Archive for the ‘marxism’ Category

Getting a level playing field

March 6, 2017

Financial markets may be booming in the expectation that the US economy will grow faster under President Trump.  But they forget that the main emphasis of Trump’s programme, in so far as it is coherent, is to make America great again by imposing tariffs and other controls on imports and forcing US companies to produce at home – in other words, trade protectionism.  This is to be enforced by new laws.

That brings me to discuss the role of law in trying to make the capitalist economy work better for the interests of capital.  It’s an area that has been badly neglected.  How is the law used to protect the interests of capital against labour; national capital interests against foreign rivals; and the capitalist sector as a whole against monopoly interests?

Last year, there were a number of books that came out that helped to enlighten us both theoretically and empirically on the laws of motion of capitalism. But I think I missed one.  It’s The Great Leveller by Brett Christophers.  Christophers is a Professor in Human Geography at Uppsala University, Sweden.  His book takes a refreshingly new angle on the nature of crises under capitalism.  He says that we need to look at how capitalism is continually facing a dynamic tension between the underlying forces of competition and monopoly.  Christopher argues that in this dynamic, law and legal measures have an underappreciated role in trying to preserve a “delicate balance between competition and monopoly”, which is needed to “regulate the rhythms of capitalist accumulation”.

Christophers reckons this monopoly/competition imbalance is an important contradiction of capitalism that has been neglected or not developed enough.  It may not be the only contradiction but it is an important one that the law (imperfectly) works on.  Indeed, uneven and combined development is an inherent feature of capitalism.

Christophers argues that corporate laws swing from one aim to another, depending on the needs of capital in any particular period.  Thus, in certain periods, anti-trust legislation (breaking up monopolies) dominates legal economic thinking; at others, it is patenting and protecting ‘intellectual property’ (monopoly rights).  The law is a “great leveller”, aiming to keep a balance between too much competition and too much monopoly.

I’m reminded of the recent period prior to the global financial crash and the Great Recession.  The tone of the day was to ‘deregulate’, particularly in the financial sector, to allow new financial products (derivatives) to expand ‘financial diversification’ (competition).  The dangers of this ‘excessive risk-taking’ and uncontrolled ‘competition’ were brought to the attention of the ‘powers that be’ at the annual Federal Reserve Jackson Hole central bankers symposium of 2005 by Raghuram Rajam, then a professor at Harvard and later head of the Reserve Bank of India.  He presented a paper that questioned the reduced banking controls introduced by Clinton’s advisers, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers in the late 1990s.  Immediately he was attacked by Summers as a ‘Luddite’, holding back progress and competition.  Of course, after the Great Recession, Summers became a leading supporter of banking regulation and of the Dodd-Frank banking regulation laws.

The balance between competition and monopoly is the main theme of Christophers’ book.  In my view, contrary to the view of the Monthly Review school, who follow Paul Sweezy’s characterisation of modern capital as ‘monopoly capitalism’, monopoly is not the dominant order of capitalism: competition is – at least what Shaikh calls ‘real competition’, in his huge Capitalism.  The continual battle to increase profit and the share of the market means monopolies are continually under threat from new rivals, new technologies and international competitors. The history of capitalism is one where the concentration and centralisation of capital increases but competition continues to bring about the movement of surplus value between capitals (within a national economy and globally).

Brett Christophers understands well this dialectical dynamic in capitalism.  In his excellent theoretical chapter 1 on Competition, he rejects the monopoly capital theory.  “Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly” (Marx).  The law plays a key role in trying to achieve a balance between the inherently unstable and precarious forces of centralisation and decentralisation that Marx prognosticated.

However, Christopher seems a little ambiguous or ‘soft’ on the theoretical explanations offered for the inherently unstable nature of capitalism.  He appears to accept the view that (underlying) causes of capitalist instability cannot be found in the capitalist mode of production but, as Marxist David Harvey has argued, must really be found in the full circuit of capital (production, distribution and circulation).  To emphasise, as Marx did himself, the production of surplus value at the core of crises and imbalances is to be “productivist” (Jim Kincaid) and to exclude the “chaotic singularities of consumption” (Harvey).  The “anarchy of capitalism” is to be found in competition and exchange, not in the exploitation of labour in production (Bob Jessop).

Well maybe, but this leaves Christophers open to the massaging of Marx’s value theory so that no marks are left.  First, he appears to accept Harvey’s view that value can be created in exchange or even consumption (p74).  Second, he appears to follow the view of post-Keynesian Michal Kalecki that profits are the result of the degree of monopoly or ‘rent-seeking’, thus dismissing Marx’s clear view that new value only comes from the exploitation of labour, not from monopolistic power.   Then there is the reference to the work of mainstream economist Edward Chamberlin’s theory imperfect competition, an extension of neoclassical marginal equilibrium theory.  Marx’s value theory as the basis of the laws of accumulation of capital and competition among capitals has been ignored or chipped away by these authors.

