Economics for the summer

Last week Martin Wolf, the FT economics journalist, listed the new economics books that he would recommend for summer reading.

He started off with Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn’t, by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi, Princeton, RRP£27/$35.  Wolf commented that “this is an extremely important book. It uses empirical evidence to assess the effects of fiscal austerity through spending cuts versus tax increases. It concludes that the negative effects on output of spending cuts are far smaller than those of tax increases. Moreover, spending-based plans are more effective in lowering the growth of debt than tax increases. Yet, it should be noted that the costs are assessed only in terms of aggregate output and so ignore the distributional impacts of spending cuts versus tax rises.”

Alesina et al have been leading supporters of the positive impact of ‘austerity’ on economic growth, in contrast to the pile of evidence from the IMF and other sources that the policies of austerity have not helped (instead hindered) economic recovery in any of the major capitalist economies.

When they first published a paper on this, Alesina et al reckoned that “fiscal adjustments based upon cuts in spending are much less costly, in terms of output losses, than those based upon tax increases. ….spending-based adjustments generate very small recessions, with an impact on output growth not significantly different from zero.”  And “Our findings seem to hold for fiscal adjustments both before and after the financial crisis. We cannot reject the hypothesis that the effects of the fiscal adjustments, especially in Europe in 2009-13, were indistinguishable from previous ones”.  In other words, cutting government spending (austerity) had little effect on the real GDP growth rate and that applied to the post-crisis ‘austerity policies of European governments.

At the time, I wrote in a post that “economic growth in capitalist economies depends on an expansion of business investment and that depends ultimately on the profitability of those investments. If we look at the multiplier effects of government spending, taxation and borrowing on growth through the prism of profitability, we find that it is very unlikely that extra government spending, whether financed by taxes or borrowing, would boost profitability in the business sector and therefore raise capitalist investment and economic growth.” In other words, raising or cutting government spending will have only marginal impact on growth.  The change in the profitability of capital is what matters in a capitalist economy.

Wolf’s second recommendation was Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy, by Anders Aslund, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$35. Wolf comments that “This superb book shows why Putin’s regime is a leading catastrophe of the 21st century. Russia’s president has constructed what Aslund calls “an iron quadrangle of four circles of power”: vertical state power; big state enterprises; his cronies; and the “Anglo-American havens, where he and the cronies can safely keep their money”.  According the author what is needed is “radical transparency over the beneficial ownership of wealth held in the west.”

In other words, we need to expose the money laundering and tax avoidance of Russian oligarchs that has been assisted by Western banking.  After the scandals of the Panama papers and the Deutsche Bank and Danske bank tax scams, that is a forlorn hope. As Gabriel Zucman  and Thomas Wright have shown in a meticulous and in-depth analysis of the size and extent of tax havens and tax avoidance, far from them being reduced or controlled, on the contrary, such schemes are an increasing part of international corporate profits, organised and transacted by the banks. About half of all the foreign profits of US multinationals are booked in tax havens.

The next book Wolf highlights is The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work, by Richard Baldwin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20.  According to Wolf, “Globotics” describes the integration of artificial intelligence with robotics. Improvements in technology will make it far easier to collaborate at a distance. Moreover, many tasks now carried out by people will be done by AI and robots. The combination will, he argues, transform (and threaten) the economic opportunities of huge numbers of relatively educated people in high-income countries.

In other words, AI and robots will boost trade but reduce jobs in areas that previously assisted trade and investment.  Yes, it’s a dialectical issue. Reducing the labour time, particularly transport and logistics time, can only increase productivity.  But under capitalism, that does not mean less working time for all, but a loss of jobs that technology replaces. Those jobs must be replaced by new jobs associated with the new technology. That can happen.

