In the wake of Donald Trump’s call for lower US interest rates in the midst of solid economic growth and low unemployment, The Economist magazine ran a couple of articles on the threat of populist leaders to central bank independence (CBI) and low inflation.
It is more than 40 years since the publication of the intellectual justification for CBI of Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott, propounding the idea of time inconsistency. Based on the concept of the natural rate of unemployment (NRU), political control of interest rates will give rise to the temptation for politicians to boost aggregate demand and lower unemployment in the short run, below the NRU. This will prove unsustainable over the longer run, merely producing higher inflation, with inevitable costs to economic efficiency and growth.
This was apparently what caused the stagflation of the 1970s, when unemployment and inflation rose together, undermining the putatively Keynesian Phillips curve. The upshot is that politicians and voters are better off with CBI, with the central bank given a fixed mandate of low inflation and autonomy in how it achieves this.
But what is the reality of CBI and monetary policy? Here are some quotes from heterodox economists critiquing the mainstream consensus. Continue reading →
Jason Hickel is an anthropologist who has written extensively on global poverty and inequality, as well as political economy. Here is a recent post of his, discussing the nature and measurement of, and trends in, global poverty, as a response to a critique by Steven Pinker.
Hickel strongly disputes the idea that falling poverty, where it has occurred, has been due to neoliberal globalisation. Rather, the successful industrialisation and economic development that are necessary for sustained poverty reduction have been achieved with state intervention, industrial policies, and strategic integration with the global economy in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and China.
There is a huge literature on this, but Ha-Joon Chang is perhaps one of the best known academics to have written popular books on how particular forms of state intervention have promoted capitalist development. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism is the easiest read and I have posted a number of excerpts from it over the last few years. Bad Samaritans is also good value. For a more academic discussion see Kicking Away the Ladder.
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 →
From Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism:
“We may be living in a post-industrial society in the sense that most of us work in shops and offices rather than in factories. But we have not entered a post-industrial stage of development in the sense that industry has become unimportant. Most (although not all) of the shrinkage in the share of manufacturing in total output is not due to the fall in the absolute quantity of manufactured goods produced but due to the fall in their prices relative to those for services, which is caused by their faster growth in productivity (output per unit of input). Now, even though de-industrialization is mainly due to this differential productivity growth across sectors, and thus may not be something negative in itself, it has negative consequences for economy-wide productivity growth and for the balance of payments, which cannot be ignored. As for the idea that developing countries can largely skip industrialization and enter the post-industrial phase directly, it is a fantasy. Their limited scope for productivity growth makes services a poor engine of growth. The low tradability of services means that a more service-based economy will have a lower ability to export. Lower export earnings means a weaker ability to buy advanced technologies from abroad, which in turn leads to slower growth. (p.88-9)
…[E]ven the rich countries have not become unequivocally post-industrial. While most people in those countries do not work in factories any more, the manufacturing sector’s importance in their production systems has not fallen very much, once we take in to account the relative price effects. But even if de-industrialization is not necessarily a symptom of industrial decline (although it often is), it has negative effects for long-term productivity growth and the balance of payments, both of which need reckoning. The myth that we now live in a post-industrial age has made many governments ignore the negative consequences of de-industrialization.
As for the developing countries, it is a fantasy to think that they can skip industrialization and build prosperity on the basis of service industries. Most services have slow productivity growth and most of those services that have high productivity growth are services that cannot be developed without a strong manufacturing sector. Low tradability of services means that a developing country specializing in services will face a bigger balance of payments problem, which for a developing country means a reduction in its ability to upgrade its economy. Post-industrial fantasies are bad enough for the rich countries, but they are positively dangerous for developing countries.” (p.101)
In this short video, Cambridge University’s Ha-Joon Chang, a particularly thoughtful economist whose work I find both interesting and inspiring, discusses the boundaries of the market and the state in modern economies.
He also argues that economic change is inevitably political and makes a strong case against the imposition of ostensibly scientifically derived economic policies on democratic states by unelected technocrats. This happened in nation-states from Greece to Italy in the wake of the eurozone crisis.
Continuing the occasional series of excerpts from Professor Michael Hudson’sJ is for Junk Economics (2017, p.178). See also my post quoting Ha-Joon Chang here on the same issue:
“Planned Economy: Every economy since the Neolithic has been planned in one way or another. That is why calendar keeping and seasonal rhythms based on the weather and the harvest became the foundation of economic accounting in the Neolithic and Bronze Age for fiscal and trade policy and for land tenure.
At issue in any epoch is who will do the planning and what its aims will be. The ostensible aim of democratic planning is to design tax and regulatory systems to promote economic growth and sustainability, preferably with a fair distribution of income and wealth. For the classical economists this involved taxing or discouraging rentier income, and subsidizing socially desirable investment and basic needs.
Today’s epoch is seeing financial managers replace rulers and elected government representatives as planners of economies. Financial planning is at least as centralized as government planning, but its aims are different: namely, to concentrate income growth and asset-price gains in the hands of the One Percent.
The financial time frame is short-term and extractive. And fiscally, financial planning seeks to shift taxes off unearned income and financial returns onto wages and profits. Most fatally, it favors debt leveraging, leading ultimately to debt deflation and austerity. The main issue in today’s planning debate is thus whether democratic politics can recover the classical public steering and regulatory mechanisms that have been relinquished to the financial sector.”