Archive for the ‘marxism’ Category

Capitulating to adults

May 31, 2020

During the pandemic lockdown, I have been able to read a range of new economics books, some Marxist but most not.  It seems that many leading economists have published new stuff in the last two months. Over the next few weeks, I shall post some reviews of these.

I shall start with Sellouts in the Room by Eric Toussaint. Originally published in French and in Greek in March 2020 under the title Capitulation entre Adultes, the book will be available in English before the end of 2020.  Eric Toussaint takes us back to events of Greek debt crisis when the Troika (the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF) tried to impose a drastic austerity programme on the Greek people in return for ‘bailout’ funds to cover existing debts owed by Greek banks and the Greek government to foreign creditors, as credit for Greece in markets dried up and the government headed for default.

At the beginning of 2015, the Greek people elected the left-wing Syriza party to power. Syriza pledged to resist austerity measures. The new prime minister Tsipras appointed the already well-known leftist economist Yanis Varoufakis as finance minister to negotiate a deal with the Troika.  As we subsequently know, Varoufakis was unable to persuade the Troika and EU leaders to drop the austerity demands. Tsipras called a referendum for the Greek people on whether to accept the Troika demands.  Despite a massive media campaign by the capitalist press and dire threats from the Troika and the strangling of the Greek economy and banks by the ECB, the Greek people voted 60% to reject the Troika plan.  But immediately after the vote, Tsipras caved into the Troika and agreed to their demands.

Varoufakis resigned as finance minister and later he wrote an account of his negotiations with the Troika, called Adults in the Room. Éric Toussaint was also in Greece at the time.  He was coordinating the work of a debt audit committee set up by the president of the Hellenic Parliament in 2015 to look at the nature of the debt that the Greeks owed to the likes of European banks, hedge funds and other governments. He “lived nearly three months in Athens between February and July 2015, and in the context of my work as scientific coordinator of the audit of Greece’s debt, I was in direct contact with a number of members of the Tsipras government.”  Toussaint has now written an alternative view of those events from that recounted by Varoufakis.  And it amounts to a devastating critique of the Syriza government and of Varoufakis’ strategy and tactics during 2015.

Does it matter what happened? Toussaint reckons it does because there are important lessons to be learned from the Greek debt crisis. The common view now is that Syriza had no alternative but to submit to the Troika as otherwise the Greek banks would have collapsed, the economy would have fallen down an abyss and Greece would have been thrown out of the European Union to fend for itself.  For example, Paul Mason, British leftist broadcaster and writer, wrote in 2017 that “I continue to believe Tsipras was right to climb down in the face of the EU’s ultimatum, and that Varoufakis was at fault for the way he designed the “game” strategy.”

Toussaint’s denies the narrative of TINA (‘there is no alternative’), arguing that there was an alternative strategy that Syriza could have followed and, in particular, Toussaint singles out Varoufakis for failing to recognise or adopt this in his role as finance minister.  In Toussaint’s view, Varoufakis started from the premiss that he had to persuade the Troika to act as “adults” and aim to convince them to reach a reasonable compromise.  From the very beginning Varoufakis made extremely minimal counter-proposals to the Troika austerity measures: “Varoufakis reassured his opposite numbers that the Greek government would not request a reduction of the debt stock, and he never called into question the legitimacy or legality of the debt whose repayment was demanded of Greece.” He never asserted the right and the determination of the Greek government to conduct an audit of Greece’s debts, says Toussaint.

And Varoufakis not only said that the government he represented would not call into question the privatizations that had been conducted since 2010, but even allowed for the possibility of further privatizations.  Indeed, Varoufakis repeatedly told the European leaders that 70 per cent of the measures called for by the Troika’s Memorandum of Understanding were acceptable.  While Varoufakis discussed with these ‘adults in a room’, the Syriza government continued to pay off several billion euros in debts between February and 30 June 2015, while the Troika did not make a single euro available. The public coffers continued to be emptied, principally for the benefit of the IMF.

Varoufakis and the inner circle around Tsipras, in reaching an agreement with the Troika in late February 2015 to extend the second Memorandum of Understanding, never showed evidence of the slightest determination to take action if the creditors refused to make concessions. And the latter gave every evidence of contempt for Greece’s government.

Most important, says Toussaint, the Syriza government ministers did not take the time to go out and meet the Greek people, to speak at rallies where the Greek population was represented. They did not travel around the country to meet and talk with voters and explain what was going on during the negotiations or the measures the government wanted to take to fight the humanitarian crisis and re-start the country’s economy. They utterly failed to appeal to the working people of Europe and elsewhere for support. Instead, Varoufakis and the other Greek ministers involved to conduct ‘secret diplomacy’ in rooms, thus encouraging the Troika to “persist in using the worst forms of blackmail.”

The referendum of 5 July 2015 was the culmination of those negotiations. Clearly, Tsipras expected the Greek people to bow to the pressure of the media and the threat of economic disaster and expulsion from the EU by accepting the Troika demands. But they did not. Toussaint says that the referendum results was a perfect opportunity to mobilise the Greek people to reject the Troika’s blackmail, refuse their ultimatums and instead respond by suspending further repayments of debt pending an audit. The government should have announced the nationalisation of the banks and implemented capital controls to stop capital flight and take control of the payments system.

As Toussaint points out: “When a coalition or a party of the Left takes over government, it does not take over the real power. Economic power (which comes from ownership of and control over financial and industrial groups, the mainstream private media, mass retailing, etc.) remains in the hands of the capitalist class, the richest 1 per cent of the population. That capitalist class controls the state, the courts and the police, the ministries of the economy and finance, the central bank, the major decision-making bodies.”

That was ignored or denied by the Syriza governemnt, including its rockstar finance minister. They started from the premiss that representatives of capital in the Troika could be persuaded to be reasonable, to act as adults.  The class nature of the struggle was omitted.  As Toussaint says: “In reality, a major strategic choice of the Syriza government–one which led to its downfall–was constantly to avoid confrontation with the Greek capitalist class. It was not simply that Syriza and the government did not seek popular mobilization against the Greek bourgeoisie, who widely adhered to the EU’s neoliberal policies. The government openly pursued policies of conciliation with them.”

Toussaint offers an alternative strategy in his book.  The Syriza government “should have resolutely followed the path of disregarding the European treaties and refusing to submit to the dictates of the creditors. At the same time they should have taken the offensive against the Greek capitalists, making them pay taxes and fines, especially in the sectors of shipping, finance, the media and mass retail. It was also important to make the Orthodox Church, the country’s main land owner, pay taxes. As a means of reinforcing these policies, the government should have encouraged the development of self-organization processes in existing collective projects in various domains (for example, self-managed health dispensaries to deal with the social and humanitarian crisis or associations working to feed the most vulnerable people.”

That brings us to the issue of Greece’s membership of the European Union.  Up to the point of the referendum, apart from the Communist party, no party stood for leaving the EU as a solution to the crisis. The vast majority of Greeks did not want this. After the capitulation of Syriza, the party leadership split and those opposed to the capitulation (with the exception of Varoufakis) called for Grexit as the main policy proposal and solution. In the subsequent election, these factions failed to make any headway into parliament and the Tsipras government was returned intact.

In his book, Toussaint reckons that the Syriza government should have opted for triggering Article 50 in the EU constitution as a way of getting out of the EU. This Article is what the UK government subsequently used to achieve its exit after its referendum to leave in 2016.  Toussaint reckons that using this instrument would have given Greece two years to argue the toss with the EU, while it refused to pay any more debt etc. I am not so sure that this would have been a good tactic. As Toussaint points out, no EU member state can be thrown out and there are few sanctions that the EU could impose on a Greek government anyway, apart from the ECB blocking credit, something they were doing anyway. By applying for Article 51, Syriza would have been telling the Greek people that the government aimed to leave the EU voluntarily (something the majority of Greek did not want); and also giving the EU leaders an easy way out of getting rid of Greece, something that, as Varoufakis points out in his narrative, German finance minister Schauble was keen on doing.

In my posts during the Greek crisis, I argued that the Syriza government should have refused to pay the debt; taken over the banks and large Greek companies, mobilised the people to occupy the workplaces and introduce workers control; blocked the movement of funds by the rich and corporates; and appealed to the labour movement in Europe for support against the policies of their governments.  Let those governments try to throw Greece out; but do not give them constitutional weapon to do so.

The main emphasis in Toussaint’s book is on the role of Varoufakis, not because of any personal animosity, but because this ‘erratic Marxist’, as Varoufakis calls himself, was at the centre of events and went on to write his best-selling personal account of what happened. Varoufakis then formed a pan-European wide political party DIEM 25, and was eventually re-elected as an MP in the Greek parliament in the recent 2019 election that led to the Conservative party taking back power.

Why did Varoufakis from the beginning as finance minister adopt the strategy of trying to persuade the Troika leaders to be reasonable, rather than mobilise the Greek people for a fight against the Troika demands? The answer, I think, lies in Varuofakis’ view of the possibilities for socialism. Before he was appointed finance minister by Tsipras, he had not been a member of Syriza; he had been an academic. Back then, he wrote, “You see, it is not an environment for radical socialist policies after all. Instead it is the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis”.  He had written what was called a Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis with Social Democrat academic Stuart Holland and his close colleague and friend, post-Keynesian James Galbraith, in which Varoufakis was proud to say “does not have a whiff of Marxism in it.”

This ‘erratic Marxist’ saw his task as Greek finance minister “to save European capitalism from itself” so as to “minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis; the countless lives whose prospects will be further crushed without any benefit whatsoever for the future generations of Europeans.” Apparently, for Varoufakis, socialism cannot do this because “we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapsing European capitalism will open up with a functioning socialist system”.  By ‘we’, he means working people, but in practice he meant himself.

Varoufakis went further. You see, “a Marxist analysis of both European capitalism and of the Left’s current condition compels us to work towards a broad coalition, even with right-wingers, the purpose of which ought to be the resolution of the Eurozone crisis and the stabilisation of the European Union… Ironically, those of us who loathe the Eurozone have a moral obligation to save it!”  Thus he campaigned for his Modest Proposal for Europe with “the likes of Bloomberg and New York Times journalists, of Tory members of Parliament, of financiers who are concerned with Europe’s parlous state.”

In Sellouts in the Room, Eric Toussaint scathingly exposes this wrong-headed approach of the ‘erratic Marxist’. It’s a painful read in many ways, as Toussaint chapter by chapter recounts Varoufakis’ sorry progress, or lack of it. In a recent interview, Varoufakis was asked “what would I have done differently with the information I had at the time? I think I should have been far less conciliatory to the Troika. I should have been far tougher. I should not have sought an interim agreement. I should have given them an ultimatum: “a restructure of debt, or we are out of the euro today”.

Unfortunately, there is never much benefit in hindsight, except to to avoid the same mistakes when another opportunity arises. Toussaint’s book is a guide to that. In the meantime, the Greek people now face yet another round of austerity and depression after the coronavirus crisis, following the terrible years before and after the capitulation of 2015. The IMF forecast for 2020 would take Greek national income back to the level of 25 years ago!

China in the post-pandemic 2020s

May 22, 2020

China’s National Peoples Congress (NPC) opened today, having been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.  The NPC is China’s version of a parliament and used by the Communist party leaders to report on the state of the economy and outline their plans for the future, both domestically and globally.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced that for the first time in decades that there would be no growth target for the year.  So the Chinese leaders have abandoned their much heralded aim to have doubled the country’s GDP under the current plan by this year. That was bowing to the inevitable.

The pandemic and lockdown had driven the Chinese economy into a severe contraction for several months, from which it is only just recovering. The economy contracted by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter and most forecasts for the whole year are for less than half of the 6.1 per cent growth rate posted last year.  But even that figure would be way better than all the G7 economies in 2020.

Industrial production and investment is now picking up, but consumer spending remains depressed.

But Li said that main reason that there was no growth target was because of uncertainty about “the Covid-19 pandemic and the world economic and trade environment.” In other words, even if the domestic economy is recovering, the rest of the world is still depressed.  With world trade contracting, there are slim prospects for the exports of the manufactures that China has mainly depended for its expansion.

China is ahead of other major economies in coming out of the pandemic.  But even Li had to admit that a lot of mistakes were made in handling the pandemic and there was “still room for improvement in the work of government,” including delays in alerting the public allowed the virus to spread. “Pointless formalities and bureaucratism remain an acute issue. A small number of officials shirk their duties or are incapable of fulfilling them. Corruption is still a common problem in some fields,” Li admitted. Nevertheless, compared to the performance of governments in the West, China had done much better in keeping cases and deaths down.