But this is perhaps another debate.  The theme that Christophers highlights is the role of the law in evening out the anarchic swings between excessive monopoly and ruinous competition in different periods of capitalism.  This is a new insight.  As Christophers says, this is a “work of levelling not plugging” to achieve “ongoing growth – in a relatively stable fashion”.  Even that seems a generous concession to the efficacy of competition law between capitals in maintaining stable expansion and accumulation under capitalism.  Do we not note over 50 slumps or recessions in the last 200 years and three huge depressions under the capitalist mode of production, where legislation on banking, corporate monopolies, patents and intellectual property did not work in preserving ‘harmony’?

In a series of well-researched chapters, Christophers outlines the detail in the swings between monopoly and competition according to the conditions of capitalist development. He makes a convincing case for arguing that the first case of ‘legal leveling’ began at the outset of 20th century after a period of excessive competition threatened to drive capitalism into a deflationary spiral.  Legal support for monopoly powers to protect profits dominated between the world wars.  After the second world war, competition came to the fore in order to help innovation and new industries.  In turn, the neo-liberal period from the 1980s, the laws of patent and intellectual property increasingly superseded the anti-trust legislation of Golden Age of the 1960s and 1970s.

This is a powerful narrative but it is also raises questions of causation.  Should we not see company and competition laws as reactions to changes in the health of capital accumulation, rather than something that (successfully?) evens out the upswings and downswings of capitalist expansion? Christophers reckons that the profitability of capital has been “remarkably consistent” since 1945, with an average of corporate profits to GDP of 10% in the last 70 years, which “rarely strayed far from this mean” (p2).  But profits to GDP are not the measure of the profitability of capital (at least in Marxist terms) and even so there has been a wide divergence (6-14%).  All the proper measures of US profitability show a secular decline since 1945, not stability; and in particular, a fall from the 1960s to the 1980s followed by a rise during the neo-liberal period 1980-00 – and a small decline, subsequently to date (see my book, The Long Depression).

This suggests to me that corporate and competition law is more like another counteracting factor designed to react to the health and profitability of capital in the same way as globalisation, attacks on the trade unions and privatisations that we saw from the 1980s – in an attempt (partially successful) to raise profitability of capital as a whole.  After all, it is the level of profitability for capital as a whole which is key to the degree and frequency of crises rather than the sharing out of profit among capitals.

Marx argued that, as capital accumulates, it will experience regular and recurring crises of production and exchange, slumps we call them.  They occur because accumulation leads, over time, to a fall in profitability and profits, forcing capitalists into an investment ‘strike’.  However, Marx also outlined several counteracting factors to this law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall:  greater exploitation, cheaper technology, expanding foreign trade; speculation in financial assets.  Law could be seen as another counteracting factor, introduced to curb either the excesses of ‘ruinous competition’ in driving down prices and profitability (i.e. helping to protect super profits from innovation or monopoly power); or to break down too much ‘monopoly control’ that could hamper profitability for more efficient smaller capitals or from new technology.

Indeed, one area of law that is missing from Christophers’ otherwise comprehensive analysis is labour law.  One big area of capitalist law is designed to ensure the dominance of capital in the workplace and over the production and control of surplus value.  These are even more important to capital than the laws designed to level the playing field between capitalists.

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume One of Marx’s Capital, we can remember that Marx spent much time recounting the role of law and regulation (inspector reports) in the struggle to protect and improve the conditions and hours of workers in Victorian factories and work places.  The battle for the 10-hour day and getting children out of dark satanic mills and mines etc.

It is no accident that the Trump administration is looking to deregulate banking and reduce environmental regulations, not to help small businesses against monopolies, but instead business in general against labour and the cost of people’s health.  Take the right to work laws of the last 30 years or more.  Following decades of declining membership, unions face an existential crisis as right-to-work laws being pushed at state and federal levels would ban their ability to collect mandatory fees from the workers they represent, a key source of revenue for organized labour.  In their first weeks in office, the new Republican governors of Kentucky and Missouri have already signed right-to-work laws, making them the 27th and 28th states, respectively, to ban mandatory union fees.

On the first page of his book, Christophers rightly highlights the comments that Keynesian guru Paul Krugman made on his blog back in 2012.  Inequality of incomes had risen sharply in the neoliberal period and the average wages of non-supervisory workers had stagnated.  The share of value going to capital had risen.  “So the story has totally shifted; if you want to understand what’s happening to income distribution in the 21st century economy, you need to stop talking so much about skills, and start talking much more about profits and who owns the capital. Mea culpa: I myself didn’t grasp this until recently. But it’s really crucial.” (Krugman)  The amiseration of the working class, as Marx called this relative poverty, appeared to be borne out.  As Krugman said, “isn’t that an old fashioned sort of Marxist discussion?”

As Christophers explains, Krugman offered two possible reasons for this amiseration: either growing monopoly profits of ‘robber barons’ (the Kalecki argument) or technology displacing labour with the means of production (the Marxist argument of labour-saving and ‘capital bias’).  The latest research on the causes of the long-term fall in US manufacturing employment alongside rising output shows that the Marxist explanation is more convincing than the Kalecki ‘monopoly rents’ one.

