“The Scheme for Full Employment” – finding the economics in an unusual novel

I have to admit that much of my day-to-day reading is dominated by economics and political economy. Even when turning to fiction, at least in this instance, reading the cover of Magnus Mill’s unusual 2003 novel The Scheme for Full Employment instantly peaked my curiosity. For most of my (economics) life I have been concerned with the issue of unemployment under capitalism, the prospects for full employment and greater social justice, and how the work of Keynes and other great progressive economists has dealt with these.

MagnusMillsTheSchemeforFEMill’s novel is undoubtedly an entertaining and quirky read. I am informed that much of his writing is in this spirit. This example uses the story to take a humorous look at a ‘social experiment’ designed to ensure that everyone who wants a paid job in some non-specific nation can have one. If this is not provided by the private sector then ‘the Scheme’ will do it.

The Scheme itself seems to produce nothing, and consists of a huge number of ‘UniVans’ driven by the regular employees along numerous predetermined routes to various destinations, dropping off and picking up parts for the UniVans themselves. It thus provides activity and employment, whose only purpose is to eliminate unemployment in the fictional society.

The plot culminates in a strike by the workers, pitting the “flat-dayers” committed to an eight hour working day without exception, against the “swervers”, who want to facilitate more flexible and shorter working hours. In the end the strikers fail to achieve their aims, and the very end of the book sees the rapid unwinding of The Scheme as it loses public support. Continue reading

Inequality and the malleability of capitalism

Amid the triple crises of Covid, climate and inequality, here is economist Dean Baker with, for me, some optimistic words on the sheer adaptability of the economic system in which huge numbers of us live, and the implications of this for the third of these crises, which remains an integral aspect of the course of the other two.

The political economy of capitalism frequently gives rise to unsettling change but, as pointed out below, with the kind of tone often heard from the reformist centre-left, we are probably not clever enough to design a completely new socioeconomic system from the top down. Instead we must try and remain flexible and open to experimentation in the name of an evolving, progressive reformism. Continue reading

Wynne Godley and economics – forecasts, policy and the drivers of prosperity

I have just finished reading Alan Shipman’s fascinating biography of the late economist Wynne Godley, who passed away in 2010. Godley worked in the UK Treasury in the 60s, before moving to Cambridge University and heading the maverick Cambridge Economic Policy Group (CEPG). He became known for his prescient economic forecasts of the UK and later the US, predicting the demise of the ‘Barber Boom’ in the 1970s, the mass unemployment of the 1980s unleashed by Margaret Thatcher’s professed adherence to monetarism, the end of the ‘Lawson Boom’ and return to recession in the late 80s and early 90s, and finally the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of the 2000s, which followed the build up and subsequent unwinding of unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances in the US, which he had identified as early as 1999.

Through his career, Godley’s approach to economics developed into what are now termed ‘stock-flow consistent’ macroeconomic models. His final book, Monetary Economics, co-authored with Marc Lavoie, develops models of increasing complexity of a hypothetical economy, in which flows of income, expenditure and production interact in a comprehensive and logically consistent way with stocks of assets and liabilities.

One of the key lessons of Godley’s analysis is that incorporating banks or a financial sector into macroeconomic models yields important insights. Thus, the so-called ‘Great Moderation’ period of steady economic growth, moderate unemployment and low inflation which preceded the GFC in economies such as the US and UK, in a way concealed the unsustainable accumulation of private debt, which financed consumption and a boom in asset prices, particularly housing.

The subsequent financial crisis and deep recession were therefore not an ‘exogenous’ shock which arose randomly from outside the system, but were ‘endogenous’, arising from within the economic system itself. Godley, along with economists such as Steve Keen, modeled the dynamics of debt accumulation and predicted an inevitable crisis, as debt accumulation went into reverse, private saving rose, and unemployment rose sharply, even as central banks reduced interest rates towards zero.

