Sunday, March 17, 2019

Galbraith on MMT and the Hyperinflation Boogeyman


From his recent piece: "Does this mean that 'deficits don’t matter'? I know of no MMT adherent who has made such a claim. MMT acknowledges that policy can be too expansionary and push past resource constraints, causing inflation and exchange-rate depreciation – which may or may not be desirable. (Hyperinflation, on the other hand, is a bogeyman, which some MMT critics deploy as a scare tactic.)"

Also, this: "And MMT is not about Congress ordering the Fed to use its “balance sheet as a cash cow.” Rather, it is about understanding how monetary operations actually work, how interest rates are set, and what economic powers the US government has. This, in turn, requires recognizing that the dual mandate is not a collection of empty words, but something that can – and should – be pursued on a regular and sustained basis.

There are practical, straightforward, and realistic ways for policymakers to meet this mandate. Implementing them would strengthen the country, not bankrupt it. And, contrary to opponents’ fears, global investors would not flee in terror from US government bonds and the US dollar."

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Lara-Resende and MMT in the Tropics

So André Lara-Resende, who I discussed here before, is again writing on the crisis of macroeconomics (in Portuguese and you might need to have a subscription), and now instead of embracing the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level (FTPL), has supposedly embraced Modern Money Theory (MMT). Many US MMTers cheered this as a demonstration of the reach of MMT in other countries. I would be less cheerful.

Lara-Resende, let me explain to non-Brazilian readers, was a student of Lance Taylor at MIT, and then a professor at the Catholic University in Rio, being a key author of inertial inflation, an heterodox view of inflation, that was central for the failed Cruzado Stabilization Plan back in 1986. He then participated in the successful stabilization of the economy with the Real Plan, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was the finance minister in 1994, and during the latter's presidency a short lived president of the development bank (BNDES, in the Portuguese acronym) -- and not the central bank as many in the US have suggested (that was Persio Arida, his frequent co-author on inflationary inertia). Btw, he fell as the head of the bank because he was recorded in conversations with the president (Cardoso) on issues related to the privatization process of the telecommunications sector, in which they seemed to favor a particular group. The development bank during this period was essentially used to promote privatization as a part of the so-called Washington Consensus policies. Also, by the 1990s all the economists from the Catholic University had adhered to the Washington Consensus, and moved away from heterodoxy in the same way Cardoso distanced himself from Dependency theory, and still remain essentially aligned with neoliberal policies to these days. Lara-Resende included, as we will see.

Note that he does say that the four pillars of the new macro are that money and taxes are connected, that the government has no financial constraint, but only a real (capacity) constraint, that money is endogenous (the central bank sets the interest rate), and that the Domar rule holds and stability of debt-to-GDP ratios require the interest rate to be lower than the rate of growth. He also says inflation is all about expectations, and the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) does not hold, something he had already said in his previous op-ed. Many (too many) interpreted this as being Chartalist Money, Functional Finance and Endogenous Money and as such as a version of MMT. Including some analysts in Brazil, with whom I fully agree on their critiques of Lara-Resende's policy conclusions, like the sharp critique by Guilherme Haluska here (also in Portuguese). Note, however, in my previous post on him, that he thought that the FTPL was an heterodox view of the macroeconomy, and he is explicit in his new op-ed that his ideas follow from his last book, in which he defends the FTPL.

In his book what he refers to "heterodox" is the experience with alternative monetary policies after the 2008 crisis, meaning Quantitative Easing, simply because it does not follow the QTM. In his words, from the 2017 book: “The result of the heterodox policies of the central banks in advanced economies, after the financial crisis of 2008, raised serious doubts about some fundamental points of the foundations of macroeconomic theory" or in the original if you don't trust me as a translator (I don't): "O resultado da experiência heterodoxa dos Bancos Centrais dos países avançados, depois da crise financeira de 2008, levantou sérias dúvidas sobre alguns pontos fundamentais da teoria macroeconômica." He does say that one of the pillars of the new macro paradigm is in his 2017 book, but my guess is the ideas are essentially the same. He used the language of MMT, and cited Knapp and Lerner to promote the same neoliberal policies of the 1990s, and the same ideas he defended a couple of years ago using FTPL.

So it is clear that the pillars are essentially of some weird New Classical story of the FTPL, in which fiscal dominance is central to the argument, and there is endogenous money, because of the neo-Wicksellian twist in modern macro. Yes, the QTM does not hold, but it is the expectations about future inflation that matter, and those are tied, in Lara-Resende's views, to fiscal policy (or at least were two years ago). The argument is the fiscal dominance one, that monetary policy has to deal with the unsustainable debt, so inflation is a fiscal phenomenon, and fiscal adjustment is needed. He was and is for austerity! He does use an MMT rhetoric and cites Abba Lerner for sure (more on that below), and that's a testament of the current relevance of MMT and its role in shaping the Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez's progressive views (something positive as I noted in my last post).

His argument is that Brazil is on the wrong side of the Domar stability condition, and, hence, the debt-to-GDP ratio is increasing (in domestic currency), and that something has to be done about it. Not sure why. Note that I always say that in domestic currency there is no default, and one of my complaints about MMT is that they do not pay attention to debt in foreign currency (at some point Warren Mosler was against capital controls and for flexible exchange rates, since the former were not necessary and the latter would solve external problems). But Brazil is not borrowing in foreign currency, and is sitting on top of a mountain of foreign reserves (something like US$ 380 billion, last time I checked, someone correct me if I'm wrong). Then he argues that inflation is all caused by excess demand in the developmentalist period, the period from the 50s to the 80s. However it is unclear why that is still a problem, or why there was excess demand, if it wasn't as a result of fiscal policy.

Fiscal reform, and, in particular, the pension reform are needed not to raise revenue (here is an MMT theme), in his view. He suggests that the reasons are that the pension system is unfair, and that in Lerner's fashion [sic] tax cuts are needed to promote the reduction of bureaucracy and allow for the expansion of more effective private investment.* These should be complemented with trade liberalization, a lower interest rate with a digital currency (bitcoin?) and fiscal adjustment, because the State is "bloated, inefficient and patrimonialist" (in the original: "Estado inchado, ineficiente e patrimonialista").

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

* It's true that Brazil has relatively high levels of taxes, in comparison to developing countries, but the problem is not that they are high, per se, but instead that they are regressive.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

MMT and its Discontents: Again (Wonkish and Longish)

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been in the news again, and for good reasons. I actually had a post with the same title back in February of 2012, hence the again in the title. But now, with the irruption of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the political scene ,and with the discussion of a Green New Deal (discussed here 7 years ago) and the feasibility of higher taxes (here, also long ago, among the many on the topic) taking the center of the political debate, MMT has become trendy. The rise of democratic socialist ideas, since Bernie's 2016 campaign, has brought the fiscal feasibility or responsibility, in the more conservative terminology, of such progressive  plans into the center of economic policy debates. Also, the fact that Stephanie Kelton a prominent MMTer is an advisor to Bernie, has brought significantly more attention on their views.

I have discussed Modern Monetary Theory in this blog for years (going back to April 2011, when I first found use of the term, to the most recent earlier this year after Olivier Blanchard American Economic Association presidential address last January), and have known the main MMTers going back to at least the mid-1990s, when I was at the New School and working as research assistant to Wynne Godley at the Levy Institute. I guess, I can be seen, to use the term employed by Doug Henwood in his recent Jacobin piece, as a fellow traveller (like Jamie Galbraith), even though I've been critical of some aspects, in particular when applied to developing countries (more on both Henwood and MMT issues in developing countries below).

There are many critiques, which deal with both theoretical issues, mostly concerned with the Functional Finance aspects of MMT, and with the policy and political effects of MMT advising to the left of center Democratic presidential candidates. Note that I will not try to define MMT precisely, since it is a hybrid of economic theories and policy proposals. I would assume that at core it is composed by the ideas of Chartalist and Endogenous Monetary views, Functional Finance, and an Employer of Last Resort (ELR) program as suggested by Greg Hannsgen in his recent presentation at the Eastern Economic Association (EEA), in sessions we co-organized (with the presence of Randy Wray presenting Stephanie Kelton's slides and Josh Mason; Stephanie was with Bernie at the rally in Brooklyn).

