Analytical Marxism — LARS P. SYLL

Perhaps the most striking application of hyper-rationality occurs in Analytical Marxism, whose doctrines were outlined clearly and concisely by its leading philosopher Gerald Cohen … It is an anti-dialectical and anti-holistic attempt to ground Marxist notions in neoclassical methodology. It “believes that [neoclassical] economics is essentially sound” and consequently relies on rational choice theory, game […]

via Analytical Marxism — LARS P. SYLL

The blinkered vision of free-market economics

“[T]he academic models that are supposed to explain how, and under what circumstances the ideal system of human interaction in markets is supposed to work as well as the prerequisites for the existence of such a system to actually work not only ignore the essential role of government in our economic, social and political lives, but the assumptions on which these models depend – the most important being that no economic actor has the power to influence a market price, to influence the political process, to manipulate consumers, that information is free and therefore all market participants have perfect information about the determination of market prices, that there are no external costs or benefits associated with the production or consumption of goods, that an individual’s choices are unaffected by the choices of others, and that people behave rationally as ‘rationally’ is defined within the discipline of economics – are impossible to achieve in the real world…”

Taken from a recent review in the journal Contributions to Political Economy, 38, p.96-98, by George H. Blackford of John Komlos, The Foundations of Real-World Economics: What Every Student Needs to Know. Routledge: Abingdon, 2019.

Wholes and parts: economics in the spirit of Keynes

A nice little post at the link below from Lars P. Syll quoting John Maynard Keynes on what he calls ‘organic unity’. Another way of putting it is that the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. This is the basis for the discipline of macroeconomics as distinct from microeconomics. Modern mainstream macroeconomics insists on ‘microfoundations’ and neglects the concept of organic wholes, which runs against the spirit of Keynes and his wish to establish a distinct macroeconomics.

Organic wholes can be seen as emergent from, but irreducible to their constituent and interacting parts. Thus while one can still pay attention to microfoundations (the parts), the behaviour of a larger whole can be very different from that deduced from simply adding the behaviour of the parts together.

In economics, the parts might be individuals, firms or households, while the larger wholes might be an economy at the national or global level. Of course, one could think of these concepts in ways which reach beyond the discipline of economics, which conflate wholes and parts and provide useful insights: an individual can be thought of as a ‘whole’ rather than a ‘part’, with the parts defined biologically, such as organs, cells etc, with the whole human being and its functioning as emergent from but irreducible to its constituent parts.

Returning to economics, a national economy can be analysed as a part of the global economy, leading to the possibility of certain macroeconomic paradoxes. So an economy can be seen as both a whole and a part, depending on how we look at it.

The unpopularity of the principle of organic unities shows very clearly how great is the danger of the assumption of unproved additive formulas. The fallacy, of which ignorance of organic unity is a particular instance, may perhaps be mathematically represented thus: suppose f(x) is the goodness of x and f(y) is the goodness of y. […]

via Additivity — a dangerous assumption — LARS P. SYLL

Structure, agency and the micro-macro divide

Chris Dillow, Marxist economics writer for the Investors Chronicle, blogs regularly on all sorts of topics at Stumbling and Mumbling. A recent post of his discusses structure versus agency and the neglect of systemic analysis in economics.

Structures and structural forces tend to be left to macroeconomic analysis. In modern microeconomics, individual agency, or the ability to act in order to influence some outcome given a particular environmental context, dominates theory. But structure shapes the environment, enabling or constraining agency. Individuals may therefore act in good faith but be unable to achieve the best economic outcome for themselves in the absence of a favourable context.

Given the limits of human agency in a particular structural context, an understanding of that structure, whether it is an institution such as the state, or macroeconomic in nature, such as the force of competition throughout the economy, can enable a response from policy-makers to try to improve social welfare, or not as the case may be! Continue reading

On individual human behaviour

9780199390632“There is a great difference between studying how people actually behave and positing how they should behave. When we wish to know how and why people behave as they do, we turn to behavioral economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, neurobiology, business studies and evolutionary theory. We discover that evolutionary roots, cultural heritages, hierarchical structures, and personal histories all influence our behavior: we are socially constructed beings, within the limits of our evolutionary heritage. There is a large body of evidence which shows that we do not consistently order preferences, we are poor judges of probabilities, we do not address risk in a “rational” manner, we regularly commit a wide variety of reasoning errors, and we generally base our behavior on habits and rules of thumb. In the end, we are not “noble in reason, not infinite in faculty.” On the contrary,  we are “rather weak in apprehension…[and subject to] forces we largely fail to comprehend”. And as any advertiser could tell us, our preferences are easily manipulated, our responses quite predictable.

Despite all of this evidence, neoclassical economics stubbornly insists on portraying individuals as egoistic calculating machines, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, and largely immune to outside influences. The introduction of risk, uncertainty and information costs changes the constraints faced but not the basic model of behavior. I will call this the doctrine of “hyper-rationality” so as to distinguish it from a more general notion of “rationality”, which refers to the belief or principle that actions or opinions should be based on reason. The point here is to avoid the neoclassical habit of portraying hyper-rationality as perfect and actual behavior as imperfect. It is a topsy-turvy world indeed when all that is real is deemed irrational.

The question is not whether economic incentives matter, but rather how they matter.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), Capitalism – Competition, Conflict, Crises, Oxford University Press, p.78-9.

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.

A flaw in Marx and Hayek

51ub7qfxqgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“It is strange that two authors that have provided us with the deepest understanding of the workings of modern capitalism, Marx and Hayek, have little to say about specific economic policies. Marx advocates the broad but undetailed policy of central or collective planning and public ownership. Hayek’s policy stance is diametrically opposed to that of Marx but is hardly less bland: we are offered the generalities of more market competition and extended private ownership. Hayek, like Marx and his followers, has very little to say in detailed, policy terms. The common blindness to varieties of capitalism disables their theoretical systems in policy terms.

The way out of this difficulty is to place the detailed analysis of capitalist institutions and of national and corporate cultures at the centre of the stage. Institutional economics thus provides a fruitful approach to the formulation of relevant and operational economic policies. With the notable exception of Veblen, many leading institutionalists in the past have been deeply involved in the development of economic policy. Much of this work was based on empirical study, but there is no reason why work in the future should not be guided by the deepest theoretical and methodological insights. Instead of empty formalism there is the possibility that economics may thus be capable of providing inspiration and sagacious guidance for those in government, finance and business.”

Geoffrey M. Hodgson (1999), Economics and Utopia, p.148

There is much to admire and draw on in Hodgson’s reboot of ‘old institutionalist’ economics, Continue reading