Economies do not move in straight lines

chaotic cycleRichard Goodwin was an American economist, a self-described ‘wayward Marxist’ who taught at Harvard and Cambridge as well as at Siena. One of his best-known papers was a mathematical model of Marx’s description in Capital of the macroeconomic relationship between wages, growth and unemployment, which generates an endogenous growth cycle: that is, it shows how economies can grow over time with fluctuations of output, employment and the other variables in the model generated from within the system, rather than being dependent on external or exogenous ‘shocks’.

Goodwin’s growth cycle model famously draws on the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model from biology. This describes the dynamics of two interrelated animal populations: the predator and the prey. Starting from, say, a relatively large initial level of the predator population, this could cause the numbers of prey to fall as they are consumed. As the numbers of prey diminish, there is less food for the predator population, whose numbers also then begin to diminish. Falling numbers of the predator population then allow the prey numbers to recover so that they begin to provide a more plentiful food supply for the predators, whose numbers then begin to rise once again. This generates two interdependent fluctuating population cycles, which are not reliant on external or exogenous factors or shocks. Continue reading

Michael Hudson on trickle-down economics

hudson-200x300Another excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics, his often enlightening and generally iconoclastic dictionary of the dismal science (p.231-2).

The pretense that reversing progressive taxation and giving more income to the wealthiest One Percent will maximize economic growth and prosperity for the 99 Percent. The actual effect is to help the rich get richer. The rentier class has manipulated the tax code so that, as Leona Helmsley put it: “Only the little people pay taxes.”

A supporting factoid is that the One Percent spends its income buying products produced by labor. That was Thomas Malthus’s argument for why British landlords should receive agricultural tariff protection (the Corn Laws). His argument endeared him to John Maynard Keynes, but in practice the wealthy bought largely foreign luxuries and financial securities or more property. Today’s One Percent lend out their income and wealth to further indebt the economy to themselves.

Another false assumption is that financiers and property owners (the FIRE [Finance, Insurance and Real Estate] sector) will save and invest their revenue to expand the means of production and employ more labor. In practice, the wealthy wield creditor power to force governments to privatize the public domain and buy companies already in place. When the fictions of “trickle-down economics” lead to financial crises, the wealthy demand that governments rescue banks, give bailouts to uninsured depositors and bondholders, and shift taxes to further favor the FIRE sector at the expense of labor. The result of trickle-down policy is thus economic polarization, not prosperity.

One of the earliest and most blatant expressions of trickle-down demagogy is found in the pleading by Isocrates in his Areopagiticus (VII, 31-34, written in 355 BC). Like most Sophist rhetoric teachers, he charged fees so high that only the wealthy could afford to study with him, so it hardly is surprising that his written speeches supported the oligarchy. “The less well-to-do among the citizens were so far from envying those of greater means that they…considered that the prosperity of the rich was a guarantee of their own well-being.” This may be the earliest written example of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Isocrates praised harsh judges for being “strictly faithful to the laws”. This meant creditor-oriented laws. He noted that “judges were not in the habit of indulging their sense of equity”, that is, what would be fair in the traditional morality of mutual aid. His over-the-top rationale for why Athenian judges “were more severe on defaulters than they were on the injured themselves” (meaning the creditors “injured” by not being paid in full) was that “they believed that those who break down confidence in contracts” (as if being unable to pay was a deliberate attack on pro-creditor laws) “do a greater injury to the poor than to the rich; for if the rich were to stop lending, they [the rich] would be deprived of only a slight revenue, whereas if the poor should lack the help of their supporters they would be reduced to desperate straits.” It is as if usury doesn’t deprive the poor of their land and liberty, which Socrates did not hesitate to explain as the “sting” of usury that stripped debtors of their land and hence degraded their status as citizens.”

Minskyan processes and the coronavirus shock

The Levy Institute has a brief paper here by Michalis Nikiforos on how the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has hit already fragile economies, making the likely eventual economic outcomes particularly damaging. His main focus is the US, but the analysis can be applied to other advanced economies.

The abstract of the paper is below:

The spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a major shock for the US and global economies. Research Scholar Michalis Nikiforos explains that we cannot fully understand the economic implications of the pandemic without reference to two Minskyan processes at play in the US economy: the growing divergence of stock market prices from output prices, and the increasing fragility in corporate balance sheets.

The pandemic did not arrive in the context of an otherwise healthy US economy—the demand and supply dimensions of the shock have aggravated an inevitable adjustment process. Using a Minskyan framework, we can understand how the current economic weakness can be perpetuated through feedback effects between flows of demand and supply and their balance sheet impacts.

In the paper’s conclusion, he outlines the necessary policy response including, importantly, that:

“unlike the response to the 2007-9 crisis, the assistance provided to large corporations come with strings attached – so that they do not return to the same old (destabilizing) practices once the emergency has passed.”

This was written before the $2 trillion US support package passed through Congress. It seems as if the author’s hope has not been fulfilled.

