Freedom, welfare and state intervention

An insightful quote from economist Lars Pålsson Syll, who blogs here, on the nature of freedom and its relationship to welfare and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities. The latter, contrary to the beliefs and wishes of many libertarians and neoliberals, can be enabled via state intervention:

“State intervention does not necessarily mean that our freedoms are restricted. They can, on the contrary, enable and increase real freedom. Talking about freedom in abstractu counts for nothing. What really means anything is – as Sen has often stressed – capabilities. What joy does the freedom of movement give the disabled person if no one enables him to use this freedom? What good does it bring us to have freedom of the press if there are no newspapers or journals where we can put forward our views? When estimating welfare more weight should be laid on positive freedom (ability to achieve desired goals) instead of only negative freedom (absence of outer restrictions). Welfare is, as already pointed out in Sen’s Tanner Lecture 1979, best understood in terms of capabilities . Positive freedom is a kind of capability to function that has a direct value of its own, while the resources that can increase this capability only get an instrumental value in so far as they help us to achieve that which we really value – our capability to function under different circumstances. It is not possession of commodities or perceived satisfaction that at first hand give a measure of well-being, but our capability to make use of our possessions. To focus on capability means emphasising what goods enable a person to do, and not the goods in themselves. A metric of goods or utilities does not get hold of the fact that the point of our belongings is to create possibilities of choice. Functioning and capability are what matters. What makes us value our car is not the fact that we perhaps own it, but that we can use it to take us where we want to get. Even if freedom is something important in itself, it is most often not for its own sake that we search for it.

Libertarians are oblivious of the fact that some persons’ entitlements can restrict the freedom of others, and that the want of property not only restricts the self-determination of the property-less but also makes him an instrument of others’ freedom. To this they respond that the more resources there are in society, the more the rich invest their capital to make production effective, and the richer all members of society become. In the libertarian society the egoism of the rich is linked fruitfully with the rest of society.”

Lars Pålsson Syll (2016), ‘Neoliberalism and neoclassical economics’, in On the use and misuse of theories and models in mainstream economics, College Publications on behalf of the World Economics Association, p.142-3.

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Michael Hudson interview part 2

Following Tuesday’s video, here is more from this interview with Michael Hudson on Trump’s economic policies, from tax cuts and trade wars to infrastructure, privatisation, industrial policy, Wall Street versus Main Street and Artificial Intelligence and its effects on unemployment.

Trumponomics and investment

“The weakness of private business investment in most developed countries through the neoliberal era is difficult to explain on the basis of a standard regression equation. Most of the usual determinants of investment – including profitability, interest rates, and tax and regulatory policies – were aligned in a direction that should have elicited more private investment effort. But the neoliberal recipe delivered less investment, not more. And the failure of accumulated wealth to trickle down creates major economic and political problems for the system and its elites.

For all of Donald Trump’s claims of being an “outsider”, changing the traditional rules of politics and policy, his economic program is absolutely consistent with the general direction of the trickle-down, neoliberal policies that have already governed the US for almost four decades. Trump will further shift the distribution of income upward to corporations and those who own them. His policies will suppress the incomes and the consumption of workers – including cutting their public services. His regulatory and fiscal priorities will favour investment in expensive, capital-intensive sectors (like energy and defense) that support relatively few jobs, while imposing enormous costs on broader society and the planet. His financial and monetary policies will continue to privilege financial wealth and speculation over real investment and production, undoing even the baby steps taken to rein in finance after the conflagration of 2008. The core logic of his approach is transparent: enhance the wealth and power of business and the wealthy, and they will invest more in America, and everyone will prosper. There is very little novel content in Trump’s incarnation of trickle-down policy, and very little reason to believe that it will succeed in revitalizing business investment activity that has chronically disappointed. Outside of bursts of new activity in a couple of targeted sectors (like energy and military industries), there is no reason to expect that the trajectory of US business investment will improve in any sustained fashion under Trump’s guidance. Certainly his program cannot recreate the virtuous combination of driving factors that powered the long postwar boom in US capital accumulation: near-full employment, a growing public sector, and strong productivity growth, all of which (for a while) reinforced the vitality of private investment.

Even if the Trump program did succeed in motivating a generalized resurgence in US private business investment, of course, Americans (and others around the world) would have to ask themselves, “At what cost?” A temporary burst in investment in fossil fuel extraction and consumption, achieved by abandoning environmental regulations that were already too weak, is of dubious value when the costs of fossil fuel use are becoming intolerable. Similar questions could be asked about the general strategy of reinforcing profit margins through the suppression of wages and other socially destructive levers, in a country which already experiences more poverty and inequality than any other industrial nation. Business investment is never an end in its own right; it is socially beneficial only to the extent that it underpins job creation, incomes, productivity, and ultimate improvements in living standards. Trying to elicit a bit more investment effort by suppressing living standards a little further, is self-defeating to the ultimate purpose of economic development.

Investment in the US, and other advanced industrial countries, is held back by more fundamental problems than corporate tax design or environmental regulations. The fundamental vitality of the profit motive in eliciting accumulation, so celebrated in the early chapters of capitalist history, seems to have dissipated. The owners of businesses are content to consume their wealth, or hoard it, or speculate with it, instead of recycling it via new investments. Ever-more desperate attempts to elicit a bit more investment effort never seem to alter this stagnationist trajectory – with the incredible result today that overall production is actually becoming less capital-intensive, despite “miraculous” technological innovations. Trump is giving the trickle-down theory one more kick at the can, having successfully capitalized on popular discontent with the failures of previous attempts. Progressives must work harder to illuminate the failure of this business-led economic logic, and come up with other visions for financing capital investment, innovation and job-creation that do not depend on fruitlessly bribing the investing class to actually do the job it is supposed to.”

Jim Stanford (2017), US private capital accumulation and Trump’s economic program, in Trumponomics: Causes and Consequences, World Economic Association: College Publications, p.135-7.

The complete original article can be accessed for free here.

Beyond the perfect and imperfect to the real

“There are…, I should admit, forces which one might fairly well call “automatic” which operate under any normal monetary system in the direction of restoring a long-period equilibrium between saving and investment. The point upon which I cast doubt – though the contrary is generally believed – is whether these “automatic forces” will…tend to bring about not only an equilibrium between saving and investment but also an optimum level of production.”

John Maynard Keynes

This brief quote from the great man sums up the argument put forth in his magnum opus, The General Theory, that a capitalist economy does not have an automatic tendency to achieve full employment. It may possess other “automatic forces”, but these will not do the trick. Continue reading

Economics is for everyone

“…[I]t is tempting to leave economics to the experts, particularly as this is part of the dominant political culture of the twentieth century, but in this case we cannot afford to. We are being sold short because the very knowledge and skills we need to address the great challenges humanity faces in the twenty-first century have been systematically left out of the education of those who go on to run our economy…as a society this binds us in a mental straightjacket that prevents us imagining the economy in any other way. This is turn precludes any real discussions about what our collective values are, how we wish to organise the economy and how we should address the challenges we face. We must reform economics so that the next generation of economic experts have the skills needed to reinvigorate economics and to build a society in which economics is a dialogue people actively take part in.

The aim…is to create spaces in which we can individually and collectively begin to rethink economics. In time we hope these spaces will become concrete institutions which enable mass participation in economic decision making. Ultimately we believe that economics must become a public dialogue and never again be left only to the experts.”

Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins (2017), The Econocracy: The perils of leaving economics to the experts, p.169-170