Marx, Keynes, Hayek and Minsky on economic crises: room for agreement?

At first glance, it would seem fanciful that the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek could be drawn on together to explain economic crises, or cycles, booms and busts. Certainly, the two men’s politics could not have been more different: Marx predicted (and hoped for) either the collapse or the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism and communism. Hayek thought that most kinds of state intervention in the market were the thin end of the authoritarian wedge.

The ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky are more compatible, and both have many disciples in the post-Keynesian school. Minsky developed Keynes’ theory of investment and its role in instability under capitalism. For Keynes and Minsky then, capitalism is inherently unstable, money and finance play a large role in this instability and it is the job of government to save the system from itself.

On economic policy, these four influential thinkers part ways. Marx offered little theory of policy; Hayek, like others in the Austrian school, rejected it as damaging and favoured a laissez-faire approach; Keynes and Minsky were interventionists. Continue reading


Equality and growth – no conflict?

“To lay a factual foundation to the argument for raising the American income floor, we need to sweep away the remnants of an older view that policies cannot promote both equality and growth. The older view assumed an “efficiency-equity trade-off.” If such were true, then nothing could be done to foster economic growth without the collateral damage of greater inequality, or greater equality without the collateral damage of less growth.

History does not confirm such a trade-off. To remember why, first consider a simple point about the political process…A dominant historical outcome has been that vested interests have blocked initiatives that would promote growth and/or equality. A conspicuous example is the suppression of mass public schooling – an investment that clearly promotes both equality and growth. Our second consideration comes from the numbers: history does not record any correlation – negative or positive – between income equalization and economic growth, either in our new American history over the past 360 years or world history over the past 150 years. The correlation does not emerge, regardless of whether “growth” means the GDP per capita growth rate or its absolute level, and regardless of whether “equalization” means the share of social spending in GDP, some measure of policy-induced redistribution, the level of pre-fisc income inequality before taxes and transfers, or even the rate of change in any of these.

Economists have explored the effects on income per capita growth of three kinds of egalitarian variables: tax-based social spending and its composition; fiscal redistribution, measured by the gap between pre- and post-fisc inequality; and the greater equality of pre-fisc incomes before taxes and transfers. An empirical literature using contemporary world evidence finds that the growth effect of equalizing incomes is not significant. History agrees. American experience does not reveal any clear effect on GDP of greater tax-based social spending or more progressive redistribution from rich to poor. Indeed, recent analyses suggest that greater pre-fisc equality has a positive effect on growth. This result supports the argument that egalitarian investments in human capital simultaneously achieve more equality and more growth. While these statistical results can be and have been debated, they do not support any claim that equalizing incomes must lower growth. American income history offers no support either.

If there were any fulcrum at which historical insight might be applied to move inequality, it would be political…no nation has used up all its political opportunities for leveling income without harming economic growth. Improving education, taxing large inheritances, and taming financial instability with regulatory vigilance – the opportunities are there, like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2016), Unequal Gains – American Growth and Inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, p.261-2.

There are influential theoretical arguments in economics supporting policies which promote growth by, on the one hand, increasing and, on the other, reducing inequality. The above conclusion to Lindert and Williamson’s comprehensive historical study of American growth and inequality is either ambivalent to or in support of a positive relationship between reduced inequality, certainly at its current level in many countries, and faster growth.

Their argument is that the forces generating inequality are largely exogenous (they come from outside the economic system), and so can be altered through policy without harming growth.

Clearly there are limits to this. Perfect equality of incomes and wealth would destroy the incentives required for economic activity. Ever-increasing inequality could also lead to the sort of social division and political instability which would be destructive of the status quo. Neither extreme is sustainable.

From a macroeconomic perspective, greater inequality can promote or reduce growth, depending on the economic context. If productive investment is constrained by a lack of savings, redistributing income and wealth to those economic agents who tend to save a larger share of their income, such as the wealthier members of society or firms, would provide the resources for that investment by increasing the economy’s savings rate. In this situation, greater inequality can boost growth.

This is an argument often associated with Marxist thinking and the central notion of the rate of profit or surplus in providing the resources and motivation for new investment. Growth is “profit-led”.

By contrast, if productive investment is constrained by a lack of consumption spending, then redistribution to those who consume a larger share of their income, normally the poorer members of society, will boost consumption and stimulate investment. In this case, reducing inequality can boost growth, while policies which increase it will lower growth.

This latter argument finds support in Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking, so that spending for consumption helps drive investment spending. Growth is held back by “under-consumption” and is “wage-led”. If this is the case, then a strong argument can be made for win-win progressive policies which boost household incomes and wages and reduce inequality while raising growth.

Inequality shapes and is shaped by both economic and political forces. There is perhaps “plenty to play for” in terms of policies which promote greater social justice under capitalism, without undermining its foundations. In today’s climate, they are surely essential to sustaining those foundations.

Mariana Mazzucato’s economics: value and the role of the state

Mariana-Mazzucato2Mariana Mazzucato is known for her view that the state plays a vital role in promoting innovation, which is an essential part of the process of economic growth and development. In her book The Entrepreneurial State she debunked the myth that a flourishing economy requires the state to ‘get out of the way’ of the private sector.