But as Marx pointed that does not mean a seamless process of change. “workers who have been thrown out of work in a given branch of industry can no doubt look for employment in another branch…even if they do find employment, what a miserable prospect they face! Crippled as they are by the division of labour, these poor devils are worth so little outside their old trade that they cannot find admission into any industries except a few inferior and therefore over-supplied and under-paid branches. Furthermore, every branch of industry attracts each year a new stream of men, who furnish a contingent from which to fill up vacancies, and to draw a supply for expansion. As soon as machinery has set free a part of the workers employed in a given branch of industry, the reserve men are also diverted into new channels of employment, and become absorbed in other branches” (Grundrisse).

Wolf also recommends The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich, by Victoria Bateman, Polity, RRP£16.99.  Bateman is the Cambridge academic, notorious for her “naked protests” on TV against Brexit.  Apparently she argues that “women’s freedom is vital for economic prosperity. It boosts wages, skills, saving and entrepreneurial spirit, and it delivers a democratic and capable state.”

Although Bateman is a feminist, she believes, against many feminists, that markets “have . . . been central to building women’s freedom”.  Wolf thinks she is right on that.  But does the evidence support the view that capitalism and markets have helped make women freer? Yes, capitalist accumulation has led to a sharp increase in the employment of women, but also to the increased exploitation of female labour power (at lower wages than men). Yes, women have made Western capitalism rich, but not vice versa.

The most self-serving of the books recommended by Wolf is Firefighting: The Financial Crisis and its Lessons, by Ben S Bernanke, Timothy F Geithner and Henry M Paulson Jr, Penguin, RRP$16/Profile, RRP£9.99.  In this we are told by the very men that ensured the bailout of US banking and financial institutions with taxpayer money how they saved the world (for capitalism).  Wolf agrees “If what these three men did during the financial crisis had not been done, the world would, in my view, have experienced a second great depression.” 

This book is really a repeat of Ben Bernanke’s own memoir published four years ago when he defended his role as head of the US Federal Reserve. In that book he would like us to think that he “courageously” saved the world by adopting unconventional monetary policies learnt from the lessons of the Great Depression and in the teeth of orthodox opposition.  But he did not save the world but only the banks (the biggest ones) and his unconventional monetary policy has not revived the US economy, let alone the world, but only fuelled a new credit-led stock market and bond boom for the 1%.

Wolf admits that “the story told in this short book contains a sober warning. Despite stronger regulation and more robust financial systems, further financial crises will happen. Policymakers need tools to put out these fires. But, in the US at least, their ability to do so is now less than it was before the crisis. We must pray that we do not learn to regret this.”

Perhaps the answer is to adopt a policy of massive monetary injections directly to the public, by-passing the banks.  This is the policy recommended to save the world economy in the next crisis in The Case for People’s Quantitative Easing, by Frances Coppola, Polity, RRP£35. Wolf: “The alternative, she argues, is for central banks to create money in a crisis that provides people with purchasing power directly. The view that this must be part of the policy arsenal is right. We should think about how this is to be done when a crisis hits once again.”  The ‘money trick’ continues to dominate the thinking of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economists like Coppola, Pettifor and, of course, the Modern Monetary Theorists.  My views on these ideas and policies are expressed in several posts.

In The Wealth Effect: How the Great Expectations of the Middle Class Have Changed the Politics of Banking Crises, by Jeffrey M Chwieroth and Andrew Walter, Cambridge University Press, RRP£29.99/$39.99, Wolf tells us that future financial crises will require yet more bailouts by government and this book says there is no way out of this. “We have ended up in a race between the regulatory capacity of the state and the financial sector’s ability to discover new ways to collapse. There is no straightforward way out of this dangerous red queen’s race.”

In many posts and papers, I have argued that there is a way out of recurring financial crises.  Regulation has not worked and will not work.  Public ownership and public banks under democratic control is the only way to end speculation, money laundering and tax evasion by the financial sector. To quote Lenin: “The banks, as we know, are centres of modern economic life, the principal nerve centres of the whole capitalist economic system. To talk about “regulating economic life” and yet evade the question of the nationalisation of the banks means either betraying the most profound ignorance or deceiving the “common people” by florid words and grandiloquent promises with the deliberate intention of not fulfilling these promises.”