In the short term, Li said the government intends to give a boost to the economy with some fiscal stimulus and monetary easing, similar to that in the G7 economies.  China is targeting a 2020 budget deficit of at least 3.6% of GDP, above last year’s 2.8%, and increased funding for local-government borrowing by two-thirds.  And for the first time, the central government will issue bonds to be used to help local government spending and firms in difficulty.  Unemployment is officially recorded at 5.5% but it is probably more like 15-20%, so the government aims to create more jobs and reduce poverty in rural areas to curb the flood of rural migrants to the cities.

That brings us to discuss the long-term future of the Chinese economy in the post-pandemic world and in the context of the intensifying trade and technology war with the US and other imperialist powers.

In my view there are three ways of looking at the economic development of China (this is something that I have written on in detail in a recent paper for the Austrian Journal of Development Studies). The mainstream economics view is that China should become a full ‘market’ economy like those of the G7.  Relying on cheap labour to sell manufacturing goods to the West is over.  Rising labour costs show that China’s state-driven and led economic model cannot succeed in developing modern technology or delivering consumer goods to the people.  This was the policy advice of the World Bank and other international agencies of global capital in the past and it gained some traction among a section of the elite, especially those closely connected to China’s private billionaires.  But so far, this option has been rejected by the majority in the current leadership.

The second view is what might be called Keynesian.  It recognises the success of the Chinese economy in the last 30 years in taking nearly 900m people out of the official poverty level set by the World Bank.  Indeed, the World Bank has just adjusted its figures for the decline in those who are now under its poverty level.  The decline seems impressive, until you realise that 75% of those brought out of poverty globally in the last three decades are Chinese.

This Keynesian view argues that China’s success has been based on massive investment in industry and infrastructure which has enabled the country to become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse.  But now that emphasis on industrial investment must be changed because household consumption is weak and in a modern economy it is consumption that matters.  Unless there is a swing to consumption, the Chinese economy will slow and the huge level of corporate and household debt will increase the risk of financial crises.

Actually, personal consumption in China has been increasing much faster than fixed investment in recent years, even if it is starting at a lower base.   Consumption rose 9% last year, much faster than GDP. And consumption growth would be even faster if the government took steps to reduce the high level of inequality of income.

The idea that China is heading for a crash because of under consumption and over investment is not convincing. It’s true that according to the Institute of International Finance (IFF), China’s total debt hit 317 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter of 2020.  But most of the domestic debt is owed by one state entity to another; from local government to state banks, from state banks to central government.  When that is all netted off, the debt owed by households (54% of GDP) and private corporations is not so high, while central government debt is low by global standards.  Moreover, external dollar debt to GDP is very low (15%) and indeed the rest of the world owes China way more, 6% of global debt.  China is a huge creditor to the world and has massive dollar and euro reserves, 50% larger than its dollar debt.

It’s true that some of the fixed investment expansion may have been wasted.  Indeed, the Keynesian development model of China based on just rising investment and private consumption demand is increasingly flawed.  As President Xi Jinping said, “Houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation.” But the government allowed capitalist speculation in property so that 15% of all apartments currently are owned as investments, often not even connected to electricity supply.  This property speculation was fuelled by credit funded by the state banks but also by ‘shadow banking’ entities.  This sort of speculation wasted resources and did not direct investment into areas like reducing CO2 emissions to meet the government’s declared aim to make China a ‘clean economy’.  With China’s population peaking in this decade and the working age population falling 20% by 2050, the aim of investment must be towards job creation, automation and productivity growth.

That brings me to the third development model, the Marxist one.  The key to prosperity is not market forces (neoclassical mainstream) or investment and consumption demand (Keynesian) but in raising the productivity of labour in a planned and harmonious way (Marxist).

In a capitalist economy, companies compete with each other to raise profitability through the introduction of new technologies.  But there is an inherent contradiction under capitalist production between a falling profitability of capital and a rising productivity of labour.  As capitalists try to raise the productivity of labour by shedding labour with technology and so lowering labour costs and increasing profits and market share, the overall profitability of investment and production begins to fall. Then, in a series of crises, investment collapses and productivity stagnates.

This is clearly an issue for China in its more mature stage of accumulation in the 21st century – if you accept that China is just another capitalist economy like the imperialist powers or the emerging ones like Brazil or India.  The argument goes, that China may be different from the ‘liberal capitalism’ of the West and instead is an autocratic ‘political capitalism’, as Branco Milanovic describes China in his book, Capitalism Alone, but it is still capitalism.

If you accept that view, then we can gauge the health and future of China’s economy by measuring the profitability of its burgeoning capitalist sector. In a new paper (Catching Up China India Japan (1)), Brazilian Marxist economists, Adalmir Marquetti, Luiz Eduardo Ourique and Henrique Morrone compared China’s development to that of India in catching up with the G7 economies. They show that the high capital accumulation rate in China has led to a fall in profitability even lower than in the US, so that further expansion is at risk.  In another paper, they argue that there is now an overaccumulation crisis brewing and further heavy investment would not work, especially given rising greenhouse emissions it would create. 71548-211901-1-PB (1)

Like Marquetti et al, I have measured the profitability of the capitalist sector in China (from Penn World Tables 9.1 internal rate of return on capital series) and I find a similar fall. The huge expansion of investment and technology, particularly once global markets were opened up to Chinese industry after 2000 when joining the World Trade Organisation, led to double-digit growth rates up to the Great Recession of 2008. But the increased organic composition of capital drove profitability down prior to global pandemic crisis, and eventually growth slowed.

Does this mean that China is heading for major slump along classic capitalist lines some time in this decade?  Marquetti et al seem to suggest that: “The larger profit rate explained the robust mechanization in the early stages of the process. Fast capital accumulation diminishes capital productivity and the profit rate. Then, the success in catching up must hinge on raising the saving and investment rates. It may further reduce capital productivity and the profit rate, putting the process at risk, which seems to be the case in China and India.” And they quote Minqi Li that ‘‘if China were to follow essentially the same economic laws as in other capitalist countries (such as the United States and Japan), a decline in the profit rate would be followed by a deceleration of capital accumulation, culminating in a major economic crisis.’’

But the question for me is whether the capitalist sector in China’s economy is dominant. Does China follow the same law of value as other capitalist economies?  China seems to be more than just an autocratic, undemocratic, ‘political’ version of capitalism compared to the ‘liberal democratic’ version of the West (as argued by Milanovic).  Its economy is not dominated by the market, by investment decisions based on profitability; or by capitalist companies and bosses; or by foreign investors. Its economy is still dominated by state control, state investment, state banks and by Communist apparatchiks who control the big companies and plan the economy (often inefficiently as there is no accountability to China’s working people).

I remind readers of the study I made a few years ago of the extent of state assets and investment in China compared to any other country. It showed that China has a stock of public sector assets worth 150% of annual GDP; only Japan has anything like that amount at 130%.  Every other major capitalist economy has less than 50% of GDP in public assets.  Every year, China’s public investment to GDP is around 16% compared to 3-4% in the US and the UK.  And here is the killer figure.  There are nearly three times as much stock of public productive assets to private capitalist sector assets in China.  In the US and the UK, public assets are less than 50% of private assets.  Even in ‘mixed economy’ India or Japan, the ratio of public to private assets is no more than 75%.  This shows that in China public ownership in the means of production is dominant – unlike any other major economy.

And now the IMF has published new data that confirm that analysis.  China has public capital stock near 160% of GDP, way more than anywhere else.  But note that this public sector stock has been falling faster than even the neo-liberal Western economies.  The capitalist mode of production may not be dominant in China, but it is growing fast.

Which way will China go?  In the post-pandemic decade will it move towards an outright capitalist economy that is just like the rest of world?  In other words, adopting the neoliberal mainstream model.  So far, in the light of the disastrous failure of ‘liberal democratic’ market economies in handling the pandemic, with death rates 100 times higher than in China and now deep in a slump not seen since the 1930s, that market model does not seem attractive to the Communist dictatorship or the Chinese people.  Instead Xi and Li seem to want to continue and expand the existing model of development: a state-directed and controlled economy that curbs the capitalist sector and resists imperialist intervention.

Indeed, China looks to expand its technological prowess and its influence globally through the Belt and Road investment initiative and its huge lending programmes to the likes of African and other states.  And it will be able to do so because its economic model does not rest on the falling profitability of its admittedly sizeable capitalist sector.  An IIF report found that China is now the world’s largest creditor to low income countries.

That is why the post-pandemic strategy of imperialism towards China is taking a sharp turn.  And this is the big geopolitical issue of the next decade.  The imperialist approach has changed.  When Deng came to take over the Communist leadership in 1978 and started to open up the economy to capitalist development and foreign investment, the policy of imperialism was one of ‘engagement’.  After Nixon’s visit and Deng’s policy change, the hope was that China could be brought into the imperialist nexus and foreign capital would take over, as it has in Brazil, India and other ‘emerging markets’.  With ‘globalisation’ and the entry of China to the World Trade Organisation, engagement was intensified with the World Bank calling for privatisation of state industry and the introduction of market prices etc.

But the global financial crash and the Great Recession changed all that.  Under its state controlled model, China survived and expanded while Western capitalism collapsed. China was fast becoming not just a cheap labour manufacturing and export economy, but a high technology, urbanised society with ambitions to extend its political and economic influence, even beyond East Asia.  That was too much for the increasingly weak imperialist economies.  The US and other G7 nations have lost ground to China in manufacturing, and their reliance on Chinese inputs for their own manufacturing has risen, while China’s reliance on G7 inputs has fallen.

Source: Manufacturing shares from World Development Indicator online database. Reliance computations by authors, based on OECD ICIO Tables (https://www.oecd.org/sti/ind/inter-country-input-output-tables.htm).

So the strategy has changed: if China was not going to play ball with imperialism and acquiesce, then the policy would become one of ‘containment’.  The sadly recently deceased Jude Woodward wrote an excellent book describing this strategy of containment that began even before Trump launched his trade tariff war with China on taking the US presidency in 2016.  Trump’s policy, at first regarded as reckless by other governments, is now being adopted across the board, after the failure of the imperialist countries to protect lives during the pandemic. The blame game for the coronavirus crisis is to be laid at China’s door.

The aim is to weaken China’s economy and destroy its influence and perhaps achieve ‘regime change’.  Blocking trade with tariffs; blocking technology access for China and their exports; applying sanctions on Chinese companies; and turning debtors against China; this may all be costly to imperialist economies.  But the cost may be worth it, if China can be broken and US hegemony secured.

China is not a socialist society.  Its autocratic one-party Communist government is often inefficient and it imposed draconian measures on its people during the pandemic.  The Maoist regime suppressed dissidents ruthlessly and the cultural revolution was a shocking travesty.  The current government also suppresses minorities like the grotesque herding of the muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang Province into ‘reeducation camps’.  And nobody can speak out against the regime without repercussions.  And now the leadership has announced the introduction of military rule in Hong Kong, ending parliament and suppressing the protests there.  And it still looks to ensure that Taiwan, the home of the former warlord nationalists who fled to Formosa and occupied it at the end of the civil war in 1949, is eventually incorporated into the mainland.

China’s leadership is not accountable to its working people; there are no organs of worker democracy.  And China’s leaders are obsessed with building military might – the NPC heard that the military budget would rise by 6.6 per cent for 2020 and China now spends 2% of GDP on arms. But that is still way less than the US. The US military budget in 2019 was $732bn, representing 38 per cent of global defence spending, compared with China’s $261bn.

But remember, all China’s so-called  ‘aggressive behaviour’ and crimes against human rights are easily matched by the crimes of imperialism in the last century alone: the occupation and massacre of millions of Chinese by Japanese imperialism in 1937; the continual gruesome wars post-1945 conducted by imperialism against the Vietnamese people, Latin America and proxy wars in Africa and Syria, as well as the more recent invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the appalling nightmare in Yemen by the disgusting US-backed regime in Saudi Arabia etc.  And don’t forget the horrific poverty and inequality that weighs for billions under the imperialist mode of production.

The NPC reveals that China is at a crossroads in its development. Its capitalist sector has deepening problems with profitability and debt.  But the current leadership has pledged to continue with its state-directed economic model and autocratic political control.  And it seems determined to resist the new policy of ‘containment’ emanating from the ‘liberal democracies’. The trade, technology and political ‘cold war’ is set to heat up over the rest of this decade, while the planet heats up too.

Profitability, investment and the pandemic

May 17, 2020

Last week’s speech by US Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington was truly shocking.  Powell told his audience of economists that “The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent”. One shocking fact that he announced was that, according to a special Fed survey of ‘economic well-being’ among American households, “Among people who were working in February, almost 40% households making less than $40,000 a year had lost a job in March”!!!

Powell went on to warn his well-paid audience sitting at home watching on Zoom that “while the economic response has been both timely and appropriately large, it may not be the final chapter, given that the path ahead is both highly uncertain and subject to significant downside risks”. Indeed, if the continual downgrading of forecasts of global growth are anything to go by, then the number of optimists about a V-shaped recovery are beginning to dwindle to just the leaders of governments and finance.

