Economies do not move in straight lines

chaotic cycleRichard Goodwin was an American economist, a self-described ‘wayward Marxist’ who taught at Harvard and Cambridge as well as at Siena. One of his best-known papers was a mathematical model of Marx’s description in Capital of the macroeconomic relationship between wages, growth and unemployment, which generates an endogenous growth cycle: that is, it shows how economies can grow over time with fluctuations of output, employment and the other variables in the model generated from within the system, rather than being dependent on external or exogenous ‘shocks’.

Goodwin’s growth cycle model famously draws on the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model from biology. This describes the dynamics of two interrelated animal populations: the predator and the prey. Starting from, say, a relatively large initial level of the predator population, this could cause the numbers of prey to fall as they are consumed. As the numbers of prey diminish, there is less food for the predator population, whose numbers also then begin to diminish. Falling numbers of the predator population then allow the prey numbers to recover so that they begin to provide a more plentiful food supply for the predators, whose numbers then begin to rise once again. This generates two interdependent fluctuating population cycles, which are not reliant on external or exogenous factors or shocks. Continue reading

Joan Robinson on economics and the study of society

Joan Robinson (1973)

Apart from her voluminous academic writings, the Cambridge Keynesian economist Joan Robinson wrote several popular books. Freedom and Necessity – An Introduction to the Study of Society was published in 1970. Although some of it dates somewhat, there is plenty of interest and contemporary relevance that remains. Here are a few such extracts:

(From the preface) “It seems to me that an economic interpretation of history is an indispensable element in the study of society, but it is only one element. In layers below it lie geography, biology and psychology, and in layers above it the investigation of social and political relationships and the history of culture, law and religion.”

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Pandemic of inequality

The Levy Institute has just published a short paper on the inequalities associated with the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. It can be found here. A summary of the paper is below.

The costs of the COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of both the health risks and economic burdens—will be borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable segments of US society. In this public policy brief, Luiza Nassif-Pires, Laura de Lima Xavier, Thomas Masterson, Michalis Nikiforos, and Fernando Rios-Avila demonstrate that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen already-worrisome levels of income, racial, and gender inequality in the United States. Minority and low-income populations are more likely to develop severe infections that can lead to hospitalization and death due to COVID-19; they are also more likely to experience job losses and declines in their well-being.

The authors argue that our policy response to the COVID-19 crisis must target these unequally shared burdens—and that a failure to mitigate the regressive impact of the crisis will not only be unjust, it will prolong the pandemic and undermine any ensuing economic recovery efforts. As the authors note, we are in danger of falling victim to a vicious cycle: the pandemic and economic lockdown will worsen inequality; and these inequalities exacerbate the spread of the virus, not to mention further weaken the structure of the US economy.

The authors focus on the greater likelihood of ill health among the poorest in the population, and how they are more likely to suffer serious complications should they contract Covid-19.

They also repeat the case often made in papers from the Levy Institute, that high levels of inequality have weakened aggregate demand and growth, not least in the US. This has been associated with high levels of household and corporate debt, and played a major role in the historically weak recovery from the 2008 crisis. If steps are not made to reduce inequality, not least in access to healthcare, the US economy is likely to continue to perform poorly over the long term. This will be in addition to the shocks resulting from the response to the pandemic itself.

Good reasons to become a Keynesian — LARS P. SYLL

Below is a revealing quote by Richard Posner from today’s post on the blog of Lars P. Syll. It sums up some of the economics mainstream’s attitudes towards Keynes’ original work, how neglected it is by those arguing against its importance, and its continuing relevance.

I first read Keynes’ General Theory when in my final year of school, before I went on to university. While finding it difficult, it was also inspiring to me and full of insight. In particular, the notion that unacceptable levels of unemployment are a periodic characteristic of capitalist economies and require government action to remedy, truly hit home. It cemented my Keynesian position for some years.

I have since rowed back from being a confident and dedicated Keynesian, although I remain influenced by leftist and other radical economists. Where appropriate, I find that the interdisciplinarity of political economy can also be helpful, not least in the study of development as a process of economic and social change.

Many of those now known as post-Keynesians, who profess to carry the true mantle of Keynes’ original thinking, also wrote on economic development. This is true in the case of key figures Michal Kalecki, Nicholas Kaldor and Joan Robinson, all of whom strongly influenced the so-called Cambridge School and its radical or heterodox offshoots.