It’s not monopoly power or rising rents going to the ‘robber barons’ of the monopolies that forced down labour’s share, it’s just (‘real competition’) capitalism.  Labour’s share in the capitalist sector in the US and other major capitalist economies is down because of increased technology and ‘capital bias’, from globalisation and cheap labour abroad; from the destruction of trade unions; from the creation of a larger reserve army of labour (unemployed and underemployed); and from ending of work benefits and secured tenure contracts etc (labour laws).  Companies that are not monopolies in their markets probably did more of this than the big firms.

Christophers only deals with international trade law in passing, as his perceptive analysis concentrates on concentration and centralisation within national economies.  But “The Donald” is concentrating his enviable skills and focus on international law to revoke trade agreements; control the movement of labour across borders and impose tariffs and restrictions on rival powers’ exports etc.  The irony is that this will do nothing to restore manufacturing jobs and incomes in the US – quite the contrary.  No great levelling there.

Perhaps the real great leveller under capitalism is not so much laws designed to level the playing field among competing capitals –important as Christophers has shown that it is.  The real leveller is capitalist crises themselves.  In another new book, also coincidentally called The Great Leveller, Walter Scheidel, a Stanford University historian, argues that what really reduces inequality is catastrophe – either epidemics, wars or massive economic depressions.  It is a simple and perhaps crude idea.  But it is certainly true that the Great Depression of the 1930s cleansed capitalism of its unproductive and inefficient capitals and massively weakened labour to create conditions for new levels of profitability.  And the world war itself destroyed capital values (and physical capital) and introduced new military-induced technologies to exploit new layers of the global working class in the post-war boom.  That was a great leveller of the capitalist landscape (in a different sense) – to lay the basis for renewal of the profit making machine from the 1940s through the Golden Age of the 1960s.

So far the current Long Depression has not managed a similar ‘levelling’.  As Christophers says, it is unclear whether the law will be applied to reduce monopoly power as it was after 1945.  While the depression is unresolved, I doubt it.  Indeed, as Christophers confirms, the balance between competition and monopoly has moved to the international plane, with the likelihood of a new imperialist struggle that we saw at the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Kenneth’s three arrows

February 25, 2017

Kenneth J. Arrow has died at the age of 95.  He was an important mainstream economist.  He won a Nobel Prize as a mathematical theorist.  Indeed, Arrow was the epitome of the neoclassical general equilibrium theorists who came to dominate mainstream economics, with the avowed aim of using mathematics to deliver economic analysis and answers, in a mimic of mathematical physics.

Arrow was a close associate of that other great neoclassical and anti-Keynesian theorist, John Hicks.  They both aimed to use general equilibrium theory and math to show that markets and economic growth under capitalism could achieve equilibrium through supply and demand in ‘competitive markets’.

Interestingly, Arrow was uncle to a current Keynesian guru of ‘managed capitalism’, Larry Summers and also brother-in-law to that other icon of 1960s mainstream ‘Keynesian’ economics and the then textbook writer to university students, Paul Samuelson.  It’s a small world in the mainstream – although not as small as the Marxist economics world!

What did this ‘giant’ of mainstream economics theory contribute to our understanding of modern economies or the workings of firms and people in a ‘market economy’?  Math was Arrow’s forte.  “I think my biggest hopes were methodological — to apply new developments in mathematics to economics,” he told Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs, in 2000.

There are three areas (arrows) that spring to mind.  The first was Arrow’s ‘proof’ that each individual’s desires or needs cannot be combined into a collective result where everybody gains or their needs are satisfied.  His conclusion as outlined in his famous monograph Social Choice and Individual Values , was that “If we exclude the possibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, then the only methods of passing from individual tastes to social preferences which will be satisfactory and which will be defined for a wide range of sets of individual orderings are either imposed or dictatorial.”  In other words, it was impossible to deliver what ‘society’ needed from individual preferences as expressed through markets free of ‘unwanted alternatives’, at any time, and for all, unless the market is replaced by ‘dictatorship’.

You can already see the irony of this result.  The leading mathematical theorist of capitalist markets proves that markets cannot meet each individual’s needs without worsening the needs or desires of others, or abolishing itself! As one economist put it, Arrow “proved it was logically impossible for there to be a system of voting which is free of anomalies, no matter what kind of system it is…You can say, ‘There’s no really good way to run an election,’ but it is something else to prove it. . . . It’s like proving a bicycle cannot be stable.”

As developers of this ‘impossibility’ theorem, like Amartya Sen, went on to show, this also meant that there was no way that markets, perfectly competitive or not, could deliver equality of outcomes for each individual – no Pareto optimality.  Another way of putting this is to say that it is impossible to get ‘society’ to make a choice that leads to satisfaction for everyone.  As Sen said, “It is important to recognize that Arrow was not only establishing a theorem, he was opening up a whole subject to social choice.”

Democracy means making choices or plans that the majority want or need even if the minority loses out.  You may find this result self-evident and trite but apparently Arrow gives you a mathematical proof!  But it does not answer the social question: who is the majority and who is the minority?  And in the current world is it not the minority of the 1% and super-rich that get their needs met at the expense of the 99%?  Arrow’s theorem suggests that such inequality is the way of the world of markets.

