I admit that of the five I have only read Keynes’ General Theory. I have also dipped into some of Albert Hirschman’s writings, though not these two. Even if you don’t plan to read them, the interview with Blyth is worth a look, as he summarises what he sees as the key insights from each of the five books.
Below is an excerpt from the beginning of the interview:
“Well…[the world’s political economy]…doesn’t work according to the textbooks. If you look at economic textbooks, the whole world is meant to work according to the logic of differential calculus; there are these reciprocal relationships – one side goes up and one side goes down. But deep within it there’s a paradox. On the one side you have Adam Smith, where everyone is pursuing their own self-interest leading to an outcome which is better than any of them could have intended. On the other, you have John Maynard Keynes. Today Keynes is thought of as someone who just talks about deficit spending and so on, but that’s just complete rubbish. Keynes’s central message is that individual rational action can be collectively disastrous. So, if you have a series of economic models in a text book where everything balances out, it’s much more attuned to the world working the way that Smith would like to tell us.”
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. […]
John Maynard Keynes did not wish to merely save capitalism ‘from itself’ but to replace it with ‘Liberal Socialism’. That is the controversial claim made in a new book by the distinguished radical economist James Crotty, whose work ‘attempts to integrate the complementary analytical strengths of the Marxian and Keynesian traditions’.
The book, Keynes Against Capitalism, subtitled His Economic Case for Liberal Socialism, draws heavily on textual evidence found in the collected works of Keynes himself, from the 1920s through to the end of his life in 1946. This is both its strength and its weakness.
Without wishing to get into debate over semantics, one could find oneself agreeing with much of the argument ie that Keynes did in fact wish to replace capitalism with a radically different system called Liberal Socialism, but to say, in some ways, so what? The book is a fine scholarly read, but I found myself questioning whether Keynes’ (Crotty’s?) Liberal Socialism, for all its admirable socially transformative aims, would be both feasible and sustainable. Continue reading →
“The reasons for which Keynes’s arguments fail to translate into the orthodox paradigm are not because they are vague, confused or poorly formulated. They fail to translate, instead, because they identify and address crucial flaws in the structure and logic of the dominant paradigm. As Keynes himself put it, what he hoped to do is ‘convince [us] that Walras’ theory, and all others along those lines are little better than nonsense’. He was able to see, like Kornai, that the Walrasian ideal is ultimately ‘a special branch of mathematics’, which employs ‘logical reasoning [but] from arbitrary assumptions’, making it more an ‘intellectual experiment’ than a theory in the mould of the sciences.
The real problem which far too many economists have had with understanding Keynes’s arguments exactly as he expressed them is an intransigent desire to believe that, as once said by Debreu in an interview, ‘the superiority of the liberal economy is incontestable and can be mathematically demonstrated’. The problem with this conviction is that the economy that Debreu had in mind has little connection with reality. It is time, if we want in the future to avoid the terrible waste, not just of the past ten years, but of the many other times that liberal economies have so clearly failed to provide for full employment, that we turn our attention to understanding more accurately not the economic society in which we might wish to live but the one in which we actually live. It is in this regard that Keynes, read without the desire to adhere to the conventional wisdom of the Walrasian General Equilibrium paradigm, provides a truly valuable starting point.”
David Pakman’s videos are well worth watching for his incisive and progressive analyses of US current affairs. But on the question of the global role of the US dollar, which he describes below, I think he is wrong. Watch this short video first, before reading my critique below.
Is the US dollar’s dominant role in world trade and reserve policy an exorbitant privilege or an exorbitant burden? I go with the latter. The argument that it is a privilege and benefits the US economically is often made. This argument draws the conclusion that the US is able to borrow and spend beyond its means as a result. The US current account deficit is therefore a good thing, as it reflects the higher consumption and lower savings that can be sustained. It also apparently allows the US to sustain a higher level of debt, whether on the part of the private sector or the government, which boosts aggregate spending or demand.
