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.

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 l...