Covid-19 and creative destruction – Marx, Schumpeter and the role of the state

The impact of the uncertainty generated by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown in countries across the world has been devastating for economies and societies. There is more to come. The world economy was already struggling somewhat in 2019, with slowdowns in the US and China, the two largest economies. In fact, what was at best sluggish growth in output and productivity in many countries had been a feature of the decade or so which followed the financial crisis of 2008. The onset of the pandemic has hit already weak or fragile economies hard.

Keynes famously argued that the ‘animal spirits’, or waves of optimism and pessimism among businessmen potentially looking to invest, were a major factor in the determinant of growth and employment, and hence economic prosperity. Uncertainty about the future could lead to spending on new industrial capacity and jobs being postponed, driving the economy into stagnation or recession. It was the job of government, he said, to ‘socialise’ investment. In other words, through judicious policy choices, it should try to maintain optimistic expectations among businessmen and make sure that there were sufficient investment opportunities to keep spending, and therefore employment, at a socially optimum level. Continue reading

Rethinking anti-corruption for COVID-19 – From Poverty to Power blog

Here is an interesting recent post from the Oxfam blog From Poverty to Power, written by Mushtaq Khan and Pallavi Roy of the SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium (SOAS-ACE).

This brief article draws on the research of the authors and the ACE to outline some general principles for developing countries to use in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in scaling up the overall response via a coordinated effort from a variety of agencies.

The authors write:

“the reality is that in many countries, corruption and governance constraints will limit the rapid scaling up of responses to COVID-19. As we explain in a SOAS-ACE policy brief, this will not only undermine treatment responses, but result in cycles of unsustainable lockdowns and massive economic deprivation.”

“…The enormity of the crisis justifies thinking in terms of a wartime response and asking how the different parts of this strategy could be provided by mobilizing different delivery agencies to achieve the most cost-effective and rapid scaling up.”

They conclude:

“[D]eveloping countries could temporarily mitigate corruption and low capacity by involving public, private and third sector actors to enable scaling up on the basis of revealed competence. This does not get rid of corruption but reduces its level to maximize scaling up. This is very different from the optimization strategy of standard economics.

…[In addition] we were deliberately suggesting building in redundancy. In a storm, even if you are building a small hut, you would do well to build some redundancy into each wall. A leaner approach may look more cost effective, till the storm blows it away. It is only if developing countries have an effective strategy of strengthening their health responses in the storm can lockdowns be relaxed in a sustainable way.”

The Chinese economy: development, finance and reform

800px-Chinese_draakEven before the Covid-19 outbreak, the Chinese economy was slowing, after more than three decades of rapid economic expansion. Thirty years of recorded growth at around ten per cent per annum is unprecedented in human history. This has enabled hundreds of millions of people to be lifted out of poverty, and the material transformation of a poor country to one that is classified by the World Bank as upper-middle-income.

Despite all this, there is a broad consensus, including among Chinese government officials, that the country’s development model needs to change if it is to continue its transformation and become a rich country. Many economists argue that this will involve a rebalancing of the economy, in order to continue to grow and develop in a way that is more sustainable both for China itself, and for the rest of the world, given that as the world’s second largest economy behind the US, internal changes now have a major impact globally. Continue reading

Michael Hudson on the End of History and Fukuyama’s about-face

hudson-200x300Another extract in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics (p.88-9), a book which aims “to revive a more reality-based analysis and policy-making…[by reconstructing] economics as a discipline, starting with its vocabulary and basic concepts.” This time he considers the phrase famously coined by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s, and how events superseded Fukuyama’s ideas, forcing a change of heart.

End of History: A term reflecting neoliberal hopes that the West’s political evolution will stop once economies are privatized and public regulation of banking and production are dismantled. Writing in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) coined the term “liberal democracy” to describe a globalized world run by the private sector, implicitly under American hegemony after its victory in today’s clash of civilizations.

It is as if the consolidation of feudal lordship is to be restored as “the end of history,” rolling back the Enlightenment’s centuries of reform. As Margaret Thatcher said in 1985: “There is no alternative” [TINA]. To her and her neoliberal colleagues, one essayist has written “everything else is utopianism, unreason and regression. The virtue of debate and conflicting perspectives are discredited because history is ruled by necessity.”

