The political limitations of neoliberalism

“Neoliberalism is inimical to economic democracy and it hollows out political democracy. The neoliberal discourse and practice of TINA (There Is No Alternative) blocks the political expression of dissent and feeds apathy, populism and the far right. This is the outcome of a neoliberal political project including a modality of democracy that isolates the political from the socio-economic sphere, restricts democracy to the former, and limits democracy to voting in elections while, simultaneously, imposing a strongly illiberal agenda towards civil liberties and collective action. The crisis of this modality of democracy has become evident through increasing global instability and the proliferation of ‘pseudo-‘ or ‘illiberal’ democracies and ‘electoral authoritarian’ regimes, ‘failed states’, civil wars and ‘terrorism’, especially in the post-colonial world. The limitations of conventional democracy have also raised concerns in the ‘advanced’ West, where large numbers of people now reject ritualistic elections leading to power scarcely distinguishable political parties as a means of addressing their economic and political concerns. Despite their limitations, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the emerging popular movements in crisis-hit Western economies have reiterated their aspiration for a substantive form of democracy, encompassing the ‘economic’ domain that has been insulated by neoliberalism – that is, including substantive choices about the nature of social provision, the structure of employment, and the distribution of income.”

Alfredo Saad-Filho (2019), Value and Crisis, Ch.10, p.217

Keynes against capitalism

Crotty Keynes Against CapitalismJohn Maynard Keynes did not wish to merely save capitalism ‘from itself’ but to replace it with ‘Liberal Socialism’. That is the controversial claim made in a new book by the distinguished radical economist James Crotty, whose work ‘attempts to integrate the complementary analytical strengths of the Marxian and Keynesian traditions’.

The book, Keynes Against Capitalism, subtitled His Economic Case for Liberal Socialism, draws heavily on textual evidence found in the collected works of Keynes himself, from the 1920s through to the end of his life in 1946. This is both its strength and its weakness.

Without wishing to get into debate over semantics, one could find oneself agreeing with much of the argument ie that Keynes did in fact wish to replace capitalism with a radically different system called Liberal Socialism, but to say, in some ways, so what? The book is a fine scholarly read, but I found myself questioning whether Keynes’ (Crotty’s?) Liberal Socialism, for all its admirable socially transformative aims, would be both feasible and sustainable. Continue reading

Michael Pettis on Chinese growth, debt, consumption and rebalancing

In this short video, some insights from Michael Pettis on Chinese economic growth numbers, the nation’s debt and its sustainability, the extent (or not) of deleveraging, the low share of consumption in national income, the perennial need for a rebalancing of its economy, and how this can be done.

Keynes and the conceptual cul-de-sac of General Equilibrium

Economist John Maynard Keynes

“The reasons for which Keynes’s arguments fail to translate into the orthodox paradigm are not because they are vague, confused or poorly formulated. They fail to translate, instead, because they identify and address crucial flaws in the structure and logic of the dominant paradigm. As Keynes himself put it, what he hoped to do is ‘convince [us] that Walras’ theory, and all others along those lines are little better than nonsense’. He was able to see, like Kornai, that the Walrasian ideal is ultimately ‘a special branch of mathematics’, which employs ‘logical reasoning [but] from arbitrary assumptions’, making it more an ‘intellectual experiment’ than a theory in the mould of the sciences.

The real problem which far too many economists have had with understanding Keynes’s arguments exactly as he expressed them is an intransigent desire to believe that, as once said by Debreu in an interview, ‘the superiority of the liberal economy is incontestable and can be mathematically demonstrated’. The problem with this conviction is that the economy that Debreu had in mind has little connection with reality. It is time, if we want in the future to avoid the terrible waste, not just of the past ten years, but of the many other times that liberal economies have so clearly failed to provide for full employment, that we turn our attention to understanding more accurately not the economic society in which we might wish to live but the one in which we actually live. It is in this regard that Keynes, read without the desire to adhere to the conventional wisdom of the Walrasian General Equilibrium paradigm, provides a truly valuable starting point.”

Mark Pernecky and Paul Wojick

Heterodoxy on central bank independence and monetary policy

In the wake of Donald Trump’s call for lower US interest rates in the midst of solid economic growth and low unemployment, The Economist magazine ran a couple of articles on the threat of populist leaders to central bank independence (CBI) and low inflation.

It is more than 40 years since the publication of the intellectual justification for CBI of Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott, propounding the idea of time inconsistency. Based on the concept of the natural rate of unemployment (NRU), political control of interest rates will give rise to the temptation for politicians to boost aggregate demand and lower unemployment in the short run, below the NRU. This will prove unsustainable over the longer run, merely producing higher inflation, with inevitable costs to economic efficiency and growth.

This was apparently what caused the stagflation of the 1970s, when unemployment and inflation rose together, undermining the putatively Keynesian Phillips curve. The upshot is that politicians and voters are better off with CBI, with the central bank given a fixed mandate of low inflation and autonomy in how it achieves this.

But what is the reality of CBI and monetary policy? Here are some quotes from heterodox economists critiquing the mainstream consensus. Continue reading

The policy that shall not be named

Production_LineThe IMF recently published a refreshing paper on the principles of industrial policy. The paper is quite lengthy, so I will summarise and discuss some of the main points here. The authors do not speak for the IMF of course, and it merely reflects their current research, but it remains important.

The paper is important because it unambiguously makes the case for an active industrial policy in developing countries to enable them to catch up with the richest countries.

They argue that successful examples of such a development strategy have been extremely rare in recent decades, but that it is vital to learn from them. They use the case studies of the ‘Asian miracle’ economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, which were relatively poor some decades ago, but managed to industrialise and grow rapidly, enabling them to catch up and graduate into the club of advanced economies.

They also note that most if not all of today’s rich countries, including the US, Japan and Germany, followed such a strategy during their catch-up phases of growth, and continue to employ industrial and technology policies, albeit in different forms.

The paper is also refreshing because the IMF, and the World Bank, are not known for supporting the principles of industrial policy as a viable development strategy. In their dealings with financial crises and developing countries in recent decades, they have tended to promote and enforce an anti-developmental state neoliberal policy agenda, known as the Washington Consensus, with often dire results for levels of poverty and inequality and the ability of governments to encourage successful development. Continue reading