High wages vs high savings as models of development

I refer to the work of Michael Pettis quite often on this blog. He strikes me as a highly original thinker, combining macroeconomics, finance, development, political economy and economic history in a way which provides a deep understanding of world economic events.

He recently posted here about what he sees as the two main models of economic development which nations have used to transform their economies at certain times in history: the high wages model, and the high savings model.

Models of development can be described as a set of policies and institutions which aim to develop the economy and achieve sustained rises in productivity and output via industrialisation and the advancement of technology.

For Pettis, both models aim to raise wages and productivity, but they are distinct from one another in how they drive the investment which makes this possible. Continue reading

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Austerity, household debt and Brexit: the case for a weaker pound

What are we to make of the current performance and future prospects for the British economy and for the JAM (Just About Managing) households which the Conservative government proclaims to be trying to help?

According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), households, on average, became net borrowers in 2017 for the first time since records began in 1987. The savings ratio fell to its lowest annual level since 1963.

Household spending growth also fell to 1.7%, the lowest since 2011.

There was some better news on the current account deficit for 2017, which fell to 4.1% of GDP, also the lowest figure since 2011. And in the fourth quarter of last year, it fell to 3.6%. The improvement is at least partly down to the weakness of the pound and a stronger world economy boosting net exports and net earnings on foreign investments.

But the improvement in the current account is also being flattered by weaker growth in imports due to their higher cost reducing real household income and consumption growth. In an open economy, part of household income is inevitably spent on imported goods and services. A fall in the current account deficit can come from a reduced demand leakage into imports as well as increased growth in exports.

With the weaker pound and higher inflation reducing real household income, and interest rates still at very low levels, households are taking the opportunity to add to their already substantial levels of debt, rather than reduce consumption even further.

With the household sector spending more than its income, it is adding to the growth of aggregate demand, as credit acts as a net injection of purchasing power into the economy.

But with household debt already high, interest rates set to rise gradually, and real wage growth still negative, these trends will prove unsustainable. Although inflation has perhaps peaked, and real wages should start to grow once again, there is some way to go before the JAMs start to see a sustained and substantial rise in living standards. Continue reading

Production and realization of surplus value – Marxists, Keynesians and others

Karl_Marx_001This 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

Stock buybacks and building a more equitable economy

This video tells the story of how a relatively equitable capitalist growth model in the 1950s and 60s gave way to rising inequality and weaker investment. For Professor William Lazonick, the economy of the US (and other advanced nations) currently generates “profits without prosperity”.

After World War II, average wages across the economy tended to increase in line with productivity, so that ordinary workers shared in rising economic efficiency over time. However, since the 1970s, the link has been broken as productivity continued to rise, while wages stagnated. This trend has been largely sustained to the present day.

The video discusses these changes in the US economy, and focuses on the phenomenon of stock buybacks, which shift firm resources away from productivity-raising investment in new technology and a more highly-skilled workforce towards short-term financial gains for CEOs and investors. Lazonick discusses possible solutions to these problems.

Anwar Shaikh’s Classical theory of wages and unemployment

9780199390632Anwar Shaikh is a Professor of economics at the New School for Social Research in New York. His ideas, in his own words, draw mainly but not exclusively on the ‘Classical tradition’ of Smith, Ricardo and Marx. Marx himself was a critic of classical political economy, so in some ways Marxist political economy could be considered as a separate school of thought.

In Shaikh’s 2016 magnum opus, Capitalism, he also draws on Keynes and Kalecki, two economists who greatly inspired the post-Keynesian school. For Shaikh, the Keynesian/Kaleckian emphasis on aggregate demand remains important, but so too does aggregate supply, which is emphasised in mainstream neo-classical economics. According to Shaikh, the classical tradition is not so much demand-side, or supply-side, but ‘profit-side’. The rate of profit is central to his work, and it affects both demand and supply in the capitalist economy.

In this post I want to outline Shaikh’s theory of wages and unemployment, which is covered in Chapter 14 of Capitalism. He covers a great deal of theoretical and empirical ground in the book, not least in this chapter, and it makes for stimulating reading. To avoid making this post too long, I will focus on Shaikh’s own particular theory, rather than spending much time comparing it to alternative theories, which Shaikh does in the book. Continue reading

Dean Baker: Fed inflation target keeping wages low, people out of jobs – Radical Political Economy

This nine-minute interview with left-Keynesian economist Dean Baker discusses the wisdom or otherwise of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes and their effect on jobs and wages. He notes that despite a low unemployment rate in the US, other measures of the ‘tightness’ of the labour market indicate that there may be more slack in the system and more room for job creation than allowed for by the Fed.

via Dean Baker: Fed Inflation Target Keeping Wages Low, People Out of Jobs — Radical Political Economy