Tuesday, December 29, 2020

From Regulation to Deregulation and (Perhaps) Back: A Peculiar Continuity in the Analytical Framework

New working paper with Bill McColloch, published by the Centro di Ricerche e Documentazione "Piero Sraffa." From the abstract:
The rise of the regulatory state during the Gilded Age was closely associated with the development of Institutionalist ideas in American academia. In their analysis of the emergent regulatory environment, Institutionalists like John Commons operated with a fundamentally marginalist theory of value and distribution. This engagement is a central explanation for the ultimate ascendancy of neoclassical economics, and the limitations of the regulatory environment that emerged in the Progressive Era. The eventual rise of the Chicago School and its deregulatory ambitions did constitute a rupture, but one achieved without rejecting preceding conceptions of competition and value. The substantial compatibility of the view of markets underlying both the regulatory and deregulatory periods is stressed, casting doubt about the transformative potential of the resurgent regulatory impulse in the New Gilded Age.

Download full paper here

Monday, December 28, 2020

Leo Panitch and the Lessons from Socialist Defeats


A few weeks ago I bought the little book on top (a new edition of a previously published one, I think). Sadly not long after I learnt of Leo Panitch's untimely death (obit by Chibber here). The book tries to account for three recent defeats of the democratic socialist left in recent times, even though it was written before the ultimate defeat of Bernie Sanders by the establishment candidate earlier this year. He and his co-authors discuss the rise of democratic socialism, and the consequences of the defeat, or one might say the caving, suffered by Syriza, which they point out was "the only party to the left of traditional social democracy in Europe that succeeded in winning a national election"* (p. 29), and what they call "the devastating defeat Corbyn suffered at the hand of Boris Johnson in December 2019" (p. 67).

The main lesson about the Syriza failure, even before the somewhat expected electoral defeat in 2019, was the absence of a Plan B. It could not back it's challenge to the Troika's austerity plans, since there was no plan for exiting the Euro, and they assume that would have led to leaving the European Union too. They say: "There was a marked lack of seriousness, if not dishonesty, behind the tendency to treat the referendum as proving, not just the massive public support for resisting further Troika-imposed draconian austerity (which was the question actually posed) but that the same support would have existed for leaving the eurozone, and most likely the EU, in light of the capital and import controls that this inevitably would have led to." In a sense, the notion is that there was support (from the middle class?) for pushing against the Troika, but not really for leaving the Euro. On Syriza's betrayal of the No Referendum see the old post by Stavros Mavroudeas here.

The lessons in the Corbyn case are less clear to me. They praise the Labour Party's 2019 Manifesto as being "more coherent and progressive [than the 2017 one], especially in making the environmental crisis rather than the need for export competitiveness, the overarching framework for the radical industrial strategy" (pp. 67-68). But they seem concerned fundamentally with how markets would punish a more radical government, and with the absence of "plans to deal with capital flight or a run on the pound" and the silence on "how and when to introduce controls over the movement of capital" (p. 65; although that seems more about the 2017 Manifesto). That notion of the dangers of capital blackmailing left of center governments seems to be part of their general view. They also tell us (p. 82), regarding the Meidner Plan in Sweden to socialize the ownership of the means of production,  that it was "resisted by Palme's Social Democratic government... [because] it had a fatal flaw: why would owners, knowing there is a timetable for their expropriation, continue to invest?"

Of course, a left of center governments could use monetary policy tools to avoid capital flight (including higher rates, and not just controls), and investment depends considerably more on whether the economy is growing or not. But my main problem with the discussion on Corbyn's defeat is their unwillingness to deal with the issue of Brexit and the role it played in his defeat more explicitly. My views on Brexit have not changed much since this post, so I'll avoid getting into it. But it seems clear that, like in the United States, in order to discuss the economic grievances of the working class, the left of center parties must be willing to discuss more directly the problems of economic integration.

Sanders has been doing that, and yet, he lost a second time. The book cannot discuss that, since it was written, it seems, before April and the victory of Biden in the primary. Here the issues of the inability to win, to a great extent because the party machine makes it impossible, opens the discussion of whether fighting inside the Democratic Party is the correct strategy. Like Michael Harrington, I believe that there is little alternative. I'm not sure that's their view in the book. At any rate, they do praise Bernie for having "a class-focused campaign" (p. 71) and spend a good amount of ink (pp. 74-86) criticizing Elizabeth Warren's firm based rather than class-based struggle for democracy (p. 87). It seems that a reform both of the primary system within the Democratic Party and an elimination of the electoral college are needed for a democratic (lower case) society in the US.