Wolf praises the next book Democracy and Prosperity: Reinventing Capitalism through a Turbulent Century, by Torben Iversen and David Soskice, Princeton, RRP$29.95/£24 because it reckons that ‘democracy’ and capitalism go together and cannot be separated: “democracy and markets have proved highly successful over the past century and, in all probability, will continue to be so in future.” This rosy-glassed view stands in opposition to the reality that when it comes to a choice between preserving capitalism and the profits of the owners of capital and sustaining ‘democracy’, the latter has always been sacrificed for the former.

Then there is China. Wolf recommends The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China, by Nicholas Lardy, Peterson Institute for International Economics, RRP$23.95.  Lardy’s new book promotes his argument that “China has moved away from market-oriented reform towards a more state-controlled economy, partly in order to strengthen the control of the party-state. This, he argues, is a mistake. Among other things, China cannot simultaneously promote a state-controlled domestic economy and argue for an open world economy. It must choose. The current path will prove damaging for both China and the world.”

Lardy has regularly forecast the collapse of the Chinese economy unless it fully adopts markets and gets rid of state control.  And yet the evidence of China’s economic success stands in contradiction to this view. Yes, China is an autocratic, one-party state increasingly dominated by one man. But a switch to open markets, free trade and opening up to foreign investment will not deliver ‘democracy’, but the very economic collapse Lardy claims it will avoid.

That markets are no solution to economic prosperity and democracy is actually hinted at in The Third Pillar: The Revival of Community in a Polarised World, by Raghuram Rajan, William Collins, RRP£30/Penguin Press, RRP$30.  Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, argues that the balance between the market economy and the state has been disrupted. The solution is to empower a third pillar: the local community. He recommends shifting “from maximising shareholder value to maximising the overall economic value of businesses, taking in investments by workers and suppliers.”  Rajan has claimed in the past that he was one of the few mainstream economists that warned about the dangers of financial speculation before the global financial crash but he was dismissed.  Now it seems that his solution is the utopian one of ‘community politics’ and ‘shareholder democracy’.  More sophistry.

In The Power of Capitalism: A Journey Through Recent History Across Five Continents, by Rainer Zitelmann, LID Publishing, RRP£23.79/$33.42 , we get the true voice of capital.  According to Wolf, “Capitalism is the only economic system that has proven to be successful, in the long term. This is the core argument of Zitelmann’s lively polemic. As is true of most ideologues, he oversimplifies. He understates the costs of high inequality. He also understates the fragility of free-market financial systems. But, at a time when socialism is becoming politically attractive, he rightly points to the proven economic superiority of market economies built on private property.”

Zitelmann is in no doubt that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds.  Wolf agrees and he does not want ‘socialism’ either, except that he is concerned that the financial sector is unstable and capitalism may create inequality.  There you have it.  One wing of the mainstream is all out for capital and markets; the other wing is too, but wants to manage it better and make it fairer.