Posner’s full quote can be found at the link below.

Until [2008], when the banking industry came crashing down and depression loomed for the first time in my lifetime, I had never thought to read The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, despite my interest in economics … I had heard that it was a very difficult book and that the book had been […]

via Good reasons to become a Keynesian — LARS P. SYLL

Some (political economy) thoughts on the response to Covid-19 – capitalism, socialism and the role of the state

The big state is back with a vengeance, if it ever went away. The apparent suddenness and rapid escalation of the spread of the coronavirus has called forth an almost equally rapid increase in the scope of state intervention in many nations. Countries that had spurned a move to state capitalism have suddenly found themselves having to embrace it.

Authoritarian state capitalist, though ostensibly communist, China, took a while to respond to the outbreak, but once it did, it acted forcibly and, for now at least, it seems to have stemmed the tide. But democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan seem also to have responded relatively effectively to the outbreak, at least compared with many other countries.

The UK government has so far pledged a massive fiscal programme of stimulus, including wage subsidies, bridging loans for firms, and at the time of writing is about to announce support for the self-employed as well. Private sector rail company franchises have been suspended in the wake of collapsing ticket sales. The health service has been promised whatever it needs financially to deal with the virus. Private firms are being asked to switch production to medical supplies as fast as possible. The post-crash decade of austerity was already somewhat at an end, but now it has been dramatically, inevitably put into reverse gear. Continue reading

Keynesian economics – back from the dead?

Here is an interesting recent lecture given by Robert Rowthorn on the “main developments in macroeconomics since the anti-Keynesian counter-revolution 40 years ago.” It can be downloaded for free. Alternatively the video of the lecture can be viewed here.

Rowthorn is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Cambridge University. Back in the 70s and 80s he was very much a Marxist, but has since moved away from that commitment and written on a wide range of topics, from Kaleckian growth and distribution theory to deindustrialisation in the advanced economies and the economics of the family.

For those who are interested in development economics, he supervised the PhD of another prominent Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang, who has written a number of popular books alongside his academic work.

This is the rest of the abstract of Rowthorn’s paper:

It covers both mainstream and heterodox economics. Amongst the topics discussed are: New Keynesian economics, Modern Monetary Theory, expansionary fiscal contraction, unconventional monetary policy, the Phillips curve, hysteresis, and heterodox theories of growth and distribution. The conclusion is that Keynesian economics is alive and well, and that there has been a degree of convergence between heterodox and mainstream economics.

All of these topics are relevant to today’s economic problems, and Rowthorn argues that “many leading economists in the USA and the UK have Keynesian sympathies”.

Thanks to The Case For Concerted Action blog for drawing my attention to this lecture.

On Joan Robinson

Joan Robinson was a brilliant economist at the University of Cambridge and a member of the ‘circus’ of thinkers led by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. In the lecture below, John Eatwell, a pupil and co-author of Robinson, and who advised the British Labour Party on economic policy in the 1980s and 90s, gives a very clear and stimulating introduction to her life and work.

Eatwell covers topics in economics addressed by Robinson that remain highly relevant today, such as disguised unemployment and the trade protectionism that tends to result from a deflationary global economic environment.

As the talk makes clear, Robinson published path-breaking work on imperfect competition as distinct from theories of perfect competition and monopoly; she later contributed to the development of Keynes’ magnum opus The General Theory, which put forward an explanation for the persistence of mass unemployment under capitalism and gave birth to the modern discipline of macroeconomics. After the war she attempted to extend Keynes’ theory to deal with problems of economic growth in a number of books and papers, particularly her own magnum opus The Accumulation of Capital.

A strong intellectual personality and something of a zealot, one of Robinson’s most notable quotes regarding economics was: “I never learned mathematics, so I’ve had to think”.

As a liberal socialist, latterly she increasingly favoured central planning to achieve full employment and social justice, as well to promote economic development in the poorest countries. On this, as well as in her enthusiasm for Maoist China, she was perhaps naive and misled and these aspects of her thinking discredited her somewhat in her later years.

Robinson also supervised Amartya Sen who went on to win the Nobel Memorial Prize for his work on welfare economics.

Thanks to the blog The Case For Concerted Action for sharing this video.

