Monday, September 16, 2019

New Book on Roy Harrod

Esteban Pérez Caldentey has just published a new book on Roy Harrod for the collection edited by Anthony Thirlwall. From the description:
This landmark book describes and analyzes the original contributions Sir Roy Harrod made to fields including microeconomics, macroeconomics, international trade and finance, growth theory, trade cycle analysis and economic methodology. Harrod’s prolific writings reflect an astounding and unique intellectual capacity, and a wide range of interests. He became Keynes´ biographer and wrote a volume on inductive logic. At the policy level, Harrod played a central role in the formulation of the Keynes´ Clearing Union plan for international monetary reform. He also actively participated in British politics and government and gained recognition as an expert in the field of international economics. Yet, until now, Harrod has remained an underrated economist, commonly misunderstood and misrepresented. This is the first major intellectual biography of Harrod to be published.
For more and to buy it go here

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Some brief thoughts on Argentina's ongoing crisis and the IMF's role in it

Argentina's peso depreciated significantly after the primary elections last month, with the clear victory of the opposition. The crisis has come full circle now with the re-imposition of capital controls, and with the default on domestic bonds, the latter a puzzling and clearly unnecessary measure, since it was in domestic currency (Standard & Poor's says it's a selective default, whatever that means, and Fitch called it a restricted default). So here a few things that might be useful to understand what is going on.

So how did we get here? As I noticed recently here, the collapse has nothing to do with fiscal problems. They hardly ever do, since the debt that matters is the one in foreign currency. First, let's clarify what were the problems that Macri faced in December of 2015, at the beginning of his term. Yes, inflation was high, but real wages were not low, and in many ways the persistent depreciation of the peso, during Cristina Kirchner last term, and the increases in wages explained that. Note that inflation did not cause the low growth during the last part of the previous administration. So inflation was less of a problem at that point, and one that Macri should have emphasized less (contrary to what most think, as I said even before the government started, Macri had no intention of reducing inflation, at least not initially, since the plan was to let nominal wages adjust by less than it, and reduce real wages).

The real cause of low growth was the Balance of Payments (BoP) problem. More specifically, the current account that was negative, and in the absence of reserves, imposed a constraint on growth. Imports of essential goods, basics like energy, and the service of debt, at a time that Vultures closed access to international markets, were the real problem that he faced. But there were no issues about a possible default. Reserves were low, but sufficient to face short term obligations, and low growth allowed the current account to be under control. There was NO POSSIBILITY OF A DEFAULT. What Macri proceded to do, eventually with the support of the International Monetary Fund, is what caused the current crisis.
Actually, during the governments of Néstor and then his wife Cristina, from 2003 to 2015, total debt in foreign currency fell, and the ratio of foreign denominated debt to exports, which measures the sustainability of debt, since exports provide the dollars needed to service the debt, went down significantly from about 450 to below 100 percent. This was the result of two renegotiations of debt (in 2005 and 2010), and of the recovery of the economy and exports too. But note that even after the end of the commodity boom in 2011, the ratio did not go up again.

So the problem was lack of growth and not default. And all the conventional media coverage about the fears of a return of a Populist government are evidently bogus on the face of that graph. It is clear that the borrowing in foreign currency, the one that Argentina has problems paying, were during the Macri government. He is the irresponsible one, and not because of excessive fiscal expansion for social programs, but simply for borrowing in foreign currency.

The question is then why did the Macri administration borrow huge amounts of dollars. Foreign debt went from around US$ 70 to close to 160 billion, btw. And while one can speculate about motives, the fact is that most of the money went to capital flight, in oder words, the central bank sold the dollars to try to preclude the depreciation of the currency. Mind you, Macri said back in 2016 that lifting capital controls was fine, and that contrary to the Cassandras, nothing bad happened. Yes, not immediately, but the point was exactly this. Now we are on the verge of a default.

The IMF largest package in its history, of about US$ 56 billion, was provided to Argentina in 2018, and it has essentially supported the capital flight strategy of Macri. Again, one can speculate about the IMF's motives, but the fact is that they have provided the money for the policies pursued by this administration, and given the circumstances that the next government will inherit, it will have a great deal of power in allowing the country avoid or not a default. Note that when the loan was provided, the IMF requested austerity, and did not ask about capital controls. So for all the talk about changes at the IMF, this was essentially your grandma's IMF.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Central Bank Independence: A Rigged Debate Based on False Politics and Economics

No pressure!

By Thomas Palley (guest blogger)

The case for central bank independence is built on an intellectual two-step. Step one argues there is a problem of inflation prone government. Step two argues independence is the solution to that problem. This paper challenges that case and shows it is based on false politics and economics. The paper argues central bank independence is a product of neoliberal economics and aims to institutionalize neoliberal interests. As regards economics, independence rests on a controversial construction of macroeconomics and also fails according to its own microeconomic logic. That failure applies to both goal independence and operational independence. It is a myth to think a government can set goals for the central bank and then leave it to the bank to impartially and neutrally operationalize those goals. Democratic countries may still decide to implement central bank independence, but that decision is a political one with non-neutral economic and political consequences. It is a grave misrepresentation to claim independence solves a fundamental public interest economic problem, and economists make themselves accomplices by claiming it does.

Read rest here.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

50 years of the journal Problemas del Desarrollo

I'll be in Mexico, with a group of distinguished local economists for this event. In Spanish, but very likely it will be streamed. Will post more about it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Interview for the Argentinian Radio

I was interviewed yesterday about the situation in the country (Cítrica Radio, Siempre Es Hoy). Interview was cut short as a result of a bad connection. The audio of the part of the program I appear is here.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

MMT in the Tropics

For those in the New York City area, I'll give a talk at my alma mater on Modern Monetary Theory in the Tropics. Meaning really developing countries (including some in temperate areas).

The seminar will take place on Tuesday, September 17, from 4 to 6 pm, at the New School campus close to Union Square (6E 16th St #1009). The department goal, I've been told, is to bring together graduate students and faculty, but, if tradition is worth something, others will be also welcome.

About the New School Econ Dept read this. About MMT see this and this, but there is more on the blog if you search.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Larry Summers on the necessity of fiscal expansions

As noted before, Larry Summers argues that Post Keynesians and original Keynesians (arguably Keynes and those close to him) did not think in terms of imperfections. The op-ed version of the Tweets here. He says, on the topic of secular stagnation and the lower zero bound that:
This formulation of the secular stagnation view is closely related to the economist Thomas Palley’s recent critique of “zero lower bound economics”: negative interest rates may not remedy Keynesian unemployment. More generally, in moving toward the secular stagnation view, we have come to agree with the point long stressed by writers in the post-Keynesian (or, perhaps more accurately, original Keynesian) tradition: the role of particular frictions and rigidities in underpinning economic fluctuations should be de-emphasized relative to a more fundamental lack of aggregate demand.
And he concludes
Instead of more old New Keynesian economics, we hope, but do not expect, that this year’s gathering in Jackson Hole will bring forth a new Old Keynesian economics.
The label is a bit clumsy, but the logic is perfect. And the policy conclusion is also pretty clear and in line with more progressive Dems:
What is needed are admissions of impotence, in order to spur efforts by governments to promote demand through fiscal policies and other means.
He may be angling to be Bernie Sanders Treasury Secretary, and he's doing a good job. 

