Trump’s tariffs: is there a better way?

Donald Trump has said that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”. I posted on the issue of protectionism in the wake of his election victory here, and on ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ policies here, and stand by my arguments.

Contrary to the claims of mainstream economics, free trade is not always mutually beneficial for the nations involved. In particular, the historical record suggests that particular ‘infant’ industries in developing countries can benefit from temporary and selective protection, until they are competitive enough to succeed on world markets.

There are plenty of examples of infant industry protection which have failed, so it is by no means a universal panacea. Success requires the management of a particular balance of power in a developing country between particular groups such as the state and social classes, which might include emerging industrial leaders or the middle class. It will also be context-specific: it depends on the historical evolution of the groups and society involved.

Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium imports are not an example of protecting an infant industry. They may protect some jobs in those sectors, but most economists argue that by increasing the costs of these products as inputs for other industries, many more jobs will be lost in the latter, so that the net employment impact will be negative. Continue reading


Micro-macro dynamics and complexity

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That, in a nutshell, is the concept of emergence which justifies the existence of macroeconomics as a field of study distinct from microeconomics.

Mainstream economics places great store on ‘microfoundations’, and new classical macroeconomics aims to do away with the macro side of things by assuming that the hyper-rational representative individual or agent is the basic building block of its models.

Complexity and systems theory has a lot to offer those who accept the need for microfoundations in economics, but in a way that macroeconomic objects emerge from them, and cannot be predicted from simply examining a single ‘representative’ micro agent.

If this is the correct way to proceed, then macro objects can be said to emerge from the interactions of micro agents. The latter can be different from one another, in form and behaviour, but still produce an emergent order which can be studied and used to further understanding and inform economic policy.

As micro agents interact and produce coherent macro relations, structures and processes, the latter also act to shape micro-level behaviour. There is thus a two-way interaction between micro and macro, or a micro-macro dynamics.

This video, while not focusing exclusively on economics, covers what is an important part of the nature of the objects studied (ontology) in many strands of heterodox or non-mainstream economics. It touches, simplistically, on the difference between a pure free market and socialist economy, whether such things exist or not, but much of it is useful and is worth a view, keeping economics in mind.

In an economics employing a micro-macro dynamics, the micro agents might be individuals, classes, households or firms, while the macro structures and processes might be the national or international economy.

Inequality, global imbalances and crisis

Tracing a connection between rising inequality and the Great Recession of 2008 is appealing to leftist economists. It suggests that what they see as two of the potential downsides of capitalism and in particular the neoliberal economic order can perhaps be mitigated via appropriate policies. Thus, a more egalitarian capitalism can become less prone to crisis or recession.

Of course, what is appealing as social and economic outcomes is not a good enough reason to investigate linkages between them, though I suspect that I am far from the only one who is drawn to particular ideas as a matter of bias.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that as a starting point, followed by economic analysis of the chosen object of study.

An article in the latest issue of the heterodox Cambridge Journal of Economics explores the potential linkages between the distribution of income and current account imbalances in a simplified model of the global economy consisting of the US, Germany and China, prior to the 2008 recession.

These three countries had the largest current account imbalances in absolute terms in the run-up to the recession. The US ran a deficit, and Germany and China were running surpluses. Since these imbalances have been pinpointed by some economists as a cause of the recession itself, analysing them is important. Continue reading

Useful bubbles

Plenty of economists are critical of the apparent irrationality of financial bubbles, which have occurred throughout the history of capitalism. That they recur despite the efforts of governments to regulate the markets and prevent their worst excesses suggests that, at least to some degree, they are inevitable.

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, famously termed the dot-com bubble in the 1990s a bout of “irrational exuberance”.

In an interesting and iconoclastic piece written back in 2004, John Eatwell of Cambridge University considered the possibility of what he termed “useful bubbles”.  In his own words, he was attempting to “row against [a] powerful tide of condemnation”, but was defining “useful in a very limited way – that is, as producing some positive consequences”, despite the potential for panics and crashes. Continue reading

Martin Wolf on Rethinking Economics

Martin Wolf is Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times, and a journalist whose pieces are frequently interesting and informative. Since the financial crisis of 2008 he has become more critical of the mainstream economic thinking which surely played a role in bringing on the crisis and shaping its consequences.

He has written the forward to the book I am reading at the moment: Rethinking Economics – An introduction to pluralist economics (2018). The book contains short introductions to the main heterodox (non-mainstream) schools of thought by leading thinkers from each school, including Post-Keynesian, Marxist, Austrian, Institutionalist, Feminist, Behavioural, Complexity, Co-operative and Ecological.

The project has been coordinated by the Rethinking Economics movement, which is leading calls for changes in the way economics is taught towards a more open, accessible and pluralist approach. Continue reading

Is full employment possible under capitalism?

An interesting interview with Robert Pollin on the Real News Network, in which he discusses the possibility of achieving full employment under capitalism. He considers the ideas on this subject of Marx, Keynes, Kalecki and Friedman.

For me, the historical record seems to support the ideas of Kalecki and Marx, in that achieving full employment may be possible, but sustaining it is much more difficult. This is because it tends to change the balance of power in society in favour of the workers, which the employers don’t like. If high inflation or a squeeze on profits is to be avoided, a new bargain between employers and workers is necessary.

The solution is thus a political one, and leads to a different kind of capitalism. It may be possible for a while but, once again, history suggests that this is hard to sustain, and that a squeeze on profits will result, leading to a slowdown in investment and growth and subsequently to a rise in unemployment once again. This also lends support to the ‘classical’ ideas of Anwar Shaikh on wages and unemployment, which I discuss here.

Heterodox critiques of quantitative easing

Following last week’s quote from Michael Hudson on quantitative easing (QE), here are some other insightful perspectives which for me offer explanatory power, given the course of economic and financial events over the decade since the crisis began.

The aim of QE is to reduce long-term interest rates, boost private sector lending, and raise asset prices to generate a positive wealth effect on private spending. Altogether, these are meant to raise private sector consumption and investment, and thus economic growth.

Richard Koo, economist at Nomura and originator of the theory of balance sheet recessions, has outlined the potential problem of the ‘QE Trap’ (2015). While QE might have the effect of mitigating such a recession, once the recovery is underway, its withdrawal could lead to slower growth than otherwise. In other words, over the longer term, its overall effect might be negligible or even negative: Continue reading