My comments will be, for the most part, directed at issues that fall within the Functional Finance part of MMT, and mostly about developed economies like the US (although, I'll have something to say about developing countries like Argentina or Brazil). I might add that Randy suggested that Functional Finance was a late addition to MMT, since this ideas were not known by MMTers in the mid-1990s or so. I think that the original source for the Functional Finance story was Ed Nell, who organized a conference at the New School back in 1997, I think, with Bob Eisner, and many other Old Keynesians. I had read Abba Lerner and Evsey Domar foundational papers in Ed's classes, and I think his influence on MMTers in this area is reasonable to assume.

Let me start with Paul Krugman's critiques of MMT, which have been clear and perhaps the most widely read (but there are many, including critiques by Tom Palley and Sergio Cesaratto here in the blog). So Krugman, in one of his most recent posts, starts by showing that there are many levels of the fiscal deficits that are compatible with full employment (not sure who thinks that this is wrong; I would add the same is true about the rate of interest, and that there is no natural or neutral rate of interest, a point that Keynes made back in the 1930s, and that is coherent with the capital debates, and, hopefully, it will be clear why this is relevant below). Then he argues more problematically, in my view, that crowding out is a serious concern, in his words: "The question then becomes one of tradeoffs: would the things the government could buy with a higher deficit be worth the lost private investment due to a higher interest rate?" But he knows well that the crowding out effect is empirically (if not theoretically) irrelevant, since investment is not particularly responsive to interest rates (he knows it's all about the accelerator); then he moves to the issue of the natural rate itself.

He seems to think two things (he can certainly correct me if I'm wrong). One, that MMT requires that you use monetary policy in order to achieve full employment. Two, that if you are in a situation of like the zero-lower bound, then the central bank cannot bring you back to full employment. That is, her assume that, using his own graph, the economy would be in position A.
Note that by his own argument you can go back to a point like B, with full employment by pursuing expansionary fiscal policy (be that an ELR or something else like traditional fiscal policy to expand infrastructure spending, for example; on this I should say that Randy suggested that he thinks traditional fiscal policy might be inflationary, and that's something perhaps would be compatible with Krugman; he noted how Minsky suggested that an ELR can be used as a buffer to control inflation). That is the IS would move up.

So it's unclear what the fuss is all about. If it is because the Fed could, in the MMT story (not sure Functional Finance authors would say that), print money to finance the deficits and bring the economy back to full employment, then the concern might be that it would be inflationary, in a Monetarist sense that printing money might be the cause of inflation. But that does not seem to be his preoccupation (I dealt with the issue of monetization of debt back in May 2011 in a reply to Krugman, who was back then, not surprisingly, criticizing MMT). His concern seems to be that the rate of interest would not go up. But of course, there could be a flat interest rate close to zero, a horizontal monetary policy (MP) line, and the expansion of the IS could be achieved bringing the economy to full employment (right below the C and B points with a zero interest rate).

But that doesn't seem to be the issue either. My guess is that he thinks that the problems is more like the one below, from an older post by him, in which the natural rate of interest is negative (my discussion of that here), and the Fed cannot lead the economy to full employment.

So his point is that the Fed cannot make it because it cannot bring the economy to the natural rate of interest, the one that is compatible with full employment and stable prices. He then goes on to criticize Stephanie on her critique of the natural rate, and tells us that: "So what purpose does claiming that the natural rate is a meaningless concept serve? It looks to me like sophistry – word games intended to confuse what should be a simple issue."

I'm not sure what Stephanie said about the natural rate, but I think it is well-established that the natural rate concept is problematic (note that on this some MMTers have said things I would disagree;  e.g. Forstater and Mosler suggest here that the natural rate of interest is zero; my discussion of that here). So I think the position that Krugman attributes to her is correct. Paul Samuelson would agree, as he did when he admitted that the capital debates had shown that neoclassical parables cannot hold (on the capital debates read this old post). So let me explain it briefly. There is no sophistry, just pure logic.

The capital debates show that with factor price reversals, when one good can be said to be capital-intensive at one level of the wage-profit ratio, and labor intensive at another level of the same ratio, there is no monotonic inverse relation between investment and the rate of interest. The investment schedule could look like the one below (my graph), with portions that have a negative slope and some in reverse, and if savings (determined by the level of income as in Keynes' principle of effective demand, rather than a Ramsey inter-temporal model) is given as in the graph below, then there might be no natural rate of interest. Keynes was explicit about that in the General Theory. That means that the monetary authority can set the rate of interest, what Keynes referred to as the normal rate, that was conventional, and that fiscal policy can be used to bring the economy to full employment. Btw, I think that overall Krugman and Kelton agree on that. Krugman says he's defending the theory, not the policy proposals, since he thinks they agree on that.
The point is NOT that the state can do whatever it wants, even though it has a lot of space, but that at the end of the day monetary policy is central for the ability to pursue fiscal policy, and the monetary authority can keep (unless it's forced by law not to do it; and that would bring up the discussion about the rise of the neoliberal idea of independent central banks) interest rates low enough to allow for fiscal expansion without debt growing at a very fast pace. Think of Marriner Eccles during the New Deal (chairman of the Fed at that time; search the blog for more on that). This is the argument that Josh Mason did, in a different way in our session with Randy at the Easterns. Note, also, that even though politically it was acceptable for the Fed to keep interest rates low, at 2.5 percent during the Depression and World War II, by the 1950s political pressures by financial markets and rentiers forced the Fed-Treasury Accord, and things changed (even though rates remained relatively low).

I'll comment briefly on two additional critiques of MMT, the one by Larry Summers, the ex-Treasury Secretary and advisor to the Clintons and Obama, and the one by Doug Henwood, an influential Marxist (see my discussion of his comments, and others, on Marx for the New York Times here), and writer of a very good book on Wall Street. I am sorry to say that both have too many arguments of authority and ad hominem attacks on some MMT authors, which I'm not interested in discussing. But there are a few substantive issues. One is the danger of inflation (that I'm glad Krugman seemed less keen on) and the others are on MMT and developing countries, and the political relevance and practicality of MMT proposals (here most critics have in mind the Bernie/Ocasio agenda of Medicare for all, cheap or free college tuition in public institutions, a jobs guarantee, and a Green New Deal).

I'll start with Henwood. His major issue is inflation, I would say. He says: "That brings us to the next problem: inflation. When the printing presses run freely, it’s not only reactionaries who think that runs the risk of spiraling prices. As I was researching this piece, many people to whom I described MMT, from Democrats to Marxists, brought it up as a worry. MMTers are coy about the topic — they never say how much is too much, and they profess great confidence in their ability to control it." Let me start by saying that inflation has not been a problem in 40 years, while wage stagnation is a central one. But if one is concerned about it, at least one should get the correct analytical tools to discuss it.

He tells us that: "The standard view of the Weimer inflation is that the German economy, severely damaged by World War I and forced to make huge reparations payments to the victors, wasn’t up to the task — it just didn’t have the productive capacity, and its citizens were both unwilling and unable to pay the necessary taxes. So instead the government just printed money and spent it, not only to pay its own bills, but to support bank lending to the private sector." First, that's NOT the standard view of the hyperinflation in Germany. You can read here the standard story, and I cite even a conservative historian like Niall Ferguson admitting that the monetarist story embraced by Henwood is NOT the dominant view among historians. The notion that the economy was at full capacity (didn't have productive capacity) and that printing money caused inflation is what Cagan thought about it. A more refined and somewhat structural story is the dominant view actually. In my view, it is clear that debt in foreign currency (not domestic), and, hence, the external problems of the current account, that forced depreciation, together with wage resistance are at the core of the hyper., German and many others.