Fiscal policy, in the form of tax cuts and public spending increases, made a comeback in many countries, at least until the premature turn towards austerity. Godley and Keen had both predicted that public deficits would soar as governments let the automatic stabilisers operate, and borrowed and spent on top of that, to try and combat the recession. Such was the level of private debt that, as the private sector scrambled to pay it down by curtailing spending, these deficits proved insufficient to prevent recession. In their absence, it would likely have proved even deeper.

Keynesianism and the Golden Age

Godley’s economic models have today spawned an expanding literature applying his stock-flow consistent approach to both the economy as well as the environment. Many of those inspired by his work, as well as the man himself, would be classified as post-Keynesian economists, broadly speaking the heterodox or more radical followers of Keynes. They argue that economic growth, and aggregate supply, are usually constrained by aggregate demand, of which investment is the main driver, as it provides both a source of spending and of capacity on the supply-side. They hold to the vision that sufficiently ambitious public policy can create and sustain full employment, moderate inflation, and widely-shared rising living standards. They tend to take great inspiration from the post-war ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’, which witnessed around 25 years of such outcomes.

The Golden Age ultimately came to an end as a combination of rising unemployment and inflation, or stagflation, apparently discredited the Keynesian consensus, and the Bretton Woods system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates unravelled. The monetarist creed which followed saw policymakers shift their attention to combating inflation with monetary policy and, in theory, fiscal austerity. Unemployment soared in the UK and manufacturing output collapsed.

Left economists of all persuasions, from Keynesian to Marxist, decried these developments. The post-Keynesians argued that their own ideas for economy policy could be used to solve these problems, while some Marxists viewed them as inevitable under capitalism, even if they were hugely damaging to society, as they could encourage a restructuring which would restore business profitability, and create the conditions for a new period of economic growth to take place. Strangely, these latter arguments are in some ways close to conservative ones, although Marxists tend to see socialism as a better answer to the problems created by capitalism, while conservatives would continue with the creative destruction unleashed by capitalist production, often favouring little in the way of the social protections or industrial interventions favoured by those to their political left.

From Keynesianism to industrial policy

Wynne Godley’s economic framework ultimately eschews ‘fine-tuning’ or short-term policy interventions in favour of medium-term strategies which can sustain the goals of most Keynesians, mentioned above. They require management of the public budget, incomes policies to sustain low inflation, and sometimes even import controls such as tariffs or quotas to manage the balance of payments, and prevent a boost to demand at less than full employment ‘leaking’ into foreign demand in the form of imports, rather than encouraging the growth of domestic production and employment.

Also implicit in this framework is the potential for industrial and technology policies to increase the international competitiveness of domestic firms, and thus to encourage a faster growth of net exports given the growth of world demand. The more competitive such firms are internationally, the more of this demand they can capture and serve and the faster the growth of net exports, all else being equal. Another Cambridge post-Keynesian and colleague of Godley’s, Nicholas Kaldor, made arguments along these lines to justify the need for an industrial policy.

Industrial policy can not only create a boost to foreign demand, but it also potentially encourages faster structural change and the adoption of new technologies, which are part of the workings of a successful capitalist economy able to raise productivity and living standards over time. This falls more into the category of microeconomic analysis, but taken together with the ideas of Godley and others, it shows that ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ need to be integrated, rather than kept artificially separate, as is often the case in mainstream analysis, which even drops the case for considering emergent macro properties completely with its arguments for ‘microfoundations’ of macroeconomics.

Marx, Shaikh and competition

For Keynesians of all kinds, aggregate demand, whether domestic or foreign, is seen as a key driver of growth in output and employment, but for modern classical and Marxist economists, Anwar Shaikh being one prominent example, competition between firms and industries drives investment and growth in the search for greater profitability.

