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

Paul Ormerod: History shows us that slavery is an economic catastrophe as well as a moral one

An interesting and topical article by Paul Ormerod, which argues that slavery has historically been as much an economic problem as a moral one. Slave-based societies have no incentive to invest in labour-saving technologies, given the low cost of the workforce. The widespread adoption of improved technologies is necessary for sustained rises in productivity and living standards.

I would also add that there is a potential problem of insufficient demand due to the absence of wages. Of course, low wages and poor working conditions can also be a problem for a capitalist society, if growth is constrained by inadequate demand in the form of consumption out of wages. Decent pay and working conditions also help to promote well-being. But despite their flaws, only capitalist economies have enabled sustained rises in living standards for the masses. Ormerod concludes:

“Slavery is of course morally repugnant, a stain on the histories of civilised societies. But it is also economically detrimental to the societies it ostensibly appears to benefit. The fact is that no society based on slavery has ever come anywhere near to delivering decent living standards for the average person.

The only system which has is capitalism. Britain and other areas of north west Europe started to become rich through a system based on the rule of law, the ability of individuals to profit from innovation and not be expropriated, and the freedom of labour to negotiate contracts.

Morality undoubtedly played a part in Britain’s leading role in abolishing slavery. But by the early nineteenth century, it had become an anachronism. Resources employed in slavery could be put to much more productive use under capitalism.”

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

How Abraham Lincoln’s political economy ‘trumped the Free Trade British System’

I have written before on the oft-neglected American School of political economy, drawing on the work of Michael Hudson here and here.

Along the same vein, November’s issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics features an article by Emir Phillips. It is included as the Editor’s Choice, so you can read it for free on the journal website or by downloading the pdf.

Here is the abstract:

The Whigs could legitimately emphasise what Hamilton’s Report had not touched upon: urban labourers made unemployed by import competition could not shift to ‘collateral employments’ with the presumptive ease asserted by Free Trader Democrats. More than anything, it was the structural cyclical instability (Minsky moments) that engendered a new party (Republican) to exert political pressures for government involvement in the management of the economy (mercantilism). Economic beliefs played the most fundamental role in Lincoln’s career, and his mercantilist views, in conformity with Hamilton, Clay and the economist Carey, were key determinants in effectuating the Industrial Revolution within the United States through tariffs, government-supported macro-projects and structurally stimulating aggregate demand through a national currency. Permeating Lincoln’s political economy was a fierce non-neutral view of money wherein banks created the funds to ignite the American System. Henry Clay, Henry Carey and Abraham Lincoln were seeking to supplant the Ricardo–Malthus long-term model of economic growth (emphasising distribution within a relatively stagnant economy) with one of expanding productive powers and rising wage levels. These interventionist issues are still quite relevant since US economics students are taught modernised versions of the doctrines of Ricardo and Malthus which were controverted more than a century ago by the American School, and more specifically by Abraham Lincoln.

The article tells the story of how 19th century Whig-Republicans, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, accelerated industrialisation in the US through government intervention in the economy, such that

Mercantilist nationalism (Republican Party of 1860) confronted both the Free Trader Jacksonian-Democrats and the US Constitution, and created a commercially linked Nation whose industrial productivity over the next 60 years (all US Presidents without exception were Republican until President Wilson) supplanted England as the world’s workshop (p.1455).

The policies used included a combination of tariffs to protect domestic industry from English manufactured exports and raise government revenue, investment in transport infrastructure, particularly railroads, and management of the national currency to sustain aggregate demand and investment in industry.

The American System or School saw capital and labour as potentially complements, in that investment in productive capacity in increasing returns industries, namely manufacturing, would stimulate rising productivity and output. This would enable both profits and wages to rise, so that both capitalists and workers would benefit from economic development, resulting in some form of social harmony and supporting national democracy. Thus

[b]y 1845, Lincoln perceived these United States as entirely dependent upon certain economic activities subject to increasing returns, with each regional section being a synergetic phenomena built upon a mutual dependency created by finely knit and interlocking network of rail, divisions of labour and raw inputs into a manufacturing Northeast. Within this matrix, social mobility (‘equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness’) was enchained to industrial productivity to the benefit of all Americans. The increasing returns found in Northern manufacturing created the synergetic element that made the United States greater than its parts (the States). The Republicans were then the National Capitalist Party, with wealth creation and not Constitutional adherence as its abiding precept (p.1455-6).

Heiner Flassbeck – Harz IV and the purpose of economics

Here is the latest post from Heiner Flassbeck, formerly of UNCTAD, and who now runs his own consultancy which focuses on macroeconomic questions.

The post explores how a decade of wage repression following the Harz IV reforms in Germany resulted in weak growth in wages relative to productivity, which in turn weakened growth in domestic demand and led to a boom in exports. The piece contains some useful charts comparing the growth in foreign and domestic demand in Germany and France.

These trends created major economic imbalances in the eurozone which in the long run proved unsustainable as they weakened economic performance in the region and were a major factor behind the global financial and eurozone crises.