Another study projects that US GDP will decline by 22% compared to the pre-COVID-19 period and 24% of US jobs are likely to be vulnerable. The adverse effects are further estimated to be strongest for low-wage workers who might face employment reductions of up to 42% while high-wage workers are estimated to experience just a 7% decrease.

And Powell was worried that this collapse could leave lasting damage to the US economy, making any quick or even significant recovery difficult.  “The record shows that deeper and longer recessions can leave behind lasting damage to the productive capacity of the economy.”, said Powell, echoing the arguments presented in my recent post on the ‘scarring’ of the economy.

Powell reckoned the main problem in achieving any recovery once the pandemic was over was that “A prolonged recession and weak recovery could also discourage business investment and expansion, further limiting the resurgence of jobs as well as the growth of capital stock and the pace of technological advancement. The result could be an extended period of low productivity growth and stagnant incomes.”  See here.

And there was a serious risk that the longer the recovery took to emerge, the more likely there would be bankruptcies and the collapse of firms and eve n banks, as “the recovery may take some time to gather momentum, and the passage of time can turn liquidity problems into solvency problems.”

Indeed, last week, the Federal Reserve released its semi-annual Financial Stability Report, in which it concluded that “asset prices remain vulnerable to significant price declines should the pandemic take an unexpected course, the economic fallout prove more adverse, or financial system strains re-emerge.”  The Fed report warned that lenders could face “material losses” from lending to struggling borrowers who are unable to get back on track after the crisis. “The strains on household and business balance sheets from the economic and financial shocks since March will probably create fragilities that last for some time,” the Fed wrote.  “All told, the prospect for losses at financial institutions to create pressures over the medium term appears elevated,” the central bank said.

So the coronavirus slump will be deep and long lasting with a weak recovery to follow and could cause a financial crash.  And working people will suffer severely, especially those at the bottom of the income and skills ladder. That is the message of the head of the world’s most powerful central bank.

But the other message that Jay Powell wanted to emphasise to his economics audience was that this terrifying slump was not the fault of capitalism.  Powell was at pains to claim that the cause of the slump was the virus and lockdowns and not the economy. “The current downturn is unique in that it is attributable to the virus and the steps taken to limit its fallout. This time, high inflation was not a problem. There was no economy-threatening bubble to pop and no unsustainable boom to bust.  The virus is the cause, not the usual suspects—something worth keeping in mind as we respond.”

This statement reminded me of what I said way back in mid-March when the virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. “I’m sure when this disaster is over, mainstream economics and the authorities will claim that it was an exogenous crisis nothing to do with any inherent flaws in the capitalist mode of production and the social structure of society.  It was the virus that did it.”  My response then was to remind readers that “Even before the pandemic struck, in most major capitalist economies, whether in the so-called developed world or in the ‘developing’ economies of the ‘Global South’, economic activity was slowing to a stop, with some economies already contracting in national output and investment, and many others on the brink.”

After Powell’s comment, I went back and had a look at the global real GDP growth rate since the end of the Great Recession in 2009.  Based on IMF data, we can see that annual growth was on a downward trend and in 2019 global growth was the slowest since the GR.

And if we compare last year’s 2019 real GDP growth rate with the 10yr average before, then every area of the world showed a significant fall.

The Eurozone growth was 11% below the 10yr average, the G7 and advanced economies even lower, with the emerging markets growth rate 27% lower, so that the overall world growth rate in 2019 was 23% lower than the average since the end of the Great Recession.  I’ve added Latin America to show that this region was right in a slump by 2019.

So the world capitalist economy was already slipping into a recession (long overdue) before the coronavirus pandemic arrived.  Why was this?  Well, as Brian Green explained in the You Tube discussion that I had with him last week, the US economy had been in a credit-fuelled bubble for the last six years that enabled the economy to grow even though profitability has been falling along with investment in the ‘real’ economy.  So, as Brian says, “the underlying health of the global capitalist economy was poor before the plague but was obscured by cheap money driving speculative gains which fed back into the economy”.  (For Brian’s data, see his website here).

In that discussion, I looked at the trajectory of the profitability of capital globally. The Penn World Tables 9.1 provide a new series called the internal rate of return on capital (IRR) for every country in the world starting in 1950 up to 2017. The IRR is a reasonable proxy for a Marxian measure of the rate of profit on capital stock, although of course it is not the same because it excludes variable capital and raw material inventories (circulating capital) from the denominator.  Despite that deficiency, the IRR measure allows us to consider the trends and trajectory of the profitability of capitalist economies and compare them with each other on a similar basis of valuation.

If we look at the IRR for the top seven capitalist economies, the imperialist countries, called the G7, we find that the rate of profit in the major economies peaked at the end of the so-called ‘neoliberal’ era in the late 1990s.  There was a significant decline in profitability after 2005 and then a slump during the Great Recession, matching Brian’s results for the US non-financial sector.  The recovery since the end of the Great Recession has been limited and profitability remains near all-time lows.

The IRR series only goes up to 2017.  It would be possible to extend these results to 2019 using the AMECO database which measures the net return on capital similarly to the Penn IRR.  I have not had time to do this properly, but an eye-ball look suggests that there has been no rise in profitability since 2017 and probably a slight fall up to 2019.  So these results confirm Brian Green’s US data that the major capitalist economies were already significantly weak before the pandemic hit.

Second, we can also gauge this by looking at total corporate profits, not just profitability.  Brian does this too for the US and China.  I have attempted to extend US and China corporate profit movements to a global measure by weighting the corporate profits (released quarterly) for selected major economies: US, UK, China, Canada, Japan and Germany.  These economies constitute more than 50% of world GDP.  What this measure reveals is that global corporate profits had ground to a halt before the pandemic hit.  Marx’s double-edge law of profit was in operation.

The mini-boom for profits that began in early 2016 peaked in mid-2017 and slid back in 2018 to zero by 2019.

That brings me to the causal connection between profits and the health of capitalist economies.  Over the years, I have presented theoretical arguments for what I consider is the Marxian view that profits drive capitalist investment, not ‘confidence’, not sales, not credit, etc.  Moreover, profits lead investment, not vice versa.  It is not only the logic of theory that supports this view; it is also empirical evidence.  And there is a stack of it.

But let me bring to your attention a new paper by Alexiou and Trachanas, Predicting post-war US recessions: a probit modelling approach, April 2020. They investigated the relationship between US recessions and the profitability of capital using multi-variate regression analysis.  They find that the probability of recessions increases with falling profitability and vice versa.  However, changes in private credit, interest rates and Tobin’s Q (stock market values compared with fixed asset values) are not statistically significant and any association with recessions is “rather slim”.

I conclude from this study and the others before it, that, although fictitious capital (credit and stocks) might keep a capitalist economy above water for a while, eventually it will be the profitability of capital in the productive sector that decides the issue. Moreover, cutting interest rates to zero or lower; injecting credit to astronomical levels that boost speculative investment in financial assets (and so raise Tobin’s Q) and more fiscal spending will not enable capitalist economies to recover from this pandemic slump.  That requires a significant rise in the profitability of productive capital.

If we look at investment rates (as measured by total investment to GDP in an economy), we find that in the last ten years, total investment to GDP in the major economies has been weak; indeed in 2019, total investment (government, housing and business) to GDP is still lower than in 2007. In other words, even the low real GDP growth rate in the major economies in the last ten years has not been matched by total investment growth.  And if you strip out government and housing, business investment has performed even worse.

By the way, the argument of the Keynesians that low economic growth in the last ten years is due to ‘secular stagnation’ caused by a ‘savings glut’ is not borne out.  The national savings ratio in the advanced capitalist economies in 2019 is no higher than in 2007, while the investment ratio has fallen 7%.  There has been an investment dearth not a savings glut.  This is the result of low profitability in the major capitalist economies, forcing them to look overseas to invest where profitability is higher (the investment ratio in emerging economies is up 10% – I shall return to this point in a future post).

What matters in restoring economic growth in a capitalist economy is business investment.  And that depends on the profitability of that investment.  And even before the pandemic hit, business investment was falling.  Take Europe. Even before the pandemic hit, business investment in peripheral European countries was still about 20 per cent below pre-crisis levels.

Andrew Kenningham, chief Europe economist at Capital Economics, forecast eurozone business investment would fall 24 per cent year on year in 2020, contributing to an expected 12 per cent contraction in GDP. In the first quarter, France reported its largest contraction in gross fixed capital formation, a measure of private and public investment, on record; Spain’s contraction was also near-record levels, according to preliminary data from their national statistics offices.

In Europe, manufacturers producing investment goods — those used as inputs for the production of other goods and services, such as machinery, lorries and equipment — experienced the biggest hit to activity, according to official data. In Germany, the production of investment goods fell 17 per cent in March compared with the previous month, more than double the fall in the output of consumer goods. France and Spain registered even wider differences

Low profitability and rising debt are the two pillars of the Long Depression (ie low growth in productive investment, real incomes and trade) that the major economies have been locked into for the last decade.  Now in the pandemic, governments and central banks are doubling down on these policies, backed by a chorus of approval from Keynesians of various hues (MMT and all), in the hope and expectation that this will succeed in reviving capitalist economies after the lockdowns are relaxed or ended.

This is unlikely to happen because profitability will remain low and may even be lower, while debts will rise, fuelled by the huge credit expansion.  Capitalist economies will remain depressed, and even eventually be accompanied by rising inflation, so that this new leg of depression will turn into stagflation.  The Keynesian multiplier (government spending) will be found wanting as it was in the 1970s.  The Marxist multiplier (profitability) will prove to be a better guide to the nature of capitalist booms and slumps and show that capitalist crises cannot be ended while preserving the capitalist mode of production.

The scarring

May 2, 2020

Optimism reigns in global stock markets, particularly in the US.  After falling around 30% when the lockdowns to contain COVID-19 virus pandemic were imposed, the US stock market has jumped back 30% in April.  Why? Well, for two reasons. The first is that the US Federal Reserve has intervened to inject humungous amounts of credit through buying up bonds and financial instruments of all sorts. The other central banks have also reacted similarly with credit injections, although nothing compares with the Fed’s monetary impulse.

As a result, the US stock market’s valuation against future corporate earnings has rocketed up in line with the Fed injections. If the Fed will buy any bond or financial instrument you hold, how can you go wrong?

The other reason for a stock market rally at the same time as data for the ‘real’ economy reveal a collapse in national output, investment and employment nearly everywhere (with worse to come) is the belief that the lockdowns will soon be over; treatments and vaccines are on their way to stop the virus; and so economies will leap back within three to six months and the pandemic will soon be forgotten.

For example, US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, reiterated his view expressed at the beginning of the lockdowns that “you’re going to see the economy really bounce back in July, August and September”.  And White House economics advisor, Hassett reckoned that by the 4th quarter, the US economy “is going to be really strong and next year is going to be a tremendous year”.  Bank of America’s CEO, Moynihan reckoned that consumer spending had already bottomed out and would soon rise nicely again in the 4th quarter, followed by double digit GDP growth in 2021!

That US personal consumption had bottomed out seems difficult to justify when you look at the Q1 data. Indeed, in March, personal spending in the US dropped 7.5 percent month-over-month, the largest decline in personal spending on record.

But it’s not just the official and banking voices who reckon that the economic damage from the pandemic and lockdowns will be short if not so sweet.  Many Keynesian economists in the US are making the same point.  In previous posts, I pointed to the claim by Keynesian guru, Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary under Clinton, that the lockdown slump was just the same as businesses in summer tourist places closing down for the winter. As soon as summer comes along, they all open up and are ready to go just as before. The pandemic is thus just a seasonal thing.

Now the Keynesian guru of them all, Paul Krugman, reckons that this slump, so far way worse on its impact on the global economy than the Great Recession, was not an economic crisis but “a disaster relief situation”.  Krugman argues that this is “a natural disaster, like a war, is a temporary event”. So the answer is that “it should be met largely through higher taxes and lower spending in the future rather than right away, which is another way of saying that it should be paid for in large part by a temporary increase in the deficit.”  Once this spending worked, the economy would return just as before and the spending deficit will only be ‘temporary’. And Robert Reich, the supposedly leftist former Labour Secretary, again under Clinton, reckoned that the crisis wasn’t economic but a health crisis and as soon as the health problem was contained (presumably this summer) the economy would ‘snap back’.

You would expect the Trump advisors and Wall Street chiefs to proclaim a quick return to normal (even though economists in investment houses mainly take a different view), but you may find it surprising that leading Keynesians agree. I think the reason is that any Keynesian analysis of recessions and slumps cannot deal with this pandemic.  Keynesian theory starts with the view that slumps are the result a collapse in ‘effective demand’ that then leads to a fall in output and employment.  But as I have explained in previous posts, this slump is not the result of a collapse in ‘demand’, but from a closure of production, both in manufacturing and particularly in services.  It is a ‘supply shock’, not a ‘demand shock’.  For that matter, the ‘financialisation’ theorists of the Minsky school are also at a loss, because this slump is not the result of a credit crunch or financial crash, although that may yet come.