Economic Terrorism

My interview on the Argentinean crisis with Javier Lewkowicz from Página/12 is available here. In Spanish, though.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Larry Summers on Effective Demand

On of the issues between more mainstream Keynesians and their more heterodox counterparts is whether frictions are central for Keynesian results or not. Since the Neoclassical Synthesis the conventional view is that some rigidity or friction was behind the problems of unemployment, be that the liquidity trap (the Keynesian case with the flat LM, since Hicks 1937), the rigidity of wages (since Modigliani 1944), or some other coordination problem (mostly in the New Keynesian literature).

In this recent thread (worth reading all) Summers (as shown above) notes that posties might have been right on emphasizing the fundament issue of effective demand. That of course is closer to what Keynes himself would have thought. The paper he cites, by Tom Palley, co-editor of the Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE) is free and available here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The inverted yield curve and the recession

The inverted yield curve, as it is well-known, indicates a forthcoming recession. I used it last year to suggest that the recession was not in the near horizon. The conventional explanation follows Wicksellian ideas (see this old post). In the Wicksellian story, one can think of the 10 year bond rate as a proxy for the natural rate of interest, and the Fed Funds for the monetary or banking rate. Hence, whenever the short-term rate (Fed Funds) is above the long-term one, it would be reasonable to assume that borrowing short-term is a bad idea, there is not enough borrowing, and investment falls short of savings. Lower investment would be the cause of the recession, and of deflationary forces.

Graph below show the difference between the 10-year bond rate and the Fed Funds, which I have noted I prefer to the more common 10-2 spread, since the Fed Funds is more clearly a policy variable, dependent on decisions of the FOMC.
And the yield curve has turned negative, which does indicate (look at the past in the graph) a high likelihood of a recession. But I remain skeptical, even though according to the BEA GDP growth slowed down a bit in the second quarter, and the trade deficit fell, due to lower imports (that decreased more than exports), both signs of a slowing economy.

First let me explain that you don't need to believe that the inverted yield curve would cause the recession because the monetary rate is above the natural rate of interest. You may very well think that there is nothing special or natural about the long-term rate. Post Keynesians often think in terms of uncertainty, and the role of expectations. Note that the fears of a recession in this case are related to a collapse of investment (this is the view of certain posties, for example, John Harvey here, that provides always reasonable and clear analysis; he claims to be skeptical about the yield curve).

In the Wicksellian story the high short-term rates (in comparison to the natural) discourage investment too. Here the idea of the marginal productivity of capital plays a central role, while posties would suggest that expectations are more important. But the mechanism is the same. Higher interest rates would lead, along an investment curve that is negatively sloped with respect to interest, to lower levels of investment. You could park your money in short-term securities, and avoid investment.*

But there is no reason to take a marginalist or Wicksellian version of the story. While for WIcksell the natural rate is not a policy variable, that might not be the case with the long-term rate (the 10 year government bonds). In fact, both rates can be influenced by the central bank, and the Fed has a history of switching to longer term securities after a crisis. After the 2008 Global Recession, the Fed increased its holdings of long-term government bonds, maintaining a low interest rate for government debt, and also bought significant amounts of Mortgage Based Securities. Buying long-term bonds pushes their price up, and reduces its remuneration. So lower tong-term rates have been a result of policy decision to some extent.

When the Fed decided to reduce its holdings of long-term securities it basically announced that the interest rate on the long-term bonds would go up. But last year the Fed announced that the program would slowdown and eventually end by this summer. So it basically reversed its previous policy stance, at the same time that it was increasing the short-term rate, presumably because the economy was beyond full employment (or the natural rate of unemployment, if you believe in Friedman's Wicksellian story; for the Fed description of its policies go here). And changes in interest rates and in the structure of rates should have significant effects on the balance sheets of agents spending, and affect the level of activity.

However, I wouldn't expect investment to be the key variable affected by higher short-term interest rates. Indebted agents would cut spending immediately if higher interest rates put pressure on their budgets, either because they have to pay higher interest or because they can borrow at less favorable terms. And sure lower consumption would then impact investment. Firms seeing that consumption is not too strong, would curtail investment, following the so-called accelerator. So I can live with the story that an inverted yield curve, because of a significant and fast increase of short-term rates, can lead to a recession.

And that might happen sooner than I think. But I'm still unsure about the reasons for expecting that immediately. Note that trade is more often than not blamed for the coming recession. See, for example, Greg Ip, from the Wall Street Journal, here, suggesting that trade and not the Fed would be the one blamed for the recession in the future. But as I noted before, I would expect the impact of tariffs to be stronger in China than in the US, and to be more on prices than on quantities. So expect more inflation, and some disruption of the production chains, but not a recession. And the government budget deal seems to inject some additional fiscal stimulus. Perhaps not enough, and perhaps other forces would be sufficient to throw the economy into a recession. But I still think the case for an immediate recession is still not a slam dunk. The slow recovery might continue for a while. But certainly things look worse now than when I wrote last year.

* Yes, that is open to the capital debates critique.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

ICAPE call for papers

Geoff Schneider sent a reminder that the deadline (9/4) for the ICAPE call for papers, for the San Diego conference next January 5 and 6, is just a couple of weeks away. See details for submitting a paper, panel or workshop proposal. in the following link. The main topic is Policy, Politics and Pluralism: Pluralistic economics for the post-Trump era.

As we approach the 2020 elections, it is an opportune time for heterodox economists to articulate their vision for modern economic policies that would better serve the interests of people and the environment. Already, heterodox ideas are gaining traction, from Modern Monetary Theory to the Green New Deal. Possible topics are:
  • What key theoretical and empirical issues should contemporary economists be confronting?
  • What are the best theories and policies that pluralistic economists have to offer to address the major problems facing contemporary society?
  • How do those theories and policies improve upon mainstream economic analysis?
All conference submissions must be completed using the following Google Forms:

Individual Paper submissions:

Complete Panel submissions:

Roundtable or Workshop submissions:

As you will see in the Google Forms, each participant must provide a name, professional title, affiliation, phone and email. Each paper/roundtable/workshop must include an abstract of up to 400 words (2800 characters), a short abstract of up to 100 words (700 characters), and 3 key words.

For additional information, contact

Friday, August 16, 2019

Thirlwall’s law at 40

Table of contents of the next issue of the Review of Keynesian Economics

Thirlwall’s law at 40
Esteban Pérez Caldentey and Matías Vernengo

Why Thirlwall’s law is not a tautology: more on the debate over the law
J.S.L. McCombie

Endogenous growth, capital accumulation and Thirlwall’s dynamics: the case of Latin America
Ignacio Perrotini-Hernández and Juan Alberto Vázquez-Muñoz

Thirlwall’s law and the terms of trade: a parsimonious extension of the balance-of-payments-constrained growth model
Esteban Pérez Caldentey and Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid

Thirlwall’s law, external debt sustainability, and the balance-of-payments-constrained level and growth rates of output
Gustavo Bhering, Franklin Serrano and Fabio Freitas

Growth transitions and the balance-of-payments constraint
Excellent Mhlongo and Kevin S. Nell

New Structuralism and the balance-of-payments constraint
Gabriel Porcile and Giuliano Toshiro Yajima

Is Indonesia’s growth rate balance-of-payments-constrained? A time-varying estimation approach
Jesus Felipe, Matteo Lanzafame and Gemma Estrada

Thoughts on balance-of-payments-constrained growth after 40 years
A.P. Thirlwall

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The return of populism or Argentina on the verge of collapse

The Argentinean primary elections, which are very peculiar and take place all at once with all parties, were last Sunday. The primaries made some sense when the Peronist party was all divided and that allowed the main candidate to proceed, but with the move of Cristina Kirchner to the vice-presidential spot next to Alberto Fernández, and the unification of a good part of Peronism (in particular Sergio Massa), the primaries become essentially an anticipated election. And Peronism won resoundingly, with 47 percent of the votes, considerably more than the 32 percent the neoliberal Mauricio Macri obtained.

