Michael Hudson on John Maynard Keynes

Another in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s excellent J is for Junk Economics:

“John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946): In the 1920s, Keynes became the major critic of World War I’s legacy of German reparations and Inter-Ally debts. Against the monetarist ideology that prices and incomes in debtor countries would fall by enough to enable them to pay virtually any level of debt, Keynes explained that there were structural limits to the ability to pay. Accusing Europe’s reparations and arms debts of exceeding these limits, Keynes provided the logic for writing down debts. His logic controverted the “hard money” austerity of Jacques Rueff and Bertil Ohlin, who claimed that all debts could be paid by squeezing a tax surplus out of the economy (mainly from labor).

Modern Germany has embraced this right-wing monetarist doctrine. Even in the 1920s, all its major political parties strived to pay the unpayably high foreign debt, bringing about economic and political collapse. The power of “sanctity of debt” morality proved stronger than the logic of Keynes and other economic realists.

In 1936, as the Great Depression spread throughout the world, Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money pointed out that Say’s Law had ceased to operate. Wages and profits were not being spent on new capital formation or employing labor, but were hoarded as savings. Keynes viewed saving simply as non-spending on goods and services, not as being used to pay down debts or lent out to increase the economy’s debt overhead. (Banks had stopped lending in the 1930s.) He also did not address the tendency for debts to grow exponentially in excess of the economy’s ability to carry the debt overhead.

It was left to Irving Fisher to address debt deflation, pointing to how debtors “saved” by paying down debts they had earlier run up. And it was mainly fringe groups such as Technocracy Inc. that emphasized the tendency for debts to grow exponentially in chronic excess of the economy’s ability to carry its financial overhead. Emphasis on debt has been left mainly to post-Keynesians, headed by Hyman Minsky and his successors such as Steve Keen and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), grounded in Keynes’s explanation of money and credit as debt in his Treatise on Money (1930).”

Advertisements

Re-reading Keynes

Economist John Maynard KeynesI recently re-read John Maynard Keynes’ magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (hereafter GT). First published in 1936, this was the great man’s attempt to persuade his fellow economists that changes to their understanding of economic theory and policy were necessary to remedy the mass unemployment which seemed to be a recurring feature of capitalist economies, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It is now a decade since the onset of the Great Recession, when governments across the world ‘rediscovered’ Keynes, or what they thought were Keynesian ideas, for fighting the economic slump. There was a brief revival of activist fiscal policy: taxes were cut, public spending increased and government deficits rose. But once the threat of collapse had been averted, there was a turn to austerity in many countries, amid renewed worries about ‘credibility’ and business confidence. Continue reading

Conflict between the market and society

“[Karl Polanyi] identified a tension between what he considered to be the two organising principles of modern market society: “economic liberalism” and “social interventionism”, each with their own objectives and policies as well as support from the groups within society whose interests they are seen to serve. The aim of economic liberalism is to establish or restore the self-regulation of the system by eliminating interventionist policies that obstruct the freedom of markets for land, labour and capital. Through laissez-faire and free trade, social relationships are embedded within the economic system and subjected to unregulated market forces with support from the propertied classes, finance and industry. By contrast, the aim of social interventionism is to embed the economy within social relationships, thereby safeguarding human beings and nature through market regulation, with support from those adversely affected by the destabilising consequences of economic liberalisation and the self-regulating market – notably the working classes.

Polanyi argued that there is a conflict between the interest of capital in freeing itself from the constraints of society – and society’s interest in protecting itself from the social dislocation of the market (particularly that of finance). This generates a “double-movement” of counter-reactions by both capital and society, mediated by politics and the legal process. Without compensating social intervention, Polanyi contended that the pressure on vulnerable individuals and groups within society, arising from attempts at market self-regulation, would generate resistance in the form of labour, civic, social and political movements. If these become widespread – and discontent with the damaging effects of the self-regulating market intensifies – social order becomes more difficult to maintain; and in an effort to safeguard the existing system, political leaders may attempt to deflect dissatisfaction by scapegoating. However, at some point, the state is likely to be put in the position of having to decide whether to intervene on behalf of those affected or to risk social breakdown. In turn, the impairment of market forces associated with protective regulatory measures could set into motion a counter-movement on the part of capital to attempt to protect its own interests by freeing itself from social and political constraints. In response, the state would have to decide the degree to which laissez-faire should be restored and social protections and market regulations relaxed.”

Suzanne J. Konzelmann, Simon Deakin, Marc Fovargue-Davies and Frank Wilkinson (2018), Labour, Finance and Inequality, p.5-6

Harder or smarter? Work intensification and reforming capitalism

stress_at_workBritish workers are suffering, with little to show for it. As Sarah O’Connor writes in last Wednesday’s FT: “[they] are working harder than at any time in the past 25 years, to tighter deadlines and with less autonomy. Medical research shows a link between “high strain” jobs, which combine high pressure with a lack of control, and cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, stress and depression.” She notes that the recent World Mental Health Day brought news of employer initiatives to combat workplace exhaustion. But will this be enough? Continue reading

Marx, Keynes, Hayek and Minsky on economic crises: room for agreement?