In addition, it's worth emphasizing that the US is not Weimar Germany, in the sense that even with much larger fiscal deficits, debt would still be in domestic currency, and no significant pressure for depreciation would arise. The role of the dollar as reserve currency is not really under significant jeopardy. Certainly, there might be questions of inflation if we reach full employment, and that's a different issue (I'll come back to the topic below when I discuss Summers and the political feasibility of MMT sponsored plans). But the kind of alarmism of even suggesting that the US would be on the verge of hyperinflation is not serious. I won't comment on other primary mistakes like the notion that the rise of Nazism is associated to the hyper, when it is clearly connected to the Depression and deflation a decade later.

Henwood is on firmer ground, actually, when he discusses the external limits. Yes, indeed, for most developing countries like Argentina or Brazil, the ability to pursue expansionary fiscal policy is severely limited by the balance of payments constraint. Considerably before full employment, the patterns of consumption and investment may require too many imports, particularly of intermediary and capital goods, and even with capital controls, interest rates might be hiked to avoid capital flight and depreciation. Depreciation does solve the external problem, often by throwing the economy in a recession, and not because it stimulates exports. There is extensive discussion of that in the blog about it. Sometimes MMTers sounded like New Developmentalists in Latin American suggesting that depreciation would solve the external constraint and that capital controls were not even necessary. I don't think Randy believes that (or Stephanie), but it was certainly something that Warren Mosler believed in the past (whether he changed his mind I can't tell). But again the debate seems to be about the feasibility of MMT in the US (that's why I didn't emphasize in my comments on the roundtable the differences of debt in domestic and foreign currency, something I always do, as noted by Josh).

So that leads me to the last critique, the one by Larry Summers in his recent piece in WAPO. Summers says that: "Modern monetary theory... is the supply-side economics of our time" and that "these new ideas [about the importance of fiscal deficits] are being oversimplified and exaggerated by fringe economists who hold them out as offering the proverbial free lunch: the ability of the government to spend more without imposing any burden on anyone." He also says in Monetarist fashion that printing money would lead to hyperinflation. In his words: "As the experience of any number of emerging markets demonstrates, past a certain point, this approach leads to hyperinflation. Indeed, in emerging markets that have practiced modern monetary theory, situations could arise where people could buy two drinks at bars at once to avoid the hourly price increases. As with any tax, there is a limit to the amount of revenue that can be raised via such an inflation tax. If this limit is exceeded, hyperinflation will result." Again, emerging markets, like Germany, borrowed in foreign currency, that they cannot print. It was often the depreciation of the currency, the increase in the prices of imported goods, and the wage resistance of workers that led to hypers, and the central bank printed money afterwards, with money being endogenous. A foreign debt or external problem, not a fiscal one.

But there might be a danger of inflation (not hyper) if Bernie wins the election and manages to pass Medicare for all, free college, a Job Guarantee and actually spend some money on infrastructure, and to do something about global warming, without significant reshuffling of spending. Here is where I think the question of the supposed naïveté  of MMTers comes to play, with Henwood suggesting that they shirk the question of fiscal choices, and with Summers saying they resemble voodoo economics, the supply-side of the left (mind you supply-siders are many things, but certainly not naïve). I think, first of all, that the dangers of inflation are exaggerated, for several reasons. First, the labor market is not as tight as normally suggested. The number of people discouraged and out of the labor force is relatively large. Second, there are positive effects of growth on productivity (the Kaldor-Verdoorn effect, search on the blog too), so the supply constraint is not fixed, rigid at one given level (people said the natural rate of unemployment was 5 percent or higher just a few years back; again check past blog posts). Third, the bargaining power of unions, and workers in general, is not particularly strong, and it would take sometime to pick up.

More importantly, there is no chance that a Bernie presidency (and that's in and of itself a big if) would have both houses and could implement even a little bit of the program presented. Mind you if it happened we would probably get to full employment in a couple of years, and get increases in wages, and perhaps some inflation. But some inflation might be good, in particular if it allows for higher real wages, something sorely needed. How much inflation? Difficult to say, but the structure of the Fed is not going to vanish, and higher rates would be used to discipline the labor class, with the support of many neoliberal Dems. The limit will come probably before full employment and the capacity limit of the economy is reached (yes inflation happens before the capacity limit, because it's often cost push, and the sort of demand pull stuff Summers and Henwood are afraid about is not that common). In other words, the limits to fiscal expansion would be political, not economic, and there is no reason for the left to be up in arms against an imaginary enemy. Hyperinflation is like the the windmills for the Quijote. The giants to attack are actually the ones pointed out in the progressive agenda, like lack of spending on health, education and the environment, and MMTers have been instrumental in getting these ideas in the political discourse, and moving the Dems to the left.

But taxes matter too. Here is where the MMTers refusal to acknowledge that taxes on the wealthy are necessary is a political mistake (not all I've been told, but some for sure, as I've heard that criticism). Note that from the logical point of view they are not incorrect in suggesting that causality goes from spending to taxes, like it goes from investment to savings. It's implicit in the Keynesian/Kaleckian model in which autonomous spending (government spending is in there) determines income through a multiplier process. And taxes, like savings, grow with income. But it is important to note that politically (again this is not analytically, but politically) countries that went for a more ample Welfare State opted to tax their citizens, particularly their more wealthy citizens, at a higher rate. Tax increases on the wealthy should be (and are) part of the progressive agenda. It has an important distributive effect, and it makes the spending politically acceptable. At this juncture, however, even Blanchard says that we should just borrow, since interest rates are low, and will remain low.

The crucial point is that overall MMTers have been helpful in moving the Dems in the right direction (the right direction is to the left), and that is a good thing. The problem with Dems is not the existence of a few social democrats or socialists in their midst. In fact, even being generous there will probably be just three democratic socialists in the presidential primaries (Bernie, and, perhaps, Warren and Tulsi). The problem is the vast majority of neoliberals that still dominate the party. The same could be said about MMT. The problem is not the exaggerated propositions of MMTers, but the excessive fear of inflation when there are too many relevant problems to be concerned with.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Keynesian Economics: Back from the Dead

The Godley-Tobin Lecture by Bob Rowthorn, to be published by the Review of Keynesian Economics.

Rowthorn suggests that many Keynesian features are part of the mainstream now, in particular showing a stable Phillips Curve without a natural rate. I remain more skeptical about the return of Keynesianism within the mainstream, but worth listening to his thoughts.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Inequality and Stagnation by Policy Design

By Thomas Palley (guest blogger)

This paper argues the mainstream economics profession is threatened by theories of the financial crisis and ensuing stagnation that attribute those events to the policies recommended and justified by the profession. Such theories are existentially threatening to the dominant point of view. Consequently, mainstream economists resist engaging them as doing so would legitimize those theories. That resistance has contributed to blocking the politics and policies needed to address stagnation, thereby contributing to a political vacuum which is being filled by odious forces. Those ugly political consequences are unintended, but they are still there and show the dangerous consequences of the death of pluralism in economics. The critique of mainstream economists is not about “values” or lack of “change”: it is about academic practice that suppresses ideas which are existentially threatening.

Read rest here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Godley-Tobin Lecture - Friday 1st March11:30am - 12:45pm


Please note the change in date and venue. Bob Rowthorn's Godley-Tobin Lecture. titled “Keynesian Economics: Back from the Dead?” It will be Friday 1st March, in the Central Park West Room, at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel 11:30am - 12:45pm

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

On the unfolding coup in Venezuela

I recommend this video with an interview with Lucas Koerner that is in Caracas about the situation there on the Real News Network.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Still time to save the euro

Still time to save the euro
New book edited by Herr, Priewe and Watt. Free download at the website (both pdf and for e-reader). I've only seen it now, and have been reading the great chapter by Cesaratto and Zezza. But look forward to others by Uxó, Álvarez and Febrero, Priewe, Bibow, Dullien, Simonazzi, Celi and Guarascio,  and Bofinger to mention a few.