Arrow’s second contribution was to the notorious foundation of neoclassical theory of capitalist market harmony, general equilibrium theory.  The principle of GE theory is that supply and demand in markets can be equalised and stabilised at a certain price, thus proving that capitalism is not inherently unstable as Marx had argued with his critique of Say’s law.  In a paper to the American Economic Association, Arrow states, “From the time of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, one recurrent theme of economic analysis has been the remarkable degree of coherence among the vast numbers of individual and seemingly separate decisions about the buying and selling of commodities. In everyday, normal experience, there is something of a balance between the amounts of goods and services that some individuals want to supply and the amounts that other, different individuals want to sell. Would-be buyers ordinarily count correctly on being able to carry out their intentions, and would-be sellers do not ordinarily find themselves producing great amounts of goods that they cannot sell. This experience of balance indeed so widespread that it raises no intellectual disquiet among laymen; they take it so much for granted that they are not supposed to understand the mechanism by which it occurs.”

So the invisible hand of the market (Smith) can lead to harmonious equilibrium in markets where supply and demand are ‘cleared’.  Working with Gerard Debreu, the Arrow-Debreu theorem in 1954 supposedly provided a rigorous mathematical proof of a ‘market-clearing’ equilibrium — or the price at which the supply of an item is equal to its demand.   It became just what mainstream economics needed to ‘prove’, namely that a theory of value and price formation could be based on individual consumer choices and not on the labour theory of value as put forward by the classical economists and Marx.  “Their (neoclassical) theory of value and price formation was really a fundamental element of economics…It’s the ABCs of economics and economic theory.”, said one follower of Arrow.

But again, what is ironic about the Arrow-Debreu proof is that it shows markets have to be completely ‘perfect’ in the sense that no one participant can have extra knowledge or economic power over another and that there must be no restriction or distortion of price from outside.  The theorem has been applied in financial markets on the grounds that these are ‘perfect markets’ where everybody has the same power and knowledge.  Such an assumption, we now know after the global financial crash (in part the result of dysfunctional derivatives markets), is unrealistic to the point of disaster.

That the theorem of general equilibrium in capitalist markets is based on totally unrealistic assumptions is not a decisive critique, because Arrow recognised this.  Indeed, he drew the conclusion that the aim of policy should be to try to ‘correct’ and ‘manage’ any anomalies in markets to achieve something closer to ‘equilibrium’.  As he said, “You cannot get a full understanding of the behavior of any part of the economy without understanding its reaction on other parts.”

He applied this approach to health economics.  In his 1963 paper “Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care”, he found that the delivery of health care deviated in fundamental ways from the traditional competitive market and, for this reason, was a ‘nonmarket’ relationship.  For example, in a ‘perfect market’, the buyer and seller in theory have access to the same information about market price and value. However, in the health-care market, the supplier (doctor) commonly has a superior knowledge of the quality, provision and distribution of health-care services — all of which puts the consumer (patient) at a relative disadvantage.  This creates a problem of ‘information asymmetry’.

Consumers also do not always know when they will need health care until the moment they require it (as with a stroke or heart attack). So when consumers purchase insurance, the cost can be prohibitive.  And insurance companies worry that offering coverage to protect consumers against losses could create ‘moral hazards’, such as risk-taking and irresponsible behaviour (indeed!).

Again it may not surprise you to find that the world’s leading equilibrium economist found that markets are not fair in delivering basic needs like health to people because they are rigged or corrupt!  Of course, unfortunately, that has not led to the conclusion that healthcare should be publicly owned (single supplier) and delivered free at the point of use (public good) to be maximise people’s needs.  Indeed, Arrow never followed his own theoretical conclusion when asked to consider whether money damages could be measured and so awarded to people suffering environmentally from the activities of ‘more informed’ multi-nationals.

What is the decisive critique of the Arrow-Debreu theorem’s relevance to modern economies is that economies are not static systems but dynamic.  Yes, Marx said, supply does equal demand but really only by accident.   In theory, under ludicrous assumptions, markets clear all supply and meet all demand, but in reality, they hardly ever do. Markets keep moving away from equilibrium all the time.  Nothing stands still and there are ‘laws of motion’ that continually change ‘equilibrium assumptions’, making market economies inherently uncertain. These laws of motion (as developed by classical and Marxist economics) rather than the ‘principle of equilibrium’ are much more relevant to understanding the capitalist economy of production and investment for profit.

Arrow did venture into the realm of classical economics of a dynamic economy and proposed an endogenous growth theory, which seeks to explain the source of technical change as part of the process of accumulation and not ‘external’ to the movement of supply or being set by consumer demand.  Yes, I know, it is difficult to believe, but mainstream neoclassical theory argued that aggregate supply and demand in an economy were driven by separate forces (the preference of firms on the one hand and by consumers on the other).

Endogenous theory recognised what any fool could see: that supply was affected by demand but also demand was affected by supply.  Innovation did not come out of the sky but from the drive of companies to grow (or in the case of Marxist theory, to make more profit and reduce labour costs). Of course, the neoclassical version of growth theory did not consider profitability relevant to innovation but instead looked at aggregate output.  This theory became popular with many reformist economists and politicians – apparently, former adviser and minister in the British Gordon Brown Labour government, Ed Balls, was a keen promoter.