After the election there was a run on the peso, with a depreciation of almost 30 percent, and no significant intervention from the Central Bank. To add to the problems, Macri, the incumbent president, blamed the run on the voters.  In his view, they basically do not know how to vote, and by bringing back the spectrum of populism, and the implication was default, they scared the markets. It's all about confidence.

There are many problems with his arguments, and the policies he proposed the following they, after he apologized (after all he still needs the votes of those that do not know how to vote in October, when the actual election takes place). First and foremost, the fact that the problems faced by this government are the result of their own decisions to increase significantly the amount of debt in foreign currency. As I noted before here, it doubled in this government, after having being significantly reduced in the previous one (and after the renegotiation of debt with 93 percent of bondholders in 2005 and 2010; I must insist that default was in 2002, before Kirchner, in spite of what the Wall Street Journal said recently).

Yes, it is true that by the time Macri was elected in 2015 the country had an external problem. Meaning that the current account was moderately negative, and there were no inflows of capital in a world awash in capital, and reserves were low. But most countries were able to attract flows with moderately higher rates than the international ones. I expected the depreciation and higher inflation in the beginning of Macri's government to bring down real wages. And fiscal adjustment was to be expected too, in order to increase unemployment and reduce the bargaining power of unions.

But he had space, after that, for borrowing in international markets in domestic currency, at higher interest rates, and in domestic markets, and he could have in the process obtained significant amount of dollars (locals buying high paying bonds in domestic currency) to prop up the reserves. That would have led to growth, possible stabilization of prices (with some appreciation of the currency), and accumulation of reserves, reducing the external vulnerability of the economy. The fact that they borrowed in dollars, allowed the depreciation of the currency, losing control of inflation, increased the obligations in foreign currency to a level that an agreement with the IMF was necessary, and that adjustment forced the recession (besides the contractionary effect of the devaluation) was unexpected, to say the least. It is almost impossible to fathom why he would pursue policies that would make his reelection very difficult.

To things should be said in this context. One is that the agreement with the IMF supposedly was in place to allow to maintain the exchange rate in the forty something level, and with that, perhaps, at least not accelerate inflation and help with reelection. A politicization of the IMF that the international organism should have resisted. Also, many people able to buy dollars at forty something (now that they are at around sixty) won significantly. So those that bet on a depreciation (and promoted capital flight) won. And financial markets certainly did. This government has many friends in the markets. The other is that the agreement with the IMF ties the hands of the next government. And in my view that's no accident.

The measures he announced to counter the crisis (see this FT story), essentially "increases in the minimum wage, loans for small and medium-sized businesses, student grants, subsidies for poor families with children and a floor for income tax, as well as a freeze on petrol prices" (the later freeze was, apparently, now eliminated) will not have an economic, and most likely also not an electoral effect. FT is correct, it's too little too late. Not only the size of the measures is small, but also the inflationary and contractionary effects of this massive depreciation will dwarf any possible benefit of a moderate stimulus.

So Fernández is the virtual new president, and Cristina his vice-president. And the left of center is most likely back in power in Argentina. The notion that the left was done in the region has been exaggerated. As I noted more than three years ago here it was a stretch to think that most people wanted a return of neoliberal policies in the region. I noted that Brazil was divided, and I think still is, with significant resistance to Bolsonaro, and that Macri had only won by a very a narrow margin. Note that the return of the left in Argentina comes with significantly less degrees of freedom than in 2003. Not only there's an IMF agreement that would need to be renegotiated (and they must do it to avoid a default), but also the international scenario is much less favorable. But my take is that the new government will be able to avoid default, and restore some degree of coherence to economic management, allowing for lower inflation, and moderate rates of growth (on the low end, but at least growth) and reduction of unemployment and poverty. More on that in another post the near future.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Class conflict, Economic Development and the Brazilian Crisis

Last summer readings

The issue of class conflict and its relation to accumulation of capital was central for classical political economists of the surplus approach. That tradition has survived in political science mostly through the work of Marxist authors. And in many recent discussions of the Brazilian crisis, that started with the 2013 protests, the 2015 turn in economic policy, the 2016 mediatic/parliamentary coup against Dilma, and the 2018 unlawful jailing of Lula and fraudulent elections of Bolsonaro, the theme of class and the role of the bourgeoisie has been widely discussed.

The book by Armando Boito Jr. (pictured above) is, perhaps, the best of those that analyze the role of class alliances and the anti-PT (anti-Workers' Party) backlash that led to the Brazilian economic collapse. The main argument is that PT had built an alliance with what he calls, following Poulantzas, the internal bourgeoisie, in particular after the fall of Palocci and the rise of Mantega in the Finance Ministry, and that this alliance fell apart in the end of the first Dilma administration. This internal bourgeoisie included many of the industrialist connected with the construction sector, the agro-business and the metal-mechanic complex, and was dependent on the internal market, while the external bourgeoisie, more favorable to the neoliberal policies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and his social democratic opposition party (PSDB), was connected to financial markets and the international economy.

The reasons for the collapse of PT's coalition are complex, but essentially tied to the change in economic policies in 2011, the now infamous New Economic Matrix, referred to as the FIESP Agenda, by Laura Carvalho, in her useful book Valsa Brasileira, that promoted lower interest rates, a more depreciated currency, and tax incentives, rather than vigorous public investment in infrastructure, as the main tool for economic expansion. This was then exacerbated after Dilma's narrow win in 2014, when in 2015 she did a volta face on election promises and started a fiscal adjustment program.

As we discussed here before, the protests in Brazil started earlier, in 2013, and they came essentially from the left, with complaints about public transportation costs in São Paulo. But by 2015 the protests were clearly of a different nature. They were less about economic conditions, and more about corruption and the middle class was prominent among the protesters hitting pots (paneleiros) against the Workers' Party administration. In Boito's story is the break up of the coalition, and the abandonment of the Workers' Party by the internal bourgeoisie that marks the beginning of the crisis. In part, it seems, by the failure of the economic agenda (the FIESP Agenda, here this name is more revealing, since it marks that it was connected with industrialist interests) would be central for this.

Note that the policy turn precedes the protests. Note also that the complete turn in the economic policy, with the prioritization of austerity follows the electoral victory in 2014, and the nomination of Joaquim Levy to the Finance Ministry in 2015, arguably hoping to conciliate with a very hostile opposition that was vowing not to accept the electoral results the following day after the election (the defeated candidate, Aécio Neves, said so in the Senate in so many words). In many ways, like Vivek Chibber argued more generally about the State-led developmental phase, it is the national bourgeoisie that becomes the main constraint on growth.

