Michael Hudson on trickle-down economics

hudson-200x300Another excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics, his often enlightening and generally iconoclastic dictionary of the dismal science (p.231-2).

The pretense that reversing progressive taxation and giving more income to the wealthiest One Percent will maximize economic growth and prosperity for the 99 Percent. The actual effect is to help the rich get richer. The rentier class has manipulated the tax code so that, as Leona Helmsley put it: “Only the little people pay taxes.”

A supporting factoid is that the One Percent spends its income buying products produced by labor. That was Thomas Malthus’s argument for why British landlords should receive agricultural tariff protection (the Corn Laws). His argument endeared him to John Maynard Keynes, but in practice the wealthy bought largely foreign luxuries and financial securities or more property. Today’s One Percent lend out their income and wealth to further indebt the economy to themselves.

Another false assumption is that financiers and property owners (the FIRE [Finance, Insurance and Real Estate] sector) will save and invest their revenue to expand the means of production and employ more labor. In practice, the wealthy wield creditor power to force governments to privatize the public domain and buy companies already in place. When the fictions of “trickle-down economics” lead to financial crises, the wealthy demand that governments rescue banks, give bailouts to uninsured depositors and bondholders, and shift taxes to further favor the FIRE sector at the expense of labor. The result of trickle-down policy is thus economic polarization, not prosperity.

One of the earliest and most blatant expressions of trickle-down demagogy is found in the pleading by Isocrates in his Areopagiticus (VII, 31-34, written in 355 BC). Like most Sophist rhetoric teachers, he charged fees so high that only the wealthy could afford to study with him, so it hardly is surprising that his written speeches supported the oligarchy. “The less well-to-do among the citizens were so far from envying those of greater means that they…considered that the prosperity of the rich was a guarantee of their own well-being.” This may be the earliest written example of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Isocrates praised harsh judges for being “strictly faithful to the laws”. This meant creditor-oriented laws. He noted that “judges were not in the habit of indulging their sense of equity”, that is, what would be fair in the traditional morality of mutual aid. His over-the-top rationale for why Athenian judges “were more severe on defaulters than they were on the injured themselves” (meaning the creditors “injured” by not being paid in full) was that “they believed that those who break down confidence in contracts” (as if being unable to pay was a deliberate attack on pro-creditor laws) “do a greater injury to the poor than to the rich; for if the rich were to stop lending, they [the rich] would be deprived of only a slight revenue, whereas if the poor should lack the help of their supporters they would be reduced to desperate straits.” It is as if usury doesn’t deprive the poor of their land and liberty, which Socrates did not hesitate to explain as the “sting” of usury that stripped debtors of their land and hence degraded their status as citizens.”

Minskyan processes and the coronavirus shock

The Levy Institute has a brief paper here by Michalis Nikiforos on how the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has hit already fragile economies, making the likely eventual economic outcomes particularly damaging. His main focus is the US, but the analysis can be applied to other advanced economies.

The abstract of the paper is below:

The spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a major shock for the US and global economies. Research Scholar Michalis Nikiforos explains that we cannot fully understand the economic implications of the pandemic without reference to two Minskyan processes at play in the US economy: the growing divergence of stock market prices from output prices, and the increasing fragility in corporate balance sheets.

The pandemic did not arrive in the context of an otherwise healthy US economy—the demand and supply dimensions of the shock have aggravated an inevitable adjustment process. Using a Minskyan framework, we can understand how the current economic weakness can be perpetuated through feedback effects between flows of demand and supply and their balance sheet impacts.

In the paper’s conclusion, he outlines the necessary policy response including, importantly, that:

“unlike the response to the 2007-9 crisis, the assistance provided to large corporations come with strings attached – so that they do not return to the same old (destabilizing) practices once the emergency has passed.”

This was written before the $2 trillion US support package passed through Congress. It seems as if the author’s hope has not been fulfilled.

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

Modern Monetary Theory, a Green New Deal and inflation

Voices on the left have been calling for a Green New Deal as a radical way of transforming the economy in order to tackle a confluence of crises: environmental, social and economic. It takes its name from FDR’s efforts to overcome the Great Depression in the US during the 1930s.