So Kenneth Arrow leaves us with three arrows to enrich our understanding of the economic world: 1) markets collectively can never properly deliver every individual’s needs; 2) markets cannot equate supply and demand except under the most unrealistic assumptions and 3) economic growth is not achieved by just meeting the demand of consumers but requires decisions of investors to innovate.  Ironically, none of the implications of these economic arrows have been accepted by the owners of capital and their politicians in practical policy.  To do so, would be to admit that capitalism does not work for the majority or even much of the time for the capitalists.

ADDENDUM

 

I omitted to mention that, despite being an apparent standard bearer of neoclassical general equilibrium theory, Arrow was by no means a supporter of capitalism. Indeed, he wrote an article in fall 1978 in Dissent magazine making a ‘cautious case for socialism’.

https://www.dissentmagazine.org/…/a-cautious-case-for-socia…

It’s not a Marxist view (“It was in this area of political-economic interactions that Marxist doctrine was most appealing. I was never a Marxist in any literal sense”) but Arrow still exposed many faultlines in capitalism: “as I observed, read, and reflected, the capitalist drive for profits seemed to become a major source of evil”.

“The absorption of the economy by a small elite implied that the formal democracy and freedom was increasingly a sham; the major decisions on which human welfare depended were being made by a few, in their own interests.”

“To sum up, the basic values that motivated my preference for socialism over capitalism were (1) efficiency in making sure that all resources were used, (2) the avoidance of war and other political corruptions of the pursuit of profits, (3) the achievement of freedom from control by a small elite, (4) equality of income and power, and (5) encouragement of cooperative as opposed to competitive motives in the operation of society.”

“There can be no complete conviction on this score until we can observe a viable democratic socialist society. But we certainly need not fear that gradual moves toward increasing government intervention or other forms of social experimentation will lead to an irreversible slide to “serfdom.”
It would be a pleasure to end this lecture with a rousing affirmation one way or the other. But as T. S. Eliot told us, that is not “how the world will end.” Experiment is perilous, but it is not given to us to refrain from the attempt.”

Inequality after 150 years of Capital

February 19, 2017

I have written many posts on the level and changes in inequality of wealth and incomes, both globally and within countries.  There has been a ‘wealth’ of empirical studies showing rising inequality in incomes and wealth in most capitalist economies in the last century.

There have been various theoretical explanations provided for this change.  The most famous is by Thomas Piketty in his magisterial book, Capital in the 21st Century.  This book won the award for the most bought, least read book in 2014, surpassing A brief history of time by scientist Stephen Hawking.

I and others have discussed the merits and faults of Piketty’s work in many places.  Please read these to get a picture.  Suffice it to say that, although Piketty repeats the title of Marx’s book, published exactly 150 years ago, he dismisses Marx’s analysis of capitalism based on the law of value and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and adopts the mainstream theories of marginal productivity and/or market ‘imperfections’ like ‘rent-seeking’.  This leads to the view that capitalism could be ‘reformed’ and inequality reduced by such measures as a global financial tax or progressive inheritance taxes or more recently a universal basic income (Piketty is now advising French socialist presidential candidate Hamon on this now).

Inequality remains the buzz word of liberal and leftist debate and analysis, not crisis and slump.  Widening inequality has been called “one of the key challenges of our time” by the World Economic Forum, the think-tank of the elite. The ratings agency S&P Global Ratings has cited the income gap as a long-term trend that threatens America’s economic growth. Even the major international agencies like the IMF or the OECD continually analyse movements in inequality to see if more equality would be better for growth and a more stable capitalism.

Post-Keynesian economists like Engelbert Stockhammer or more radical mainstreamers like Joseph Stiglitz reckon rising inequality is the main cause of crises, not falling profitability or the inherent instability of capital as a money-making machine. Again I have discussed these arguments here.

But whatever the causes and processes concerned with inequality of incomes and wealth in the major economies, there is no doubt that it has reached levels not seen since Marx published Capital.  Indeed, here is an interesting chart that tries to gauge the level of inequality reached in the UK back in 1867.  The gini coefficient is the most common measure of inequality of income or wealth.  And in this graph, provided by the global inequality expert, Branco Milanovic, the gini ratio reached over 55 in 1867.

uk-per-cap

According to the graph, that was the peak of inequality and it fell back over the next 100 years, thus appearing to refute Marx’s view that the working class would suffer ‘amiseration’ as capital took a growing share of value produced by labour.  Instead, it would appear to confirm the mainstream view of Simon Kuznets written in the 1960s that once capitalism got going and started delivering economic growth, the forces of market, if not interfered with, would steadily bring forth a more equal society.  The irony is that just as Kuznets reached this conclusion, most major capitalist economies began to generate an increase in inequality in both income and wealth – as the graph shows.

But don’t be fooled by the graph that it seems to show a huge jump in GDP per capita in dollars from 1867 to now.  It’s misleading.  It does not show whether the jump is due to faster economic growth or just slowing population growth in the UK (actually it is the latter).  And of course, it does not show the huge downturns in GDP caused by recurring and regular crises under capitalism in Britain and elsewhere.