Read full book here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

On the crisis in Venezuela

I wrote a few entries over the last few years that might be useful to understand what is going on in Venezuela. This one from 2016, tries to explain how the crisis is related to an old problem, the dependence on oil exports and the balance of payments constraint. Venezuela can't manage to get beyond the oil dependence in the boom, since a sort of Dutch Disease sets in. One can certainly blame the Chavista governments for not breaking with that dependence, but in all fairness conservative governments also were unable to do it. In the period of a fall in international oil prices a crisis normally occurs (this one is probably already worse than the Caracazo).

Here for context the data on exports (note that about 90 percent of exports are basically oil, and those go mostly to the US that has refineries that specialize in the Venezuelan oil).
The numbers are from the World Bank Development Indicators up to 2016, and then I use the IMF estimates of growth (actually decline) from the World Economic Outlook database. So this is a brutal collapse, something the US government is doing, even at the price of some costs to local refineries, in order to promote regime change in Venezuela. Whatever your views on Maduro and the Chávez period, note that the US is fine with Saudi Arabia. Trump and Dems before too. And remember that Obama tightened the embargo as one of his last measures. Double standards are incredible, and difficult to defend.

Mind you with the collapse of exports and the fiscal capacity of the state, the economy collapsed too, and so did imports. The embargo makes imports of almost everything impossible and heightens the humanitarian crisis, and the refugee problem. It is somewhat hypocritical, to say the least, to complain about the humanitarian crisis and not acknowledging the US role and the embargo in causing it.

Note also, that in the absence of dollars, not only imports collapse, but payments on foreign denominated debt too. Hence, the close possibility of a complete financial meltdown. Not only default will take place, but scarcity of almost anything imported (including food essentials) and the rapid depreciation of the currency would lead to hyperinflation. If you want to understand external crisis in general read this entry, and for hyperinflation go to this one.

On the complex issues of democracy in Venezuela read this entry from 2017, and this one from 2018. For those that think that the current coup, or any coup including a military one would reduce violence (the opposite is more likely to happen) read this.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Unreal Basis of Neoclassical Economics

The Market Myth | Cadmus Journal


By Al Campbell, Ann Davis, David Fields, Paddy Quick, Jared Ragusett and Geoffrey Schneider

originally posted here

Introduction
Ten years after the financial crisis, we still find mainstream economists engaging in overly simplistic analysis that does not accurately capture the dynamics of the real world. People studying economics need to know that the principles of mainstream economics are hopelessly unrealistic. In this short article, we demonstrate that the ten principles of economics in Gregory Mankiw’s best-selling textbook are divorced from reality and reflect an extreme and unwarranted bias towards unregulated markets.[ii] Mankiw’s “Ten Principles of Economics” should more accurately be titled “Ten Principles of Unrealistic Neoclassical Theory.”

Mankiw’s Principle #1:  People Face Tradeoffs/There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Mankiw ignores the historical determination of the distribution of resources and the crucial distinction between those whose income comes almost entirely from the performance of labor and those whose income comes from their ownership of capital. As a result he is unable to recognize the political power that results from the concentration of wealth in the capitalist class, and to analyze the distributional impact of decisions in which those who gain are often significantly different from those who lose. In addition, history is full of accounts of forcible appropriation of resources that appeared to be “free” to those who acquired them.

Mankiw’s Principle #2:  The Cost of Something Is What You Give Up to Get It/Opportunity Cost
Insofar as individuals are able to make decisions, their choices can be described as “giving up” one opportunity in order to take up another. This tells us nothing about the determination of the choices that are available to them. The “choice” of a worker as to whether to take on a dangerous job or face eviction from a home requires a very different analysis than one suitable for a discussion of the choice between apples and oranges. On a different level, an analysis of the “trade-off” between income now and increased income in the future requires an understanding of ecological limits to the growth of material production.

Mankiw’s Principle #3:  Rational People Think at the Margin.
Neither consumers nor producers, nor humans in many other social roles, generally act on the margin. The assertion of marginal analysis that decisions must be such as to equate marginal benefit with marginal cost is simply a restatement of the first derivative condition resulting from maximization subject to a constraint, rather than a reflection of real human choice. Mainstream theory then defines behavior according to this mathematical construction even though it does not govern actual choice in the real world. But more important is the presumption that all decision-making is guided by the well-being of isolated individuals, and thus that “rationality” consists of behavior that maximizes the benefit of the individual decision–maker. This dismisses the fact that people are social animals whose decision-making recognizes the interaction between individuals, and it ignores how in the real world people make decisions considering their whole situation under possible alternatives, material restraints, imperfect information, their cognitive abilities, the existing power structures, and culture.

Mankiw’s Principle #4:  People Respond to Incentives.
This is tautological. Furthermore, models based on monetary incentives by selfish, isolated individuals and firms in perfectly competitive markets are unrealistic and ignore crucial real world issues. Monetary incentives are not all that matters. In the real world people make many decisions on the basis of their evaluation of the resulting well-being of many people beyond themselves, or on social and cultural norms.

Mankiw’s Principle #5:  Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off.
Trade can increase total production, but trade has distributional impacts, with winners and losers. Trade in modern capitalism tends to foster inequality while undermining wages and working conditions for many laborers. This principle promotes unregulated trade, but unregulated trade has not proven to be the best route to economic development, nor is it good for all people. In the real world, infant industries, immiserating growth, terms of trade shocks, and increasing inequality render this principle useless as a policy guide.

Mankiw’s Principle #6:  Markets Are Usually a Good Way to Organize Economic Activity.
As there are no measurable units by which one can classify all specific economic activities in the real world as “good” or not, principle #6 is nothing more than a neoclassical ideological declaration of faith. Markets are human creations that operate differently in various economic systems, and the various existing and potential economic systems themselves are human creations. The first real question then is if under an existing system private capitalist markets driven by the profit motive do better than possible alternative human creations for providing the good or service, potentially driven directly by the desire to meet specific human needs. Important examples providing evidence of the inferior performance (efficiency and effectivity) of private capitalist market-driven systems are well run social security systems and single-payer health care systems. Avoiding the error of accepting the system as given, a deeper question would be if under some different economic system, which was not built to favor capitalist accumulation, alternatives could outperform profit-driven markets operating in capitalist systems.

Mankiw’s Principle #7:  Governments Can Sometimes Improve Market Outcomes.
Behind this assertion is the idea that markets are natural and could run without any government intervention, and that such natural markets tend to be efficient but sometimes are not quite optimal. In those cases the efficiency of markets could be improved by government tweaks. To the contrary, in the real world all markets are created by governments, which both establish the rules of the game and enforce them, and thereby determine market outcomes. If the government passes laws requiring that food be safe, that changes the market for food, and yields different market outcomes than if those laws did not exist. With this understanding, principle #7 is reduced to the not very profound statement that because governments create markets, they have the ability to create them with better or worse outcomes. Further, the issue always ignored by neoclassical economics of social divisions is particularly important for considering “better market outcomes”: better for whom? Market rules are shaped by power structures to benefit some classes and other social groups more favorably than others (for example capitalists at the expense of workers, First World countries at the expense of Third World countries, etc.).

Mankiw’s Principle #8:  A Country’s Standard of Living Depends on Its Ability to Produce Goods and Services.
Higher GDP per capita does not necessarily result in a higher material standard of living for all people within, as well as between, countries. Furthermore, neoclassical economics operates with a definition of “standard of living” as the amount of goods and services consumed, so this principle reduces to the not quite tautological, but not very insightful, claim that the amount of goods and services consumed in a country depends on its ability to produce them. In the real world what people are concerned with is their quality of life, which includes social respect, power to act on one’s desires, conditions of work (and not just pay), social relations, and much more. Neoclassical economics does not address the extension of principle #8 to what people in the real world are actually concerned with, their quality of life, for which the goods and services produced are just one among many determinants.