If there is a lesson, although it's not expelled out explicitly in the book, is that the forces of neoliberalism are incredibly strong, and resilient. Perhaps, that's a lesson that could have been seen in the several defeats of the left in Latin America with the end of the pink tide a few years ago. In the case of Latin America, lawfare, the use of the media, and the international institutions, and more recently even military force (in the case of Bolivia)+ were central to defeat left of center governments. In the case of Chile, it's worth remembering the role of the Constitution in tying the hands of left of center administrations, and how a referendum was needed to overturn Pinochet's charter. And the book suggests correctly in my view that "democratization can't occur without changing the context within which economic units, and thus workers, relate to each other" (p. 85). At any rate, Panitch always forced us to reflect, and this last book continues to do so.

* Podemos in Spain is part of the government coalition, of course.

+ Although international organizations like the Organization of American States were crucial too, and the coup was eventually defeated by the democratic forces on the left.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Economics without Gaps: on Ibn Khaldun and non-Western traditions in the history of ideas

Ibn Khaldun, Arab scholar

A piece* from a few years ago, has again become somewhat popular and it has been making the rounds. It suggests that the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun developed the ideas of classical political economics in the late XIV century, about half a millennia before Adam Smith, often seen as the father of classical economics, and of modern economics. Some would suggest that Khaldun was the real father of economics (or stepfather in the first essay on top). To a great extent, the discussion of the role of non-western scholars tries to show that an Eurocentric bias has dominated the history of economic thought. This discussion goes hand in hand with the notion that the Rise of the West and the so-called Great Divergence are relatively recent phenomena.

There are many elements in that assessment that are correct. Schumpeter's massive History of Economic Analysis does mention Khaldun in passing on his discussion of historical sociology, but he also argues that between the ideas of classical antiquity and scholastic thinking there was a great gap.** In his words: "So far as our subject is concerned we may safely leap over 500 years to the epoch of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), whose Summa Theologica is in the history of thought what the south-western spire of the Cathedral of Chartres is in the history of architecture." There is little recognition of the role of Arab scholars in maintaining and expanding the knowledge of classical antiquity in almost all fields. And in the field that eventually would be associated with political economy, Khaldun's Muqaddimah, or Introduction (or Prolegomena), does indeed provide significant progress over the work of classical antiquity.

His work essentially deals with the cyclical rise and fall of caliphates, and analyzes the material conditions for these historical circumstances. Robert Irwin in his intellectual biography of Khaldun, reminds us that: “Arnold Toynbee, who produced a twelve-volume study of the rise and fall of civilizations, described Ibn Khaldun’s theoretical treatise on history, the Muqaddima, as 'undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place'.”

However, while all of that is correct, and should lead to a more encompassing understanding of the role of non-western economic thinking, it is also important to bear in mind what was the contribution of Ibn Khaldun, how it fits in the history of ideas, and also in what sense classical political economy authors have an original theoretical framework. That tradition, it is worth noticing starts really with Sir William Petty, not Smith, as noted by whom I would suggest is the first serious historian of economic ideas, Karl Marx, in his Theories of Surplus Value. Furthermore, it is important to be careful and avoid the normal confusion of seeing Adam Smith as the father of modern, meaning marginalist (or neoclassical), economics. As a general principle, I would also be critical of the notion that the history of economic ideas is the repository of old versions of modern economic theory, that have to be deciphered and understood in modern guise. It was exactly this kind of thinking that led many marginalists, like Alfred Marshall, to suggest that they were expanding on the ideas of classical authors like David Ricardo, when in fact they were subverting them.***

I would suggest that there are two important differences between Ibn Khaldun and the Anglo-French tradition of the surplus approach, associated with the Petty-Cantillon-Quesnay-Smith-Ricardo (and I would add Marx; on the first three that form the basis for the work of the surplus approach see this chapter by Tony Aspromourgos) line of evolution. First, while Khaldun is interested in the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations, associated to the sedentary, urban, mercantile caliphates bordered by nomadic, desert populations, Smith developed at the same time and independently from Turgot (on that see Ronald Meek), a linear four stage theory of economic development, from hunting (and gathering), to pastoral, then agricultural, and finally commercial societies, which is the term he used for societies like the England of the time, were manufacturing activities and financial relations were significantly developed. These ideas would lead to Marx's materialist conception of history based on the notion of modes of production, evolving from ancient slavery and feudalism to capitalism.

It seems that while a perception that, what we now call, the social sciences are historical in nature was clearly in Khaldun's writings, the conception of history, and the scope of the analysis was different than the one in Smith. The reason is not only related to the fact that Khaldun was writing in the Middle Ages, before the rise of capitalism, but also, and more importantly it seems, Khaldun was looking at the specific circumstances of Arab societies, even if there were universal lessons in his analysis. The evolution from hunter-gathering to agriculture and to manufacturing are more universal. Further, Marx's conception of modes of production emphasizes the method and the social relations of production by which surplus is extracted from workers. Command and coercion in the context of slave and feudal societies, and market relations in the case of capitalism.