So the Keynesians think that as soon as people get back to work and start spending, ‘effective demand’ (even ‘pent-up’ demand) will shoot up and the capitalist economy will return to normal. But if you approach the slump from the angle of supply or production, and in particular, the profitability of resuming output and employment, which is the Marxist approach, then both the cause of the slump and the likelihood of a slow and weak recovery become clear.

Let us remind ourselves of what happened after the end of the Great Recession of 2008-9.  The stock market boomed year after year, but the ‘real’ economy of production, investment and workers’ incomes crawled along. Since 2009, US per capita GDP annual growth has averaged just 1.6%.  So at the end of 2019, per capita GDP was 13% below trend growth prior to 2008. That gap was now equal to $10,200 per person—a permanent loss of income.

And now Goldman Sachs is forecasting a drop in per capita GDP that would wipe out even those gains of the last ten years!

The world is now much more integrated than it was in 2008.  The global value chain, as it is called, is now pervasive and large.  Even if some countries are able to begin economic recovery, the disruption in world trade may seriously hamper the speed and strength of that pick-up.  Take China, where the economic recovery from its lockdown is under way. Economic activity is still well below 2019 levels and the pace of recovery seems slow – mainly because Chinese manufacturers and exporters have nobody to sell to.

This is not a phenomenon of the virus or a health issue. Growth in world trade has been barely equal to growth in global GDP since 2009 (blue line), way below its rate prior to 2009 (dotted blue line).  Now the World Trade Organisation sees no return to even that lower trajectory (yellow dotted line) for at least two years.

The massive public sector spending (over $3trn) by the US Congress and the huge Fed monetary stimulus ($4trn) won’t stop this deep slump or even get the US economy back to its previous (low) trend.  Indeed, Oxford Economics reckons that there is every possibility of a second wave in the pandemic that could force new lockdown measures and keep the US economy in a slump and in stagnation through 2023!

But why are capitalist economies (at least in the 21st century) not jumping back to previous trends?  Well, I have argued on this blog in many posts that there were two key reasons. The first was that the profitability of capital in the major economies has not returned to levels reached in the late 1990s, let alone in the ‘golden age’ of economic growth and mild recessions of the 1950s and 1960s.

And the second reason is that in order to cope with this decline in profitability, companies increased their debt levels, fuelled by low interest rates, either to sustain production and/or to switch funds into financial assets and speculation.

But linked to these underlying factors is another: what has been called the scarring of the economy, or hysteresis.  Hysteresis in the field of economics refers to an event in the economy that persists into the future, even after the factors that led to that event have been removed. Hysteresis is the argument that short-term effects can manifest themselves into long term problems which inhibit growth and make it difficult to ‘return to normal’.

Keynesians traditionally reckon that fiscal stimulus will turn slump economies around.  However, even they have recognized that short-run economic conditions can have lasting impacts. Frozen credit markets and depressed consumer spending can stop the creation of otherwise vibrant small businesses. Larger companies may delay or reduce spending on R&D.

As Jack Rasmus put it well in a recent post on his blog: “It takes a long time for both business and consumers to restore their ‘confidence’ levels in the economy and change ultra-cautious investing and purchasing behavior to more optimistic spending-investing patterns. Unemployment levels hang high and over the economy for some time. Many small businesses never re-open and when they do with fewer employees and often at lower wages. Larger companies hoard their cash. Banks typically are very slow to lend with their own money. Other businesses are reluctant to invest and expand, and thus rehire, given the cautious consumer spending, business hoarding, and banks’ conservative lending behavior. The Fed, the central bank, can make a mass of free money and cheap loans available, but businesses and households may be reluctant to borrow, preferring to hoard their cash—and the loans as well.” In other words, an economic recession can lead to “scarring”—that is, long-lasting damage to the economy.

A couple of years ago, the IMF published a paper that looked at ‘scarring’.  The IMF economists noted that after recessions there is not always a V-shaped recovery to previous trends. Indeed, it has been often the case that the previous growth trend is never re-established. Using updated data from 1974 to 2012, they found that irreparable damage to output is not limited to financial and political crises. All types of recessions, on average, lead to permanent output losses.

“In the traditional view of the business cycle, a recession consists of a temporary decline in output below its trend line, but a fast rebound of output back to its initial upward trend line during the recovery phase (see chart, top panel). In contrast, our evidence suggests that a recovery consists only of a return of growth to its long-term expansion rate—without a high-growth rebound back to the initial trend (see chart, bottom panel). In other words, recessions can cause permanent economic scarring.”

And that does not just apply to one economy, but also to the gap between rich and poor economies.  The IMF: “Poor countries suffer deeper and more frequent recessions and crises, each time suffering permanent output losses and losing ground (solid lines in chart below).”

The IMF paper complements the view of the difference between ‘classic’ recessions and depressions that I outlined in my book of 2016, The Long Depression.  There I show that in depressions, the recovery after a slump takes the form, not of a V-shape, but more of a square root, which sets an economy on new and lower trajectory.

I suspect that there will be plenty of scarring of the capitalist sector from this pandemic slump.  Min Ouyang, an associate professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, found that in past recessions the ‘scarring’ of entrepreneurs from the collapse of cash flow outweighed the beneficial effects of forcing weak companies to shut down and ‘cleansing’ the way for those who survive. “The scarring effect of this recession is probably going to be more severe than of any past recessions….If we say that pandemics are the new normal, then people will be much more hesitant to take risks,” she says.

Households and companies would want more savings and less risk to protect against possible future shutdowns, while governments would need to stockpile emergency equipment and ensure they could rapidly manufacture more within their own borders. Even if the pandemic turns out to be a one-off, many people will be reluctant to socialize once the lockdown ends, extending the pain for companies and economies that rely on tourism, travel, eating out and mass events.

And this slump will accelerate trends in capitalist accumulation that were already underway: Lisa B. Kahn, a Yale economist has found that after slumps companies try to replace workers with machines and so force workers returning to employment to accept lower incomes or find other jobs, which pay less.  Research  After all, that is one of the purposes of the ‘cleansing’ process for capital: to get labour costs down and boost profitability.  It scars labour for life.

“This experience is going to leave deep scars on the economy and on consumer/investor/business sentiment. This is going to scar a generation just as deeply as the Great Depression scarred our parents and grandparents.” John Mauldin

The Greek tragedy: Act Three

April 25, 2020

On Thursday night, EU leaders again failed to agree on how to provide proper fiscal support for hard-hit member states to cope with the health costs of the coronavirus pandemic and collapse of their economies from the lockdowns.

The EU leaders have already agreed to a €540bn package of emergency measures.  This sounds a lot but is really just a bunch of loans from the European Stability Mechanism, which lends only on strict conditions on spending and repayment by member states who borrow.  Only E38bn has been offered without conditions for health system support across the whole Eurozone.  The so-called coronavirus mutual bond where the debt is shared by all is a dead duck.

At Thursday’s meeting the countries hardest hit, backed by France, demanded a massive direct fiscal boost.  But the ‘frugal four’ of Germany, Austria, Netherlands and Finland again rejected straight grants in any proposed ‘recovery fund’.  While the EU Commission President von der Leyen talked about a E1trn fund, this would be mostly just more loans.  Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, said piling more loans on embattled countries risked causing a “new sovereign debt crisis”. “Grants are like water in a fire fight while loans are the fuel,” he said.

Lucas Guttenberg of the Jacques Delors Centre said there was a temptation for the EU to come up with huge headline figures for the fund, but this needed to be backed with significant transfers of cash to the worst affected countries, not just guarantees for private investment projects and loans that added to their debts.  “The question is do we want to create an instrument that gives Italy and Spain significantly more fiscal space?” he said. “That requires a lot more real money on the table.” 

But Germany’s Merkel insisted that any funding borrowed on the markets must ultimately be paid back. There were “limits” on what kind of aid could be offered, she told leaders, adding that grants “do not belong in the category of what I can agree”. So the recovery plan looks like offering just more loans plus guarantees in return for increased investment by private sector companies.  But “we are at a moment where companies are not going to invest because there is a lot of uncertainty,” said Grégory Claeys, a research fellow at Bruegel, the think-tank. What economies needed was direct public spending, he added, because the private sector will do little.

The EU Commission is going to fund its plan by doubling the EU annual budget from 1% of EU GDP to 2% along with some borrowing in capital markets.  But as I argued in a previous post, this will be far too little to turn Europe’s weaker economies around once the lockdowns are over.  What Europe needs is an outright public investment programme, budgeted at around 20% of EU GDP.  This should by-pass the banks and launch directly employed public projects in health, education, renewable energy and technology across borders in Europe.  But there is no chance of that.

While the EU Commission ponders what to do and reports back next month, Europe as a whole, and the weaker economies of the south in particular, are spiralling into a slump that will exceed the depths of the Great Recession in 2008-9.  Much has been talked about the impact on relatively large economies like Italy and Spain.  But there is less talk about the country that was crushed by the Great Recession, the euro debt crisis and the actions of the Troika (the EU, ECB and IMF) – Greece.

I have followed the Greek drama in a dozen posts on this blog since 2012 (search for ‘Greece’).  Now the tragedy of the Greece has become a drama of three acts.  The first was the global financial crash and ensuing slump that exposed the faultlines in the so-called boom of the early years of Greece’s membership of the Eurozone.  The second was the terrible period of austerity imposed by the Troika to which the left Syriza government eventually capitulated, despite the referendum vote of the Greek people to reject the Troika’s draconian measures.

Since then, the Greek capitalist economy has struggled to recover.  By 2017, the deep depression ended and there was some limited growth.  But the real GDP level is still some 25% below its 2010 level.  And real GDP growth started to slow again (as it did in many countries) just before the pandemic hit. Productive investment has been flat for seven years, while employment is down by one-third because so many educated Greeks (half a million) have emigrated to find work.  Large parts of the capitalist sector are in a zombie state – over one-third of loans made by Greek banks are not being serviced and Greek banks have the highest level of non-performing loans in Europe

Above all, Greek capital has experienced low and falling profitability.  According to the Penn World Tables, the internal rate of return fell 23% from 1997 to 2012.  From then to 2017, it recovered by just 14%.  But in 2017, profitability was still 12% below 1997.  Since 2017, according to AMECO data, profitability improved, but was still 10% below the pre-crisis level of 2007.

But now Greece’s tragedy is in its third act with the pandemic.  The global economy has entered a slump in production, trade investment and employment that will outstrip the Great Recession of 2008-9, previously the deepest slump since the 1930s.  And Greece is right in the firing line.  Around 25% of its economy is in tourism and that is being decimated.

And the government is no financial position to spend to save industry, jobs and incomes.  For years, under the imposition of the Troika first, and later the EU, Greek governments have been forced to run large primary surpluses on their budgets – in other words the government must tax people much more than any spending on public services.

The difference has been used to pay the rising burden of interest on the astronomical level of public debt.  Every year, 3.6% of GDP is paid in interest on public debt that continued to mount to 180% of GDP.

Now the slump will drive down real GDP by 10% according to the IMF and send the debt level to 200% of GDP.  This year, the gross financing needs of the government will reach 25% of GDP (that’s the budget deficit and maturing debt repayments).  Unless fiscal support comes from the rest of the EU, the Greek people will be plunged into another long round of austerity once the lockdown is over.

And there is little sign that Greece will get any more help than it did in Act Two – except to absorb yet more debt.

The failure of the EU leaders to give fiscal support produced a frustrated reaction from former Syriza finance minister and ‘rockstar’ economist Yanis Varoufakis.  Now recently elected as an MP, Varoufakis took note of the EU leaders’ reaction to plight of Italy and Greece.  He thought that “the disintegration of the eurozone has begun. Austerity will be worse than in 2011″.  As he argued back in 2015 during Greek debt crisis, the northern states ought to see “common sense” as it was in their interest to help the likes of Italy and Greece to save the euro.  But if they will not,then Varoufakis reckoned that “the euro was a failed project” and all his work to save Greece and keep it in the euro had been wasted.

Back in 2015, Varoufakis, the self-styled ‘erratic Marxist’, as Syriza’s finance minister, had tried to persuade the Euro leaders of the need for unity.  He had argued that the long depression of the last ten years was “not an environment for radical socialist policies after all”. Instead “it is the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis”. He said “we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapsing European capitalism will open up with a functioning socialist system”. So his solution at the time was that he should “work towards a broad coalition, even with right-wingers, the purpose of which ought to be the resolution of the Eurozone crisis and the stabilisation of the European Union… Ironically, those of us who loathe the Eurozone have a moral obligation to save it!”

