Joseph Stiglitz: industrial policies are becoming “in” again

In the video below, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes the comeback of industrial policies in economic debate and policy. Stiglitz comes from the centre-left politically, and certainly takes progressive views on issues such as inequality and state intervention.

He has chosen to critique mainstream neoclassical thinking from ‘within’ by focusing on market failure and imperfections, which opens the way to policies designed to make the market work better. It remains a market-centric viewpoint.

While taking on the mainstream is admirable, this necessarily leaves out the interdisciplinary perspectives of political economy, which in my view offer a richer understanding of socioeconomic phenomena. For those more wedded to the latter, coming from outside the mainstream, industrial policy has been studied in depth for some time.

Despite this, Stiglitz remains an interesting and influential figure.

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Michael Hudson on The American School of Political Economy

JisforJunkEconMore from iconoclast Professor Michael Hudson’s book J is for Junk Economics (p.30-32). For a more detailed account, I can recommend his book America’s Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914, which I have posted on here.

“American School of Political Economy: The northern economists who focused on protective tariffs, infrastructure investment and a national bank to promote industrial and agricultural technology before and after the Civil War (1861-65). Mathew and Henry Carey, Henry Clay and William Seward among the Whigs and, after 1853, the Republicans, provided the economic policy that enabled America to industrialize and overtake England. They also emphasized the positive effect of rising wage levels and living standards on the productivity that made the American economic takeoff possible. Every major Northern politician and region was associated with a major economist: Alexander Everett for Daniel Webster and other Bostonians; Calvin Colton for Henry Clay; the Careys for Pennsylvania industrialists; and E. Peshine Smith for Seward and the Republicans. They developed the logic for tariff protection as opposed to Ricardian free-trade theory, and for government-sponsored internal improvements and a national bank to finance industry and achieve monetary independence from Britain.

It is testimony to the censorial power of subsequent free-trade ideology that these writers make no appearance in histories of economic thought. Historians have also ignored them, focusing on the Democratic Party (which meant mainly the South seeking to add slave states). At issue was whether the United States would suffer deflation and monetary and trade dependency on Britain, or would become independent. The American School opposed westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, and also opposed the Anglophilia of free traders and slave owners. The latter demanded monetary deflation to prevent industrialization so as to keep food prices low (and hence the cost of feeding slaves).

When the Civil War brought the Republicans to power, the American School found that the most prestigious colleges – founded originally to train the clergy – simply taught mainstream British free trade economics (largely because New England and southern seaboard schools favored free trade). The path of least intellectual resistance was to create a new set of schools – business schools and state land-grant colleges.

A central tenet of the American School was technological optimism in contrast to the Dismal Science of Ricardo and Malthus based on diminishing returns in agriculture and overpopulation leading to poverty. Also central was the Economy of High Wages doctrine: “It is not by reducing wages that America is making her conquests, but by her superior organization, greater efficiency of labor consequent upon the higher standard of living ruling in the country. High-priced labor countries are everywhere beating ‘pauper-labor’ countries.”

By the late 19th century nearly all the major American economists studied in Germany and followed the Historical School. Returning to America, they developed the Institutionalist School to explain why the United States should follow a different economic path from free-trade Britain. They continued to elaborate the logic for the protective tariffs that were nurturing American industry, as well as for public support for internal infrastructure improvements so as to create a low-cost competitive US economy. Most notable was Simon Patten, the first professor of economics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught protectionist trade theory and led economists into the discipline of sociology to analyze what he called the Economy of Abundance that resulted from the increasing returns in industry and agriculture.

When the United States achieved world industrial and financial dominance after World War I, it deterred other countries from protecting their own industry and agriculture – while continuing to protect its own. This about-face emulated British experience in urging free trade on other countries so as to make them dependent. This free-trade logic remains the buttress of today’s financial austerity and privatization policies imposed on debtor economies by the United States, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. These policies are the opposite of America’s own protectionist takeoff, the Economy of High Wages Doctrine and the Economy of Abundance that powered its rise to global economic supremacy. The lessons of the American School of Political Economy provide a more realistic model for other countries to emulate.”

Michael Hudson on rent-seeking

JisforJunkEconAnother excerpt from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics, his heterodox ‘guide to reality in an age of deception’. Here he defines and discusses rent-seeking (p.199-200), an important concept in economics. For those seeking a rich and detailed non-mainstream treatment of the theory of rents and rent-seeking and its application to development, I can definitely recommend Khan and Jomo (2000), but Hudson’s discussion is still interesting and provocative:

Rent-seeking: A zero-sum activity in which one party’s gain is another’s loss, unlike new capital investment and hiring that expand an economy’s production and income stream. The classical meaning of “rent-seeking” refers to landlords, natural resource owners or monopolists who extract economic rent by special privilege, without their own labor or enterprise.