In her latest, The Value of Everything, published earlier this year, she attempts to reignite the debate over the sources of value which, she argues, has been neglected in mainstream circles since the rise of neoclassical economics at the end of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, until the neoclassical school became influential, the source of value in economics was a central concern and a matter of some controversy. The Mercantalists saw gold and precious metals as source of value, and their accumulation was held to be the object of economic policy. For the Physiocrats, only land and natural resources produced value, while for the Classical political economists like Adam Smith, industry was the source. Karl Marx held that labour and its production of a surplus product were the origin of value. Continue reading

James Crotty on individuals and institutions in society

Crotty-InterviewJames Crotty is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose work ‘attempts to integrate the complementary analytical strengths of the Marxian and Keynesian traditions.’ This sort of approach to economics, or political economy, as many such heterodox thinkers prefer to call it, is right up my street. A collection of his papers was published last year.

Here is a very brief excerpt from one where he considers the relationship between individuals and social structures in economics and social theory more broadly. While mainstream economics tends to reduce the objects of study to the behaviour of the individual, some alternative theories place equal importance on emergent social structures such as the economy as a whole, the state, the political system etc.

In this line of thinking, such structures are dependent on but not reducible to the individuals. They ’emerge’ from the interactions of individuals. In the jargon, they are non-reductionist. Such an approach is much more fruitful when it comes to macroeconomic analysis.

“Sensible social theory must try to acknowledge and integrate the insights of both individualist and structuralist methodology. To be sure, social structures can be changed by groups of individuals. And Keynesians insist that individuals do have significant freedom of choice; they do not always make choices consistent with the orderly reproduction of society. But institutions also socialize individuals, and hierarchical societies do differentially socialize distinct classes of individuals and assign them to qualitatively different economic and social roles. In addition, institutional structures constrain agent choice and set bounds on expected economic outcomes. Moreover, institutions are economic agents themselves. Institutional decision-making requires a theory of choice of its own, one that incorporates the effects of particular organizational structures, strategies, and conventions. Marx’s famous dictum that “men make history, but they do not make it precisely as they choose” is methodologically on the right track…

…[B]oth microtheory and macrotheory must be institutionally specific and historically contingent.”

James Crotty (2017), Capitalism, Macroeconomics and Reality, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, p.60-61.

Richard Koo – The Other Half of Macroeconomics and the Fate of Globalization

Richard Koo The Other HalfRichard Koo’s big idea is the theory of balance sheet recessions (BSR), and he has written a number of books that explain and apply it to our current economic problems. His latest was published earlier this year: The Other Half of Macroeconomics and the Fate of Globalization.

I do enjoy his work, as it is somewhat iconoclastic, and despite some repetition, both within and between the individual works, he is well worth reading. I have summarized his previous ideas here, so in this review I will concentrate mainly on what is new in this book.

The not so new

For readers unfamiliar with his previous work, Koo outlines his theory of BSRs; his critique of Quantitative Easing and the risks involved as it is unwound by central banks; and the source of the Eurozone crisis and solutions to it which avoid the creation of a fiscal union, which still lacks political legitimacy and support across the EU.

All of this is already covered in his books The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics and The Escape from Balance Sheet Recession and the QE Trap.

The new

Koo’s latest book elaborates and extends his theory of BSRs (what he calls ‘the other half of macroeconomics’) to longer term questions of economic development. He also addresses the current backlash against aspects of globalisation embodied in support for Donald Trump, Brexit and the like. Continue reading

Michael Hudson on the invisible hand

hudson-200x300Another extract in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics (p.128-129). It defines a well-known term in economics, co-opted by the right, often misleadingly, in order to provide support for ‘free’ markets:

Invisible Hand: The term dates back to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) postulating that the world is organized in a way that leads individuals to increase overall prosperity by seeking their own self-interest. But by the time he wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he described hereditary land ownership, monopolies and kindred rent-seeking as being incompatible with such balance. He pointed to another kind of invisible hand (without naming it as such): insider dealing and conspiracy against the commonweal occurs when businessmen get together and conspire against the public good by seeking monopoly power. Today they get together to extract favors, privatization giveaways and special subsidies from government.

Special interests usually work most effectively when unseen, so we are brought back to the quip from the poet Baudelaire: “The devil wins at the point he convinces people that he doesn’t exist.” This is especially true of the financial reins of control. Financial wealth long was called “invisible,” in contrast to “visible” landed property. Operating on the principle that what is not seen will not be taxed or regulated, real estate interests have blocked government attempts to collect and publish statistics on property values. Britain has not conducted a land census since 1872. Landlords “reaping where they have not sown” have sought to make their rent-seeking invisible to economic statisticians. Mainstream orthodoxy averts its eyes from land, and also from monopolies, conflating them with “capital” in general, despite the fact that their income takes the form of (unearned) rent rather than profit as generally understood.

Having wrapped a cloak of invisibility around rent extraction as the favored vehicle for debt creation and what passes for investment, the Chicago School promotes “rational markets” theory, as if market prices (their version of Adam Smith’s theological Deism) reflect true intrinsic value at any moment of time – assuming no deception, parasitism or fraud such as characterize today’s largest economic spheres.”

Wages and technological progress – a walk on the demand-side

What is the link, if any, between wages and technological progress in a capitalist economy? An article in this week’s The Economist magazine sheds some light on the issue. In particular, it considers the apparently lesser-studied effect that wages might have on productivity growth.

The reverse relationship, that productivity growth allows growth in wages, is studied more often. This has certain implications for economic policy. Boosting the supply-side determinants of innovation, such as education, and research and development, become important.

But what of the demand-side? The article mentioned above describes how some economic historians are engaged in a debate over the “high-wage hypothesis” put forward by Robert Allen, which he suggests helped drive industrialisation in Britain. Continue reading