In 2015, the role of Tsipras and the Syriza was even worse.  I’m singling out Varoufakis because he claims allegiance to Marxism, of a sort, and opposition to the capitulation by Syriza in Act Two.  But in his memoirs covering the period of his negotiations with the EU ‘right-wingers’ called Adults in the Room, Varoufakis shows that he went all the way and back to get a deal from the Troika that would not throw Greece into permanent penury – but failed.

In a new book, Capitulation between Adults, Eric Toussaint, scathingly exposes the wrongheaded approach of the ‘erratic marxist’.  Toussaint, who at the time acted as a consultant on debt for the Greek parliament, argues that there was an alternative policy that Syriza and Varoufakis could have adopted.

In a recent interview, Varoufakis was asked “what would I have done differently with the information I had at the time? I think I should have been far less conciliatory to the troika. I should have been far tougher. I should not have sought an interim agreement. I should have given them an ultimatum: “a restructure of debt, or we are out of the euro today”.

Too late for that change of view now.  Instead Act Three of the tragedy has begun.

COVID-19 and containment

April 20, 2020

It is a risky thing to start analysing the COVID stats and coming up with some conclusions at this still early stage of the pandemic.  It is even riskier for an economist to delve into areas beyond his or her supposed expertise.  But after looking at myriads of articles, heaps of data and lots of presentations by people who ought to know what they are talking about, I cannot resist putting my dollar on the table.

The first point that I want to make is on the severity of the COVID-19 virus.  On any reasonable estimate of the mortality rate, assuming no containment measures, then we could expect up to 60% of the population on average to be infected before the virus wanes with so-called ‘herd immunity’.  The mortality rate is very difficult to be clear about, varying from the 3-4% that the World Health Organisation (WHO) reckons based on existing cases, down to some local studies that put the rate at more like 0.3-0.4% on extrapolating the number of infections from mass testing.  Even that rate would be three to four time the average annual influenza mortality rate.

Anyway, if I make an arbitrary rate of 1% of the population- an estimate that many epidiemologists seem to latch onto, then in a global population of 7.8bn, and given a 60% ‘herd immunity’ level, that would mean about 45m deaths globally.  Given that there are on average about 57m deaths a year, an uncontained virus would have raised 2020’s death rate by 80%.  For individual countries, that increase would vary between 65% to double.  Even if the (uncontained) mortality rate turns out be half that, then over 20m people would die, or some 40% more than usual.

But the Malthusian argument could then be presented.  As something like 70-80% of these deaths would be for those 70 years and over and there are negligible deaths among those under 40 years, the impact of the virus does not matter.

Indeed, some in financial circles argue that the virus is ‘getting rid’ of the old and the sick who are mostly unproductive in generating value and profit.  After the pandemic is over, the world will be ‘leaner and fitter’ and able to expand more ‘productively’.

Marx and Engels were vehement in their condemnation of Malthus’ ‘survival of the fittest’ theory; Engels calling it “this vile, infamous theory, this hideous blasphemy against nature and mankind”.  But they did not condemn it on anti-humane grounds only, but also that Malthus was wrong economically too.  Productivity growth does not depend on keeping the population down but on increasing the productive forces and on the march of science and technology.  It is not an issue of overpopulation but one of inequality and poverty bred by capitalist accumulation and appropriation of value created by the power of labour.

That is the key reason for attempting to contain COVID-19; to save lives that can be saved.  The other reason is that if the pandemic was allowed to spread unchecked, health systems would be overwhelmed, disrupting their ability to deal with existing patients and people with other illnesses; and probably causing an increase in such secondary mortality rates (and this time in younger fitter people too).  Most governments on the globe are not in a position of opting for Malthus and ignoring public pressure if the bodies of loved, old or sick, pile up.  If they did, they would not survive.

So containment of the virus was necessary.  But containment can mean many things.  It can mean from total lockdown of all economic and social movement and activity to more relaxed measures, down to simply testing everybody for the virus, isolating and quarantining those infected and shielding the old, while hospitalising those with severe conditions.  If a country had full testing facilities and staff to do ‘contact and trace’ and isolation; along with sufficient protective equipment, hospital beds including ICUs), then containment along these lines would work – without significant lockdown of the economy.

But nearly all countries were not prepared or able to provide the facilities and resources to do that.  Germany has come close and I shall show how successful that has been in a moment.  South Korea also maybe.  But in both countries, there has also been some important social and economic ‘lockdowns’.  Every other country with major infections has been forced to into a major lockdown of movement and isolation for weeks in order to contain the pandemic. China is the most exceptional example of a high level lockdown in one large province.  New Zealand applied a high level lockdown from day one and reduced deaths to the bare minimum.

Here is an estimate of the varying degrees of lockdown adopted by countries.

If you look at the average lines, you can see that on the Google mobility trend, Spain has delievered a 66% reduction in economic and social activity, while in Sweden it has been only 6%.

Has containment worked? It certainly has.  And here I am entering the risky territory of trying to measure the success of containment.  As above, I estimate that without any containment, there would have been about 45m deaths from COVID-19 in 2020.  But with containment, and partly using the forecast estimates of the Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation (IHME), I reckon that death toll will have been reduced to “just” 250-300,000.

Here are my estimates for various countries comparing the ‘no containment’ deaths with forecast accumulated deaths after containment.

Deaths (‘000s)

US UK Spa Ita Bel Fra Ger Swe Kor Jap Chi Ind Russ Bra World
No contain 1974 402 282 360 69 402 498 61 312 756 8400 7872 882 1260 43200
Contain 60 37 24 26 8 23 5 6 0.4 0.4 7 0.8 0.6 4 248

As you can see, containment will enable countries to reduce the potential uncontained mortality rate by 90-99%!  As a result, if sustained, containment will curb extra mortality above the normal annual average to less than 1%.

So containment works.  But as it has been achieved mostly by drastic lockdowns, it is only at the cost of pushing the world economy off a cliff into a deep slump in production, jobs, investment – to be followed by a very slow recovery over years if containment has to be maintained at extreme levels to curb a re-occurrence of the pandemic, and/or until an effective vaccine can be produced along with mass testing and isolation methods.

Could the lockdowns have been avoided?  Well, as I said, I think if there had been facilities and staff for mass testing, contact and trace; enough hospital resources and a vaccine, lockdowns would not have been necessary.  Even poor countries have had success with these methods – see ‘Communist’ Kerala.

Are the extreme lockdowns imposed by China and some other countries unnecessary?  The Swedish authorities have opted to what might be called ‘lockdown-lite’, with restrictions only on mass gatherings and relying voluntary social isolation.  Is this working as well as draconian lockdowns in other countries?

Well, the evidence of potential accumulated deaths as projected by IHME for various countries suggests not.

Sweden is heading for one of the highest death rates in the world, only likely to be beaten by Belgium among the larger countries.  And compared to its Scandinavian neighbours (where restrictions are nearly double that of Sweden’s – see the mobility graph above), the Swedish mortality rate will be some two or three times greater.  It seems that the Swedish authorities have failed to protect the old, as the privatised residential homes have been engulfed with infections, just as they have been elsewhere.

But Belgium has a lockdown and will have a heavier mortality rate than Sweden, while Germany will do way better than countries like Spain and Italy where there are much more strict lockdowns.  What that suggests is that containment does not just depend on the level of restrictions and lockdown, but also on the level of hospital facilities and testing.

Germany’s surplus of hospital beds is much higher than in the rest of Europe.

And it is testing much more, if at still a low rate.

Sweden and Belgium have fewer beds and are doing less testing.

The Swedish ‘lockdown lite’ means more deaths per capita.  But the argument for it is that eventually the Swedish population will achieve ‘herd immunity’ and the economy can continue in the meantime without being shut down.  The first proposition is full of uncertainty: how will the authorities know that they have achieved such immunity?  The second proposition is clearly false.  No economy is an island.  Even if the Swedish economy continues to be open for business, where are its exports going to when much of the rest of the world is locked down?

So my tentative conclusions are that:

  • COVID-19 has a much higher mortality rate than flu
  • Without containment it would have increased the annual mortality rates of most countries by over 80%
  • Containment has worked in driving down potential deaths from millions to thousands
  • Because most governments were unprepared and lacked sufficient healthcare facilities, they were forced into varying degrees of lockdowns, bringing the world economy to a standstill
  • The more severe the lockdown and the more health facilities available means generally that there will be fewer deaths
  • The ‘lockdown lite’ approach risks more deaths without offering a stronger economy as a trade-off.

The post-pandemic slump

April 13, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of longest US economic expansion on record, and it will feature sharpest economic contraction since WWII.

The global economy was facing the worst collapse since the second world war as coronavirus began to strike in March, well before the height of the crisis, according to the latest Brookings-FT tracking index.

2020 will be the first year of falling global GDP since WWII. And it was only the final years of WWII/aftermath when output fell.

JPMorgan economists reckon that the pandemic could cost world at least $5.5 trillion in lost output over the next two years, greater than the annual output of Japan. And that would be lost forever.  That’s almost 8% of GDP through the end of next year. The cost to developed economies alone will be similar to that in the recessions of 2008-2009 and 1974-1975.  Even with unprecedented levels of monetary and fiscal stimulus, GDP is unlikely to return to its pre-crisis trend until at least 2022.

The Bank for International Settlements has warned that disjointed national efforts could lead to a second wave of cases, a worst-case scenario that would leave US GDP close to 12% below its pre-virus level by the end of 2020.  That’s way worse than in the Great Recession of 2008-9.

The US economy will lose 20m jobs according to estimates from @OxfordEconomics, sending unemployment rate soaring by greatest degree since Great Depression and severely affecting 40% of jobs.

And then there is the situation for the so-called ‘emerging economies’ of the ‘Global South’.  Many of these are exporters of basic commodities (like energy, industrial metals and agro foods) which, since the end of the Great Recession have seen prices plummet.

And now the pandemic is going to intensify that contraction.  Economic output in emerging markets is forecast to fall 1.5% this year, the first decline since reliable records began in 1951.

The World Bank reckons the pandemic will push sub-Saharan Africa into recession in 2020 for the first time in 25 years. In its Africa Pulse report the bank said the region’s economy will contract 2.1%-5.1% from growth of 2.4% last year, and that the new coronavirus will cost sub-Saharan Africa $37 billion to $79 billion in output losses this year due to trade and value chain disruption, among other factors. “We’re looking at a commodity-price collapse and a collapse in global trade unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1930s,” said Ken Rogoff, the former chief economist of the IMF.

More than 90 ‘emerging’ countries have inquired about bailouts from the IMF—nearly half the world’s nations—while at least 60 have sought to avail themselves of World Bank programs. The two institutions together have resources of up to $1.2 trillion that they have said they would make available to battle the economic fallout from the pandemic, but that figure is tiny compared with the losses in income, GDP and capital outflows.

Since January, about $96 billion has flowed out of emerging markets, according to data from the Institute of International Finance, a banking group.  That’s more than triple the $26 billion outflow during the global financial crisis of a decade ago.  “An avalanche of government-debt crises is sure to follow”, he said, and “the system just can’t handle this many defaults and restructurings at the same time” said Rogoff.

Nevertheless, optimism reigns in many quarters that once the lockdowns are over, the world economy will bounce back on a surge of released ‘pent-up ‘ demand.  People will be back at work, households will spend like never before and companies will take on their old staff and start investing for a brighter post-pandemic future.

As the governor of the Bank of (tiny) Iceland put it:  “The money that now being saved because people are staying at home won’t disappear – it will drip back into the economy as soon as the pandemic is over.  Prosperity will be back.”  This view was echoed by the helmsman of the largest economy in the world.  US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin spoke bravely that : “This is a short-term issue. It may be a couple of months, but we’re going to get through this, and the economy will be stronger than ever,”

Former Treasury Secretary and Keynesian guru, Larry Summers, was in tentative concurrence: “the recovery can be faster than many people expect because it has the character of the recovery from the total depression that hits a Cape Cod economy every winter or the recovery in American GDP that takes place every Monday morning.”  In effect, he was saying that the US and world economy was like Cape Cod out of season; just ready to open in the summer without any significant damage to businesses during the winter.

That’s some optimism.  For when these optimists talk about a quick V-shaped recovery, they are not recognising that the COVID-19 pandemic is not generating a ‘normal’ recession and it is hitting not a just a single region but the entire global economy.  Many companies, particularly smaller ones, will not return after the pandemic.  Before the lockdowns, there were anything between 10-20% of firms in the US and Europe that were barely making enough profit to cover running costs and debt servicing. These so-called ‘zombie’ firms may have found the Cape Cod winter the last nail in their coffins.  Already several middling retail and leisure chains have filed for bankruptcy and airlines and travel agencies may follow.  Large numbers of shale oil companies are also under water (not oil).