Whether you are a supporter or detractor of the ‘European project’, these arguments should not be ignored. They point to the need for reforms to the structure of policymaking in the eurozone, particularly in Germany, it being the largest country with the largest current account surplus. Such reforms are needed in order to promote widespread prosperity and help to safeguard the future of the region. On the other hand, if this need is neglected, the disruptive breakup of the eurozone cannot be ruled out.

Flassbeck concludes as follows:

“In order to counter the centrifugal forces in Europe, Germany must lead the way by withdrawing its reforms and normalising wage developments. On the other hand, Germany would undoubtedly be hit hard economically in an exit scenario of Italy or France. It would have to reckon with its production structure, which is extremely export-oriented and which was formed in the years of monetary union, being subjected to a hard adjustment. The German recession is already showing how susceptible the country is to exogenous shocks.

The basic decision in favour of the euro can still be justified today with good economic arguments. The dominant economic theory, however, has ignored these arguments from the outset and politically disavowed them. Built on monetarist ideas in the European Central Bank and crude ideas about competition between nations in the largest member state, the monetary union could not function. All those who want to save Europe as a political idea must now realise that this can only be achieved with a different economic theory and a different economic policy that follows from it. Only if the participation of all members of society in economic progress is guaranteed under all circumstances and the competition of nations is abandoned can the idea of a united Europe be saved.”

Where to Invade Next – social progress and a productive economy

WhereToInvadeNextI have ‘enjoyed’ (if that is the appropriate word) much of the work of US filmmaker Michael Moore. He tirelessly aims through this work and beyond it to campaign for a more progressive society and politics. He tries to entertain, inform and persuade. I often get the feeling when watching his films that he is preaching to the converted, but I still find myself learning something new.

His 2015 offering Where to Invade Next sees him visiting various countries around the world, mainly in Europe but also elsewhere, exploring aspects of their culture which as an American ‘liberal’ he admires more than the home-grown alternative. For each aspect, he plants the stars and stripes, indicating his ‘invasion’, and vows to steal the particular idea and take it back to the US. Continue reading

Robert Reich: the four biggest right-wing lies about inequality

I like Robert Reich’s short, entertaining and informative videos. While some of the ideas he presents are simplified, perhaps this is necessary to communicate them to a wider audience.

This one makes a good case that we don’t have to accept today’s levels of inequality as a price to pay for future prosperity. In fact, for ordinary workers in the US, real wages are barely higher than they were forty years ago, while since 1980 incomes and wealth at the top have soared. At the same time, investment and growth rates have fallen, apart from a brief revival in the late 1990s. It has been prosperity for some, but not for most.

Inequality, saving and growth: Germany’s role in global rebalancing

Coat_of_arms_of_Germany.svgThe IMF recently published its Economic Outlook for Germany. The report itself is quite long but a brief description of the key points can be found here. I have written before on the problems caused by Germany’s supposedly ‘prudent’ saving behaviour and export prowess, and the IMF covers this issue quite well, although as a report focused on one country, it does not consider the global implications. Here I want to focus on one aspect of the report: the financial imbalances of Germany’s economy and their relationship to both inequality and future growth prospects, both domestically and in the rest of the world.

In macroeconomics, one can consider the financial balances (net borrowing or net lending) of the three main sectors in the economy as a whole: the private sector (firms and households together), the public sector (government) and the foreign sector (the rest of the world). Together these balances can be used to analyse the total flows of expenditure and income between the three sectors, both within that economy and between that economy and the rest of the world.

If a sector runs a financial surplus over a particular period, its income for that period will exceed its expenditure and it will either be accumulating financial assets from another sector or paying down debt owed to another sector. For example, if the government runs a surplus, then revenue from taxation will exceed public spending and it will be able to pay down government debt held by the private sector, either domestically or abroad. Continue reading

The UK’s pay squeeze – no end in sight?

workersSince the Great Recession, and among the world’s richest economies, pay growth in the UK has been historically weak. The Economist magazine reported on 20th April that the pay squeeze in the UK has eased during the last year or two, but is by no means over.

Nominal wages are now growing at around 3.5% year, while real wages (adjusted for inflation) are growing at 1.5%. In a way, this slight improvement is to be expected, with employment at a high level and unemployment relatively low, creating a tightening labour market, and shifting bargaining power from employers towards workers.

Another piece of good news is that more of the jobs now being created have higher pay. To put it another way, the composition of the workforce is changing. As The Economist put it, “strawberry-pickers have made way for stock-pickers”. Continue reading

Inequality in the OECD: causes and policy responses

Inequality has become a ‘big’ topic in recent years, of concern both to economists and the public at large. This is exemplified by the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and many other works. I have written on some of these studies here.

They continue to be churned out: in the July issue of the heterodox Cambridge Journal of Economics, Pasquale Tridico of Roma Tre University analyses the determinants of income inequality in 25 OECD countries between 1990 and 2013. He finds that ‘financialisation’, increased labour market flexibility, the declining influence of trade unions and welfare state retrenchment have been key to its rise.

When other factors such as economic growth, technological change, globalization and unemployment are taken into account, the above four causes remain important, and, to the extent that they can be changed as a matter of policy, they can mitigate inequality without harming economic growth. They are therefore not the full story but, for example, the negative effects of rising unemployment on inequality can be reduced if there is a strong social safety net in place. Continue reading