The graph does reveal, however, that inequality has been worsening in England to levels not seen since the 1920s.  Indeed, in a new analysis of the World Income Database Piketty and colleagues from the Paris School of Economics and UC Berkeley, describe a “collapse” of the share of US national wealth claimed by the bottom 50% of the country — down to 12% from 20% in 1978 — along with an (unsurprising) drop in income for the poorest half of America. About 117 million American adults are living on income that has stagnated at about $16,200 per year before taxes and transfer payments, Piketty, Saez and Zucman found in research published last year.

And that makes an important point.  The top 1 percent of earners in America now take home about 20 percent of the country’s pretax national income, compared with less than 12 percent in 1978, according to the research the economists published at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Over the same time in China, the top 1 percent doubled their share of income, rising from about 6 percent to 12 percent. America has experienced “a complete collapse of the bottom 50 percent income share in the U.S. between 1978 to 2015,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, and in spite of a similar qualitative trend, the bottom 50 percent share remains higher than the top 1 percent share in 2015 in China.”

Meanwhile, economic growth in China has been so strong that — despite widening inequality — the incomes of the bottom 50 percent have also “grown markedly”, the economists wrote. Their analysis found that the poorest half of Chinese workers saw their average income grow more than 400 percent from 1978 to 20015. For their American counterparts, income decreased 1 percent.“This is likely to make rising inequality much more acceptable” in China, they noted. “In contrast, in the U.S. there was no growth left at all for the bottom 50 percent (-1 percent).”

The IMF and other agencies like the World Bank like to argue that economic growth has picked up so much under capitalism that millions have been taken out of poverty. But economic experts in the field of poverty and global inequality reveal from their figures that official ‘poverty’ has declined for just two reasons.  The first is that the definition of poverty of those living on less than$1 a day is out of date; and second because nearly all the decline has been in China due to its unprecedented economic growth under a state-controlled and directed economy, still far from market capitalism seen in 19th and 20th century capitalism that Piketty and others have analysed.  In most low income countries inequality has hardly changed from very high levels.

growth-and-poverty

And the main reason is the control of wealth.  A very small elite owns the means of production and finance and that is how they usurp the lion’s share and more of the wealth and income.  The US Economic Policy Institute found that the top one percent of society derives an increasing portion of income gains from existing capital and wealth.  It is not because they are smarter or better educated.  It is because they are lucky (like Donald Trump) and inherited their wealth from the parents or relatives.

concentration-of-wealth

A recent study by two economists at the Bank of Italy found that the wealthiest families in Florence today are descended from the wealthiest families of Florence nearly 600 years ago!  So the rise of merchant capitalism in the city states of Italy and then the expansion of industrial capitalism and now finance capital made little or no difference to who owned the wealth. And the work of Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman has shown that in the US, wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the super-rich.

extremely-wealthy

So Marx’s prediction 150 years ago that capitalism would lead to greater concentration and centralisation of wealth, in particular in the means of production and finance, has been borne out.  Contrary to the optimism and apologia of the mainstream economists, poverty for billions around the world remains the norm with little sign of improvement, while inequality within the major capitalist economies increases as capital is accumulated and concentrated in ever smaller groups.

Beware the zombies

January 23, 2017

Mainstream economics has been seriously puzzled by the failure of the major economies to restore the previous growth rate in the productivity of labour since the end of the Great Recession.  There has been an intense debate over the issue. 

Some argue that productivity growth has been restored but is just not being measured properly, now that much new productivity comes from data, intellectual ideas, software etc and not from the production of things.  But recent research has thrown cold water on this explanation. 

Others argue that productivity growth may be lower, but that is simply the result of the aftermath of the Great Recession, leaving companies unwilling to invest in capital equipment and preferring to speculate in financial markets or just hold cash.  There is some truth in this argument, as I shall explain below.  After all, after a major slump, capitalist companies are going to hoard cash rather than possibly waste it on investment and extra production that may not find a buyer. And a past OECD study found support for what it called the ‘pro-cyclical’ element in post global crash productivity.  “Firms may respond to short-run fluctuations in demand by varying the rates at which their existing capital and labour are utilized, for example by hoarding labour at the time of a crisis waiting for the recovery or underutilising the existing capital stock without shedding it

Others reckon productivity growth had already slowed down before the Great Recession and would not recover because we are now in an era of low growth as all the hi-tech innovations have been exhausted and robots and AI will have little impact on the wider economy.  This view has been strongly contended by mainstream economist, Robert J Gordon, and by more radical observers. It suggests that capitalism may have passed its use-by date.  Again, this argument has some merit but, as I have explained in previous posts, it still does not identify the reason for the investment and productivity growth slowdowns since the end of the Great Recession.

Now some new research brings stronger light onto the debate.   The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the OECD have recently produced reports that hone in one key feature of the ‘productivity puzzle’.  It seems that productivity growth is not stuttering everywhere in capitalist economies.  In the major economies, the so-called ‘frontier’ companies are increasing their productivity as fast as before the financial crisis.  The disappointing economy-wide productivity figures are to be blamed on the companies that are ‘behind the frontier’.