As leading financial analysts Mohamed El-Erian concluded: “Debt is already proving to be a dividing line for firms racing to adjust to the crisis, and a crucial factor in a competition of survival of the fittest. Companies that came into the crisis highly indebted will have a harder time continuing. If you emerge from this, you will emerge to a landscape where a lot of your competitors have disappeared.”

So it’s going to take a lot longer to return to previous output levels after the lockdowns.  Nomura economists reckon that Eurozone GDP is unlikely to exceed Q42019 level until 2023!

And remember, as I explained in detail in my book The Long Depression, after the Great Recession there was no return to previous trend growth whatsoever. When growth resumed, it was at slower rate than before.

Since 2009, US per capita GDP annual growth has averaged 1.6%.  At the end of 2019, per capita GDP was 13% below trend growth prior to 2008. At the end of the 2008–2009 recession it was 9% below trend. So, despite a decade-long expansion, the US economy fell further below trend since the Great Recession ended. The gap is now equal to $10,200 per person—a permanent loss of income.  And now Goldman Sachs is forecasting a drop in per capita GDP that would wipe out all the gains of the last ten years!

Then there is world trade.  Growth in world trade has been barely equal to growth in global GDP since 2009 (blue line), way below its rate prior to 2009 (dotted line).  Now even that lower trajectory (dotted yellow line).  The World Trade Organisation sees no return to even this lower trajectory for at least two years.

But what about the humungous injections of credit and loans being made by the central banks around the world and the huge fiscal stimulus packages from governments globally.  Won’t that turn things round quicker?  Well, there is no doubt that central banks and even the international agencies like the IMF and the World Bank have jumped in to inject credit through the purchases of government bonds, corporate bonds, student loans, and even ETFs on a scale never seen before, even during the global financial crisis of 2008-9.  The Federal Reserve’s treasury purchases are already racing ahead of previous quantitative easing programmes.

And the fiscal spending approved by the US Congress last month dwarfs the spending programme during the Great Recession.

I have made an estimate of the size of credit injections and fiscal packages globally announced to preserve economies and businesses.  I reckon it has reached over 4% of GDP in fiscal stimulus and another 5% in credit injections and government guarantees. That’s twice the amount in the Great Recession, with some key countries ploughing in even more to compensate workers put out of work and small businesses closed down.

These packages go even further in another way. Straight cash handouts by the government to households and firms are in effect what the infamous free market monetarist economist Milton Friedman called ‘helicopter money’, dollars to be dropped from the sky to save people.  Forget the banks; get the money directly into the hands of those who need it and will spend.

Post-Keynesian economists who have pushed for helicopter money, or people’s money, are thus vindicated.

In addition, suddenly the idea, which up to now was rejected and dismissed by mainstream economic policy, has become highly acceptable, namely fiscal spending financed, not by the issue of more debt (government bonds), but by simply ‘printing money’, ie the Fed or the Bank of England deposits money in the government account to spend.

Keynesian commentator Martin Wolf, having sniffed at MMT before, now says:abandon outworn shibboleths. Already governments have given up old fiscal rules, and rightly so. Central banks must also do whatever it takes. This means monetary financing of governments. Central banks pretend that what they are doing is reversible and so is not monetary financing. If that helps them act, that is fine, even if it is probably untrue. …There is no alternative. Nobody should care. There are ways to manage the consequences. Even “helicopter money” might well be fully justifiable in such a deep crisis.”

The policies of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) have arrived! Sure, this pure monetary financing is supposed to be temporary and limited but the MMT boys and girls are cock a hoóp that it could become permanént, as they advocate.  Namely governments should spend and thus create money and take the economy towards full employment and keep it there.  Capitalism will be saved by the state and by modern monetary theory.

I have discussed in detail in several posts the theoretical flaws in MMT from a Marxist view.  The problem with this theory and policy is that it ignores the crucial factor: the social structure of capitalism.  Under capitalism, production and investment is for profit, not for meeting the needs of people.  And profit depends on the ability to exploit the working class sufficiently compared to the costs of investment in technology and productive assets.  It does not depend on whether the government has provided enough ‘effective demand’.

The assumption of the radical post-Keynesian/MMT boys and girls is that if governments spend and spend, it will lead to households spending more and capitalist investing more.  Thus, full employment can be restored without any change in the social structure of an economy (ie capitalism).  Under MMT, the banks would remain in place; the big companies, the FAANGs would remain untouched; the stock market would roll on.  Capitalism would be fixed with the help of the state, financed by the magic money tree (MMT).

Michael Pettis is a well-known ’balance sheet’ macro economist based in Beijing.  In a compelling article, entitled MMT heaven and MMT hell, he takes to task the optimistic assumption that printing money for increased government spending can do the trick.  He says: “the bottom line is this: if the government can spend these additional funds in ways that make GDP grow faster than debt, politicians don’t have to worry about runaway inflation or the piling up of debt. But if this money isn’t used productively, the opposite is true.

He adds: “creating or borrowing money does not increase a country’s wealth unless doing so results directly or indirectly in an increase in productive investment…  If U.S. companies are reluctant to invest not because the cost of capital is high but rather because expected profitability is low, they are unlikely to respond to the trade-off between cheaper capital and lower demand by investing more.” You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

I suspect that much of the monetary and fiscal largesse will end up either not being spent but hoarded, or invested not in employees and production, but in unproductive financial assets – no wonder the stock markets of the world have bounced back as the Fed and the other central banks pump in the cash and free loans.

Indeed, even leftist economist Dean Baker doubts the MMT heaven and the efficacy of such huge fiscal spending.  “It is actually possible that we could be seeing too much demand, as a burst of post-shutdown spending outstrips the immediate capacity of the restaurants, airlines, hotels, and other businesses. In that case, we may actually see a burst of inflation, as these businesses jack up prices in response to excessive demand.”  – ie MMT hell.  So he concludes that “generic spending is not advisable at this point.”

Well, the proof of the pudding is in its eating and we shall see.  But the historical evidence that I and others have compiled over the last decade or more, shows that the so-called Keynesian multiplier has limited effect in restoring growth, mainly because it is not the consumer who matters in reviving the economy, but capitalist companies.

And there’s new evidence on the power of Keynesian multiplier. It’s not been one to one or more, as often claimed, ie. 1% of GDP increase in government spending does not lead to a 1% of GDP increase in national output.  Some economists looked at the multiplier in Europe over the last ten years. They concluded that “in contrast to previous claims that the fiscal multiplier rose well above one at the height of the crisis, however, we argue that the ‘true’ ex-post multiplier remained below one.”

And there is little reason that it will be higher this time round.  In another paper, some other mainstream economists suggest that a V-shaped recovery is unlikely because “demand is endogenous and affected by the supply shock and other features of the economy. This suggests that traditional fiscal stimulus is less effective in a recession caused by our supply shock. … demand may indeed overreact to the supply shock and lead to a demand-deficient recession because of “low substitutability across sectors and incomplete markets, with liquidity constrained consumers.” so that “various forms of fiscal policy, per dollar spent, may be less effective”.

But what else can we do?  So “despite this, the optimal policy to face a pandemic in our model combines as loosening of monetary policy as well as abundant social insurance.”  And that’s the issue.  If the social structure of capitalist economies is to remain untouched, then all you are left with is printing money and government spending.

Perhaps the very depth and reach of this pandemic slump will create conditions where capital values are so devalued by bankruptcies, closures and layoffs that the weak capitalist companies will be liquidated and more successful technologically advanced companies will take over in an environments of higher profitability.  This would be the classic cycle of boom, slump and boom that Marxist theory suggests.

Former IMF chief and French presidential aspirant, the infamous Dominique Strauss-Kahn, hints at this: “the economic crisis, by destroying capital, can provide a way out. The investment opportunities created by the collapse of part of the production apparatus, like the effect on prices of support measures, can revive the process of creative destruction described by Schumpeter.”

Despite the size of this pandemic slump, I am not sure that sufficient destruction of capital will take place, especially given that much of the bailout funding is going to keep companies, not households, going.  For that reason, I expect that the ending of the lockdowns will not see a V-shaped recovery or even a return to the ‘normal’ (of the last ten years).

In my book, The Long Depression, I drew a schematic diagram to show the difference between recessions and depressions. A V-shaped or a W-shaped recovery is the norm, but there are periods in capitalist history when depression rules. In the depression of 1873-97 (that’s over two decades), there were several slumps in different countries followed weak recoveries that took the form of a square root sign where the previous trend in growth is not restored.

The last ten years have been similar to the late 19th century.  And now it seems that any recovery from the pandemic slump will be drawn out and also deliver an expansion that is below the previous trend for years to come.  It will be another leg in the long depression we have experienced for the last ten years.

Lives or livelihoods?

April 6, 2020

There are now two billion people across the world living under some form of lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a quarter of the world’s population. The world economy has seen nothing like this. Nearly all economic forecasts for global GDP in 2020 are for a contraction of 3-5%, as bad if not worse than in the Great Recession of 2008-9.

According to the OECD, output in most economies will fall by an average of 25% (OECD) while the lockdowns last and the lockdowns will directly affect sectors amounting to up to one third of GDP in the major economies. For each month of containment, there will be a loss of 2 percentage points in annual GDP growth.

This is a monstrous way of proving Marx’s labour theory of value, namely that “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish.”  (Marx to Kugelmann, London, July 11, 1868).

The lockdowns in several major economies are having a drastic effect on production, investment and, above all, employment. The latest jobs figures for March out of the US were truly staggering, with a monthly loss of 700,000 and a jump in unemployment to 4.4%.

In just two weeks, nearly 10m Americans have filed for unemployment benefit.

All these figures surpass anything seen in the Great Recession of 2008-9 and even in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Of course, the hope is that this disaster will be short-lived because the lockdowns will be removed within a month or so in Italy, Spain, the UK, the US and Germany.  After all, the Wuhan lockdown is ending this week after 50 days and China is gradually returning to work – if only gradually.  In other countries (Spain and Italy), there are signs that the pandemic has peaked and the lockdowns are working. In others (UK and US), the peak is still to come.

So once the lockdowns are over, then economies can quickly get back to business as usual. That’s the claim of US treasury secretary Mnuchin: “This is a short-term issue. It may be a couple of months, but we’re going to get through this, and the economy will be stronger than everKeynesian guru Larry Summers echoed this view: “I have the optimistic guess—but it’s only an optimistic guess—that the recovery can be faster than many people expect because it has the character of the recovery from the total depression that hits a Cape Cod economy every winter or the recovery in American GDP that takes place every Monday morning.”

During the lockdowns, various governments have announced cash handouts and boosted unemployment benefits for those laid off or ‘furloughed’ until business is restored.  And small businesses are supposedly getting relief in rates and cheap loans to tide them over.  That should save people’s livelihoods during the lockdowns.

One problem with this view is that, such have been the cuts in public services over the last decade or so, there is just not enough staff to process claims and shift the cash.  In the US, it is reckoned that many will not get any checks until June, by which time the lockdowns might be over!  Moreover, it is clear that many people and small businesses are not qualifying for the handouts for various reasons and will fall through this safety net.

For example, 58% of American workers say they won’t be able to pay rent, buy groceries or take care of bills if quarantined for 30 days or less, according to a new survey from the Society for Human Research Management (SHRM).  One in five workers said they’d be unable to meet those basic financial needs in less than one week under quarantine. Half of small businesses in the U.S. can’t afford to pay employees for a full month under quarantine conditions. More than half of small businesses expect to see a loss in revenue somewhere between 10-30%.

Indeed, many people are being forced to work, putting their health at risk because they cannot work at home like better paid, office-based workers.

Many small businesses in travel, retail and services will never come back after the lockdowns end. Even large companies in retail, travel and energy could well go bust, causing a cascade effect through sectors of economies. For example, the US Federal Reserve requires banks to run stress tests that assume certain bad scenarios to make sure the banks can weather a market downturn. The worst-case scenario had GDP falling by 9.9% in Q2 2020 with unemployment jumping to 10% by Q3 2021. Based upon recent estimates from Goldman Sachs, GDP will likely fall over 30% and unemployment could end up at a similar level… within weeks.

Also there are huge amounts of corporate debt issued by fairly risky companies which were not making much revenue and profit anyway before the pandemic.  And as I have said in previous posts, even before the virus hit the world economy, many countries were heading into recession.  Mexico, South Africa and Argentina among the G20 nations and Japan in the G7 were already in recession.  The Eurozone and the UK were close and even the best performer, the US, was slowing fast.  Now all that corporate debt that built up in the years since the end of the Great Recession could come tumbling down in defaults.

That is especially the case in the impoverished ‘Global South’ economies, which have experience an unprecedented $90bn outflow of capital as foreign investors leave the sinking ship.  And there is little or no safety net being offered by the likes of the IMF or the World Bank. Things are only going to get worse in the coming quarter and recovery may not be anywhere near the optimists’ view in H2 2020.

