Marx, Keynes and the limits to wage increases

“Marx is very clear that labour is exploited and that a higher wage would make workers’ lives less miserable without removing the exploitation per se. But he doesn’t think, therefore, that a higher wage  will make the system operate better or indeed even make workers as a whole better off. In fact, in the discussions of this in “The Reserve Army of Labour” he argues something quite striking given his political view: namely, that if workers get into a better situation to the point that the reserve army of unemployed labour shrinks and the wage begins to rise relative to productivity, then the wage share rises and the profit rate falls. If the profit rate falls, accumulation slows down, mechanisation speeds up, the import of labour becomes more feasible, and the system re-creates the reserve army of labour. So, now you have a situation where the success of labour leads to the undermining of that success – from the internal logic of the system. Many people, many of my friends who are Post Keynesians, argue this is not true, because if workers’ wages are higher, consumption demand will be higher, then demand will be higher, and capitalists will hire more people. I think that’s not true as a general proposition because of the limits I described. I would like it to be true, but for me you cannot, you should not, persuade yourself that something is true because you would like it.”

In the spirit of recent posts, the above is another extract from an interview with Anwar Shaikh in the book What is Heterodox Economics? Conversations with Leading Economists. Shaikh is clearly being intellectually honest here, admitting that he would like capitalism to enable wage increases for ordinary workers across the economy that drive faster growth and falling unemployment in a win-win sustainable process, but that his own theoretical understanding suggests that this is unlikely to be sustainable. For Shaikh, falling unemployment will tend to strengthen the bargaining power of labour, such that at some point wages for the economy as a whole will start to rise faster than productivity growth, leading to a rising wage share and a falling profit share. The latter will blunt the stimulus to investment and growth will then slow down, leading to rising unemployment once again, and ‘re-creating the reserve army of labour’. Continue reading

Different questions, different answers: seeking an alternative economics

“I was working in the desert myself alongside workers from all over the Middle East and India and Pakistan in searing brutal heat and they were paid minimally. And as an engineer you think: well, things could be done much better. So I thought that economics would have an answer as to why there was inequality and poverty and all that, answers to them. It seemed to me that that’s what I should study. When I got to graduate school I realised that economics doesn’t even have the question let alone the answer. That was a big shock.”

This quote from an interview with New School Professor Anwar Shaikh about his decision to study economics and his early experiences brings to the fore some of the concerns of today’s heterodox economists. I can certainly sympathise. My own experiences in studying economics at school and of beginning to read around the subject in books and newspaper commentary generated enthusiasm for a particular approach to the subject, which gives a primacy to the importance of economic policymaking designed to improve the workings of the economy and society and the well-being of its members. I was attracted by left-Keynesian ideas, what I now recognise as post-Keynesianism, which argued for a government commitment to full employment, secured by judicious macroeconomic management, with any resulting tendency towards rising inflation to be mitigated by incomes policies involving negotiated consensus between the state, employers and workers. Of course, such policies reflected the post-war consensus in many advanced economies, which by what was then the mid-1990s had long been abandoned by the Thatcher governments in favour of a focus on controlling inflation as the main target of macroeconomic policy, while the liberal economy in the form of deregulation and privatisation became the focus of microeconomic policy, ostensibly to improve economic performance and raise living standards. Continue reading

Avoiding a recession: the Fed conundrum

LevyInstituteThe Levy Economics Institute has published their annual Strategic Analysis paper on the current state of, and prospects for, the US economy, which is always an interesting read. The Institute is non-partisan, but much of its research and output takes its inspiration from two great post-Keynesian economists of the past: Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley, who both emphasised the importance of aggregate demand to the state of the economy, in the short run and the long run, and the interaction of real and financial factors.

A summary of this short paper can be found here, and the pdf can be downloaded here.

As the paper notes, the US recovery from the pandemic-triggered recession has been swift, with GDP now above its pre-pandemic level, and the employment rate almost there, thanks in large part to the extraordinary scale of the fiscal stimulus enacted by the government. However, it has also been associated with a deteriorating current account deficit and a rise in inflation. Continue reading

Considering Keynes’s ‘Liberal Socialism’

Was Keynes a champion of a reformed capitalism or a liberal socialist? He consistently argued for a middle way between laissez-faire and state socialism as a means of achieving the good society. But although he referred to a form of socialism in some of his work, his possible variant of such a system creates some confusion in the use of language and argument. A modern social democratic liberalism retains the core features of capitalism and can continue to draw on the ideas of Keynes, even if it does ultimately evolve into something different.

keynesThe conventional wisdom on Keynes has it that the great economist and statesman argued for a reformed capitalism, in order to save the system from its flaws, and guard against political extremism of the left and right. But some of today’s thinkers make a rather different case. They hold that he wanted to see reform lead the way to what he called ‘liberal socialism’.