Mankiw’s Principle #9:  Prices Rise When the Government Prints Too Much Money.
Since the neoclassical definition of “too much money” is the amount that makes prices rise, this is a tautology. In the real world the relationship between prices and the money supply is complex: expanding money might cause a jump in prices or it might cause no price increases at all, depending on many other things in the economy.  The applied policy transformation of this into the incorrect claim that “prices rise when the government prints more money” is an ideological artifice, used today to justify austerity policies and keeping wages low.

Mankiw’s Principle #10:  Society Faces a Short-Run Tradeoff between Inflation & Unemployment.
The relationship between inflation and unemployment is complex and does not follow a systematic pattern. By the 1970s data from the real world had caused textbooks to go from Phillips Curves to Shifting Phillips Curves to abandoning them entirely. In view of that experience, principle #10 of a short-term trade-off between inflation and unemployment has become a neoclassical ideological justification for challenging those who advocate policies that would reduce the rate of unemployment, by fostering fears of inflation that may never materialize.
In conclusion, Mankiw’s so-called “Ten Principles of Economics” ignore crucial realities of the economic world. In particular, Mankiw excludes power imbalances, inequality, social forces, development experiences, the realities of market behaviors, laws and outcomes, realistic measures of quality of life, and recent macroeconomic data from his principles. It is hard to imagine a less useful set of ideas to guide modern societies in designing a good economic system. Unfortunately, almost all other mainstream principles of economics textbooks parrot these same principles. Students of economics will have to look elsewhere for useful analysis of the economy and how to build a democratic economy and society that works for all.

References
Mankiw, Gregory. Principles of Economics, 7th Edition. Stamford, Connecticut: Cengage. 2015.

End-notes
[i] In a subsequent article, we will offer a set of principles of radical political economy to provide a more realistic, alternative approach.
[ii] The authors are members of the steering committee of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE). The ideas presented in this article are those of the authors and not of URPE. The purpose of this article is to make readers aware that there are alternatives to the principles of economics put forth by mainstream economists. We synthesize the critiques of mainstream economics by radical political economists in order to give students and teachers ammunition to confront the unrealistic paradigm of neoclassical economics that currently dominates the profession.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Functional Finance, MMT and Blanchard's Presidential Address

So Olivier Blanchard gave the AEA presidential address at the Atlanta meetings earlier this year. If you missed it you can watch it here. The paper is also here. In all fairness, there is nothing new there. He notes the famous rule by Evsey Domar about sustainability of public debt, meaning that if the rate of interest on debt is lower than the rate of growth, debt-to-GDP ratios tend to be stable and you are in no danger in pursuing active fiscal policies.

Note that functional finance is in many ways compatible with Old Neoclassical Synthesis Keynesianism, and it should not be a surprise that New Keynesians accept some of the same arguments. Certainly Domar was an Old Keynesian in that mold, and although he was more difficult to classify, Abba Lerner the founder of functional finance accepted many marginalist arguments.

Blanchard actually is quite conventional and argues that public debt has negative welfare effects and reduces growth (forget this, that the Industrial Revolution was done on a pile, a huge pile, of public debt). He is very clear that he's not in general in favor of more debt, but only under the current circumstances, in which the rate of growth would be above the risk free interest rate of government bonds (that he calls the safe rate) and the marginal efficiency of capital (which really means he thinks in terms of a natural rate, in Wicksellian fashion).

Yet, of course, pundits went crazy. A typical reaction is from Desmond Lachman, and ex-IMF economist (i.e. worked for Blanchard), and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in the Wall-Street Journal. Two things, one he suggests that Blanchard is a defender of MMT, which is a stretch. MMT involves more than functional finance, like a notion of endogenous and chartal money, and a policy preoccupation with full employment, often embodied in an Employer of Last Resort (ELR) proposal (that's a non exhaustive list). The second issue is that his whole argument is that the rate of interest will go up soon (as a result, presumably of foreign bond holders; in his words: "It’s more likely that investors, particularly from overseas, will demand higher government bond yields to compensate for the elevated inflation or default risk they see from an ever-increasing public debt ratio"). In other words, the foreign crowding-out of the old Mundell-Fleming model.

Of course, the are many problems with this arguments. The Fed has considerably more room than other central banks, and US bonds play a special role in the global economy. The dollar has been relatively appreciated, even with very low rates of interest, and the notion that something has to be done, even with some depreciation, is bogus. Depreciation is neither inflationary, nor contractionary in the US, in contrast to developing countries. The chances of higher inflation, are also subdued, even with the current long, but slow, recovery with low official unemployment. But it says something that there is all this crazy reaction about a very modest defense of fiscal expansion (note also that after Bernie, and AOC, MMT has become synonymous with fiscal expansionism, in ways that Keynesianism was before; naked Keynesianism, you might argue).

PS: If you are interested on the effects of monetization of public debt read this old post that replied to Krugman (who has warmed up to some functional finance/MMT ideas).

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A global macroeconomics – yes, macroeconomics, dammit – of inequality and income distribution

Below the text of the first Godley-Tobin Lecture by James K. Galbraith.

According to an approximate count, there are 848 sub-categories in the classification codes of the Journal of Economic Literature. Of these, five relate to income inequality. Two are classed under Microeconomics: D31 ‘Personal Income, Wealth and Their Distribution’ and D33 ‘Factor Income Distribution.’ Two are classed under ‘Health, Education and Welfare’: I14 ‘Health and Inequality’ and I24 ‘Education and Inequality.’ One is classed under Labor: J31 ‘Wage Level and Structure/Wage Differentials.’

Under Macroeconomics there is nothing, unless you count E25 ‘Aggregate Factor Income Distribution,’ which surely means the analysis of factor shares – Wages, Profits, Rent – also known as the functional distribution. Under International Economics there is no reference to inequality at all. Nor under Development Economics. Simon Kuznets, whose immortal 1955 presidential lecture predates – I believe – the JEL classification scheme, is spinning in his grave.

So if your interest is in the global macroeconomics of inequality – in the personal or household distribution or pay structures considered over time and across continents and countries, you are what is known in the technical literature as shit-out-of-luck. From a formal standpoint. So far as the American Economic Association is concerned, affecting the structure of journals and the assignment of referees, you have nowhere to publish, no place to go. It is, therefore, nice to be here.

Read rest here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Trade and Finance

Teaching a course on international economics (trade and finance) for international relations students. More on that later. Just wanted to post the exports to GDP ratio for the world.
This is to give students a sense of the increase in trade in the last few decades, and also the relative stagnation since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Note that while exports are about US$ 23 trillion in a year, the daily turnover in the foreign exchange market is about US$ 5 trillion, according to the last time I checked the BIS Report.

I put the US recessions bars too. Note that it seems that US recessions always have a significant impact on the expansion of world exports.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Heterodox Journals and Impact Factors


I blogged about journal rankings a while ago. As I said back then, journal rankings matter in decisions about grants and academic promotions, and there are biases against heterodox journals. So even if there are many problems with those measures (read previous post), they are still relevant. The Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE), founded by Tom Palley, Louis-Philippe Rochon (now at ROPE) and myself, has now an impact factor of 0.738 in last year’s Clarivate Report (Thomson-Reuters citation index, previously known as the Science-Social Science Citation Index, SSCI), up from 0.515 in the 2015 report.

For comparison, well-established heterodox journals were somewhat below, with the Review of Radical Political Economics scoring 0.377 and 0.579 in the same reports, and the Journal of Economic Issues scoring 0.573 and 0.580. The Cambridge Economic Journal, and Metroeconomica also improved and went from 1.311 to 2.070, and from 0.984 to 1.379. Many good heterodox journals are not even indexed.

On the topic of the importance of rankings for tenure you might want to read Heckman and Moktan's paper "The Tyranny of the Top Five Journals."