Clearly these lockdowns cannot go on forever, otherwise billions of people are going to be destitute and governments will be spending more and more, funded by more and more debt and/or the printing of money to make cash handouts and buy yet more debt.  You cannot go on doing that if there is no production or investment.  Jobs will disappear forever and inflation will eventually rocket.  We shall enter a world of permanent depression alongside hyper-inflation.

It seems that several European countries, encouraged by the peaking of cases are preparing to end their lockdowns by the end of this month.  But even if they do, a return to ‘normal’ will take months as it will depend on mass testing to gauge whether the virus will come back as it surely will and whether it could then be contained while gradually restoring production.  So any global recovery is not going to quick at all.  A German Ifo study predicted the German economy could shrink by up to 20% this year if the shutdown lasted three months and was followed by only a gradual recovery.

And the latest US forecasts from Goldman Sachs show the trough of the US recession being reached in the second quarter of 2020, with GDP likely to be 11-12 per cent below the pre-virus reading. This would involve a dramatic decline at an annualised rate of 34 per cent in that quarter.  GDP is then projected to rise very gradually, not reaching its pre-virus path before the end of 2021. This pattern, implying almost two “wasted” years in the US, has been common in recent economic forecasts. A similar picture is expected in the eurozone, which is experiencing a collapse in manufacturing output more precipitous than in the 2012 euro crisis.

But the gradual plan is the only óptimal’ option, says one bunch of economists: “importantly, the level of the lockdown, its duration, and the underlying economic and health costs depend critically on the measures that improve the capacity of the health system to cope with the epidemic (testing, isolating the vulnerable, etc.) and the capacity of the economic system to navigate through a period of suspended economic activities without compromising its structure.”

Could the lockdowns have been avoided?  The evidence is increasingly clear that they could have been.  When COVID-19 appeared on the scene, governments and health systems should have been ready.  It is not as if they had not been warned by epidemiologists for years.  As I have said before, COVID-19 was not an ‘unknown unknown’.  In early 2018, during a meeting at the World Health Organization in Geneva, a group of experts (the R&D Blueprint) coined the term “Disease X”: They predicted that the next pandemic would be caused by an unknown, novel pathogen that hadn’t yet entered the human population. Disease X would likely result from a virus originating in animals and would emerge somewhere on the planet where economic development drives people and wildlife together.

More recently, last September the UN published a report warning that there is a “very real threat” of a pandemic sweeping the planet, killing up to 80 million people. A deadly pathogen, spread airborne around the world, the report said, could wipe out almost 5 percent of the global economy.  “Preparedness is hampered by the lack of continued political will at all levels,” read the report. “Although national leaders respond to health crises when fear and panic grow strong enough, most countries do not devote the consistent energy and resources needed to keep outbreaks from escalating into disasters.”  The report outlined a history of deliberate ignoring of warnings by scientists over the last 30 years.

Governments ignored the warnings because they took the calculated view that the risk was not great and therefore spending on pandemics prevention and containment was not worth it.  Indeed, they cut back spending in pandemic research and containment.  It reminds me the decision of Heathrow airport in the UK to buy only two snow ploughs because it hardly ever snowed or froze in London, so the expense was not justifiable.  The airport was badly caught out one winter day and everything stopped.

How could the lockdowns have been avoided? If government had been able to test everybody for the virus, to provide protective equipment and huge armies of health workers to test and contract trace and then quarantine and isolate those infected.  The old and sick should have been shielded at home and supported by social care.  Then it would have been possible for everybody else to go to work, just as essential workers must do so now.  Small countries like Iceland (and Taiwan, South Korea) with high quality health systems have been able to do this.  Most countries with privatised or decimated health systems have not.  So lockdowns have been the only option if lives are to be saved.

The policy of the lockdowns is only partly to save lives; it is also to try and avoid health systems in countries being overwhelmed with cases, leaving medics with the Hobson choice of choosing who will die or will get help. The aim is to ‘flatten the curve’ in the rise in virus cases and deaths so that health system can cope.  The problem is that flattening the curve in the pandemic by lockdowns increases downward curve in jobs and incomes for hundreds of millions.

And yet if the pandemic were allowed to run riot, historical studies show that it also would eventually destroy an economy.  A recent Federal Reserve paper, looking at the impact of the Spanish flu epidemic in the US, found that the then uncontrolled pandemic reduced manufacturing output by 18%. So lockdowns may be less damaging in the end.  It seems you cannot win either way.

Lives or livelihoods?  Some right-wing ‘neoliberal’ experts reckon that the capitalist economy is more important than lives.  After all, the people dying are mostly the old and the sick.  They do not contribute much value to capitalist production; indeed they are a burden on productivity and taxes.  In true Malthusian spirit, in the executive suites of the financial institutions, the view is prevalent that governments should let the virus rip and once all the young and healthy get immune, the problem would be solved.

This view also connects with some health expert studies that point out that every day, hospital doctors must make decisions on what is the most ‘cost effective’ from the point of view of health outcomes.  Should they save a very old person with COVID-19 if it means that some younger person’s cancer treatment is delayed because beds and staff have been transferred to the pandemic?

Here is that view: “if funds are not limitless – then we should focus on doing things whereby we can do the most good (save the most lives) for the least possible amount of money. Or use the money we have, to save the most lives.” Health economics measures the cost per QALY.  A QALY is a Quality Adjusted Life Year. One added year of the highest quality life would be one QALY.  “How much are we willing to pay for one QALY? The current answer, in the UK, is that the NHS will recommend funding medical interventions if they cost less than £30,000/QALY. Anything more than this is considered too expensive and yet the UK’s virus package is £350bn, almost three times the current yearly budget for the entire NHS. Is this a price worth paying?”  This expert reckoned that “the cost of saving a COVID victim was more than eleven times the maximum cost that the NHS will approve.” At the same time cancer patients are not being treated, hip replacements are being postponed, heart and diabetes sufferers are not being dealt with.

Tim Harford in the FT took a different view.  He points out that the US Environmental Protection Agency values a statistical life at $10m in today’s money, or $10 per micromort (one in a million risk of death) averted.  “If we presume that 1 per cent of infections are fatal, then it is a 10,000 micromort condition. On that measure, being infected is 100 times more dangerous than giving birth, or as perilous as travelling two and a half times around the world on a motorbike. For an elderly or vulnerable person, it is much more risky than that. At the EPA’s $10 per micromort, it would be worth spending $100,000 to prevent a single infection with Covid-19.  You don’t need a complex epidemiological model to predict that if we take no serious steps to halt the spread of the virus, more than half the world is likely to contract it. That suggests 2m US deaths and 500,000 in Britain — assuming, again, a 1 per cent fatality rate.  If an economic lockdown in the US saves most of these lives, and costs less than $20tn, then it would seem to be value for money.”  The key point for me here is that this dilemma of ‘costing’ a life would be reduced if there had been proper funding of health systems, sufficient to provide ‘spare capacity’ in case of crises.

There is the argument that the lockdowns and all this health spending are based on an unnecessary panic that will make the cure worse than the disease.  You see, the argument goes, COVID-19 is no worse than bad flu in its mortality rate and will have way less impact than lots of other diseases like malaria, HIV or cancer, which will kill more each year.  So stop the crazy lockdowns, just protect the old, wash your hands and we shall soon see that COVID is no Armageddon.

The problem with this argument is that evidence is against the view that COVID is no worse than annual flu.  It’s true that, so far, deaths have only reached 70,000 by April, some 40,000 less than flu this year and only quarter of the deaths from malaria.  But the virus ain’t over yet.  So far, all the evidence suggests that the mortality rate is at least 1%, ten times more deadly than annual flu; and is way more infectious. So if COVID-19 were not contained it would eventually affect up to 70% of the population before ‘herd immunity’ would be sufficient to allow the virus to wane.  That’s 50 million deaths at least!  Annual mortality rates would be doubled in most countries (see graph).

Moreover, this is a virus that is novel and different from flu viruses and there is no vaccine yet.  It is very likely to come back and mutate and so require yet more containment.

Some governments are risking people’s lives by trying to avoid total or even partial lockdowns to preserve jobs and the economy.  Some governments have put in place sufficient testing and contact tracing along with self-isolation, to claim that they can keep their economies going during the crisis .Unfortunately for them, even if that works, the lockdowns elsewhere have so destroyed trade and investment globally, even these countries cannot avoid a slump with global supply chains paralysed.

There is another argument against the lockdowns and saving lives.  A study by some Bristol University ‘safety experts’ reckoned that a “business as usual” policy would lead to the epidemic being over by September 2020, although such an approach would lead to a loss of life in the UK nearly as much as it suffered in the Second World War. But conversely, lockdowns could decrease GDP per head so much that the national population loses more lives as a result of the countermeasures than it saves.

But the Bristol study is just a risk assessment.  Proper health studies show that recessions do not increase mortality at all. A recession – a short-term, temporary fall in GDP – need not, and indeed normally does not, reduce life expectancy. Indeed, counterintuitively, the weight of the evidence is that recessions actually lead to people living longer. Suicides do indeed go up, but other causes of death, such as road accidents and alcohol-related disease, fall.

Marxist health economist Dr Jose Tapia (also an author of one of the chapters in our book World in Crisis) has done several studies on the impact of recessions on health.  He found that mortality rates in industrial countries tend to rise in economic expansions and fall in economic recessions. Deaths attributed to heart disease, pneumonia, accidents, liver disease, and senility—making up about 41% of total mortality—tend to fluctuate procyclically, increasing in expansions. Suicides, as well as deaths attributable to diabetes and hypertensive disease, make up about 4% of total mortality and fluctuate countercyclically, increasing in recessions. Deaths attributed to other causes, making up about half of total deaths, don’t show a clearly defined relationship with the fluctuations of the economy.  “All these effects of economic expansions or recessions on mortality that can be seen, e.g., during the Great Depression or the Great Recession, are tiny if compared with the mortality effects of a pandemic,” said Tapia in an interview.

In sum, the lockdowns could have been avoided if governments had taken notice of the rising risk of new pathogen pandemics.  But they ignored those warnings to ‘save money’. The lockdowns could have been avoided if health systems had been properly funded, equipped and staffed, instead of being run down and privatised over decades to reduce costs and raise profitability for capital.  But they weren’t.

And there is the even bigger picture.  If you have enough firemen and equipment, you can put out a bush fire after much damage, but if climate change is continually raising temperatures, another round of fires will inevitably come along.   These deadly new pathogens are coming into human bodies because the insatiable drive for profit in agriculture and industry has led to the commodification of nature, destroying species and bringing nature’s dangers closer to humanity.  Even if after this pandemic is finally contained (at least this year) and even if governments spend more on prevention and containment in the future, only ending the capitalist drive for profit will bring nature back into harmony with humanity.

For now, we are left with saving lives or livelihoods and governments won’t manage either.

Engels on nature and humanity

April 2, 2020

In the light of the current pandemic, here is a rough excerpt from my upcoming short book on Engels’ contribution to Marxian political economy on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Marx and Engels are often accused of what has been called a Promethean vision of human social organisation, namely that human beings, using their superior brains, knowledge and technical prowess, can and should impose their will on the rest of the planet or what is called ‘nature’ – for better or worse.

The charge is that other living species are merely playthings for the use of human beings.  There are humans and there is nature – in contradiction.  This charge is particularly aimed at Friedrich Engels, who it is claimed, took a bourgeois ‘positivist’ view of science: scientific knowledge was always progressive and neutral in ideology; and so was the relationship between man and nature.

This charge against Marx and Engels was promoted in the post-war period by the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxism, which reckoned that everything went wrong with Marxism after 1844, when Marx and Engels supposedly dumped “humanism”.  Later, followers of the French Marxist Althusser put the blame on Fred himself.  For them, everything went to hell in a hand basket a little later, when Engels dumped ‘historical materialism’ and replaced it with ‘dialectical materialism’, in order to promote Engels’ ‘silly belief’ that Marxism and the physical sciences had some relationship.

Indeed, the ‘green’ critique of Marx and Engels is that they were unaware that homo sapiens were destroying the planet and thus themselves.  Instead, Marx and Engels had a touching Promethean faith in capitalism’s ability to develop the productive forces and technology to overcome any risks to the planet and nature.

That Marx and Engels paid no attention to the impact on nature of human social activity has been debunked recently in particular by the ground-breaking work of Marxist authors like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett.  They have reminded us that throughout Marx’s Capital, Marx was very aware of capitalism’s degrading impact on nature and the resources of the planet.  Marx wrote that “the capitalist mode of production collects the population together in great centres and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance…. [It] disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual life of the rural worker.” As Paul Burkett says: “it is difficult to argue that there is something fundamentally anti-ecological about Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his projections of communism.”