A low-inflation world and what to do about it

The Economist magazine recently published a special report on the world economy, looking at the ‘problem’ of low inflation. More than ten years have passed since the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, and inflation is now strikingly low in many rich economies. This is despite unemployment falling to historically low levels in countries such as the US, UK and Germany, although it remains much higher in a number of European countries that have yet to recover from the worst of the eurozone crisis.

Normally economists expect wages to rise faster as unemployment falls below some critical level and the labour market tightens, and at some point this has tended, at least in the past, to lead to higher inflation.

In the US and UK, wage growth has been picking up, but inflation has remained low, and has even undershot central banks’ inflation targets. Wage increases are relatively good news for workers after a decade of sluggish or stagnant earnings growth, but remain weak compared to those seen prior to the recession. Continue reading

Richard Koo on global stagnation, globalisation and the trade war

In the short video below, Richard Koo, originator of the idea of balance sheet recessions, argues that the current global economic stagnation is largely due to private sector firms as a whole in most of world’s largest economies acting as net savers rather than net borrowers and investors, despite very low interest rates. This is weakening aggregate demand and is compounded by the failure of the other sectors in the major economies, namely households and governments, to compensate by borrowing and spending to counter this weakness.

Of course, the US government is running a budget deficit, which has sustained moderate growth there, but for the largest economies taken together, private sector saving is proving to be a drag on continued recovery.

Koo doesn’t go into the reasons for this behaviour, although he has argued elsewhere that the private sector in many countries is attempting to save in order to pay down high levels of debt, producing a balance sheet recession, or stagnation at best. Fiscal policies that boost demand as well as policies that increase private investment opportunities in general would help to counter this.

He also touches on the US-China trade war as adding to global weakness, and notes that it is unlikely to end anytime soon, due to the job losses in the US which decades of current account deficits have reflected. As Koo puts it, free trade has created enough losers economically to make it a political problem in the US, and one that contributed to the election of Trump.

Aside from the trade war, it is quite likely that rising inequality has contributed to global weakness. With much of the income from economic growth accruing to the already wealthy, who save a larger proportion of it than poorer groups, significant increases in consumption in advance of the financial crisis relied on higher household debt since it is less able to be supported by rising wages for the majority.

In economies such as Germany and Japan, the result has been weaker growth, rising public debt in Japan, and a soaring current account surplus in Germany, while in the US and UK the result has been higher household debt and current account deficits. These trends sustained each other for some time, but the resolution of such imbalances may well be the source of much of the current global turmoil which has followed the crisis of more than a decade ago.

This interpretation suggests a need for policies which reduce inequality and increase wages, boosting consumption in a more sustainable fashion, and therefore increasing private investment opportunities. Greater public investment in infrastructure would also help. In a number of countries this has been constrained by policies focusing on austerity and reducing public debt, which have in many ways proved economically and socially damaging.

With a proper strategy, industrial change can deliver better jobs for all

Tim Page of the Trades Union Congress, in this short post summarising a recent TUC report, examines how a comprehensive industrial strategy led and coordinated by the state can help the regions of the UK successfully manage economic change. The report draws on case studies from Spain, Iceland and the Netherlands to illustrate how policies which bring together government, businesses, and unions can significantly improve outcomes in a changing economy.

A successful capitalist economy with growing output and productivity will generate a changing composition of that output and the associated employment over time, as new more productive industries expand and old less productive ones decline. This tends to create an uneven distribution of costs and benefits across the economy, so that in the absence of the right policies, particular regions can be left behind.

Emigration from declining regional economies to expanding ones tends to worsen outcomes in the former, as the more skilled and ambitious seek new opportunities. The declining region will lose their spending power, weakening local demand, as well as their potential skills. Those left behind are therefore likely to doubly suffer, as their local economy becomes locked into a spiral of decline, with reduced job opportunities and growing relative poverty.

While policy cannot totally prevent workers moving to find new work, it can encourage new industries to locate or emerge in declining areas with support for business, infrastructure and retraining, as well as reducing insecurity with a strong social safety net. In this way, regional and industrial policies which involve genuine social partnership can combine to increase new employment opportunities in poorer areas and prevent ever-widening regional inequality, which has proven to be a major problem for the UK in recent decades, compared with much of the rest of Northern Europe.

The state doing nothing, and leaving it all up to the individual, has failed the poorest regions of the UK. Similarly, the state doing everything, and replacing private employment with public sector employment, as happened under the last Labour administration, has proved all too vulnerable to a change of government. A more inclusive approach is now called for.