While for the most part I agree with this analysis, I am not completely convinced about the break between a National or Internal bourgeoisie that is more industrialist, and an International or Neoliberal branch of the elites that is more financial, which is at the center of Boito's argument. For one, the differences between the internal and a more international one, and the industrial and financial one are less clear than suggested. The subdivisions might be exaggerated. Boito is careful and notes that FIESP supported both the more monetarist groups around Palocci, and also the Neo-Developmentalist groups linked to Mantega. A finger in every pie, so to speak. And that's a general problem with similar discussions within Marxism, and the whole division of financial capital and industrial capital. At the end of the day, capital is fungible, and even though one might have particular groups concentrated in one or other sector, it is relatively easy to diversify and move from one to the other. Jessé de Souza's book, also pictured above, provides a more direct critique of the role of the elites as a block (I have my issues with some of his critiques of certain Brazilian social scientists, but that's probably something for another post.

Boito, also, perceptively notes the role of the middle class. He does not emphasize it, but notes that it was particularly important in the use of the juridical system as a political element to bring down the Workers' Party. The prosecutors and the judges of the Car Wash (Lava-Jato), now increasingly less credible with all the revelations of abuse of power in their investigations as shown by The Intercept, are members of what he calls the upper middle class. I should note here the role of the United States, which trained some of these bureaucrats, including Sérgio Moro, then judge, not Attorney General of the Bolsonaro administration. Not just an elite that was committed to maintaining a backward system, the Elite of Backwardness in a possible translation of Jessé de Souza's expression, but a middle class of backwardness.

I see a parallel, with many caveats of course, to what happened in Chile with Allende. In that case, it seems that the causes for the demise of the state-led accumulation regime, as much as the retraction of the Keynesian welfare state in the advanced countries during that period, was related to its political limitations and what has been termed the Revolt of the Elites, by Christopher Lasch. In the Chilean case, the ideas of the so-called Chicago Boys were initially rejected even by the Conservative Party, and there was a significant consensus in society about the need to expand the welfare state. For example, the nationalization of copper, which had started during the Christian Democratic government of Frey, was passed in Congress with support not just from left-of-centre parties but also with support from centrist parties. In some respects, the Chicago Boys, with their ideas about liberalization and privatization, acted as a Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

In part, this was possible because the success of the state-led industrialization had created a middle class and an incipient industrial bourgeoisie that was susceptible to the fears of a communist takeover and was willing to support a violent coup to repress class conflict. It was the reaction to the political changes of the state-led industrialization period that increasingly led to the incorporation of marginal sectors of society that created the conditions for the neoliberal turn. Fears that were stoked by the United States, which provided support for the coup. In similar fashion, the success of the Workers' Party (sure there were mistakes in economic policy, but overall the economy grew, and inequality was reduced), and the improvement of the conditions in the bottom created sufficient fears in the upper and middle classes to provide support for a coup. And again the US seems to have played a role, now using other methods, with lawfare at the center of the strategy.

PS: If you want to know more about Brazil just click on the label below, and organize by date. There are posts going back to the beginning of the crisis in 2013.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The IMF Program in Ecuador: A New Report by Mark Weisbrot

Thirty pieces of silver

As they discuss the new candidate for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and it seems that the lead candidate for Lagarde's position is the former Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a pro-austerity member of the Labor Party (which I guess is at least nominally on the left), it is worth reading the new CEPR report on the possible effects of IMF programs in Latin America, more specifically the one in Ecuador, now that the country has been brought back into the fold of well-behaved nations (after expelling Assange from their London embassy, in the post-Correa period).

From the abstract:
This report examines Ecuador's March 2019 agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and finds that Ecuador is likely to have lower GDP per capita, higher unemployment, and increased macroeconomic instability under the program. Even the program itself, the authors note, projects Ecuador to have a recession this year and increased unemployment for each of the first three years of the program. But these projections are optimistic, the report concludes. [Full report here]
I'll have more on the IMF and Argentina soon. Also, something on Brazil, for those interested in the situation in Latin America.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Why do we need a theory of value?

The theory of value and distribution is at the heart of economics. To be clear, when I say that it is at the center, it means that discussions of almost any topic in economics, in one way or another, depend on a certain theoretical position about the theory of value and distribution. However, most economists have no clue about it, about the centrality of value. Not only they don't understand the original and now infamous labor theory of value (LTV), that dominated between Petty and Ricardo (and Adam Smith too, even though that tends to surprise and puzzle most economists),* but also they misunderstand the dominant marginalist paradigm. Some economists actually think that you don't need a theory of value at all, and some don't even understand that they use a conventional (some vulgar form of supply and demand) theory of value. Hence, the reason of this post is to try to help clarify some very basic issues related to the necessity of a theory of value for proper theorizing in economics.

In a sense, this topic was discussed here before, in my post on Sraffa, Marx and the LTV. But it is worth revisiting, and thinking in broader terms, beyond the LTV, to understand why a theory of relative prices is needed in general, to understand almost everything in economics.

Let me start with the authors of the surplus approach. In fact, a bit earlier with the economists that would eventually be known as Mercantilists (if you can talk about a school). If we are allowed to generalize and simplify, the latter believed that the wealth of nations depended essentially on maintaining trade surpluses, and accumulating precious metals. Profits were essentially the result of buying cheap and selling dear, or profits upon alienation, which indicates that, for Mercantilists, profits were generated in the exchange process.

Classical political economy authors, starting with William Petty, emphasize the determination of profits in the process of production, as a residual of output, once the conditions for the reproduction of the productive system were satisfied. So profits are not the result of selling high and buying low, something that could result from the mere fluctuation of market prices, but from the ability to produce beyond what was needed for the simple material reproduction of society. Note that to obtain profits, part of the residual, the surplus over and beyond reproduction requirements, one needs to know the prices of the means of production. That is, one needs to be able to account for the normal prices of the goods that went into the production of all commodities. And these prices would include a normal profit. Again, not the extra gain that might occur from a high market price. So the normal rate of profit is needed to determine prices, and prices are needed to determine the normal rate of profit. This was well understood by both Ricardo and Marx.

Value (the relative prices of commodities) and distribution (the normal rate of profit) are intertwined. Smith knew that the simple LTV (amounts of labor incorporated) was not correct other than in very rudimentary economic systems, with essentially no produced means of production. His solution was to adopt the idea of labor commanded (more on that on my post on Sraffa, and the one on the standard commodity). Ricardo solved this problem, in his corn essay, by assuming that the surplus and the means of production advanced to produce output where all in physical quantities of corn, hence profits could be determined independently from relative prices, as a physical quantity. And Marx adopted the simple labor theory of value in volume one of Capital. Both believed, for slightly different reasons, that their main arguments would hold even if the LTV was not precisely correct.

