Utah had a t-shirt that read: "I've read Smith and understood it.")

Brad then moves on to discuss Marx's predictions, which he suggest are somehow connected to Marx's confusion between real and nominal values. It is clear that Marx's immiseration hypothesis, the notion that the conditions of workers worsen as capital accumulation proceeds, is not based on some simplistic confusion between real measures of well being and nominal remuneration. For Marx the determination of the real wage, as it was for all the classical authors (Smith and Ricardo included) was exogenous, and at the subsistence level, but that did not mean that wages were determined physiologically, but by historical and institutional standards instead. In other words, the subsistence level would change in time and space. Why did Marx believe that the labor class would be worse off with the development of capitalism? Basically because he thought that the reserve army of unemployed would increase reducing the bargaining power of workers.

In his words:
"The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here."
It is worth noticing that Marx's Laws, for all the criticism about their determinism, allow for countervailing forces, and suggest tendencies, rather than mechanical relations. Marx suggested in the same chapter (linked above) that:
"within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse."
It is not just the payment, which could be high or low, but the alienation, and exploitation that made the labor force worse off. It is also far from clear that Marx is suggesting absolute immiseration rather than relative in his writings. Brad, it seems, thinks that Marx somehow thought that workers would be in absolute terms worse off with the development of capitalism. He suggests that that extreme pessimism might not be guaranteed. Another reading would be that Marx thought that workers would be relatively worse off, and that the recurrent crisis of the system (realization crisis, financial crisis, of which Marx is among the first to discuss in a systematic way), would undermine the social basis of the system.

Tyler Cowen, the other academic economist in the NYTimes bunch, has no understanding of Marx and of the current problems of capitalism. For him the quesion is whether: "does Marx provide a very good guide to understanding all of those problems?" And his answer: "mostly not. Neoclassical microeconomics explains why some of our services are low quality and high cost, namely too much third party payment through insurance companies, too much regulation of the wrong kinds, and the difficulties consumers face in judging quality." In other words, for him our problems are caused by a collapse of supply, with high prices (and low quality) associated to too much regulation, or as he suggests, imperfect institutions. The notion that the instability of capitalism, or for that matter, the normal functioning of market economies is well explained by the neoclassical supply and demand story is hard to defend. There are too many problems with this kind of view. The lack of understanding of the limitations of the neoclassical paradigm by mainstream authors is probably one the worst problems of the profession at this point. And just to show the degree of confusion, he claims that Marx understood Public Choice theory (what passes for political economy at George Mason University)!

Michael Strain, who has been mostly an economist in government bureaucracies, including the Fed, suggests that: "Marx believed that the free enterprise system required the exploitation of workers," and for him "it is hard to see why anyone would believe that today." Sure poverty in the world has declined, depending on the measure you use (he uses the World Bank's one dollar a day). But the lack of understanding about the extension of capitalist exploitation associated with globalization, and the increase in inequality in many of the countries in which economic growth has accelerated in the last three decades seems misguided at best.

The last two commentators are more favorable to the Old Moor. Yves Smith, of the great blog Naked Capitalism, suggests an old theme among Marxists scholars. Even though Marx was aware of the destructive elements of financial crisis, he did not think that finance would be the main cause of the collapse of the system. Echoes of Rudolf Hilferding can be distinguished in her piece. Doug Henwood, a journalist with his Left Business Observer, is the only openly Marxist one to appear in the Times. He basically argues in favor of the old profit squeeze view of the demise of the Golden Age, and the beginning of the Conservative Era. And he does say, correctly, that we cannot understand our current problems without "some sort of Marx-inspired analysis."

Beyond the simplistic notions of whether Marx was a right about the Soviet Union [e.g. Strain tells us that Marx was: "devastatingly wrong ... about the most important questions he tried to tackle (see also: Union, Soviet)"; yep, Marx did not foresee the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, what a moron!], or about the collapse of capitalism, what is missed in this discussion is that Marx's method, which harks back to the old surplus approach, in which distribution is exogenous, and determined by social and institutional factors, and is open to Keynes effective demand to complement the theory of output and accumulation, and which can include all sorts of financial instability notions, provides a far more fertile ground to rebuild the edifice of economics than the illogical neoclassical paradigm. But even if some of the contributions were not great, we should still thank the New York Times for asking.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The use of history for political purposes: on the New Deal and the last recession

It is increasingly common to hear stories of how government intervention led the economy astray during the Great Depression, and how FDR’s New Deal actually delayed a recovery that was on its way, e.g. the popular book my Amity Shlaes The Forgotten Man. This view is at odds with the conventional notion in the accepted historiography of the period and with old Keynesian views as exposed by Galbraith (1954), but not with the mainstream of the economic profession. It is important to note that not only old Monetarists like Friedman and Schwartz (1963) or Meltzer (2003), but also New Keynesians like Romer (1992) suggest that the recovery was essentially caused by monetary policy and that the fiscal policies associated with the New Deal were essentially of secondary importance for the recovery.