Monday, January 7, 2019

Raúl Prebish’s Unpublished Manuscripts on the Buenos Aires Lectures on Economic Dynamics


By Esteban Pérez Caldentey

Raúl Prebish’s Unpublished Manuscripts on the Buenos Aires Lectures on Economic Dynamics edited by Esteban Pérez Caldentey (ECLAC) and Matías Vernengo (Bucknell University), have been published in the ECLAC Review, August 2018

Raúl Prebisch (1901–1986), the Second Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) which he joined in 1949 is mostly known for his long-run analysis and diagnostic of the development problem of Latin America, which he fully stated in “The economic development of Latin America and some of its principal problems” (1950), also known as Prebisch’s “Manifesto”.

However, prior to joining ECLAC Prebisch also devoted a great part of his time and career the analysis of business cycles in theory and in practice (he was the first Director General of the central bank of Argentina created in 1935 and Prebisch himself drafted the project for the bank). On the basis of his cycle analysis he began to develop a theory of dynamics which sought to introduce two elements that, according to Prebisch, were missing from the Classical and Keynesian analyses, time and space.

Prebisch argued that capitalist economies evolved and developed in growth cycles. From 1920 to 1944 his analyses of capitalism centered on Argentina and on the characteristics of its business cycle. He attributed the phases of the Argentinean cycle to external causes determined to a large extent by the policy and economic performance in developed countries (Great Britain and the United States).

Read rest here.

Link to CEPAL Review here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The three caballeros: on populism and the economy

Cartoonish figures... and Disney toons too

With the incoming inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the United States and the two largest countries in the Latin American region will have what the press has more or less universally and uncritically referred to as populist leaders in power. It has been very common in the press to compare Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as right and left-wing populists. And although the term has not been applied as often to Bolsonaro, comparisons with Trump abound. Yet, while they do share certain characteristics, I would argue that populism is not one of them. The comparisons that make them all similar are at the end of the day caricatures.

Admittedly populism is a complicated and somewhat fuzzy term. It has a complicated history, and many in the developed world associate it with the old agrarian movements in Russia and the US, and can be seen as somewhat progressive. Alternatively, in Latin America it has been more often than not associated with the rise of Peronism in Argentina, and the affinities with Italian corporatist and fascist ideologies leads many to see it as somewhat reactionary movement.

The economic definition of populism, or what Dornbusch and Edwards called macroeconomic populism, is even more problematic. They basically suggested that running fiscal deficits would fit the bill. That makes the list of possible populist leaders almost all encompassing, and devoid of any relevance. I won't try to solve the question of what a good definition of populism is, but I'll try to explain why to emphasize the similarities between the three might not be completely accurate, and might distort understanding of what to expect ahead. Mind you, on some level, one expects that populism should deliver something for the people and should be the opposite of oligarchic regimes.

Trump and Bolsonaro are clearly associated with conservative ideas while AMLO might be seen as a lefty (note, however, that according to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of General Cárdenas and an icon of the left in Mexico, that is not correct; see here, in Spanish). While Trump was brought to power by the votes in the Rust Belt (in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) dissatisfied with Free Trade policies that have affected the region, in Brazil and Mexico a fight against corruption (real or perceived) played a more important role (something stimulated by US interests in LA). In Brazil, during the Workers' Party (PT) administration income inequality decreased (and real wages went up). A mediatic-juridical coup brought down the government, and Bolsonaro represents the continuity with the coup. AMLO represents the dissatisfaction not just with the economic woes of Mexicans, but with the failures of democracy (including the return of PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party, after two governments of PAN, National Action Party).

In the case of Brazil, the formerly nationalist Bolsonaro has actually appointed an openly neoliberal Chicago Boy to the newly enlarged economic ministry. While Trump and AMLO are less keen on Free Trade, it is unclear that this would be central to Bolsonaro and the opposite might be true (Paulo Guedes, his economic minister seems to dislike MERCOSUL, but not free trade). Also, while Trump trade disputes with China can be seen as part of a reaction to the latter's challenge to American Hegemony, and both that and the increase in military spending might extend for a bit the slow recovery and the bubbleized American economy, the tax cuts and the resistance to any kind of expansion of social spending will imply that very little of the growth trickles down to the less privileged in American society. In the two LA giants, austerity will, most likely if they follow through with their fiscal plans, lead to slow growth. Worse, they will be unable to use the US/China conflict to gain advantage for national strategies of development, but for very different reasons. In Brazil because Bolsonaro (and his fanatic foreign affairs minister) suggest direct alignment with American interests. In Mexico, because the new UMSCA ties the hands of the government in many ways (something that AMLO seemed to welcome, or at least did not think he should fight it).

While Trump has at least promised an expansion of infrastructure spending (and the infamous wall of shutdown fame too), making him somewhat populist in Dornbusch's definition, both Bolsonaro and AMLO promise austerity and balanced budgets. While AMLO wants to raise  raised (h/t Guillermo Matamoros) the minimum wage, there is no indication that Trump or Bolsonaro think a minimum wage should even exist.

Trump for all his anti-establishment rhetoric is no threat to the American oligarchy (Pence is in the pocket of the Koch brothers, if anything else needs to be said). I had suggested a while ago that with Bolsonaro Brazil could follow the path of Mexico or of 19th century Brazil, "an oligarchic state... in which the rents of a relatively stagnant... economy were distributed among a few powerful families, while the vast majority was left out." At least AMLO is trying to break with Mexican oligarchic traditions. It might not be enough. Happy old year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A primer on the economics of immigration: a surplus approach perspective

This is definitely not my topic of research. So you may very well ask why would I venture to wrote about it, beyond the obvious reason that it is probably one of the most debated issues these days in the US, with the government shutdown being related to the now infamous wall. I am myself twice an immigrant, I descend from immigrants (my parents returned to their country of origin, but had emigrated, and on my mother side my grandfather was also an immigrant, and the same goes on my father's side a few generations before), I might add. But that is not the whole, or the most relevant, reason.

Most debates about immigration center on labor market issues, and discuss the issue analytically with the tools of marginalism. The conclusions, by definition, are the logical consequence of the assumptions in that model, and the reading of the evidence is biased by those theoretical concepts. Here is a place were the capital debates (go read this very old post) might be important for a policy issue that is in the news constantly and that should concern economists. Being in favor of a return to the old and forgotten method of classical political economy, or the surplus approach, and not having seen any discussion of the issue along those lines is what led me to write this brief post.

Let me start with a very simple representation of the conventional argument. In the conventional story, you have a market for factors of production (labor in this case), and equilibrium is obtained when the marginal productivity of labor equals the marginal disutility of labor, where firms maximizing profits and individual workers maximizing utility find the optimal solution, shown in point C in the figure below (with variables with their traditional meanings; note I use N for labor, since I leave L, for liquidity; yep, I still teach the ISLM with that pesky L in there).


In this case, the effects of immigration are relatively simple to understand. Mainstream economics suggests that immigrants would add to the labor force, increase the labor supply, reduce the real wage, and lead to firms hiring more workers and increasing production. Output and employment should go up, while real wages would go down. The effect on the wage bill (W/p * N) depends on certain assumptions, but certainly native workers lose to the extent that their real wages go down. Hence, a backlash against immigration by working class native groups should be expected.

This simple analysis abstracts lots of things, of course. Differences in the quality (skills) of workers, and immigrants, and what would happen in the presence of capital mobility (with profits going up, with lower real wages, and capital mobility, then new factories should move into the country to take advantage of lower wages and increase the demand for labor, eliminating any initial effects on real wages). A lot of the academic debate has been based on arguments along these lines (see, for example, the Card and Borjas debate on the effects of the Marielitos Cuban immigrants in Miami real wages in this nice Vox post). Note, also, that the evidence suggests that the effects of immigration on real wages of unskilled workers are relatively small (if you believe Card).