At first glance, it would seem fanciful that the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek could be drawn on together to explain economic crises, or cycles, booms and busts. Certainly, the two men’s politics could not have been more different: Marx predicted (and hoped for) either the collapse or the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism and communism. Hayek thought that most kinds of state intervention in the market were the thin end of the authoritarian wedge.

The ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky are more compatible, and both have many disciples in the post-Keynesian school. Minsky developed Keynes’ theory of investment and its role in instability under capitalism. For Keynes and Minsky then, capitalism is inherently unstable, money and finance play a large role in this instability and it is the job of government to save the system from itself.

On economic policy, these four influential thinkers part ways. Marx offered little theory of policy; Hayek, like others in the Austrian school, rejected it as damaging and favoured a laissez-faire approach; Keynes and Minsky were interventionists. Continue reading

Equality and growth – no conflict?

“To lay a factual foundation to the argument for raising the American income floor, we need to sweep away the remnants of an older view that policies cannot promote both equality and growth. The older view assumed an “efficiency-equity trade-off.” If such were true, then nothing could be done to foster economic growth without the collateral damage of greater inequality, or greater equality without the collateral damage of less growth.

History does not confirm such a trade-off. To remember why, first consider a simple point about the political process…A dominant historical outcome has been that vested interests have blocked initiatives that would promote growth and/or equality. A conspicuous example is the suppression of mass public schooling – an investment that clearly promotes both equality and growth. Our second consideration comes from the numbers: history does not record any correlation – negative or positive – between income equalization and economic growth, either in our new American history over the past 360 years or world history over the past 150 years. The correlation does not emerge, regardless of whether “growth” means the GDP per capita growth rate or its absolute level, and regardless of whether “equalization” means the share of social spending in GDP, some measure of policy-induced redistribution, the level of pre-fisc income inequality before taxes and transfers, or even the rate of change in any of these.

Economists have explored the effects on income per capita growth of three kinds of egalitarian variables: tax-based social spending and its composition; fiscal redistribution, measured by the gap between pre- and post-fisc inequality; and the greater equality of pre-fisc incomes before taxes and transfers. An empirical literature using contemporary world evidence finds that the growth effect of equalizing incomes is not significant. History agrees. American experience does not reveal any clear effect on GDP of greater tax-based social spending or more progressive redistribution from rich to poor. Indeed, recent analyses suggest that greater pre-fisc equality has a positive effect on growth. This result supports the argument that egalitarian investments in human capital simultaneously achieve more equality and more growth. While these statistical results can be and have been debated, they do not support any claim that equalizing incomes must lower growth. American income history offers no support either.

If there were any fulcrum at which historical insight might be applied to move inequality, it would be political…no nation has used up all its political opportunities for leveling income without harming economic growth. Improving education, taxing large inheritances, and taming financial instability with regulatory vigilance – the opportunities are there, like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2016), Unequal Gains – American Growth and Inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, p.261-2.

There are influential theoretical arguments in economics supporting policies which promote growth by, on the one hand, increasing and, on the other, reducing inequality. The above conclusion to Lindert and Williamson’s comprehensive historical study of American growth and inequality is either ambivalent to or in support of a positive relationship between reduced inequality, certainly at its current level in many countries, and faster growth.

Their argument is that the forces generating inequality are largely exogenous (they come from outside the economic system), and so can be altered through policy without harming growth.

Clearly there are limits to this. Perfect equality of incomes and wealth would destroy the incentives required for economic activity. Ever-increasing inequality could also lead to the sort of social division and political instability which would be destructive of the status quo. Neither extreme is sustainable.

From a macroeconomic perspective, greater inequality can promote or reduce growth, depending on the economic context. If productive investment is constrained by a lack of savings, redistributing income and wealth to those economic agents who tend to save a larger share of their income, such as the wealthier members of society or firms, would provide the resources for that investment by increasing the economy’s savings rate. In this situation, greater inequality can boost growth.

This is an argument often associated with Marxist thinking and the central notion of the rate of profit or surplus in providing the resources and motivation for new investment. Growth is “profit-led”.

By contrast, if productive investment is constrained by a lack of consumption spending, then redistribution to those who consume a larger share of their income, normally the poorer members of society, will boost consumption and stimulate investment. In this case, reducing inequality can boost growth, while policies which increase it will lower growth.

This latter argument finds support in Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking, so that spending for consumption helps drive investment spending. Growth is held back by “under-consumption” and is “wage-led”. If this is the case, then a strong argument can be made for win-win progressive policies which boost household incomes and wages and reduce inequality while raising growth.

Inequality shapes and is shaped by both economic and political forces. There is perhaps “plenty to play for” in terms of policies which promote greater social justice under capitalism, without undermining its foundations. In today’s climate, they are surely essential to sustaining those foundations.