Godley was nicknamed the ‘cassandra of the fens’ for his gloomy forecasts for the economy. Although his predictions of recession often turned out to be right, he was perhaps too pessimistic about the prospects for subsequent recoveries in the absence of Keynesian fiscal reflation. Many post-Keynesians, who have historically often prioritised macro over micro analysis, neglect the role of the profit motive and competition in driving economic growth. ‘Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the prophets’, proclaimed Marx, and Shaikh, who has integrated many ideas from classical and Marxist thought as well as some from the post-Keynesian tradition in his own magnum opus Capitalism, makes a strong case for the imperative of profit-making and competition as the central regulating mechanism under capitalism.

For Shaikh, firms and industries compete in the long run by investing in new technologies to increase productivity and cut costs, enabling them to cut prices and expand market share, with the aim of achieving greater profitability. Over the long term, crises or recessions are inevitable from time to time, even if they can be temporarily prevented or postponed with state interventions.

Thus economic growth, despite its often disruptive form in both good times and bad, derives from the intrinsic motives within the capitalist system, and the disruption can only be temporarily ameliorated. Despite this, growth can be seen as being constrained by demand or by supply. It is just that Keynesians tend to see the former as being the dominant tendency and requiring sustained intervention by the state.

As part of an industrial policy, public investment in modern infrastructure and research into and development of new technologies can ‘crowd in’ private investment by opening up new opportunities for firms to take advantage of. The state can therefore ‘create’ new markets for the private sector. This idea is contrary to the conservative view that public investment or borrowing more generally will tend to crowd out private investment. The state can thus expand both demand and supply.

Keynesianism and politics

There is no doubt that Keynesianism offers an attractive political program for the left, with its hope that state intervention can create ‘jobs for all’, poverty reduction and well-funded social policies, not least in the form of a strong welfare state. History seems to suggest that these outcomes cannot be sustained indefinitely, only periodically, under capitalism, while waves of creative destruction and structural change are perhaps more of a constant.

Such changes can prove a threat to sustaining liberal democracy, as the aftermath of the GFC has shown. Keynesianism purports to be able to do so, in the presence of sufficient political will and mass support for progressive parties. But the classical and Marxist canons and their interpretation of economic history show this vision to be at best incomplete, even in the absence of a path to socialism.

Trade Wars are Class Wars – reforming the global economy?

PettisKleinTWACWThis is the fourth and final post in a recent series drawing on ideas contained in the book Trade Wars are Class Wars, co-authored by economic journalist Matthew C. Klein and economics professor Michael Pettis. The last three posts explored, respectively, the importance of a macro or systemic analysis in economics, the nature and dynamics of savings and profits in the economy and the two broad models of economic development as set out by the authors in the book.

The essential thesis of the book is that rising inequality within many nations is restraining global demand and weakening global growth, leading to conflict over trade at the international level. In particular, excess savings, sometimes called a ‘savings glut’, in countries such as Germany and China, are reflected in current account surpluses. The latter are one way of saying that total savings in these countries exceeds total investment.

These positive net savings, or total savings minus total investment, are in these cases the flipside of underconsumption. They have proven to be unproductive, since they cannot be absorbed by productive domestic investment, and have therefore ended up being absorbed abroad, by countries which are willing to run current account deficits, fueling rising debt-fueled consumption, or rising unproductive investment in the form of financial speculation and asset price bubbles. For several decades, this has particularly been the case for the US, which has been willing to absorb unproductive savings from the surplus countries, and has therefore acted as a global spender of last resort in its provision of demand. Continue reading

Trade Wars are Class Wars – models of development

PettisKleinTWACWThis is the third in a recent series of posts which draws on ideas discussed in the book Trade Wars are Class Wars by Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis. Previously, I explored the importance of a macro or systemic analysis in economics, and the nature and dynamics of savings and profits in the economy. Today, I want to look at the two broad models of growth and development outlined by the authors: the high savings model and the high wages model.

In fact, I posted on this a couple of years ago here, following a blog post by Pettis, so I will try not to repeat myself too much and explore some different aspects of the topic. If you haven’t read their book, or any of the authors’ previous output on this, I recommend reading my blog post first, as well as that of Pettis. Continue reading

Politics, institutions and development – an uncomfortable reality

AfricanEconDev2“Capitalism is not nice”: these words from one of my lecturers have stayed with me since my university days. He was not only considering the often difficult contexts in which poor countries make the transition to a pathway of modernisation and development, but also that of capitalist development more generally, not least in advanced countries. He then added: “but how else are poor countries going to raise the living standards of the mass of their populations?”

