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.

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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

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

Perspectives on the UK’s productivity problem: the end of the puzzle?

workersThe UK’s productivity problem continues. Output per worker has barely grown since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Why is this a problem? Because if we want rising living standards, we must have rising productivity over time.

In theory, rising productivity in our economy gives us choices between increased income and increased leisure time. We can choose on a spectrum between more income for the same hours worked and the same income for fewer hours worked, in other words, more leisure time. Depending on how we in society value work and leisure, increased productivity should make possible increases in human welfare.

Today, output per hour worked in the US is at a similar level to that in France and Germany. However, total hours worked per head in the US have tended to outstrip those in the latter two countries, meaning that output per head remains higher there.

Americans are on average richer (although greater inequality means that many of them are not), but they achieve these greater riches by working longer, while their French and German counterparts have more leisure time, including a shorter working day and longer holidays. This is down to collective economic and social choices, although these are also necessarily political in nature, and far away from simple choices freely made by individuals, as some might choose to believe. Continue reading

When protectionism worked (and why it probably won’t today)

The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott writes here about the potential of Trump’s trade war to herald a return to the 1930s, a decade of rising protectionism and shrinking world trade.

He makes the important point that the EU and China run trade surpluses, and are therefore likely to suffer more than the US from tit-for-tat protectionist policies. However this does not mean that, to quote Mr Trump, trade wars are ‘good and easy to win’.

I have often written about the case for selective and temporary protection for infant industries in developing countries. For several decades after World War Two, the threat of the spread of communism gave the US, as global capitalist hegemon, a strong incentive to promote successful capitalist development across the world. Developing countries were therefore given policy space to promote their domestic industries, even as trade became more free in the rich world. Continue reading

Michael Pettis on rising trade tensions

With Donald Trump’s apparently escalating trade war very much in the news, here are some wise words from Peking University’s Michael Pettis, taken from the final pages of his 2013 book The Great Rebalancing – Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy (p.192-194). They seem particularly relevant right now.
Continue reading

Journeying through the world of economics: a personal note

2018 marks 24 years since I first took an interest in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘dismal science’. Not a particularly notable landmark, though it is more than half my life. And I certainly have not spent all that time with my nose in books about economics, although I have spent quite a bit of it like that, maybe more than is good for me.

Apparently it was the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle who coined the phrase dismal science in the 19th century. I am sometimes inclined to agree, when observing a malfunctioning economy and its malfunctioning stewards in government and business. But more often I am prepared to be optimistic that we can find solutions to the problems of humanity. Some of them might even come from studying economics!

Keynes looked forward to a time when the economist’s role in society would be akin to that of dentists, as humble, competent fixers of minor problems. Notwithstanding a call from the UK’s current environment secretary during the campaign for Brexit to pay less attention to experts, economists and their ideological categories of supply, demand and growth have become extremely powerful and accepted, even if with passivity, resignation or incomprehension. Continue reading