The OECD finds that the ‘diffusion’ of innovation and productivity growth from leading to lagging companies has slowed down.  The ECB also finds the same thing in its study of Eurozone productivity (where it is worse for services than for manufacturing) and the Bank of England finds the same for the UK and that its effect is substantial.  What is most significant is that the new OECD study found that the cause was the large number of ‘zombie’ companies (companies whose regular revenues at most cover their interest expenses (if that) — companies that, to paraphrase BoE governor Carney, “depend on the kindness of their creditors”.  

The OECD researchers find that such zombies take up a frighteningly large part of the economy. Across the nine European countries they studied, the share of the total private capital stock ‘sunk’ in zombie companies ranges from 5 to 20 per cent. The suggestion is that such businesses hog capital and crowd the market for newcomers, make it harder for more promising companies to expand and hold back the reallocation of labour and capital to more productive and faster-growing companies.   The paper concludes that “the prevalence of, and resources sunk in, zombie firms have risen since the mid-2000s, which is significant given that recessions typically provide opportunities for restructuring and productivity-enhancing allocation” and that “a higher share of industry capital sunk in zombie firms tends to crowd out the growth—measured in terms of investment and employment—of the typical non-zombie firm.” All in all “a 3.5% rise in the share of zombie firms—roughly equivalent to that observed between 2005 and 2013 on average across the nine OECD countries in the sample—is associated with a 1.2% decline in the level of labour productivity across industries.” 

This confirms what I argued in a recent debate on the role of profitability.  The huge profits gained since the end of the Great Recession have been mostly confined to the large companies: just a few mega companies hold most of the cash while thousands of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) hold little cash and much more debt.  Indeed, a minority are really ‘zombie’ firms just raising enough profit to service their debt.”

It is easy to see why there are so many zombies.  Despite the relative recovery of headline profitability in many economies in the credit-fuelled boom from 2002 to 2006, many small to medium-sized companies did not see an improvement in profitability.  Instead they racked up higher debt through bank loans.  The Great Recession caused a collapse in profits and even after 2009, profitability improved little for these companies while debt remained high. But the zombie companies have struggled on because interest rates were so low and banks would not foreclose.  This scenario has been found in the extreme in Italy where ‘non-performing’ bank loans have reached 20% of GDP.

As the ECB explains in its report (ecb-zombie-credit-acharya-et-al-whatever-it-takes ),While banks that benefited from the announcement increased their overall loan supply, this supply was mostly targeted towards low-quality firms with pre-existing lending relationships with these banks. As a result, there was no positive impact on real economic activity like employment or investment. Instead, these firms mainly used the newly acquired funds to build up cash reserves. Finally, we document that creditworthy firms in industries with a prevalence of zombie firms suffered significantly from the credit misallocation, which slowed down the economic recovery.”

According to research by the ‘free market’ Adam Smith Institute, 108,000 so-called zombie businesses in the UK are only able to service the interest on their debt, preventing them from restructuring. In other words, they slow the ‘creative destruction’ of capital by the liquidation of the weak for the strong.

This confirms previous studies such as that in the Journal of Finance (2009), Why firms have so much cash, which found that in order to compete, companies increasingly must invest in new and untried technology rather than just increase investment in existing equipment.  That’s riskier: “the greater importance of R&D relative to capital expenditures also has a permanent effect on the cash ratio. Because of lower asset tangibility, R&D investment opportunities are costlier to finance than capital using external capital expenditures. Consequently, greater R&D intensity relative to capital expenditures requires firms to hold a greater cash buffer against future shocks to internally generated cash flow.”  So companies have to build up cash reserves as sinking fund to cover likely losses on research and development.

Similarly, in a recent paper, Ben Broadbent from the Bank of England noted that UK companies were now setting very high hurdles for profitability before they would invest as they perceived that new investment was too risky. “Even if the crisis originated in the banking system there is now a higher hurdle for risky investment –  a rise in the perceived probability of an extremely bad economic outcome….In reality, many investments  involve sunk costs. Big FDI projects, in-firm training, R&D, the adoption of new technologies, even simple managerial reorganisations – these are all things that can improve productivity but have risky returns and cannot be easily reversed after the event.”  So the profitability of capital has got to be high enough both to justify riskier hi-tech investment and to cover a much higher debt burden (even if current servicing costs are low).  Firms are not going to borrow more to invest even if banks are willing to lend.

Marx’s theory of crisis rests on the idea that after a slump capital will only start to invest to raise the productivity of labour if profitability is rising and at a sufficient level.  Indeed, slumps in production should provide the basis for a recovery in profitability and a reduction in the debt burden (credit) built up to the point of the crisis. But right now there are thousands of heavily indebted SMEs which are barely keeping their heads above water despite low interest rates.  They are keeping profitability too low and debt too high.  They are clogging up the system.

Profitability in the major economies did recover from the trough reached at the depth of the Great Recession in 2009.  According the European Commission’s AMECO database, the net return on capital stock is up between 8-30% since 2009 in the major economies.  But even that recovery has not meant that profitability has returned to its previous peak (2005-7) before the great crash, varying from flat to down near 14%.  And in the UK and the US profitability is now falling, according to AMECO.

nrr-ameco

At the same time, corporate debt levels are still high and rising.

us-corporate-debt

The most extreme strategists of capital recognise the ‘proper’ solution.  Back at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the then US Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, warned against keeping ‘dead’ capital going ‘zombie like’ as a ‘moral hazard’.  “Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate … it will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less enterprising people”.