Fukuyama’s view that history will stop at this point is the opposite of the growing role of democratic government that most 20th century economists had expected to see. Evidently he himself had second thoughts when what he had celebrated as “liberal democracy” turned out to be a financial oligarchy appropriating power for themselves. In 1995, Russia’s economic planning passed into the hands of the “Seven Bankers,” with US advisors overseeing the privatization of post-Soviet land and real estate, natural resources and infrastructure. Russian “liberalism” simply meant an insider kleptocracy spree.

Seeing a similar dynamic in the United States, Fukuyama acknowledged (in a February 1, 2012 interview with Der Spiegel) that his paean to neoliberalism was premature: “Obama had a big opportunity right at the middle of the crisis. That was around the time Newsweek carried the title: ‘We Are All Socialists Now.” Obama’s team could have nationalized the banks and then sold them off piecemeal. But their whole view of what is possible and desirable is still very much shaped by the needs of these big banks.” That mode of “liberal democracy” seems unlikely to be the end of history, unless we are speaking of a permanent Dark Age in which forward momentum simply stops.”

Social justice and economic performance: beyond the trade-offs?

workersThe subtitle of this blog refers to two of its key concerns when it comes to the application of our ‘dismal science’: economic progress and social justice. The third is individual liberty. It was John Maynard Keynes who in 1926 coined these three as part of the “political problem of mankind” (although he referred to efficiency rather than progress), and noted how difficult they are to reconcile.

A fourth, modern, concern might be sustainability, though this can be incorporated into them in the sense that without them, the economy and society cannot be sustained in the long run. This would include environmental concerns. Theories of sustainable development look at the interaction between the economy, society and environment and try to forge a path in which, being dependent on each other, they are balanced and, literally, sustainable and sustained!

A broad conception of economic progress would necessarily see it as sustainable. If, for example, a particular pattern of economic growth destroys the nature on which it depends, then it will be undermined. At the same time, modern economic growth, which is still part of what most economists consider to be ‘progress’, is a process of transformation, not least of nature, and of society. The task is to ensure that progress can be sustained and this may require that we adopt richer measures of development. For me this needs to include social justice and well-being.

This post explores some themes relevant to the achievement of social justice and economic progress in both developed and developing economies. Some economists consider there to be a trade-off between the two, but plenty of progressive thinkers reject this pessimistic outlook. Indeed they are, together, probably two of the essential ingredients of political stability and a sustainable democracy. Continue reading

The political economy of the future: AI, Big Tech and humanity

Human-Intelligence-Can-Fix-AI-Shortcomings-1Peering into our technological future may seem a little inappropriate amidst the current global pandemic, but before Covid-19 had emerged, one of the major themes tackled by many scientists, economists and social theorists of both left and right had been the advance of technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular, and its potential impact on the worlds of business, the economy, politics and society.

The prospects of humankind given the inexorable march of technology typically range between a variety of utopias and dystopias. What will AI mean for productivity and living standards? Will it lead to a society of abundance with more leisure time than ever before for the majority? How about the distribution of income and wealth, the implications for democracy, and so on?

Four compelling books from 2019, written by, respectively, a computer scientist, two journalists and a maverick scientist and futurist, address some of these issues, from different perspectives, but with some overlap, particularly in terms of the necessary human response to the advance of AI. Continue reading

The blurred boundaries between the market and politics

Chang EconomicsUsersGuideCambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang frequently makes the case for the priority which should be given to a pluralist social science of political economy rather than a ‘pure’ (neoclassical) economics and its pretensions to be more like a natural science.

Political economy, a branch of the study of man in society, an interdisciplinary social science, incorporating the economic, social, political, ethical and even philosophical, can often provide us with richer insights than are on offer from modern mainstream economics alone.

That is not to say that we should ignore the arguments of neoclassical thinking. Economics, the ‘science of rational choice’, as it is sometimes defined these days, does tell us that individuals respond to incentives: change the incentives and our behaviour may change. But it tends to neglect much that I have just mentioned in its quest to be scientific, and therefore somehow apolitical and asocial. It also tends to lack an awareness of its own methodology and how this has evolved in ways shaped by economic and social history.