I am not concerned with the problems with the LVT in Ricardo and Marx (worth noticing that the mathematical solution was not known in their time, and was essentially developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) or Sraffa's solution. It is worth insisting that the LTV does have an analytical solution that is unique, and stable (see my post on the standard commodity for the former, which suggests a Smithian, i.e. labor commanded, version of the LTV is perfectly fine).** That's good, btw. It suggests that the classical political economy notion that there are prices that guarantee the reproduction, and, beyond the the expansion (or accumulation), of the economic system do exist.

Here I want to emphasize the importance of the LTV for the analysis of other aspects of the economy. Ricardo saw the problems of the Smithian adding up theory. That's the notion that prices were composed by the sum of natural wages, profits and rent and that prices would go up if one of its components went up.  In order to determine the rate of profit properly, Ricardo noted the explanation of value was essential. The rate of profit was central because in his view the processes of accumulation depended on the rate of profit. Hence, proper discussion of accumulation and growth depends on a proper theory of value and distribution. Btw, all classical authors assumed that real wages were exogenously determined by institutional and historical circumstances (so there was a role for history and institutions in their theory; also, for accumulation that was seen as too complex to be theorized in the same level of abstraction that value). But even if one is less keen than Ricardo on the role of profits in accumulation, it is undeniable that distribution affects accumulation, and, hence, a proper theory of value and distribution is needed.

Note also, that other things that depend on relative prices are crucially affected by the theory of value and distribution. Classical authors assumed that the process of competition, by which they meant only free entry and not the size or the number of firms in an industry, would lead to a uniform rate of profit. In that sense, the forces of competition were central in forging the structure of production, and, hence, the determination of technological change or to understand the patterns of trade specialization, which cannot be understood without the determination of relative prices. In fact, perhaps the most famous and the most controversial issues coming out of Ricardian economics dealt with international trade and the effects of technical change (the so-called machinery question), and are directly connected to the theory of value.

Even the most crucial macroeconomic problem, the question of output determination (and employment, for a given technique) is affected by the theory of value. Note that classical political economists assumed output as given for the determination of the surplus. And Ricardo accepted Say's Law as a way of determining output and employment (not Marx, btw, so it's NOT a requirement of the surplus approach). But as much as for accumulation understanding of distribution is central for the determination of the level of output, as it is explicit in the Kaleckian effective demand model. the classical long term prices are compatible with levels of output that do not guarantee full employment. And the parametric role of distribution in affecting the size of the multiplier is crucial for output and employment determination. So unemployment is possible in the long run, as a regularity of market economies.

In other words, for a coherent theory of output, accumulation, international trade, technological change and more (taxation, etc.) you need a theory of value and distribution. That is also the case in the mainstream. Marginalism developed in the last quarter of the 19th century, both as a result of the lack of analytical solution in that period for the problems of the LTV and as a reaction to radical revival of the theory (Marxism). The important distinction is that while classical political economy authors dealt only with objective factors, and considered demand as given when determined value and distribution, marginalism incorporated subjective preferences as central for the explanation of long term normal prices, and prices and quantities were determined simultaneously.

Beyond the problems with the marginalist solution for the existence of long term prices (see this on the capital debates) and their switch to the intertemporal approach, which basically only deals with short term prices, their theory is also central for almost everything in economics. In a sense, given that in marginalist analysis distribution is determined by supply and demand, and by the relative scarcity of factors of production, the theory of value and distribution is even more central for other parts of their theory than in the surplus approach. Here the theory of distribution does not affect indirectly the level of output and the process of accumulation. Here the level of employment and, for a given technology, output determination is the same as the theory of distribution. Real wages and the level of employment are determined in the labor market simultaneously. Everything derives from that.

Before getting to the reason why the theory of value and distribution, central for everything, is often ignored, let me note briefly the possibility of a third alternative to value and distribution, beyond the surplus approach and marginalism. That would be the markup theories of pricing. Note that theories of markup pricing essentially describe how firms determine prices. Most of these theories were developed as a result of the imperfect competition literature sparked by Sraffa's famous (1926) critique of Marshallian price theory (see an old post on that here).

First, as it would be known for the readers of this blog (at least the ones that have been reading for a long while), markup pricing is actually dealing with a different set of issues, and Franklin Serrano suggested here that they are different than the classical political economy normal long term prices (the Marxist prices of production or Sraffa's prices), and that Fred Lee and Marc Lavoie were right about that. He argued that some Sraffians (I won't name names), and I would add probably Fred too, thought that Sraffian prices were compatible with the full cost pricing tradition, and I could have included myself in this group.*** Note that what I mean by that is simply that the behavior of firms must be compatible in the real world with the logic of gravitation in classical analysis. In other words, if prices of production imply a normal profit over the full cost for a given technique, then firms somehow must be trying to do that.

But it is clear that the full cost pricing of a particular firm might not be the long run equilibrium price around which market prices gravitate, with free mobility, that is, with competition in the classical sense. In a way, the same circularity suggested above reapers, costs depend on prices (and that involves the profit related to the markup), and prices depend on costs. The firm's individual prices might not be the prices that are required for the reproduction of the economy as a whole. In that sense, markup theories must be grounded on some surplus approach understanding of value and distribution, and they are essentially theories about market prices, meaning short run behavior. In that sense, they run into the same problem than the intertemporal marginalist models, the Arrow-Debreu type, that became more popular after the capital debates, and that led to what Garegnani famously referred to as the change in the notion of equilibrium (that is the abandonment by the mainstream of the notion of long run equilibrium). Some heterodox groups see this as a positive development, but again it implies that they cannot say anything clear about distribution and relative prices, and that has implications for almost any other theory.

I might add here, which is more concerning for some heterodox groups, is that many of these theories are also compatible with marginalist interpretations of the theory of value and distribution. Many imperfect competition theories just suggest simple inverse relations between markups and the price elasticity of demand. This again fall into the type of situation I discussed recently regarding Karl Polanyi, of well-meaning critics of the marginalist mainstream, using marginalist or neoclassical concepts w/o knowing they are doing it (if it's conscious acceptance of the mainstream model, then it's something different).

One last thing in this regard, while markup theories must be grounded on some theory of value and distribution, and my take is that the surplus approach is where it would make sense, the opposite is not true. There is no need for a theory of the firm, of individual behavior, to understand long term prices. Classical political economists certainly discussed behavior, but that essentially entailed some notion related to class, to general social norms, not about what is going on in someone's brain. Even Smith that was certainly concerned with the issue of the role of self-interest in determining the equilibrium outcomes in the market, cannot be assumed to be a precursor of the rational maximizing agents of the mainstream, or of methodological individualism. The same could be said of utilitarian views and Ricardo, who was, to some degree, close to many utilitarians including Bentham. Here too, many heterodox economists think that an alternative theory of behavior is central for economics, and that is why many see behavioral economics as somewhat heterodox.

Finally, getting, even if briefly, to the point of why most economists remain oblivious to the relevance of value and distribution. I would suggest that this is a recent phenomenon. It is the result of what I have discussed here before, the return of vulgar economics (for example, here or here), and that the mainstream has abandoned the long run, and provides only a theory of short run prices. But at the same time the mainstream must revert to the old model in order to promote economic policy. Note that only in that model you can guarantee that markets provide efficient allocation of resources (w/o imperfections), and the price system signals the direction of adjustment. It is often missed by the heterodox groups that resist old classical political economy (often for incorrectly assuming that it is a precursor of marginalism) that their theory of value and their long term prices provide something completely different, an understanding of the conditions for the reproduction of society. That notion, btw, is alive and well in other social sciences (see here or here). Not in economics.