Historically, the emergence and evolution of particular economic institutions and policies which have successfully driven periods of development have often been associated with threats to the established political and social order, sometimes in the form of conflict (whether internal or external) or, in more general terms, pressures which has driven fundamental changes in society and laid the foundations for economic growth and transformation. Continue reading

Are corporate CEOs worth $20 million? — Real-World Economics Review Blog

from Dean Baker

This simple and important question does not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. And, just to be clear, I don’t mean are they worth $20 million in any moral sense. I am asking a simple economics question; does the typical CEO of a major company add $20 million of value to […]

Are corporate CEOs worth $20 million? — Real-World Economics Review Blog

Industrial policy – blurring the boundaries

AfricanEconDev2The debate over the merits or otherwise of industrial policy, broadly defined, is less polarised in policymaking circles these days. Former World Bank chief economist, Justin Lin, has for some time been arguing for the adoption of his ‘New Structural Economics’ to aid development in the poorest nations, while one of his predecessors, Joseph Stiglitz, is a firm advocate of policies which aim to overcome the numerous market failures which he argues characterise such nations.

Many development economists coming from a more heterodox tradition have long advocated industrial policy as essential, based on the rich historical experience of successful periods of growth in a wide range of countries. Most if not all of today’s richest nations have made use of industrial policies, and still do, if in different forms from the past.

Such economists have followed the arguments of the Cambridge Keynesian Nicholas Kaldor, claiming that there is something ‘unique’ about manufacturing that makes its promotion essential for accelerating economic growth and development. Continue reading

Complexity economics and transcending the micro-macro division

origin-of-wealth“[Traditional] economics is split into two halves: microeconomics and macroeconomics. Microeconomics is the bottom-up view of the economy and starts with individual decision makers and then builds up to markets and economies. Macroeconomics is the top-down view that starts with questions such as why there is unemployment and then drills down to find an answer…Most economists agree that ideally, there should not be a separate microeconomics and macroeconomics. One should be able to start with micro behaviors and work up, or with macro patterns and work down, and be able to use either approach seamlessly within one theory. Although the two halves of the field share many ideas, techniques and the overall traditional equilibrium framework, they unfortunately have yet to achieve that aspiration. Like the two teams that built the transcontinental railroad across the United States in the nineteenth century, microeconomists and macroeconomists have been working toward each other from different sides of the field. Unfortunately, after a century of laying tracks, they have failed to meet in the middle…

The micro-level interactions of agents in a complex adaptive system create macro-level structures and patterns…The ultimate accomplishment of Complexity Economics would be to develop a theory that takes us from the theories of agents, networks, and evolution, all the way up to the macro patterns we see in real-world economies…

Such a theory would view macroeconomic patterns as emergent phenomena, that is, characteristics of the system as a whole that arise endogenously out of interactions of agents and their environment…

Emergence may seem mysterious, but it is actually something that we experience every day. For example, a single water molecule of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom does not feel wet (assuming that you could feel a single molecule). But a few billion water molecules in a cup feel wet. That is because wetness is a collective property of the slippery interactions between water molecules in a particular temperature range. If we lower the temperature of the water, the molecules interact in a different way, forming the crystal structure of ice, losing its emergent characteristic of wetness and taking on the characteristic of hard. Similarly, what we call a symphony is a pattern of sound that emerges out of the playing of individual instruments, and what we call a kidney is a pattern of cells working together to provide a higher-level function that none of the cells could do on its own.

Complexity Economics likewise views economic patterns such as business cycles, growth, and inflation as emergent phenomena arising endogenously out of the interactions in the system.”

Eric D. Beinhocker (2006), The Origin of Wealth – Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, (p.163, 167-8).