To back this up, Kohei Saito’s prize-winning book has drawn on Marx’s previously unpublished ‘excerpt’ notebooks from the ongoing MEGA research project to reveal Marx’s extensive study of scientific works of the time on agriculture, soil, forestry, to expand his concept of the connection between capitalism and its destruction of natural resources. (I have a review pending on Saito’s book).

But Engels too must be saved from the same charge.  Actually, Engels was well ahead of Marx (yet again) in connecting the destruction and damage to the environment that industrialisation was causing.  While still living in his home town of Barmen (now Wuppertal), he wrote several diary notes about the inequality of rich and poor, the pious hypocrisy of the church preachers and also the pollution of the rivers.

Just 18 years old, he writes: “the two towns of Elberfeld and Barmen, which stretch along the valley for a distance of nearly three hours’ travel. The purple waves of the narrow river flow sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly between smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching-yards. Its bright red colour, however, is due not to some bloody battle, for the fighting here is waged only by theological pens and garrulous old women, usually over trifles, nor to shame for men’s actions, although there is indeed enough cause for that, but simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red. Coming from Düsseldorf, one enters the sacred region at Sonnborn; the muddy Wupper flows slowly by and, compared with the Rhine just left behind, its miserable appearance is very disappointing.”

Barmen in 1913

He goes on: “First and foremost, factory work is largely responsible. Work in low rooms where people breathe more coal fumes and dust than oxygen — and in the majority of cases beginning already at the age of six — is bound to deprive them of all strength and joy in life.

He connected the social degradation of working families with the degradation of nature alongside the hypocritical piety of the manufacturers. “Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, particularly the factory workers in Wuppertal; syphilis and lung diseases are so widespread as to be barely credible; in Elberfeld alone, out of 2,500 children of school age 1,200 are deprived of education and grow up in the factories — merely so that the manufacturer need not pay the adults, whose place they take, twice the wage he pays a child. But the wealthy manufacturers have a flexible conscience and causing the death of one child more or one less does not doom a pietist’s soul to hell, especially if he goes to church twice every Sunday. For it is a fact that the pietists among the factory owners treat their workers worst of all; they use every possible means to reduce the workers’ wages on the pretext of depriving them of the opportunity to get drunk, yet at the election of preachers they are always the first to bribe their people.”

Sure, these observations by Engels are just that, observations, without any theoretical development, but they show the sensitivity that Engels already had to the relationship between industrialisation, the owners and the workers, their poverty and the environmental impact of factory production.

In his first major work, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, again well before Marx looked at political economy, Engels notes how the private ownership of the land, the drive for profit and the degradation of nature go hand in hand. To make earth an object of huckstering — the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence — was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation — the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life — yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth.” Once the earth becomes commodified by capital, it is subject to just as much exploitation as labour.

Engels’ major work (written with Marx’s help), The Dialectics of Nature, written in the years up to 1883, just after Marx’s death, is often subject to attack as extending Marx’s materialist conception of history as applied to humans, into nature in a non-Marxist way.  And yet, in his book, Engels could not be clearer on the dialectical relation between humans and nature.

In a famous chapter “The Role of Work in Transforming Ape into Man.”, he writes: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were … thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.” (my emphasis)

Engels goes on: “in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. … But the more this happens, the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus the more impossible will become the senseless and antinatural idea of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body. …”

Engels explains the social consequences of the drive to expand the productive forces.  “But if it has already required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn to some extent to calculate the more remote natural consequences of our actions aiming at production, it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social consequences of these actions. … When afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic. …”

The people of the Americas were driven into slavery, but also nature was enslaved. As Engels put it: “What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees–what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!” .

Now we know that it was not just slavery that the Europeans brought to the Americas, but also disease, which in its many forms exterminated 90% of native Americans and was the main reason for their subjugation by colonialism.

As we experience yet another pandemic, we know that it was capitalism’s drive to industrialise agriculture and usurp the remaining wilderness that has led to nature ‘striking back’, as humans come into contact with more pathogens to which they have no immunity, just as the native Americans in the 16th century.

Engels attacked the view that ‘human nature’ is inherently selfish and will just destroy nature.  In his Outline, Engels described that argument as a “repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.”  Humans can work in harmony with and as part of nature.  It requires greater knowledge of the consequences of human action.  Engels said in his Dialectics: “But even in this sphere, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analyzing the historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote, social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and controlling these effects as well.”

But better knowledge and scientific progress is not enough. For Marx and Engels, the possibility of ending the dialectical contradiction between man and nature and bringing about some level of harmony and ecological balance would only be possible with the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. As Engels said: “To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge.”  Science is not enough. “It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.” The ‘positivist’ Engels, it seems, supported Marx’s materialist conception of history after all.

Engels’ pause and the condition of the working class in England

March 15, 2020

On this day, 15 March 1845, Friedrich Engels published his masterpiece of social analysis, The Condition of the Working Class in England.  This year is the 200th anniversary of Engels’ birth.  Below is a short (rough) extract from my upcoming book on the contribution that Engels made to Marxian political economy. 

Engels was just 24 years old when he wrote the Condition.  He had already developed left-wing ideas when he was despatched to England at the end of 1842 to work in the family firm of Ermen and Engels, manufacturers of sewing thread in Manchester. He arrived in England only weeks after the Chartist general strike of 1842 which, despite its eventual failure, had demonstrated the potential power of the workers. The strike’s centre was in Manchester and the surrounding areas of Lancashire and Cheshire, the areas of textile production. England was by far the most advanced industrial economy in the world, having been the scene of the Industrial Revolution. It was already leading the world in the production of cotton, coal and iron. Its working class was also the most advanced in the world, organised through the Chartist movement.

Engels was horrified at the poverty and misery that he saw in Manchester. The city had grown up around the cotton industry and was a mass of filthy slums. Infant mortality, epidemic diseases and overcrowding were all facts of life. Up to a quarter of the city’s population were immigrant Irish, driven there by even worse conditions in their own country. Poverty had existed in the old towns and rural areas – as it had done in Germany – but the growth of the big cities exacerbated and accentuated these conditions.

The new working class soon accounted for the mass of the population, as capitalist methods of manufacturing destroyed many of the old artisan or middle classes, turning the bulk of them or their children into workers. The needs of manufacturing industry led to the building of factories and mills and there was rapid urbanisation.’ Industrial towns then developed into the great cities that Engels observed when he first visited England.

In the evenings and weekend when not working for his father’s firm, Engels went with his new girlfriend and factory worker, Mary Burns, to various working-class districts.  In the book, he describes in great detail the condition of life in these cities, using a variety of contemporary press reports, official investigations and even diagrams of the back-to-back houses which formed the early Manchester slums. Engels summed up the position of the poorest. “In 1842 England and Wales counted 1,430,000 paupers, of whom 222,000 were incarcerated in workhouses – Poor law Bastilles the common people call them. – Thanks to the humanity of the Whigs! Scotland has no poor law, but poor people in plenty. Ireland, incidentally, can boast of the gigantic number of 2,300,000 paupers.”

But Engels’ book is much more than reportage of the terrible conditions in which workers lived. Woven into it is an economic analysis of capitalism which Marx and Engels later developed, but which even at this stage was central to the book’s analysis. Engels starts by looking at how the industrial revolution transformed the old ways of working to such an extent that it created a whole class of wage labourers, the proletariat. The introduction of machinery into the production of textiles, coal and iron turned the British economy into the most dynamic in the world, creating a mass of communications networks – iron bridges, railways, canals – which in turn led to more industrial development.

Engels describes the very nature of the capitalist system. The competition between capitalists leads them to pay their workers as little as possible, while trying to squeeze more and more work from them: ‘If a manufacturer can force the nine hands to work an extra hour daily for the same wages by threatening to discharge them at a time when the demand for hands is not very great, he discharges the tenth and saves so much wages. This leads in turn to competition between workers for jobs, and to the creation of a pool of unemployed who can be pulled into the workforce when business is booming and laid off again when it is slack”. The existence of this reserve army of unskilled and unemployed workers – especially among the immigrant Irish in the cities of the 1840s – holds down the level of wages and conditions for all workers.

Engels developed a theory of wages.  It was the intraclass competition between workers that was “the sharpest weapon against the proletariat in the hands of the bourgeoisie,” which explains “the effort of the workers to nullify this competition by associations.”  In the absence of union counterpressure, the advantage is with the employing class, which “has gained a monopoly of all means of existence,” and “which is protected in its monopoly by the power of the state.”  That unionisation helps to sustain real wage levels and the share of labour in output has since been borne out by many studies.

And ahead of Marx, Engels began to explain how workers were exploited despite receiving a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’.  Engels: “The bourgeoisie “offers [the proletarian] the means of living, but only for an ‘equivalent,’ for his work,” and it “even lets him have the appearance of acting from free choice, of making a contract with free, unconstrained consent, as a responsible agent who has attained his majority,” though he is “in law and in fact, the slave of the bourgeoisie.” Thus “the worker of today seems to be free because he is not sold once for all, but piecemeal by the day, the week, the year, and because no one owner sells him to another, but he is forced to sell himself in this way instead, being the slave of no particular person, but of the whole property-holding class”.  Later Marx would fully develop this notion into the category of ‘labour power’ as the object of purchase by employers.

Another brilliant concept developed by Engels was to anticipate Marx’s general law of accumulation and its dual nature.  On the one hand, the introduction of new machinery or technology leads to the loss of jobs for those workers using outdated technology.  On the other hand, the new industries and techniques could create new jobs.  Again, this debate over the impact of technology and jobs is topical with the advent of robots and artificial intelligence now.

Engels describes domestic spinning and weaving under conditions of “constant increase in the demand for the home market keeping pace with the slow increase of population.”  The “victory of machine-work over hand-work” – reflecting the competitive advantage of the new technologies – entailed “a rapid fall in price of all manufactured commodities, prosperity of commerce and manufacture, the conquest of nearly all the unprotected foreign markets, the sudden multiplication of capital and national wealth”; and also “a still more rapid multiplication of the proletariat” and “the destruction of all property-holding and of all security of employment for the working-class”.  So industrialisation and the introduction of machinery destroy small businesses and self-employment and drive people into large workplaces where jobs appear as companies with better technology and lower costs can gain market share at home and abroad.

Empirical evidence supports Engels’ thesis. Carl Frey reckons that the early inventions of the Industrial Revolution were predominantly labour-replacing: If technology replaces labour in existing tasks, wages and the share of national income accruing to labour may fall. If, in contrast, technological change is augmenting labour, it will make workers more productive in existing tasks or create entirely new labour-intensive activities, thereby increasing the demand for labour.”

The divergence between output and wages, in other words, is consistent with this being a period where technology was primarily replacing labour. Artisan workers in the domestic system were replaced by machines, often tended by children—who had very little bargaining power and often worked without wages. “The growing capital share of income meant that the gains from technological progress were very unequally distributed: corporate profits were captured by industrialists, who reinvested them in factories and machines”.

There was a growing gap between wages and productivity growth as workers were displaced by new technology and nominal wages were kept stagnant,  Robert Allen has characterised the period, particularly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars up to the time that Engels arrived in Manchester as the ‘Engels pause’.

However, Engels also offers the other side of the coin.  There are “other circumstances” at play including re-employment generated by the reduced costs resulting from new technology: “The introduction of the industrial forces already referred to for increasing production leads, in the course of time, to a reduction of prices of the articles produced and to consequent increased consumption, so that a large part of the displaced workers finally, after long suffering, find work again in new branches of labour.”

Engels vehemently rejected the Malthusian explanation.  Population growth is a response to growing employment opportunities, not vice versa: But this argument is not an apology for capitalism, because new jobs don’t last: “as soon as the operative has succeeded in making himself at home in a new branch, if he actually does succeed in so doing, this, too, is taken from him, and with it the last remnant of security which remained to him for winning his bread.”

And he carefully notes the views of workers themselves: “that wages in general have been reduced by the improvement of machinery is the unanimous testimony of the operatives. The bourgeois assertion that the condition of the working-class has been improved by machinery is most vigorously proclaimed a falsehood in every meeting of working-men in the factory districts.”

Was Engels (and the workers he talked to) right about the lack of growth in real wages in 1840s Britain?  Economic historians since, on the whole, agree. ‘Engels pause’ has been confirmed. As per capita gross domestic product grew, real wages of the British working class remained relatively constant.

The two main studies of ‘real wages’ show that they were more or less flat from 1805-1820, a period of economic depression in England.  There was a pick-up in the 1830s.  But the ‘hungry forties’ as they were called, saw a significant fall in real wages, mainly because of rising food prices that were not expunged until the abolition of the Corn laws in 1846.  And during the forties there were two slumps, in 1841 and 1847, with Engels’ study straddling both. By 1847 real wages had been stagnant at best for over ten years.

Engels’ conclusion was that the main cause of low wages was the power of employers over non-unionised workers, the threat of machinery and the industrial cycle under capitalism.  This conclusion still holds 175 years later.