* It survived in the fringes and it was rediscovered by Marx and then much later Sraffa, who actually provided a coherent solution to some of its logical limitations. But after Ricardo, the LTV was never dominant again.

** On the gravitation of market prices towards normal prices see the work by Bellino and Serrano here.

*** My fondness for the subject in part derived from having worked for Wynne Godley at the Levy for two years, who was a disciple of P. S. W. Andrews one of the key authors of the Oxford Economists' Research Group (OERG) behind full cost pricing theories.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Forty Years of Balance of Payments Constrained Growth and Thirlwall's Law

From original draft by Thirlwall

Thirlwall's seminal paper on the balance of payments (BOP) constrained growth is forty years old. Paul Davidson once referred to the BOP constrained growth as a positive Post Keynesian contribution to economics. The Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE) will publish soon a special issue with many well-known contributors to the literature, and with a paper by Thirlwall himself.

The idea built on the Kaldorian supermultiplier model (Kaldor mark II), and with a few simplifying assumptions, it showed that economic growth depends on the rate of growth of exports divided by the the income elasticity of demand for imports. A very similar idea, as Thirlwall knew, was developed by Raúl Prebisch and Latin American Structuralists. The model, contrary to the dominant mainstream growth model at the time (the Solow model), was demand-led, and allowed for significant divergence between center and periphery.

The 1970s were a period in which both macroeconomic research was biased towards short-term issues, with stabilization after the oil shocks and inflation acceleration becoming central, and also it was the decade in which heterodox groups were effectively segregated from the profession, publishing in alternative journals. These factors certainly affected the popularity of the model.

The most remarkable thing about the model, beyond its simplicity, is its incredible empirical relevance. So much so that is one of the few regularities that has been called a Law (like Okun's, for example). Financial flows might reduce under certain circumstances, the BOP constraint, but at the end of the day, capital flows must be paid with exports, and that implies that the constraint for developing countries is a strong limit to expansion. In advanced economies, income distribution and class conflict might play a more relevant role.

At any rate, it seems that under different circumstances, particularly regarding the sociology of the economics profession, this would have been a contribution meriting the Sveriges Riksbank Economics Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Will post more, with links to free papers soon.

PS: I haven't written much on Thirlwall's law, but here is a paper in response to a critique by Jaime Ros and a co-author, published by Investigación Económica, in Spanish.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Capital Flows to the Periphery: Still ‘push’, but with significantly lower risk spreads

Gabriel Aidar and Julia Braga (Guest Bloggers)

We have, in our new paper, gone back to the old pull-push debate on determinants of capital inflows to emerging markets, to look at the behavior of country risk premium spreads. Our Principal Component Analysis of the country-risk spread series of ten emerging economies from 1999 to 2019 revealed that 86% of the total volatility of the original series can be represented by only two components, suggesting the prevalence of common factors in determining country risk. This evidence, reinforced by the correlation of the first major component with global liquidity indicators, corroborates our hypothesis that the sovereign risk trend is driven by external factors, in line with the push literature. This is clearly shown in the graph below that shows the Evolution of the EMBI+ emerging market risk spreads against EMBI Brazil over time.

Our contribution strengthens the thesis, stressed by Medeiros (2008), about the subordination of economic cycles in developing economies to global financial cycles. This in effect imposes an (asymmetric) constraint for the management of domestic monetary policy. To avoid capital outflows and/or successive exchange rate devaluations, the domestic interest rate should not remain lower than the international reference interest rate added to its country risk premium (Serrano and Summa, 2015). This constraint has changed significantly in the 2000s.

In the recent expansionary cycle of global liquidity, many developing economies seems to have taken advantage of this window of opportunity to simultaneously grow more and reduce their external vulnerability. These two movements ended up having the combined effect of lowering the collective external fragility of the developing economies (Freitas et al., 2016; Serrano, 2013). As a result of this change, developing economies experienced a virtually unprecedented period of reduction of Balance of payments crises. As we show in the paper, and can also be clearly seen in the graph, these favorable developments led to a once for all structural break at the level of sovereign risk spreads, that have fallen significantly after 2002. This seems to be the reason why the risk spreads have not risen again to the levels prevailing in the 1990s. Although the risk spreads continued to respond to international financial indicators and have risen both during the 2008/2009 world financial crisis and also in 2014/15, when the FED threatened to raise the interest rate and began to phase down nonconventional monetary policies, developing economies are now in a much better position to deal with those changes. This is what we can read in current pattern of risk premium spreads that, although still vary in response to changes of the relevant international financial indicators, do it around a significantly lower average.


Freitas, F., de Medeiros, C. A., and Serrano, F. 2016. Regimes de política econômica e o descolamento da tendência de crescimento dos países em desenvolvimento nos anos 2000, in “Dimensões estratégicas do desenvolvimento brasileiro. Continuidade e mudança no cenário global: desafios à inserção do Brasil”, 17–46

Medeiros, C. A. de. 2008. Financial dependency and growth cycles in Latin American countries, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, vol. 31, no. 1, 79–99

Serrano, F. 2013. Continuity and Change in the International Economic Order: Towards a Sraffian Interpretation of the Changing Trend of Commodity Prices in the 2000s, pp. 195–222, in Sraffa and the Reconstruction of Economic Theory: Volume Two, UK, Springer

Serrano, F. and Summa, R. 2015. Mundell–Fleming without the LM curve: the exogenous interest rate in an open economy, Review of Keynesian Economics, vol. 3, no. 2, 248–68

Friday, June 21, 2019

Handbook of the History of Money and Currency

The Handbook (subscription required) has been edited by Stefano Battilossi, Youssef Cassis and Kazuhiko Yago. It has many interesting chapters. Barry Eichengreen writes on what determines that a currency is used as an international currency (or even as the predominant currency). While he follows conventional views in suggesting that role of money as a means of exchange and the importance of the country in international transactions, he does also explore the role of power (military power) behind the key currency. My take on that topic in this paper with David Fields here.

There is also a very readable paper on the history of central banks by Stefano Ugolini here. It follows the evolutionary approach of Roberds and Velde, and in my view also suffers from conventional views on monetary theory that emphasize the exchange role of currencies, rather than the unit of account function. As a result, it downplays the role of fiscal agent of the state, that in my view was key in the early experiences with public banks. I would emphasize the importance of the development of public debt for the subsequent evolution of public banks, and the relevance of early central banks in the management of the Fiscal-Military State. On this see this and this.

There are interesting papers on paper money experiences, by François Velde (here) or on deflation, by  Richard Burdekin (here), to cite a couple.  There is, also, our entry (with Esteban Pérez) on the history of Central Banking in Latin America (here).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Catching up and falling behind in historical perspective

The figure below, from a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, shows the catching up of the South. Note that most occurs after the New Deal, and up to the 1980s. The piece emphasizes the reversal, with divergence since the last recession. This suggests that the New Deal and the period in which the segregationist policies were eliminated were a period of prosperity for the South.