Neoliberals have diverted attention from the land rent, resource rent or monopoly rent that classical economists associated with the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector. They have re-defined “rent-seeking” to refer only to politicians and labor unions lobbying for “special privileges”, such as Social Security, a minimum wage and public programs to meet other basic needs. But these programs have nothing to do with classical rent-seeking. They are proper functions of government.

In introducing the term “rent-seeking” in 1974, Anne Krueger applied it to import licensing and quotas that she claimed interfere with free trade, and extended the idea to government regulation in general – including legislation setting a minimum wage, claiming that this led to rising unemployment. Gordon Tullock, a follower of Ludwig von Mises, defined rent-seeking as lobbying by politicians for special privileges such as higher Social Security payments.

As a high-ranking World Bank and IMF official defending free trade, Ms. Krueger opposed agricultural protectionism designed to save foreign economies from food dependency on US farm exports. Conflating rent-seeking with subsidies to modernize, her 2012 book Struggling with Success (p.86) accused all government regulations, tariffs and subsidies of being bad and wasteful. “Ultimately, regulation has negative effects on the market in the country imposing the regulation…” The political effect of such deregulation and non-subsidy is to let “the market” pass by default to financial managers – as if their own major aim is not to seek classic economic rents to empower themselves as monopolists and financial rent-seekers!

Nobel Prize-winner James Buchanan’s euphemistic “public choice” anti-government philosophy (that government should make no choices, except to disappear) goes so far as to claim “that a tax with more excess burden,” such as taxing wages or industrial profits (adding to the cost of living and doing business) is better than a more reasonable tax on land rent with less burden. His argument is that classical rent theory would work, but that this would increase government power, precisely by being reasonable and economically efficient – “because government, if allowed to tax in the less burdensome way, may get more revenue,” which Buchanan opposes.

Such language makes a travesty of economic vocabulary. It strips away the classical association of rent with the FIRE sector, applying it only to the “cost” of government regulations and pretending that only government bureaucrats receive economic rent, not private sector rentiers. This leaves out of account the obvious fact that a strong government is needed to overcome opposition from predatory vested interests. The political effect of “public choice” ideology and its self-proclaimed “libertarian” doctrine is thus to serve as a handmaiden to oligarchy. It relinquishes economic rent to the FIRE sector instead of taxing it.

At the end of this road, imagine everyone paying user fees for everything from fire hydrants to schools, turning every road and parking space into a toll road. Payment for these erstwhile free public services would be made to owners and financiers of these natural monopolies, free from public regulation or other “Big Government” acting to save the economy by preventing predatory fees. In the name of opposing economic rent as “socialism”, AKA “the road to serfdom”, “public choice” doctrine thus prepares the groundwork for classic rent grabbing, financialization and kleptocracy.”

Large-scale immigration: the costs and benefits

workersImmigration can be a divisive but also a sensitive issue. Arguments surrounding last year’s referendum here in the UK on EU membership could not avoid it. Media hysteria, particularly from the right, has focused mainly on the negative impacts, and rational debate has been drowned out. The right seemed to shout loudest, and the left often ended up talking to itself.

This post aims to make a small contribution to rational debate, drawing mainly on an interesting little book by Cambridge Professor Robert Rowthorn, published in 2015 by the think tank Civitas.

The overall findings of the study suggest that, at least in the UK, the overall net economic and fiscal (tax and public spending) outcomes from large-scale immigration are small when compared with the effects of more rapid population growth. Rowthorn argues that considerations of the latter should play a more important role when deciding future government policy. Continue reading

John Weeks on the Economics of the 1%

Below is a useful excerpt from the book launch of Professor John Weeks‘ Economics of the 1%. It came out in 2014, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. The book is aimed at the intelligent general reader, and contains plenty of ‘debunking’ of myths in economics from a left perspective, as well as the author’s ideas for economic reform.

Weeks has written other more technical books for those who are interested, most recently Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis and The Irreconcilable Inconsistencies of Neoclassical Macroeconomics. The first is Weeks’ constructive take on Marx’s theory of capitalism and crisis, while the second is a thorough critique of neoclassical macroeconomics, as the title suggests.

Mark Blyth on Bernie and Scandinavian welfare

Another clip from the engaging Professor Mark Blyth. Here he shares his thoughts on taxes, public spending and welfare in Scandinavia. He paints a positive picture, but admits that he wouldn’t want to live there and finds it ‘boring’, because ‘everything works!’