In this view, then, there are some acceptable reasons for workers to be concerned with immigration. Note that this says nothing about fiscal issues, which many conservatives also use against immigration, suggesting incorrectly that they do not pay taxes (they certainly pay sales taxes, and other local taxes, and given the low incomes of most unskilled workers, would not qualify for income tax anyway), and take advantage of public goods. However, there are many analytical problems with the assumptions of the model above.

Note that the basis of the marginalist (or neoclassical) model presented above is the principle of substitution. In other words, as labor becomes cheaper than capital, that is by assumption fully utilized, then firms hire more labor. So the lower wages guarantee the full utilization of labor. The intensity of labor increases as its remuneration falls, and the price of labor, as any other price in marginalist theories (Austrian too, although they sometimes confuse this) reflects the relative scarcity of the factor of production. Note that for classical political economy authors (including Adam Smith) real wages resulted from historical and institutional factors, and supply and demand were only one of the factors affecting them. Under the conditions they analyzed the economies of their time they assumed that real wages were essentially at subsistence level.

The capital debates become relevant because they essentially show that the substitution principle has logical problems, and they open the possibility to a return of the sort of historical and institutional analysis of the labor market of classical political economics. I will not discuss the whole issue here again (check that post linked above), but the essence of the argument is that sometimes when real wages go down instead of leading to firms hiring more workers, the opposite might occur. Think of a situation in which real wages fall, and as a result, there is less demand for the goods produced by the firm. Perhaps the firms goods are bought by workers themselves.  Even though labor is cheaper, there is no reason for the firm to hire more workers if they cannot sell their goods, and the income effect overwhelms the substitution effect (the capital debates suggest that the substitution effect may go in the wrong direction, on top of that). That's essentially what Keynes said on chapter 19 of the General Theory (in chapter 2 he basically accepts the marginalist demand curve above, which is problematic, and shows the limitations of the supply curve; my paper on reading Keynes after Sraffa, the key author of the capital controversy, here).

The point is that it cannot be guaranteed that immigration would lead to a reduction of real wages, at least not on the basis of the logic of the model above. The actual result is ambiguous. Classical political economy provides an alternative framework to look at the labor market effects of immigration. It is clear that an increase of the labor supply might affect negatively the bargaining power of the established workers. But note that this is not always necessarily the case. Arguably, in the case of many immigrants in the so-called first globalization (late 19th to early 20th century), in which significant amounts of Socialists and Anarchists from Eastern and Southern Europe came to the US (and other parts of the Americas), the effect was to raise the class consciousness and the combativeness of the working class, helping strengthen some unions.

And the reverse is true, a country that experiences emigration might actually lose key workers, and unionization rates might decrease. In the last 30 years or so, the US has experienced an increase in the population of immigrants, many came from Mexico of course, and yet both countries have experienced a decrease in unionization rates (see here for Mexico). This suggests that other forces are in action, and that wage stagnation might be related to those policies, and not just, or not even fundamentally, as a result of the flows of workers from one country to the other.

Note also that classical political economy authors assumed that output was given in their discussion of distribution, and that separation of the theories of output and employment (dominated by Ricardian Say's Law, that was not a necessary feature of classical thinking, and that can be superseded by the Keynesian Principle of Effective Demand) allows us to understand other aspects of immigration. In other words, the level of output and employment would depend on autonomous spending (demand), and immigrants can easily be accommodated in society without displacing the native workers. Of course that would depend to a great extent on the government macroeconomic policies (not just fiscal and monetary policy, but also the setting of minimum wages, industrial and trade policy and so on).

In this view, it is less the effects of immigration on the labor market (along neoclassical lines of reducing real wages and increasing employment) that matter. It has been the policies that actually led to lower growth, lower union participation, trade policies that favored the loss of manufacturing jobs that have created the conditions for real wage stagnation. In that sense, it is those policies that are responsible for the backlash against immigrants among large groups of resident (native) workers, that could be exploited politically by right-wing populists, often with fascistic and authoritarian tendencies (not just in the US). Immigrants are actually escaping from similar neoliberal policies in their countries of origin.

And all of these points are just about the most direct economic consequences of immigration. There are other issues that are as relevant beyond economics. And it goes without saying that both immigrants and refugees (in particular those that result from US direct or indirect intervention abroad) deserve humane treatment, even if the conventional mainstream story was correct and immigration did cause inequality.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Galbraith versus Piketty on Inequality

A new paper by James k. Galbraith has been published in Development & Change. It's along the lines of his arguments in the Godley-Tobin Lecture delivered earlier this year, and to be published in the Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE) in January. Basically, we need a macro story for inequality (which Piketty r-g framework tries, but ultimately fail to provide) and that the payroll data that Galbraith uses provides a more accurate measure of inequality than the tax records favored by Piketty and his co-authors.

From the abstract:
This article reviews the World Inequality Report 2018, a large collaborative data project based on the work of Thomas Piketty and the late Anthony Atkinson, which critiques the entire literature of inequality measurement from survey data and purports to provide superior, unprecedented and reliable coverage of income and wealth inequalities over the entire world, based primarily on tax records. The article examines three major issues: the coverage provided by tax data in the world economy, the consistency of tax data with other sources of information on income inequality, and the peculiarities of tax‐based measurement of inequality in the United States. Then a comparison is made with measures drawn from other forms of administrative data — specifically payroll records — which are generally more consistent with records of inequality measured in household surveys than are tax records. Following this, the article discusses the analysis of wealth and wealth inequality before offering a few closing remarks about policy.
Read full paper here

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Financialization and the low burden of public debt

Financialization is a fuzzy concept. There are many definitions, and none is clear cut, at least to characterize the changes of the last 40 years or so, which is the period most authors associate with financialization. I'm not suggesting it's not a useful concept though.* In some sense, financialization refers to the last phase in the capitalist system (even if there are ways in which one might argue that capitalism was always financialized).
At any rate, going to the point I wanted to make, the financial burden of public debt went down in the 2000s, but that is not necessarily a good sign. I was trying to check the financial burden of public debt (i.e. the total spending on interests, out of total current spending) in the United States. The figure above shows that the financialization (ha, another possible definition) of the budget started with the Volcker shock, and ended more or less with the collapse of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s.

The hike in interest rates in the late 1970s increased the financial burden of public debt, and with the lower output growth -- associated not just to higher interest rates and its effects on consumption, but also higher unemployment and lower wages which additionally impacted private demand -- debt dynamics was on the unstable side of the Domar rule (r > g) and public debt increased significantly in a peaceful period that was for the most part prosperous.

Public debt normally increased in periods of crises or of external threats (wars). In other words, public debt was an instrument for the preservation of society for the most part. There was also an agreement that public debt was a necessary instrument for the accumulation of capital, and it provided a secure asset for the functioning of the financial system. Btw, that was a point that was contentious, and not everybody accepted the Hamiltonian notion that public debt could be, to some degree, a blessing. Think of Andrew Jackson's payment of debt, and the various modern Cassandras afraid about the debt burden on future generations.

The rise of public debt since the 1980s (with the minor decrease in the late 90s) has served a very different purpose. While part of it can be seen as the reaffirmation of American Hegemony, with the increased military spending of the Reagan years (still low if compared to the heights of war, hot or cold), much of it was the result of lower taxes for the wealthy. The accumulation of debt was, like the hike in interest, necessary to discipline the labor class and control inflation.

In part, the result of that perverse use of public debt accumulation is that private agents have ramped up private debt in order to compensate for income stagnation. Think about college kids accumulating more debt to compensate the reduced public support for public universities. That of course goes hand in hand with the fact that most booms now are associated with some bubble (stock market, dot-com, housing, etc), or in the absence of a bubble we end up with a moderate lack luster recovery (the last decade), and what is confusedly described as 'secular stagnation.' The flip side is that the low burden of debt on this side of the 2000s, is not benign like the one from the 1950s to the 1970s, which was closer to what Keynes' notion of the euthanasia of the rentier.

It reflects the needs of the economy to maintain private debt under control in a relatively unstable economy. Something that is still necessary to the extent that labor is still very much being disciplined by macro and micro policies that keep wages under control.