The catching up story is one associated mostly to State action, since the New Deal in many ways was a sort of Marshall Plan for the South (think TVA), even though the WSJ piece emphasizes policies, like lower taxes, and the lack of unions. And there is a lot to discuss there.

But what surprised me by looking at the graph, and the story I think is more interesting, is the apparent relative decline of the West. The story, like that of Argentina, for example, is one of persistent decline over the whole 20th century. And that's obviously not what you would imagine about the West, that went from a backwater, essentially rich in natural resources (e.g. Gold Rush), to a  prosperous region with the most dynamic innovation hubs in the US (Silicon Valley).

So the continuous decline of income per capita in the West is NOT a story of persistent decline. In many ways it is exactly the opposite of that. You start with very low levels of population and income, and an accident, associated to the existence of high value natural resources leads to an economic boom. Gold, oil and other minerals in the case of the West, and in some parts high agricultural productivity. Income per capita shoots fast up, and by the time of the graph you have that it is way above the US average. Which explains the heavy inflow of immigrants, which in turn explains, as the population in the West as a share of total US population increases, the decline in income per capita.

But that process goes hand in hand with the development of sophisticated manufacturing in the West, from aeronautics and aviation to computer and information industries. In this case, the story of lower income per capita with respect to the country is not a history of decline, and the early history, in spite of the high income per capita suggests a relatively unsophisticated economy. That's an important analogy when you think of cases like Argentina.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Argentina, Financial Times and the next default

It's been a while since I wrote about Argentina. In all fairness, because it is difficult given all the mistakes of the last few years since Macri's victory. I discussed the prospects of what to expect back then. Since then I posted here and here on the supposed improvement in 2017, and the beginning of the still unfolding crisis in 2018. And this could simply be an "I told you so post," since I did warn about most things that would happen. But there are important and interesting news about Argentina, now that there is at least some clarity about who will run against Macri this year.

Cristina Kirchner finally announced she's running for the vice-presidency, and that her husband's chief of staff (when Néstor was president), Alberto Fernández, will be at the top of the ticket. Some have suggested that this is a great move that will allow to unify Peronism, which might lead to victory in the election later this year. As a response, the editorial board of the Financial Times (FT) published a piece in which it suggests that given the low popularity of Macri's austerity measures backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies, that a return of Peronism, would be possible, but a huge mistake for Argentina.

There are many problems in FT's analysis. FT's piece suggests that "Mr. Macri's austerity programme is broadly on track to deliver long term gains for Argentina." There is a fundamental misconception in their argument. Argentina's problems are not fiscal, caused by excessive government spending, but external caused by excessive borrowing in foreign currency. Mr. Macri took over in 2015 with foreign debt at around 70 billion dollars, and proceeded to more than double it to approximately 160 billion dollars, as shown in the figure below (elaborated by Juan Matías De Lucchi, for a paper we co-authored in Spanish and that should be published soon). Foreign denominated debt is now higher than it was before the 2002 default, if smaller as a share of GDP (red line).
Note that while Macri inherited a situation of high inflation, significant fiscal deficits (those are in domestic currency), and an external constraint, mostly associated to an energetic external deficit (that one in foreign currency), the external debt situation was deemed sustainable by everybody back then. Note that inflation was ultimately the result of a sequence of small devaluations, and significant wage resistance during the years of Kirchnerism, and that the external constraint resulted from an inability to diversify exports, and particularly of reducing import necessities in the energy sector. The fiscal situation was not problematic, and there was no problem with financing domestic spending, and no serious inflationary pressures coming from the Central Bank financing the Treasury.

The Macri government established those propositions. His team, stacked with very 'serious' mainstream economists like Federico Sturzenegger, who argued that increase in the domestic energy price bills would have no inflationary impact, believed that inflation could be solved in a simple way by stopping the financing of the Treasury. Inflation was in Monetarist fashion a question of too much money. They also believed, to some extent, that a devaluation would solve external problems if it happened. But they expected a surge in foreign investment that would lead to growth and also put pressure for the appreciation of the peso. Of course, the outcome of their liberalization of the foreign exchange market, and their Monetarist experiment led to higher inflation and depreciation.* Fiscal adjustment and the firing of many government workers led to a recession, and higher unemployment. That was the macroeconomic package of the government, even before the IMF.**

Note that there was no need at that point to borrow in international markets in foreign currency. The current account deficit was manageable, foreign debt obligations were relatively low, and the capital flight caused by the liberalization of the foreign exchange market could had been stopped, to some extent, with a hike in the interest rate. Of course they should have been more careful about the liberalization of the external accounts, but that was probably too much to ask from this government of financial operators with deep ties to Wall Street and international financial markets (and a president with accounts in tax havens, documented in the Panama papers).

Macri's government renegotiated the debt with the vultures, the final step for Argentina to re-enter financial markets, under conditions that were excessively generous, one might add. And note that the external debt had already been significantly reduced by the successful renegotiation of the Kirchners with 93 percent of debt holders (and the Macristas talked about a heavy inheritance!). Minor increases in the rate of interest in the US, which in most places led to minor depreciations, coped with interest rates that at times were negative in real terms, led to massive flight. But the government continued to borrow in foreign currency, when almost every country in the periphery has been able to borrow in domestic currency.

That of course was no mistake. This government has promoted a massive increase in foreign debt to finance large amounts of capital flight. The IMF has essentially validated this model, by allowing the government to use the loan to contain the exchange rate. This government has created conditions for a huge amount of dollars to be purchased by essentially their friends in financial markets. It is a financial racket. This is obviously not sustainable, and a relative safe position has been turned into a possible default soon. Not surprisingly the specter of Peronism haunts Argentina.

* On some level the government wanted higher inflation, in order to reduce real wages, something I noted back in 2015. They also wanted a recession, to help reduce the bargaining power of workers.

** As I often say, our elites don't need the IMF, they carry the orthodox gene in their economic DNA.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Exchange rates and income distribution in a surplus approach perspective

Old paper, presented two years ago in México, and to be published soon by the university press there. In Spanish. For those interested. The model is the same (with minor changes) one used to discuss inflation, in an old paper, eventually published here in a book on Post Keynesian economics edited by Forstater and Wray. Link here.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Forget the Natural Rate, says the Head of the Minneapolis Fed

Low rates are here to stay

The head of the Minneapolis Fed agrees with something that I discussed several times here (or here for the use of alternative unemployment measures like U6) in the blog, that the unemployment level (U3) is not a good measure of the slack in the labor market. Neel Kashkari says:
No one knows how many more Americans want to work. But if the job market continues to improve with only modest wage growth and below-target inflation, it can be safely assumed that maximum employment isn’t here yet and there is no present need to raise interest rates.
So we're NOT at full employment (neutral or natural rate in their parlance) even with 3.6%. Note that a few years back they thought it was closer to 6%. Reality has an heterodox bias.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

On Karl Polanyi and the labor theory of value

The other great transformation

I have discussed Polanyi on the blog before, but not in great detail (see this video posted a few years back from Fred Block for a more in depth discussion). However, writing about Bob Heilbroner's views of economics, and in particular the labor theory of value, reminded me why I have reservations about Polanyi, something that often surprises my friends, since I often cite some of his ideas, and I did put his book on the Top 10 list.

