I have just finished reading Alan Shipman’s fascinating biography of the late economist Wynne Godley, who passed away in 2010. Godley worked in the UK Treasury in the 60s, before moving to Cambridge University and heading the maverick Cambridge Economic Policy Group (CEPG). He became known for his prescient economic forecasts of the UK and later the US, predicting the demise of the ‘Barber Boom’ in the 1970s, the mass unemployment of the 1980s unleashed by Margaret Thatcher’s professed adherence to monetarism, the end of the ‘Lawson Boom’ and return to recession in the late 80s and early 90s, and finally the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of the 2000s, which followed the build up and subsequent unwinding of unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances in the US, which he had identified as early as 1999.
Through his career, Godley’s approach to economics developed into what are now termed ‘stock-flow consistent’ macroeconomic models. His final book, Monetary Economics, co-authored with Marc Lavoie, develops models of increasing complexity of a hypothetical economy, in which flows of income, expenditure and production interact in a comprehensive and logically consistent way with stocks of assets and liabilities.
One of the key lessons of Godley’s analysis is that incorporating banks or a financial sector into macroeconomic models yields important insights. Thus, the so-called ‘Great Moderation’ period of steady economic growth, moderate unemployment and low inflation which preceded the GFC in economies such as the US and UK, in a way concealed the unsustainable accumulation of private debt, which financed consumption and a boom in asset prices, particularly housing.
The subsequent financial crisis and deep recession were therefore not an ‘exogenous’ shock which arose randomly from outside the system, but were ‘endogenous’, arising from within the economic system itself. Godley, along with economists such as Steve Keen, modeled the dynamics of debt accumulation and predicted an inevitable crisis, as debt accumulation went into reverse, private saving rose, and unemployment rose sharply, even as central banks reduced interest rates towards zero.
Fiscal policy, in the form of tax cuts and public spending increases, made a comeback in many countries, at least until the premature turn towards austerity. Godley and Keen had both predicted that public deficits would soar as governments let the automatic stabilisers operate, and borrowed and spent on top of that, to try and combat the recession. Such was the level of private debt that, as the private sector scrambled to pay it down by curtailing spending, these deficits proved insufficient to prevent recession. In their absence, it would likely have proved even deeper.
Keynesianism and the Golden Age
Godley’s economic models have today spawned an expanding literature applying his stock-flow consistent approach to both the economy as well as the environment. Many of those inspired by his work, as well as the man himself, would be classified as post-Keynesian economists, broadly speaking the heterodox or more radical followers of Keynes. They argue that economic growth, and aggregate supply, are usually constrained by aggregate demand, of which investment is the main driver, as it provides both a source of spending and of capacity on the supply-side. They hold to the vision that sufficiently ambitious public policy can create and sustain full employment, moderate inflation, and widely-shared rising living standards. They tend to take great inspiration from the post-war ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’, which witnessed around 25 years of such outcomes.
The Golden Age ultimately came to an end as a combination of rising unemployment and inflation, or stagflation, apparently discredited the Keynesian consensus, and the Bretton Woods system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates unravelled. The monetarist creed which followed saw policymakers shift their attention to combating inflation with monetary policy and, in theory, fiscal austerity. Unemployment soared in the UK and manufacturing output collapsed.
Left economists of all persuasions, from Keynesian to Marxist, decried these developments. The post-Keynesians argued that their own ideas for economy policy could be used to solve these problems, while some Marxists viewed them as inevitable under capitalism, even if they were hugely damaging to society, as they could encourage a restructuring which would restore business profitability, and create the conditions for a new period of economic growth to take place. Strangely, these latter arguments are in some ways close to conservative ones, although Marxists tend to see socialism as a better answer to the problems created by capitalism, while conservatives would continue with the creative destruction unleashed by capitalist production, often favouring little in the way of the social protections or industrial interventions favoured by those to their political left.