Yeva Nersisyan and L. Randall Wray, both proponents of Modern Money (or Monetary) Theory (MMT) have produced a short paper published by the Levy Institute in which they attempt to answer the question posed in its title: Can We Afford the Green New Deal?

The GND itself could include a “carbon-neutral energy policy and reversing climate change; universal single-payer healthcare; student debt relief and free public college; prison reform; ending “forever wars”; increasing care for the young, sick, and old; and the job guarantee.”

Employing their MMT framework, they argue that “there are no meaningful financial barriers to taking action”, rather “the question is whether sufficient real resources – workers, plant and equipment, raw materials – can be marshaled to implement” it. They draw inspiration from John Maynard Keynes’ 1940 work How to Pay for the War, making the case that the main barrier to such an ambitious government programme of public spending is inflation fueled by excessive aggregate demand, which can if necessary be curtailed by raising taxes or, should this prove insufficient, by other measures used in wartime such as price controls and rationing.

Nersisyan and Wray state that “excessive spending…creates problems not in terms of higher government deficits and debt, but in terms of true inflation” and that “taxes are used not to finance government spending, but to withdraw demand from the economy, creating space for government spending to move resources to the public sector without causing inflation.” Continue reading

Trump’s trickle dries up — Michael Roberts Blog

An interesting take on Trump’s economic stimulus and current and prospective US economic performance from Marxist economist Michael Roberts. The full post is at the link below.

“The economy now has hit 3 percent. Nobody thought we’d be anywhere close. I think we can go to 4, 5, and maybe even 6 percent.” – Donald Trump, Dec. 16, 2017 Well, Trump’s boast turned to dust in 2019. US GDP grew by 2.3% in 2019, well below President Trump’s promise of 3%+ growth. […]

via Trump’s trickle dries up — Michael Roberts Blog

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.

Hyman Minsky explains his financial instability hypothesis

In this rare video, Hyman Minsky explains his financial instability hypothesis. The video dates from 1987, but Minsky was prescient in originating a theory that characterises capitalist economies with developed financial systems as inherently unstable and requiring the intervention of ‘Big Government’ (counter-cyclical fiscal policy) and a ‘Big Bank’ (the central bank acting as lender of last resort). His FIH has become much more widely known since the advent of the 2008 financial crisis.

Minsky was influenced by his teacher at Harvard, Joseph Schumpeter, as well as by John Maynard Keynes and Michal Kalecki. His work falls under the post-Keynesian tradition, emphasising the role of finance and the importance of effective demand in the economy, with the former a major cause of instability in the form of booms and busts. His thinking also incorporated ideas on institutions such as households, firms, banks, and governments, and explored how their balance sheets of assets and liabilities evolve over business cycles.

The Debt Delusion – Living Within Our Means and Other Fallacies

JWeeksDebtDelusionJohn Weeks has a new book out, The Debt Delusion, which takes a progressive line in debunking a number of what he terms the myths that surround fiscal policy.

Weeks is an Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at SOAS, and coordinator of the Progressive Economy Forum. He is heavily critical of austerity and proposes an ‘anti-austerity’ agenda on tax and spending for today’s policymakers.

Weeks has long been critical of mainstream economics in general, not least in his previous book for the layman, Economics of the 1%.

Summing up his proposed fiscal policy framework, he writes (p.182-3): Continue reading

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

Fighting Inequality Can Strengthen the US Economy

A one-pager free download from the Levy Institute on how higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans coupled with a comparable increase in public spending can not only redress political but also economic inequality while boosting consumption and aggregate demand in a sustainable fashion and reducing the dependence of these factors on rising debt levels. A brief summary below:

“Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently proposed to increase the rate of taxation on very high incomes and net worth. One of the primary justifications for such policies is that reducing inequality would help safeguard political equality. However, Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza show how these tax policies, if matched by comparable increases in government spending, have the potential to boost aggregate demand while helping reform the unstable structure of the US economy.”