Michael Hudson on the Austrian School of Economics

hudson-200x300Another extract, in this occasional series, from Michael Hudson’s iconoclastic dictionary of economics, J is for Junk Economics. Last week’s posted video featured a short lecture by institutional economist Geoffrey Hodgson, in which he quoted selectively from Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek, and appeared to show Hayek’s one-time support for social democratic policies. Hudson’s brief account below is critical of the School:

“Austrian School of Economics: Emerged in Vienna toward the late 19th century as a reaction against socialist reforms. Opposing public regulation and ownership, the Austrian School created a parallel universe in which governments did not appear except as a burden, not as playing a key role in industrial development as historically has been the case, above all in Germany, the United States and Japan.

Carl Menger developed an anachronistic fable that individuals developed money as an outgrowth of barter, seeking a convenient store of value and means of exchange. The reality is that money was developed by cost accountants in Bronze Age Mesopotamian temples and palaces, mainly as a means of denominating debts. Few transactions during the crop season were paid in money, but took the form of personal debts mounting up to fall due on the threshing floor when the harvest was in. Mercantile trade debts typically doubled the advance of merchandise or money after five years.

Most of these advances were initially made by temple or palace handicraft workshops, or collectors in the palace bureaucracy. Menger’s Austrian theory ignored the fact that weights and measures were developed in the temples and palaces, and that throughout antiquity silver and other metals were produced in standardized purity by temple mints to avoid private-sector fraud. This history has been expurgated, as if enterprise only occurs in the private sector, needing no public role or regulation.

Also not appearing is the exploitation of labor by industrial capitalists. Austrians developed the idea of “time preference.” Profits were attributed to the fact that capital-intensive (“roundabout”) production took time, so profits were simply a form of interest built into nature.”

Michael Hudson: debts that can’t be paid, won’t be

JisforJunkEconAnother excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s heterodox ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (2017, p.72):

“Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be”: Over time, debts mount up in excess of the ability of wide swathes of the economy to pay, except by transferring personal and public property to creditors.

The volume of debt owed by businesses, families and governments typically is as large as gross domestic product (GDP) – that is 100%. If the average interest rate to carry this debt is 5%, the economy must grow by 5% each year just to pay the interest charges. But economies are not growing at this rate. Hence, debt service paid to the financial sector is eating into economies, leaving less for labor and industry, that is, for production and consumption.

Greece’s debt has soared to about 180% of GDP. To pay 5% interest means that its economy must pay 9% of GDP each year to bondholders and bankers. To calculate the amount that an economy must pay in interest (not including the FIRE* sector as a whole), multiply the rate of interest (5%) by the ratio of debt to GDP (180%). The answer is 9% of GDP absorbed by interest charges. If an economy grows at 1% or 2% – today’s norm for the United States and eurozone – then any higher interest rate will eat into the economy.

Paying so much leaves less income to be spent in domestic markets. This shrinks employment and hence new investment, blocking the economy from growing. Debts cannot be paid except by making the economy poorer, until ultimately it is able to pay only by selling off public assets to rent extractors. But privatization raises the economy’s cost of living and doing business, impairing its competitiveness. This process is not sustainable.

The political issue erupts when debts cannot be paid. The debt crisis requires nations to decide whether to save the creditors’ claims for payment (by foreclosure) or save the economy. After 2008 the Obama administration saved the banks and bondholders, leaving the economy to limp along in a state of debt deflation. Economic shrinkage must continue until the debts are written down.

*Finance, Insurance and Real Estate

The debt we don’t talk about

Private debt. Richard Vague, who used to be in the business of consumer credit, now researches such things. Here he talks to INET, which supports a network of mainly progressive economists, from leading thinkers to students.

When Vague started his research into trends in private debt across a number of major economies, he found that it was difficult to find a lot of the necessary data, from the nineteenth century through the roaring twenties to 1980s Japan.

He also touches on the need for debt restructuring after a major crisis such as the Great Recession, perhaps in the form of a ‘debt jubilee’. As he puts it, we saved the banks, but we did much less for ordinary households.

Worth watching.

Michael Pettis on Chinese growth, debt, consumption and rebalancing

In this short video, some insights from Michael Pettis on Chinese economic growth numbers, the nation’s debt and its sustainability, the extent (or not) of deleveraging, the low share of consumption in national income, the perennial need for a rebalancing of its economy, and how this can be done.

Latest prospects for the US economy: can redistribution help sustain growth?

Here is a link to the latest Strategic Analysis on the US economy from the Levy Economics Institute. They publish a short report like this every year around this time, and discuss the performance of and prospects for the US, as well as considering how things could be improved with a change in policy.

The Levy Institute is officially non-partisan, but tends to publish in the spirit of post-Keynesian thinking. The late Hyman Minksy and Wynne Godley spent the latter part of their lives working there and Godley helped build their macroeconomic model of the US economy.

This year, the 14-page report is titled Can Redistribution Help Build a More Stable Economy? In short, the authors examine what they see as the four key constraints on the US economy and which account for the historically lengthy but weak recovery: (1) weak net export demand; (2) fiscal conservatism; (3) increasing income inequality; and (4) financial fragility. These four constraints help to explain the weak performance, as well as some of the political developments of recent years. Continue reading

Why US debt must continue to rise – Michael Pettis

Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.

Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.

On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address. Continue reading