“There are…, I should admit, forces which one might fairly well call “automatic” which operate under any normal monetary system in the direction of restoring a long-period equilibrium between saving and investment. The point upon which I cast doubt – though the contrary is generally believed – is whether these “automatic forces” will…tend to bring about not only an equilibrium between saving and investment but also an optimum level of production.”
John Maynard Keynes
This brief quote from the great man sums up the argument put forth in his magnum opus, The General Theory, that a capitalist economy does not have an automatic tendency to achieve full employment. It may possess other “automatic forces”, but these will not do the trick. Continue reading →
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 →
Here is a nice video introduction to the life and work of John Maynard Keynes, whom many regard as the greatest economist of the 20th century. Keynes’ goal was to save the capitalist system from its worst defects, particularly mass unemployment, through intelligent government interventions, at both the national and international level. For Keynes, it was more about economic reform than revolution.
As an economics student I was strongly influenced by leftist Keynesian ideas, which I later found out are broadly termed post-Keynesian. I often tried to make that come across in my essays. Some of my teachers didn’t like that, as such ideas tend to be outside the mainstream.
Since then, I have explored political economy more widely, including the work of Marx and modern-day Marxists. I have become a little disillusioned with Keynesian policies, or at least the prospect of our political masters coming together to put them into practice. I now see industrial and social welfare policies as equally important at the national level, both for the developed and developing nations.
As a result, I have become less of a post-Keynesian, and more aware of the limits to successful interventions under capitalism. I try to be more flexible ideologically, but I still find Keynesian ideas useful and they remain important to progressive thinking.
An interesting interview with Robert Pollin on the Real News Network, in which he discusses the possibility of achieving full employment under capitalism. He considers the ideas on this subject of Marx, Keynes, Kalecki and Friedman.
For me, the historical record seems to support the ideas of Kalecki and Marx, in that achieving full employment may be possible, but sustaining it is much more difficult. This is because it tends to change the balance of power in society in favour of the workers, which the employers don’t like. If high inflation or a squeeze on profits is to be avoided, a new bargain between employers and workers is necessary.
The solution is thus a political one, and leads to a different kind of capitalism. It may be possible for a while but, once again, history suggests that this is hard to sustain, and that a squeeze on profits will result, leading to a slowdown in investment and growth and subsequently to a rise in unemployment once again. This also lends support to the ‘classical’ ideas of Anwar Shaikh on wages and unemployment, which I discuss here.
James Crotty discusses some of Keynes’ key ideas on the uncertain nature of the future and how this affects investment and finance in a capitalist economy. He points out that many of Keynes’ important insights can be found in Marx, but that Keynes put financial instability centre stage.
This quote is taken from a footnote to Marx’s Capital Volume II (p. 391 in the Penguin edition). The volume was put together after Marx’s death by his friend and collaborator Engels, drawing on extensive notes. The quote provides inspiration for the analysis of one particular contradiction in the dynamics of capitalism :
“Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production. The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity – labour-power – capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to their minimum price. Further contradiction: the periods in which capitalist production exerts all its forces regularly show themselves to be periods of over-production; because the limit to the application of the productive powers is not simply the production of value, but also its realization. However, the sale of commodities, the realization of commodity capital, and thus of surplus-value as well, is restricted not by the consumer needs of society in general, but by the consumer needs of a society in which the great majority are always poor and must always remain poor.” (my emphasis)
It is important not to take this quote out of context. In addition, despite significant inequality and poverty, Marx was clearly wrong about the majority always remaining poor under capitalism. However, the contradiction described here between the production of surplus value and its realization upon sale, has given rise to plenty of debate among left economists. Continue reading →
A series of interesting short videos featuring Anwar Shaikh of the New School, an economist I greatly admire, where he discusses his influences and aspects of his life’s work.
His magnum opus, Capitalism, was published last year, and I have written on parts of it several times on this blog.
For those who don’t want to go through them all, I can recommend as a taster video number nine (of eleven), ‘Keynes and Classical Economics’, where he discusses the links he makes between the ideas of Keynes on aggregate demand, and competition and profitability in the work of Marx and the Classical economists. To reach this, press play, then skip forward between videos using the player controls.