Structure, agency and the micro-macro divide

Chris Dillow, Marxist economics writer for the Investors Chronicle, blogs regularly on all sorts of topics at Stumbling and Mumbling. A recent post of his discusses structure versus agency and the neglect of systemic analysis in economics.

Structures and structural forces tend to be left to macroeconomic analysis. In modern microeconomics, individual agency, or the ability to act in order to influence some outcome given a particular environmental context, dominates theory. But structure shapes the environment, enabling or constraining agency. Individuals may therefore act in good faith but be unable to achieve the best economic outcome for themselves in the absence of a favourable context.

Given the limits of human agency in a particular structural context, an understanding of that structure, whether it is an institution such as the state, or macroeconomic in nature, such as the force of competition throughout the economy, can enable a response from policy-makers to try to improve social welfare, or not as the case may be! Continue reading

On individual human behaviour

9780199390632“There is a great difference between studying how people actually behave and positing how they should behave. When we wish to know how and why people behave as they do, we turn to behavioral economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, neurobiology, business studies and evolutionary theory. We discover that evolutionary roots, cultural heritages, hierarchical structures, and personal histories all influence our behavior: we are socially constructed beings, within the limits of our evolutionary heritage. There is a large body of evidence which shows that we do not consistently order preferences, we are poor judges of probabilities, we do not address risk in a “rational” manner, we regularly commit a wide variety of reasoning errors, and we generally base our behavior on habits and rules of thumb. In the end, we are not “noble in reason, not infinite in faculty.” On the contrary,  we are “rather weak in apprehension…[and subject to] forces we largely fail to comprehend”. And as any advertiser could tell us, our preferences are easily manipulated, our responses quite predictable.

Despite all of this evidence, neoclassical economics stubbornly insists on portraying individuals as egoistic calculating machines, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, and largely immune to outside influences. The introduction of risk, uncertainty and information costs changes the constraints faced but not the basic model of behavior. I will call this the doctrine of “hyper-rationality” so as to distinguish it from a more general notion of “rationality”, which refers to the belief or principle that actions or opinions should be based on reason. The point here is to avoid the neoclassical habit of portraying hyper-rationality as perfect and actual behavior as imperfect. It is a topsy-turvy world indeed when all that is real is deemed irrational.

The question is not whether economic incentives matter, but rather how they matter.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), Capitalism – Competition, Conflict, Crises, Oxford University Press, p.78-9.

Industrial policy and the UK – the keys to success

An excerpt from a chapter by my old tutor at SOAS, Mushtaq Khan, who has written extensively on industrial policy in a range of late-industrialising countries, analysing case-studies with a range of outcomes in terms of development, successful or otherwise. Here he considers both the differences and the similarities with an industrial policy in the UK, which needs to innovate, rather than simply emulate already existing technologies and catch-up with the richest countries:

“For an advanced country like the UK, industrial policy clearly has to support both innovation and the development of competitive production capabilities that can convert ideas and knowledge into marketable products. There is no question therefore that industrial policy must have a focus on supporting innovation and the development of new knowledge. This involves investment in public bodies such as universities as well as in networks linking public and private players engaged in innovation. Countries such as the UK still have a lead over most emerging Asian countries in the organization of innovation, though there may be particular strategies of financing or organizing innovation that may be worth looking at. However, the second plank of any effective industrial policy has to be the development of competitive manufacturing capabilities so that good ideas and technologies can be converted into competitive products. Here the UK can learn a lot about the types of problems countries can face when they try to acquire (or, in the case of the UK, re-acquire) firm-level competitive capabilities. Britain’s gradual loss of manufacturing competitiveness after the Second World War was exacerbated after the 1980s in the context of rapid de-industrialization. The country lost much of the tacit knowledge embedded in the organizational routines of manufacturing firms, and as a result fell even further behind in terms of its capacity to regain a broad base of competitive firms. The experience of Asian industrial policy shows that the achievement of competitiveness in new sectors and technologies can be a difficult problem to crack. The two planks of industrial policy are closely connected because without a broad base of firms that can organize production competitively, a successful innovation strategy will simply result in the offshoring of manufacturing somewhere else.”

Mushtaq Khan (2015), The Role of Industrial Policy- Lessons from Asia, in David Bailey, Keith Cowling, and Philip R. Tomlinson, New Perspectives on Industrial Policy for a Modern Britain, Oxford University Press, p.80.

Why US debt must continue to rise – Michael Pettis

Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.

Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.

On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address. Continue reading

Jason Hickel on global poverty and neoliberalism

Jason Hickel is an anthropologist who has written extensively on global poverty and inequality, as well as political economy. Here is a recent post of his, discussing the nature and measurement of, and trends in, global poverty, as a response to a critique by Steven Pinker.

Hickel strongly disputes the idea that falling poverty, where it has occurred, has been due to neoliberal globalisation. Rather, the successful industrialisation and economic development that are necessary for sustained poverty reduction have been achieved with state intervention, industrial policies, and strategic integration with the global economy in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and China.

There is a huge literature on this, but Ha-Joon Chang is perhaps one of the best known academics to have written popular books on how particular forms of state intervention have promoted capitalist development. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism is the easiest read and I have posted a number of excerpts from it over the last few years. Bad Samaritans is also good value. For a more academic discussion see Kicking Away the Ladder.

Thanks to the excellent blog The Case For Concerted Action for posting on this first and drawing my attention to Hickel’s work.