But as Michael Pettis argues in his book The Great Rebalancing, it is perhaps just as accurate to say that the dominance of the US dollar in global payments and reserves forces the US to consume beyond its means. It results in lower US savings relative to investment, reflected in the current account deficit, and higher savings relative to investment in the rest of the world.
The stronger demand for US dollars in the rest of the world produces a stronger dollar than would otherwise be the case. This makes US exports more expensive abroad, and imports cheaper in the US, and will thus tend to widen the trade deficit (exports minus imports) and the current account deficit, other things being equal. Production and employment will be lower among US exporters, who will find it harder to compete with rivals abroad. US firms producing for the domestic market will similarly find it harder to compete with cheaper imports.
Larger trade and current account deficits act to drain demand from the US economy. A larger capital account surplus is the flipside of a larger current account deficit, and represents the net inflow of funds required to fund the latter, or what the US is borrowing from the rest of the world. These funds will either be used to fund domestic investment, which can be productive or unproductive, or to fund domestic consumption.
The result is that the US savings rate will be lower relative to the US investment rate than it would otherwise have been. The savings rate could fall, while the investment rate stays the same, necessarily leading to a higher rate of consumption. Or the savings rate could remain the same, while investment, whether productive or unproductive, rises.
If the new investment is productive, and generates flows of income in the future greater than its overall cost, then the US economy will end up larger and more productive, while employment should be higher. If the new investment is unproductive, such as takes place in a housing bubble, then this will ultimately raise the debt burden and slow future growth in output and employment.
So a larger current account deficit need not be a negative factor for an economy, if the funds borrowed from abroad are used to fund productive investment. But this only tends to be the case for an economy which is short of domestic sources of finance for investment. For an economy like the US, with sophisticated and liquid financial markets, there is little evidence that domestic investment is constrained by a shortage of domestic saving. So capital inflows will tend not to lead to higher productive investment, but rather to higher unemployment or higher debt.
The capital inflows to the US, resulting in a capital account surplus, and reflected in the gap between domestic investment and savings, described by some commentators as a shortage of savings, are the consequence of excessive savings relative to investment in the rest of the world, or a ‘savings glut’.
Savings and investment must be equal for the world economy as a whole, but can be out of balance for individual countries. If savings rise in one country but investment does not, the surplus must be exported abroad, and lead either to higher investment or lower savings in the rest of the world, so that global savings and investment continue to balance.
The US can only be a net borrower from the rest of the world and therefore continue to run a current account deficit if foreign economies are net savers in aggregate relative to the US. Economies such as China, Japan and Germany have run the largest current account surpluses (meaning that they are net savers) in recent years. It is their policies as much as those in the US which lead to a lower savings rate in the latter.
This is because, for the world as a whole, the balance of payments must balance! Current account deficits in some countries must be offset by current account surpluses in others. The major surplus countries are avoiding significant appreciations of their currencies by accumulating dollar reserves. They do this in part to sustain relatively weak currencies which boosts net exports by making their exporters more competitive.
These surplus countries are relying on their exporting sectors to boost demand, growth and employment because the growth in their domestic demand is relatively weak. So any rapid appreciation of their currencies would hobble their exporters and growth would falter. It would also probably take some time for the necessary adjustment and certain economic reforms in order for domestic demand to take up the slack.
The surplus countries therefore have a strong incentive to sustain the status quo, which helps to maintain the dollar as the dominant world currency, keeping it stronger than it otherwise would be. This is the exorbitant burden which the US, and ultimately the world, must carry.
All this played a significant role in causing the global imbalances which led to the Great Recession of 2008. These imbalances need to be resolved in order for the world to begin a new period of sustained growth. So Trump and his advisers may be on to something when they complain about the US trade deficit. It may therefore be a good thing if the dollar becomes less widely used for global trade and the accumulation of reserves, whether this is intended or not. Everything else being equal, a decline in the dollar would help the US economy rebalance in the longer run, boosting growth and employment and reducing the debt burden.