Polanyi has been, indeed, one of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century, even if economists never read him. His notion that markets are embedded in society has been used by political scientists and sociologists to understand the rise of neoliberalism, and the policies of austerity that have had incredible social costs (e.g. Mark Blyth's book Great Transformations). In part, the increasing formalization of economics made his work less popular among economists, proving that Boulding was right when he said that math brought rigor to economics, but it also brought rigor mortis.

The main thesis that free market capitalism leads to unstable political situations, and that this, in turn, would lead to coalitions that restraint and regulate markets, seems to have been vindicated, even if he did not get much recognition when the book was originally published. However, in spite of being a central an relevant author, many of his conclusions suffer from accepting an incorrect view of classical political economy, and ultimately his support for the mainstream (marginalist) theory of value.

He clearly believed, as did many, if not most, economists before the re-edition of Ricardo's works by Sraffa and his later rehabilitation of a version of the Labor Theory of Value (LTV), that classical authors were confused, and were essentially precursors of the neoclassical mainstream. He tells us:
"Apart from some special theories like that of rent, taxation, and foreign trade, where deep insights were gained, the theory consisted of the hopeless attempt to arrive at categorical conclusions about loosely defined terms purporting to explain the behavior of prices, the formation of incomes, the process of production, the influence of costs on prices, the level of profits, wages, and interest, most of which remained as obscure as before."
And there should be no doubt that to a great extent the mistakes of classical authors, in Polanyi's view, were associated with the LTV. He says just before the above passage that:
"Although Adam Smith had followed Locke’s false start on the labor origins of value, his sense of realism saved him from being consistent. Hence he had confused views on the elements of price, while justly insisting that no society can flourish, the members of which, in their great majority, are poor and miserable." [Italics added]
And it is also clear that he adhered to some vulgar version of the marginalist supply and demand story for value. Again in his words, from the his classic book, The Great Transformation:
"Economic value ensures the usefulness of the goods produced; it must exist prior to the decision to produce them; it is a seal set on the division of labor. Its source is human wants and scarcity." [Italics added]
In other words, relative value depends on demand (human wants) and their limited supply (scarcity). Given his background, and the mainstream authors he quotes, Polanyi basically believed in some version of marginalism, perhaps with Austrian undertones.

His bias in favor of neoclassical economics is also evident in his insistence that the beginning of capitalism* can be associated with the organization of the three markets that correspond to the factors of production, namely: labor, land and money (capital), and the implicit notion that the production is a linear process that goes from the factors to final output, in contrast with the classical view of a circular process, in which commodities where produced by means of commodities.

Polanyi was certainly sympathetic to Marx, but he clearly missed a lot, given the marginalist foundations of his analysis. He associated classical political economics with a naturalistic philosophy that tried to explain human behavior in terms of natural causes, and that imposed an extraneous logic to social relations. In view:
"naturalism haunted the science of man, and the reintegration of society into the human world became the persistently sought aim of the evolution of social thought. Marxian economics—in this line of argument—was an essentially unsuccessful attempt to achieve that aim, a failure due to Marx's too close adherence to Ricardo and the traditions of liberal economics."
So Marx wasn't a minor Ricardian, as Samuelson later famously put it (perhaps he was a major one for Polanyi), but his problem was the adherence to the Ricardian LTV.

I should note that Polanyi tends to think and judge classical and neoclassical economics from the point of view their economic policy prescriptions, and the idea of laissez faire, or what is referred to as liberalism in Europe. That is probably also the reason why Veblen coined the term neoclassical, which also gives the incorrect impression of continuity between both schools.

There is a lot that is valuable in Polanyi's analysis, but the problem is that he accepts the notion that prices are determined by supply and demand, and that implies that markets produce efficient outcomes in the marginalist sense of efficient allocation of resources (on the problems of the marginalist theory of value see this post on the capital debates). He does not seem to grasp that the classical notion of competition and long term equilibrium prices did not require optimality in the allocation of resources. Even if Polanyi is critical of the idea that in reality a pure market economy is stable, and even if he insists that free market policies led to a backlash from the losers that required a safety net to reduce the negative impact of market outcomes on society, it is still true that markets are about efficient allocation of resources in his view.

For classical political economists markets were an institutional framework for the reproduction of the material conditions of society, and for the process of accumulation. In the classical framework, equilibrium prices are not the ones that show the relative scarcity of goods and services on the basis of preferences, and limited resources. Normal (natural in Smith and Ricardo, production in Marx) prices are the ones needed to reproduce society. The overall state of preferences were taken as given, something determined by broad institutional and historical circumstances and not something to be formalized.

This matters exactly because the classical long term prices require that one distributive variable be determined beforehand. In other words, with real wages set at the subsistence level, something that was seen as historically and institutionally established in their time, the technical conditions of production (amounts of labor needed to produce, in the simplest version) were sufficient to determine normal prices. This view is actually perfectly compatible with Polanyi's notion of the embeddedness of markets, the idea that labor markets are social constructs and that rules, regulations and other institutional features are central for the creation of markets. In a sense, markets do not just appear out of thin air, in self-organizing fashion.

In other words, what Polanyi documents with this discussion of the expansion of the franchise in Britain in 1832, and the new Poor Laws established in 1834, is not the creation of the labor market as described by neoclassical theory (and that's exactly and incorrectly what he suggests). The institutional changes describe the full and final move from one set of regulations, still resulting from the more paternalistic system that came from pre-capitalist times, to a more punitive system for the working class. What was planned was not laissez faire in the labor market, but less protections to reduce the workers bargaining power. Workers resisted, but only much later, when their voice had a stronger political outlet (mostly with the rise of Labour), they could push back and regain some degree of bargaining power. Polanyi was partially correct, in saying that: "While laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate State action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way." However, it required taking over, to some degree, the State to bring about the Welfare State. Laissez-faire was planned, for sure, but planning was too.

Classical political economy actually allows one to understand that, since in the surplus approach there is no labor market that is regulated by supply and demand and determines both the real wage and the quantity of employment. Polanyi would have been under much stronger foundation if he understood the role of institutional and historical factors in classical political economy.** The reason that there was a backlash about laissez faire policies is that markets do not produce efficient allocation of resources, something Smith, Ricardo and Marx understood. Keynes' tried to explain why the neoclassical labor market theory was incorrect too. And here too Polanyi, writing just eight years after the publication of the General Theory, has nothing to say about it.

But as much as Polanyi neglected and misinterpreted the works of classical political economy, the same is true of heterodox groups that have brought back the ideas of the surplus approach. And heterodox economists should pay more attention to Polanyi's work and the idea of the embeddedness of markets on a broader social framework.

* To be precise he suggests approvingly that “the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 were commonly regarded as the starting point of modern capitalism.” In other words, the labor market is at the center of his view of capitalism. Compare this with a Marxist discussion of modes of production that also puts labor relations at the center.

** Polanyi incorrectly suggests that Smith accepts the wage-fund doctrine, a precursor of supply and demand theories, which certainly was developed much later, with Stuart Mill, a transition author, that had already departed from Ricardian economics.

New Book on Roy Harrod

Esteban Pérez Caldentey has just published a new book on Roy Harrod for the collection edited by Anthony Thirlwall. From the description...