Along this vein is another insightful quote from Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide, (p. 393-6), which takes to task economics’ pretension to be apolitical: Continue reading

Michael Hudson on class struggle

JisforJunkEconAnother extract in this occasional series from Professor Michael Hudson’s alternative economics dictionary J is for Junk Economics (p. 58). Here he briefly outlines the historical evolution of class struggle under capitalism since the 19th century:

“The 19th century’s characteristic class conflict saw industrialists fight to keep profits high by keeping money wages low. This was to be achieved by promoting free trade so as to buy food and necessities more cheaply abroad – and by taxing landlords instead of labor and its necessities. Ricardian value theory assumed that raw manual labor would earn mere subsistence wages in any case. So lower prices for food and necessities would mean that industrialists could pay lower money wages to hire workers. Importing low-priced food would therefore save employers money, as money wages would fall to subsistence levels.

The main political struggle accordingly was between capitalists and landlords, with capitalists aiming to minimize economic overhead in the form of land rent and monopoly rent. The class struggle by the industrial capitalist class began as a fight against landlords who sought protective agricultural tariffs (Britain’s Corn Laws) to keep food prices (and hence, subsistence wages) high. After the bourgeois revolutions of 1848, the fight against the landlord class was well on its way to being won, giving way to the class struggle against labor unions and socialists over wages and working conditions.

Class conflict has always been concerned with whether the tax burden should fall on land rent (landlords), business profits or consumer spending. But now that banking and the financial sector finds its major source of business in real estate (accounting for 70% to 80% of bank loans) – followed by mining and other privatized natural resources and public monopolies such as water, power and communications – interest is paid more out of economic rent than out of industrial and business profits. The financial sector accordingly has joined forces with real estate, natural resource extraction and other monopoly rent seekers. These rentier sectors now struggle jointly against labor.”

Ben Fine on the classic development economics

CentralKigaliBen Fine is a professor at SOAS and a prominent Marxist economist. He has written on everything from the evolution of economic thought to consumption, industrial policy and development. His writing often takes the form of a critique of mainstream thinking, and appeals to develop an alternative, drawing on a political economy which comes to grips with modern capitalism, warts and all.

Here he summarises the classic development economics, which was influential in the post-war period before being superseded by what was becoming mainstream economics, increasingly dominated by microeconomics as opposed to a more systemic, contextual and interdisciplinary analysis concerned with economic and social transformation. The study of development which builds on the latter seems to me to offer a much richer understanding of this vital field. Continue reading

The causes of poverty: individual or structural failure?

Chang EconomicsUsersGuide“Starting from the Disney animations that we watch as young children telling us that if we believe in ourselves, we can achieve anything, we are bombarded with the message that individuals, and they alone, are responsible for what they get in their lives. We are persuaded to accept what I call the L’Oréal principle – if some people are paid tens of millions of pounds per year, it must be because they are ‘worth it’. The implication is that, if people are poor, it must be because they are either not good enough or not trying hard enough.

Individuals are in the end responsible for what they make out of their lives. Even if they are from broadly the same backgrounds, different people end up in different positions because they have different talents in different things and make different levels and types of efforts. It will be silly to blame everything on the ‘environment’  or luck. Attempts to suppress the effects of individual talents and efforts too much, as in the former socialist countries, can create societies that are ostensibly equal but fundamentally unfair…There are, however, causes of poverty that are ‘structural’ in the sense that they are beyond the control of the individual concerned.

Inadequate childhood nutrition, lack of learning stimulus and sub-par schools (frequently found in poor neighbourhoods) restrict the development of poor children, diminishing their future prospects. Parents may have some control over how much nutrition and learning stimulus their children get – and some poor parents, to their credit, make great efforts and provide more of those things than do other parents in similar situations – but there is a limit to what they can do. They are by definition under great financial stress. Many of them are totally exhausted from juggling two or three insecure jobs. And most of them had a poor childhood and poor education themselves.

All of this means that poor children start the race of life already weighed down by sandbags on their legs. Unless there are social measures to at least partially compensate for these disadvantages (eg., income support for poor parents, subsidized childcare, greater investments in schools in poor areas), those children won’t be able to fully realize their innate potentials.

Even when they overcome childhood deprivation and aspire to climb the social ladder, people from poorer backgrounds are likely to meet more obstacles. Lack of personal connections and a cultural gap with the elite often mean that people from underprivileged backgrounds are unfairly discriminated against in hiring and in promotion. If those people also happen to have other ‘wrong’ characteristics – in terms of gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation and what not – they will have an even harder time to get a fair chance to demonstrate their abilities.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Penguin books, p.336-8.