Is there a solution to all this, which would go beyond Trump’s muddled bluster? There is, and it has been around since the formation of the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944. It was then that Keynes proposed the creation of an international currency, bancor, which would be used to prevent excessive international payments imbalances and the unsustainable buildup of debt, which he strongly believed would tend to stifle growth. His US counterpart Harry Dexter White rejected the idea.
We have been left with Special Drawing Rights (SDR), a basket of international currencies maintained by the IMF, which were created in 1969 as the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and managed international payments began to unravel.
If, as Keynes had hoped, something like the SDR were used more widely, then global payments imbalances should be less severe and more easily resolved. But this would, in the short to medium run, and contrary to the arguments of many economists, benefit the US economy and harm the major surplus countries which would be less able to run up large current account surpluses by keeping their currencies relatively weak and boosting their exports. Despite this, the argument should be made that it would create a more balanced global economy, and more sustainable growth.
Perhaps the trick is to appeal to the right vested interests, since ultimately consumers in the current surplus countries would benefit. Exporters in the US, and also in other major and long-standing current account deficit nations, such as the UK, would gain too.
As ever, one can’t ignore the politics. For Trump, whose muddled policies are currently encouraging a stronger dollar, a successful reduction in the US current account deficit might reflect a reduced global role for the US, as Pakman argues in the video, but a less dominant dollar would ultimately be good for US growth and stability. There might be some debate over whether the outcome would be making America ‘great’ again or not. But more widely-used SDR would also be a good thing for the prosperity and stability of the global economy, though this is perhaps a long way off, if it happens at all. Politics will get in the way of good economics, and not for the first time.
Post-Keynesian economist Steve Keen, of Debunking Economics fame, discusses in the video below his criticisms of mainstream economic thinking and his work constructing a model based on the work of Hyman Minsky, which necessarily incorporates money and finance.
The model can produce periods of economic stability with rising inequality, followed by instability and recession as possible outcomes. These patterns fit very well the experience of many rich countries during the last few decades.
He also touches on the dialectical thinking of Hegel and Marx, which he studied during his early career.
Keen was one of the heterodox or non-mainstream economists to use a mathematical model to predict a major economic crisis a number of years before the Great Recession of 2008 occurred, by modeling Minsky’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’.
Another in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s excellent J is for Junk Economics:
“John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946): In the 1920s, Keynes became the major critic of World War I’s legacy of German reparations and Inter-Ally debts. Against the monetarist ideology that prices and incomes in debtor countries would fall by enough to enable them to pay virtually any level of debt, Keynes explained that there were structural limits to the ability to pay. Accusing Europe’s reparations and arms debts of exceeding these limits, Keynes provided the logic for writing down debts. His logic controverted the “hard money” austerity of Jacques Rueff and Bertil Ohlin, who claimed that all debts could be paid by squeezing a tax surplus out of the economy (mainly from labor).
Modern Germany has embraced this right-wing monetarist doctrine. Even in the 1920s, all its major political parties strived to pay the unpayably high foreign debt, bringing about economic and political collapse. The power of “sanctity of debt” morality proved stronger than the logic of Keynes and other economic realists.
In 1936, as the Great Depression spread throughout the world, Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money pointed out that Say’s Law had ceased to operate. Wages and profits were not being spent on new capital formation or employing labor, but were hoarded as savings. Keynes viewed saving simply as non-spending on goods and services, not as being used to pay down debts or lent out to increase the economy’s debt overhead. (Banks had stopped lending in the 1930s.) He also did not address the tendency for debts to grow exponentially in excess of the economy’s ability to carry the debt overhead.
It was left to Irving Fisher to address debt deflation, pointing to how debtors “saved” by paying down debts they had earlier run up. And it was mainly fringe groups such as Technocracy Inc. that emphasized the tendency for debts to grow exponentially in chronic excess of the economy’s ability to carry its financial overhead. Emphasis on debt has been left mainly to post-Keynesians, headed by Hyman Minsky and his successors such as Steve Keen and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), grounded in Keynes’s explanation of money and credit as debt in his Treatise on Money (1930).”