* For a relatively recent discussion of the meaning of financialization and its relevance see Epstein (2015) here, and for an older discussion see Palley (2007) here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Middle Income Trap or the Return of US Hegemony


Short essay in Spanish for the special (40 year anniversary of the journal Coyuntura y Desarrollo, published by the Fundación de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo, FIDE). It is essentially a critique of the concept of middle-income trap and the idea of how the demographic transitions (discussed here before) affect the process of development. It suggests that the deindustrialization of the Latin American periphery results as much from the decisions in the hegemonic country to open up China, as from the decisions of the local elites to adopt neoliberal policies to punish its labor class. It is also noted that the deindustrialization of the central countries (particularly the US) should be taken with a certain degree of skepticism (see this old post), since manufacturing output went up (even if manufacturing employment has gone down, at least since the entry of China in the WTO), and the US maintains a significant leadership in key industrial sectors (let alone the military; see also this more recent post).

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Garegnani on Sraffa and Marx, with an intro by Petri


The Review of Political Economy has done a great service to those interested in political economy, and in particular those concerned with the revival of the surplus approach. It has published the manuscript of Pierangelo Garegnani's unpublished paper.

From Fabio Petri's introduction:
In the last year of his life, Pierangelo Garegnani (1930–2011) worked on revising a paper on Marx’s labour theory of value drafted 30 years before, which had remained unpublished. This revised paper is what is reproduced below. 
The paper had been read at a 1980 Conference on Marx in Bielefeld, Germany. It was a new version, in English, of the paper ‘La teoria del valore: Marx e la tradizione marxista’, published, together with an early Italian version of Garegnani (1984) as well as some other material, in Garegnani’s Marx e gli economisti classici (1981: pp. 55–90); the project had originated in a series of articles published in the Italian weekly Rinascita in 1978 and 1979. In the opening page of an essay on ‘The Labour Theory of Value: ‘Detour’ or Technical Advance?’, Garegnani (1991: pp. 97 and 113, endnote 4) announced the present work as forthcoming, but in fact the paper did not go to print. In September 2010 Garegnani resumed working on the paper, to add to it a further Section IX concerning more recent discussions on Marx and the labour theory of value. He intended to co-author this additional Section with me, and it is from the ensuing collaboration that I have obtained the typescript of the Bielefeld paper, dated 1981, titled ‘The Labour Theory of Value in Marx and in the Marxist Tradition.’ On why this 1981 paper was still unpublished 10 years later, what went wrong with its publication in 1991, and why then the paper remained dormant for nearly 20 more years, Garegnani supplied little information. About these questions one can only wait for when an examination of his papers and correspondence – a vast task yet to be commenced – will possibly allow for a well-founded historical reconstruction of his choices. 
Unfortunately Garegnani passed away in October 2011, before a draft of the additional Section IX could be achieved (see Petri [2015] for further details). But in that last year he also worked on revising the Bielefeld paper, that is the first eight sections of the intended new paper. The result of the revision is presented here. Although not a final version ratified by the author, it is a fully autonomous paper, and quite definitive: the draft contains no incomplete sentences or notes by Garegnani indicating that certain points might need further work. Relative to the 1981 version, it contains additional observations and stylistic improvements, but no changes in the basic arguments. 
The aim and contents of the paper were summarized at some length by Garegnani himself when announcing it in the opening page of the 1991 essay. In that summary, which can now be read as an introduction to the arguments contained in the paper here submitted to the public, Garegnani (1991: p. 97) stresses that the paper is devoted to further confirming the thesis, advanced in Garegnani (1984), that the role of the labour theory of value in the classical approach and in Marx was the ‘technical’ one of providing a ‘measurement independent of distribution, of product, wages and means of production,’ thus allowing a determination of the rate of profits as the ratio of net social product to capital advances, surmounting, in the only – albeit imperfect – way concretely available at the time, the (apparent) vicious circle of a rate of profits dependent on relative prices in turn dependent on the rate of profits. With particular regard to Marx, Garegnani explains, the confirmation is achieved by showing that the traditional interpretations that attribute other roles to the labour theory of value ‘have little foundation in Marx’s own work. This applies in particular to the readings often made of some characteristic concepts of Marx, like his distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘apparent’ relations of the bourgeois system, the distinction between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ labour, the representation of the wage as ‘value of labour power’, or the sense in which Marx refers to labour exploitation – a sense which, as he explicitly states, has little if anything to do with the labour theory of value.’ These interpretations ‘have indeed made it difficult to comprehend a large part of Marx’s theoretical work’. No attempt at diplomacy here! The published 1991 essay is then presented as an appendix to that still unpublished paper, defending the latter’s arguments against the views on Marx’s labour theory of value expressed by Samuelson, Baumol, Myrdal, Meek, Morishima, and Sen. 
There remains to indicate why publishing this paper today is deemed important. The main reason is that Garegnani’s understanding of the role of the labour theory of value in Marx (and of the correct reading of those ‘characteristic concepts of Marx’) appears to be scarcely known outside Italy [1], a fact that has helped the frequent placement of his overall approach in the ranks of an allegedly anti-Marx ‘Sraffian school’. This reaction is hardly surprising in the light of the substantial diversity of Garegnani’s theses from the long-dominant ones. So dominant was the tradition attributing to the labour theory of value indispensable roles other than the one indicated by Garegnani – for example, the role of proving labour exploitation – that it is not difficult to understand that the spontaneous reaction of scholars steeped in the traditional interpretation may have been one of skepticism, if not of hostility, toward a view which, by claiming that nothing is lost by replacing the labour theory of value with Sraffa’s equations, seemed to reject fundamental elements of Marx’s assessment of the nature of the capital–labour relation. The absence of a detailed exposition in English of the arguments Garegnani supplies in support of his views has made it difficult to give those arguments the attentive consideration warranted by the recognized depth of thought of the author. The publication of the present paper aims at making such adequate consideration possible [2]. 
The criticism, in the last sections of the paper, of two Italian scholars absent from recent debates does not seem to be outdated either, because views similar to those they expressed are still present today. The near identification one finds in Lucio Colletti’s (1924–2001) writings of the concepts of fetishism, alienation, and abstract labour continues the long (and still alive) tradition stressing the ‘qualitative’ roles of Marx’s labour theory of value, and has been influential outside Italy too (see, for example, Foley 1982: p. 46, fn. 5). The argument put forward by Claudio Napoleoni (1924–1988), that outside the labour theory of value one cannot view profits as the fruit of exploitation [3], is representative of a widely shared view that helps us to understand the reluctance of many Marxists to replace the labour theory of value with the correct analysis of prices as provided by Sraffa. 
Independently of how convincing it will be found, this paper questions the idea of a so-called ‘Sraffian school’ antithetical to Marx. Leaving aside the analytical and even philological legitimacy of referring to Sraffa’s work and its later developments as any new particular ‘school’ distinct from the modern reappraisal of the classical approach to value and distribution, the paper shows that no such counterposition is applicable to a scholar highly representative of that line of thought, in whose view Marx’s overall approach actually turns out to be strenghtened, rather than challenged, by the correct determination of rate of profits and prices achieved with Sraffa.
Notes
[1] The publication in 1985 of a French version of the Bielefeld paper (Garegnani 1985), also containing a short appendix criticizing Rowthorn (1974), does not seem to have been widely noticed: I have found it cited in only one (unpublished) paper concerned with Marx’s theory of value, Chattopadhyay (2000).

[2] And at supplying at last the needed background to the 1991 essay.

[3] Napoleoni’s argument is available in English in Napoleoni (1991). Garegnani does not cite this article, presumably because of the little time he had to work on the last three Sections, which have remained almost unchanged from the 1981 version.
Most of these issues were briefly tackled in this old post.  Read paper by Garegnani here.

H/T to Franklin Serrano and Sergio Cesaratto for bringing the paper to my attention.

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