Read the post here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gerald Epstein: Too-Big-To-Fail Advantage Remains Intact For Big Banks

Gerald Epstein:
Yeah, well, I think there are some noteworthy things. First of all, just to explain what this means, what it means is that these largest banks, like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and so forth get an advantage when they borrow money in the financial markets, because the people who lend them money believe that if they get into trouble, the government will bail them out, that the taxpayers will bail them out. And this has been known since at least 1984, when Continental Illinois Bank almost went under and the government bailed them out, and then the government said, well, we're going to bail out the 11 biggest banks that are too big to fail, and we're going to bail them out in the future. And, of course, that's exactly what happened in the financial crisis of 2007-2008. So when investors lend money to these big banks, we've thought for a long time that they expect that they're going to get bailed out if they get into trouble, so they'll charge less money to these big banks...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Palley's Keynesian critique of Keen and an alternative theoretical framework

New Paper by Tom Palley titled: "Effective demand, endogenous money, and debt: a Keynesian critique of Keen and an alternative theoretical framework."From the abstract:
This paper presents a Keynesian critique of Steve Keen’s treatment of the endogenous money – credit – aggregate demand (AD) nexus. It argues his analytic intuition is correct but is developed in the wrong direction. Keen’s fundamental relation describing determination of AD in an endogenous credit money economy suffers from two flaws. First, it neglects the core Keynesian problematic of leakages from and injections into the circular flow of income. Second, it falls into the theoretical morass regarding the black box of velocity of money via its adoption of a form of Fisher equation to determine AD. The paper contrasts Keen’s treatment with a Keynesian structural framework. 
Read it here.

20 years of the Tequila Crisis

In December it will be the 20th anniversary of the Tequila Crisis, which inaugurated a series of external crisis in developing and transition economies, in Asia, Russia, Brazil, Turkey and Argentina. Here a short note (in Spanish) for a Mexican on-line magazine (Paradigmas).

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Don’t Cry for Argentina--Not Yet!

In the new issue of Dollars & Sense my short article on the Argentine crisis. Subscription required. Previous post on the same topic here, here and here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Galbraith on Piketty's Capital

I'm still reading the book, so I will not say much at this point. The history of ideas at the beginning of the book is just embarrassingly bad, and suggests that mainstream economists do not have the faintest idea about the history of their own discipline. Just a short example would suffice to show what I mean. Piketty says: “Marx totally neglected the possibility of durable technological progress and steadily increasing productivity.” Note that the book is named Capital, and Piketty is quite critical of Marx. So you would expect some reasonable understanding of what is in the other Capital. If you open chapter XV of Marx's Capital, on Machinery and Modern Industry he tells you:
"Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus value."
So machinery and increasing productivity are essential for the production of surplus value and the explanation of profits. It is evident that if Piketty read Marx, he didn't understand much. And that is true of almost any citation that involves history of economic ideas (so Roncaglia, previous post, is right, Piketty should take a course in the history of economic thought).

Also, Piketty is in many passages clearly contradictory, taking positions that are not compatible with other assumptions made just before. These contradictions derive basically from his adherence to neoclassical theory, and his desire to transcend it, and say something relevant about inequality. In neoclassical theory inequality results from technical change, and different levels of skills, since workers and capital receive according to their productivity. Political factors should NOT play an important role. Other than the data on inequality, in the collecting of which he has been central together Emmanuel Saez, even if it is far from true that he is the only follower of Kuznets, there is little merit in this book it seems.

Jamie Galbraith provided a good review in Dissent (see here). An important point that Jamie makes is that Piketty botches the argument on the capital debates (again, given the title of the book, it is a bit ironic). Jamie notes: "Piketty devotes just three pages to the 'Cambridge-Cambridge' controversies, but they are important because they are wildly misleading..." and Piketty doesn't get that: "as the rate of interest falls, there is no systematic tendency to adopt a more 'capital-intensive' technology, as the neoclassical model supposed." The implications of the capital debates (for more on that go here) for understanding inequality are associated that once intensity and remuneration are not connected in the way neoclassical theory suggests the bare bones of the social conflicts that are behind income and wealth inequality are exposed.

An appreciation of the limitations of the neoclassical view of capital would lead, according to Galbraith, to a broader understanding of the policies needed to overcome inequality, beyond the tax on wealth proposed by Piketty, and a better understanding of how in a previous era -- of the New Deal and the Welfare State -- it was possible to reduce equally staggering inequities.