James Crotty has turned this idea into a whole book, which I wrote about in this post. But Rod O’Donnell makes a similar argument, following the evolution of Keynes’ output during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, in a short chapter from an edited volume from 1999 honouring the work of the late post-Keynesian Geoff Harcourt. The chapter is titled “Keynes’s Socialism: conception, strategy and espousal”. In it, O’Donnell argues that Keynes consistently made the case for a middle way between (and in the process rejecting) laissez-faire capitalism and state socialism. This was his liberal socialism. Politics and economics were to be the means to achieve an ethical goodness in society. This system should combine the best elements of liberalism and socialism, and discard the worst. Continue reading

Some recurring themes in Marx versus Keynes: a personal note

Economist John Maynard KeynesToday’s post summarises some of what are for me the most important and interesting topics in economics, in particular those which draw on Marxist and Keynesian thinking. While the approaches and concerns of the two traditions sometimes overlap, they also give rise to tensions.

I have just finished Stephen Marglin’s new book Raising Keynes, which is the Harvard Professor’s attempt to resurrect and reform in modern guise the key ideas of the great man’s General Theory of 1936. On a personal level, the book is my latest foray into what is broadly known as post-Keynesian economics, whose practitioners claim to be the heirs of Keynes and the developers and propagators of his most important ideas. Through his work, Keynes intended to save capitalism by ridding it of some of its most damaging tendencies, such as periodic mass unemployment. This makes his work appealing to progressives and leftists who are uncomfortable with the idea of revolution and are not convinced that socialism, in the form it has taken historically, is the answer to society’s problems. Continue reading

A macroeconomic paradox and the importance of Michal Kalecki

Here is a very short video of post-Keynesian economist Marc Lavoie describing one of the macroeconomic paradoxes coined by Michal Kalecki. Kalecki was a Polish economist who inspired much of the field of post-Keynesian economics, and who independently produced the concept of demand-deficient unemployment at around the same time as his far more famous contemporary John Maynard Keynes. He was more influenced by the work of Karl Marx than was Keynes, whose General Theory employed microeconomic concepts drawing on the ideas of Alfred Marshall, another influential Cambridge economist. In the video, Lavoie outlines how generalised wage cuts by firms in an economic recession or depression may well fail to increase employment. (Thanks to The Case for Concerted Action blog for drawing my attention to this video.)

Managing inflation today

Contando_Dinheiro_(8228640)Inflation is determined in the interaction of demand and supply for the economy as a whole. Today’s inflation may call for intervention by governments if it is deemed to be “excessive”. While there are a range of policy responses which can help, there are limits to what states under capitalism are able to achieve. Continue reading

Looking back, looking forward: blogging in 2022

img_0372I have resisted posting my top ten most viewed posts over the last twelve months; nevertheless this post takes a longer view back in time to assess the content and direction of this blog, and looks forward to the year ahead in the worlds of economics and political economy. The Political Economy of Development is perhaps a bit of a mouthful and not very catchy as a blog title, but it was in fact the name of my masters degree course at SOAS in London which, although my studies there finished 20 years ago, continues to inspire my thinking and writing. This blog is an outlet for both. The economics department at SOAS is well known for its focus on development, and on political economy and heterodox or non-mainstream approaches to it in particular.

Despite the blog’s title, I do not focus exclusively or even mostly on development, developing countries or emerging markets. As something of a get-out, I take the view that the process of economic and social development is ongoing and does not stop if or when countries ‘graduate’ to ‘advanced’ status and relatively high levels of income and wealth. Successful development is also more than a simple rise in GDP or national income. It is a process of socioeconomic transformation, encompassing technological progress, rising productivity and living standards, creative destruction a la Schumpeter (as old industries decline and new ones expand), and social and political change. If such processes are to be successful, we now realise that they need to be sustainable, economically, socially and environmentally, or they will undermine the very basis of human progress. Continue reading

Steve Keen’s manifesto for a new economics


A brief review of prominent heterodox economist Steve Keen’s latest book, in which he lays out his vision for the future of economics, arguing that the neoclassical approach has been highly damaging to humanity, and needs to be replaced.

Steve Keen has a new book out, entitled The New Economics – A Manifesto. It is the latest chapter in the author’s tireless efforts to replace neoclassical economics and its damaging dominance of mainstream thinking with what he argues is a more scientific and explanatorily powerful body of thought drawing on post-Keynesian and, more recently, Biophysical economics.

Keen, who has been a heterodox or non-mainstream economist since his student days, has been critiquing neoclassical economics for many years. Post-Keynesianism takes its main inspiration from arguably the twentieth century’s greatest and most influential economist, John Maynard Keynes. It draws on the work of Keynes’ followers at Cambridge University, and those who studied under or have been influenced by them, though post-Keynesians remain a radical minority in the grand scheme of things.

Keen was one of the few economists to correctly predict a major financial and economic crisis in the years leading up to 2008. Not one of these iconoclastic souls was a neoclassical. In the 2011 edition of his book Debunking Economics, he painstakingly deconstructed much of neoclassical theory, and began the task of laying out the monetary economics he felt should replace it. Continue reading