14 thoughts on “Economics for the summer

  1. These works by Alesina, Aslund, etc. are not economic analysis–where observations of real conditions and facts in the world are then gleaned for their potential major causal variables, summarized, and hypthesized and tested. These works are economic ideology (which is most of what Wolf and others promote today). Economic ideology proceeds deductively, starting with a first principle–i.e. to apologize and legitimize policies like austerity, free trade, tax cuts for the rich are the best way to promote investment and growth, etc. etc. The analysis that follows it to justify the predetermined conclusions noted. Assumptions are made, often deeply buried in the jargon and writing so readers don’t pick them up, with the intent of changing and rearranging the causal relations (and their multiple feedback effects). This is done by reversing the causality, inverting the relationship between variables, inserting totally irrelevant new variables, deleting old variables, and a host of other ‘language games’ so that reality is distorted from its original meaning. Thus we get nonsense like ‘free trade benefits all’, ‘business tax cuts create jobs’, productivity determines wages’, ‘markets are always efficient’, ‘central banks are independent’, ‘interest rates (and other cost of capital) determines investment’, ‘social entitlements (social security, etc.) are the cause of budget deficits’, ‘the global savings glut caused the 2008 housing crisis’, ‘inflation is always too much money chasing too few goods’, ‘recessions are caused by external shocks to an otherwise stable (in equilibrium) system’, and a host of similar nonsense. Ideology is thus about how ideas are changed, in the interest of certain social strata and classes that directly benefit from the change, and manipulated in order to distort reality. Marx began explaining this but did not finish the job; moreover, the themes of ideology have proliferated in the 21st century. Gramsci and Althusser began to describe the institutional apparatus that carries the implements the ideology created by the Wolfs, Alesenas, Aslands, et. al. But that apparatus too has become more complex and powerful today as well. (For my own views on this, see my blog,, and the entries ‘How Ideology in Economics Works’, my 2012 article, ‘Applications of Ideology in Economic Policy’, in the journal, Critique, and my forthcoming book, ‘The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump’, chapter 12, Clarity Press, September 2019, where economic ideology as ‘language games’ is discussed.) Marxists should take the analysis of ideology in economics to a new level of theoretical explanation, not just note the obvious purposeful errors of Wolf, Alesina, and the other obfuscators of economic reality.

  2. Mr Roberts, it is a very good article. Could you please write a similar one, suggesting the books which you think that they are interesting/ useful?

  3. Michael, I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years but don’t think I ever left a comment. I just want to say that you’re doing excellent work!

  4. “Public ownership and public banks under democratic control is the only way to end speculation, money laundering and tax evasion by the financial sector.”

    Could you expound on this some day in a blog post? I have great faith in democratic ownership of institutions but I cannot solidly draw the conclusion “an end to speculation and tax evasion” from “public banks”, except in that socializing banks means reducing/reversing financialization of national economies.

  5. “Perhaps the answer is to adopt a policy of massive monetary injections directly to the public, by-passing the banks. This is the policy recommended to save the world economy in the next crisis in The Case for People’s Quantitative Easing, by Frances Coppola, Polity, RRP£35. Wolf: “The alternative, she argues, is for central banks to create money in a crisis that provides people with purchasing power directly. The view that this must be part of the policy arsenal is right. We should think about how this is to be done when a crisis hits once again.” The ‘money trick’ continues to dominate the thinking of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economists like Coppola, Pettifor and, of course, the Modern Monetary Theorists. “


  6. ” Yes, China is an autocratic, one-party state ” All states are autocratic, especially the USA, of which the famous writer, Gore Vidal, observed that it was ‘a one-party state with two right wings,’ so just like China!

    1. ”China is a democracy and has many checks and balances to what (in this specific case) Xi can and cannot do.”

      If China were in reality a democracy, Mr Xi would be in office for no longer than a day and a night. China is an oligarchy. According to Paul Cockshott, recent Chinese he has met insist that the suppression of Marxists has increased under Xi.

      Perhaps vk could outline what he understands by ‘democracy.’

  7. The logic of the phrase “… the effects of fiscal austerity through spending cuts versus tax increases.” is flawless if analyzed from another point of view, the rise in commodity prices!
    Tax austerity leads to a decrease in consumption of mass products, tax increases leads to decrease in luxury goods.
    Not analyzing the previous paragraph on the moral side, for this is not the logic of great capital, the fiscal austerity does not inflate the price of products that could cause problems to the proletarian classes of the first world, which even slowly withdrawing social benefits will not feel so fast the effect of an acceleration of inflation.
    On the other hand, rising commodity prices give more bargaining conditions to the associated elites in the third world, and as a saying goes in Portuguese “you can start thinking of going from duck to goose.”
    We can not forget that a level of consumption like there is still in the USA can not be maintained in 2 or 3 USA more!

  8. “Capitalism is the only economic system that has proven to be successful, in the long term.” I wonder how (the why is for propaganda) people can say “long run”, if slavery or feudalism lasted far longer.

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