From Keynesianism to industrial policy
Wynne Godley’s economic framework ultimately eschews ‘fine-tuning’ or short-term policy interventions in favour of medium-term strategies which can sustain the goals of most Keynesians, mentioned above. They require management of the public budget, incomes policies to sustain low inflation, and sometimes even import controls such as tariffs or quotas to manage the balance of payments, and prevent a boost to demand at less than full employment ‘leaking’ into foreign demand in the form of imports, rather than encouraging the growth of domestic production and employment.
Also implicit in this framework is the potential for industrial and technology policies to increase the international competitiveness of domestic firms, and thus to encourage a faster growth of net exports given the growth of world demand. The more competitive such firms are internationally, the more of this demand they can capture and serve and the faster the growth of net exports, all else being equal. Another Cambridge post-Keynesian and colleague of Godley’s, Nicholas Kaldor, made arguments along these lines to justify the need for an industrial policy.
Industrial policy can not only create a boost to foreign demand, but it also potentially encourages faster structural change and the adoption of new technologies, which are part of the workings of a successful capitalist economy able to raise productivity and living standards over time. This falls more into the category of microeconomic analysis, but taken together with the ideas of Godley and others, it shows that ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ need to be integrated, rather than kept artificially separate, as is often the case in mainstream analysis, which even drops the case for considering emergent macro properties completely with its arguments for ‘microfoundations’ of macroeconomics.
Marx, Shaikh and competition
For Keynesians of all kinds, aggregate demand, whether domestic or foreign, is seen as a key driver of growth in output and employment, but for modern classical and Marxist economists, Anwar Shaikh being one prominent example, competition between firms and industries drives investment and growth in the search for greater profitability.
Godley was nicknamed the ‘cassandra of the fens’ for his gloomy forecasts for the economy. Although his predictions of recession often turned out to be right, he was perhaps too pessimistic about the prospects for subsequent recoveries in the absence of Keynesian fiscal reflation. Many post-Keynesians, who have historically often prioritised macro over micro analysis, neglect the role of the profit motive and competition in driving economic growth. ‘Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the prophets’, proclaimed Marx, and Shaikh, who has integrated many ideas from classical and Marxist thought as well as some from the post-Keynesian tradition in his own magnum opus Capitalism, makes a strong case for the imperative of profit-making and competition as the central regulating mechanism under capitalism.
For Shaikh, firms and industries compete in the long run by investing in new technologies to increase productivity and cut costs, enabling them to cut prices and expand market share, with the aim of achieving greater profitability. Over the long term, crises or recessions are inevitable from time to time, even if they can be temporarily prevented or postponed with state interventions.
Thus economic growth, despite its often disruptive form in both good times and bad, derives from the intrinsic motives within the capitalist system, and the disruption can only be temporarily ameliorated. Despite this, growth can be seen as being constrained by demand or by supply. It is just that Keynesians tend to see the former as being the dominant tendency and requiring sustained intervention by the state.
As part of an industrial policy, public investment in modern infrastructure and research into and development of new technologies can ‘crowd in’ private investment by opening up new opportunities for firms to take advantage of. The state can therefore ‘create’ new markets for the private sector. This idea is contrary to the conservative view that public investment or borrowing more generally will tend to crowd out private investment. The state can thus expand both demand and supply.
Keynesianism and politics
There is no doubt that Keynesianism offers an attractive political program for the left, with its hope that state intervention can create ‘jobs for all’, poverty reduction and well-funded social policies, not least in the form of a strong welfare state. History seems to suggest that these outcomes cannot be sustained indefinitely, only periodically, under capitalism, while waves of creative destruction and structural change are perhaps more of a constant.
Such changes can prove a threat to sustaining liberal democracy, as the aftermath of the GFC has shown. Keynesianism purports to be able to do so, in the presence of sufficient political will and mass support for progressive parties. But the classical and Marxist canons and their interpretation of economic history show this vision to be at best incomplete, even in the absence of a path to socialism.