The second difference is related to the notion of surplus, and the source of value. It is true that there was a notion of a surplus beyond what is needed for survival in Khaldun's work, and that it allowed in his view for crafts and division of labor, or specialization, as would be discussed by classical authors much later. And there was also a clear sense that labor was the source of value, and that a producer must cover the costs of production. Some have argued that one can see the labor theory of value (LTV) in Khaldun's writings. However, it is clear that the conception of profits and of prices in Khaldun was not in conformity with the LTV.

He argues in chapter 5 of the Muqaddimah that: "Commerce is a natural way of making profits. However, most of its practices and methods are tricky and designed to obtain the (profit) margin between purchase prices and sales prices. This surplus makes it possible to earn a profit." In other words, the surplus results from selling at a higher price than purchased in the process of exchange. Profits were not a residual obtained in the process of production for Khaldun, after the conditions for reproduction of society, in particular the subsistence of the labor force, was obtained. This is, of course, the whole point of classical political economy. The understanding of the objective, material conditions for the reproduction of society. Profits were obtained in the process of production, and that would allow to understand accumulation, since the surplus was the basis for economic growth. Accumulation and not the cyclical fluctuations of civilizations were at the center of classical political economy analysis, reflecting, perhaps, the dynamic nature of capitalist societies.

These differences suggest that Khaldun was, most likely, an important source for scholastic, and mercantilist/cameralist authors to which classical authors were to some extent responding in their own writings. Mercantilists authors also thought in terms of profits in the process of exchange, which was to some extent to be expected in pre-capitalist societies with a large mercantile sector. These were essentially agrarian societies, and the transformation of the structure of production was not yet significant.  Recognizing the role of Arab scholars in preserving the texts and the knowledge of ancient scholars, and their ability to move beyond the ancients is crucial for the proper understanding of the evolution of economic ideas. But it is important understand their actual contributions to avoid more confusion in the history of ideas.


* In this piece it is suggested that the history of thought textbooks by Screpanti and Zamagni and by Roncaglia are mainstream texts, and put in the same category with Blaug's book. That is of course a misconception. The former differentiate between classical and marginalist traditions, and do not argue for the continuity, as Blaug does, and can be seen as clearly heterodox in nature.

** Spengler (1964) is the classic study on Khaldun by western historians of economic thought. Although his essay is careful about Khaldun's contribution it might give to much credence to the notion that the "economic literature of Islam can be traced to the Economics of Bryson", for the ancient Greek philosopher. 

** It is worth noticing that the piece cited at the beginning suggests that Khaldun is a precursor of Smith, presumably because of the division of labor, but without a distinction of productive and unproductive activities, but also of Alfred Marshall. We are told that Khaldun "analyzed markets which arise based on the division of labor and examined market forces in a simple didactic way which is very similar to the attitude of Alfred Marshall. The invention of supply and demand analysis wasn’t invented in the 19th century: the islamic scholar also described the relationship of demand and supply." Supply and demand forces were well-known before Khaldun. Marginalism suggested that long-term prices, what Smith called natural prices, were determined by those forces.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Heterodox Challenges in Economics by Sergio Cesaratto

The English translation of Sergio Cesaratto's book has been published. A Free chapter is available at the Springer website here.

From the promotion pamphlet:

This book discloses the economic foundations of European fiscal and monetary policies by introducing readers to an array of alternative approaches in economics. It presents various heterodox theories put forward by classical economists, Marx, Sraffa and Keynes, as a coherent challenge to neo-classical theory. The book underscores and critically assesses the analytical inconsistencies of European economic policy and the conservative nature of the current European governance. In this light, it examines the political obstacles to proposals to reform the European monetary union, as well as those originating in the neo-mercantilist German model. Given its scope and format, the book offers a valuable asset for researchers and members of the general public alike.

Go get one immediately! 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Poor Richard Goes to London: The Economic Ideas of Benjamin Franklin

Another episode of my podcast on The Worldly Philosophers Go to Washington: From Alexander Hamilton to Janet Yellen. The ideas of early classical political economists and their influence in America are analyzed in this episode. The role of Sir William Petty’s ideas in the development of Benjamin Franklin’s early policy proposals is discussed. It is noted how Franklin had a firm grasp of the main economic theories of his time, even before some of these ideas were fully developed in Europe, by the Physiocrats and Adam Smith. In fact, some of Franklin’s original ideas influenced European political economists. The notion that the influence of economics is a recent phenomenon cannot be supported by the evidence.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

From Regulation to Deregulation and (Perhaps) Back (Talk in Portuguese)

My talk at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro yesterday, on the rise, fall, and perhaps rise again of the regulatory state in the US, and its relation to ideas, particularly institutionalist, and Chicago School views, as expressed by John R. Commons and George Stigler. In Portuguese, of course.

Podcast with about the never ending crisis in Argentina

Podcast with about the never ending crisis in Argentina with Fabián Amico, and myself and interview by Carlos Pinkusfeld Bastos and Caio Be...