The ‘solution’ for capital of ‘creative destruction’ in a slump or depression has not altered.  “The fundamental tenet of capitalism, which holds that some bad companies need to fail to make way for new and better ones, is being rewritten,” says Alan Bloom, global head of ‘restructuring’ at Ernst & Young management consultants. “Many European companies are just declining slowly and have an urgent need for new management, a revised capital structure or at worst to be allowed to fail,” he adds.

With corporate debt levels higher than before the global crash and profitability in most economies lower than before and now peaking again, ‘zombie’ companies are going to have to be removed in a new deluge before improved profitability and productivity can be achieved.

 

Davos: responsible capitalism

January 16, 2017

Today, the global political and economic elite meet in Davos Switzerland under the auspices of the World Economic Forum (WEF).  Every year the WEF has an annual meeting in the super exclusive ski resort of Davos, with the participation of 3,000 politicians, business leaders, economists, entrepreneurs, charity leaders and celebrities.  For example, this year Chinese president Xi Jinping, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and many of the economic mainstream gurus and banking officials are among the attendees. Xi Jinping will be the first Chinese president to attend Davos and will lead an unprecedented 80-strong delegation of business leaders, economists, academics and journalists.  He will deliver the opening plenary address on Tuesday and use it to defend “cooperation and economic globalisation”.  

US vice-president Joe Biden, China’s two richest men and London mayor Sadiq Khan will travel on private jets to nearby airports before transferring by helicopter to escape the traffic on the approach to the picturesque town. So many jets are expected that the Swiss government has opened up Dübendorf military airfield, an 85-mile helicopter flight away, to accommodate them.  The increase in private jet flights – which each burn as much fuel in one hour as typical use of a car does in a year – comes as the WEF warns that climate change is the second most important global concern.

While the rich elite fly in on their private jets, extra hotel workers are being bussed in to serve the delegates, while packing into five a room in bunk beds.  One of the main themes of Davos will be the rising inequality of income and wealth.  So Davos itself is a microcosm.

At Davos’ super luxury hotel the Belvedere, there will be “specially recruited people just for mixing cocktails”, as well as baristas, cooks, waiters, doormen, chambermaids and receptionists  to host world leaders, business people and celebrities, who this year include pop star Shakira and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (worth $400m).  Last year, a Silicon Valley tech company was reportedly charged £6,000 for a short meeting with the president of Estonia in a converted luggage room. The hotel has also previously flown in New England lobster and provided special Mexican food for a company that was meeting a Mexican politician.

Britain’s Theresa May will be the only G7 leader to attend this year’s summit as it clashes with Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th US president.  Last year, former UK PM David Cameron partied tie-less with Bono, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey, at a lavish party hosted by Jack Ma, the founder of internet group Alibaba and China’s richest man with a $34.5bn (£28.5bn) fortune. Tony Blair also attended the Ma party last year.

Basic membership of the WEF and an entry ticket costs 68,000 Swiss francs (£55,400).  To get access to all areas, corporations must pay to become Strategic Partners of the WEF, costing SFr600,000, which allows a CEO to bring up to four colleagues, or flunkies, along with them. They must still pay SFr18,000 each for tickets. Just 100 companies are able to become Strategic Partners; among them this year are Barclays, BT, BP, Facebook, Google and HSBC. The most exclusive invite in town is to an uber-glamorous party thrown jointly by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and British financier Nat Rothschild at the oligarch’s palatial chalet, a 15-minute chauffeur-driven car ride up the mountain from Davos. In previous years, Swiss police have reportedly been called to Deripaska’s home after complaints about the noise of his Cossack band. Deripaska’s parties have “endless streams of the finest champagne, vodka, and Russian caviar amidst dancing Cossacks and beautiful Russian models.”

The official theme of this year’s forum is “responsive and responsible leadership”!  That hints at the concerns of global capitalism’s elite: they need to be ‘responsive’ to the popular reaction to globalisation and the failure of capitalism to deliver prosperity since the end of the Great Recession and they also need to be ‘responsible’ in their policies and actions – a subtle appeal to the newly inaugurated Donald Trump as US president or Erdogan in Turkey, Zuma in South Africa, Putin in Russia and Xi in China.

The WEF has been the standard bearer of the positives from ‘globalisation’, new technology, free markets, ‘Western democracy’ and ‘responsible’ leadership.  Trump and other leaders of global and regional powers now seem to threaten that enterprise.  But Trump is the result of the failure of the WEF project itself i.e. global capitalist ‘progress’.

In my book, The Long Depression, in the final chapter I raised three big challenges for the capitalist mode of production over the next generation: rising inequality and slowing productivity; the rise of the robots and AI; and global warming and climate change.  And these issues are taken up in this year’s WEF report entitled The Global Risks Report.  The WEF report cites five challenges for capitalsim:  1 Rising Income and wealth disparity; 2 Changing climate; 3 Increasing polarization of societies; 4 Rising cyber dependency and 5 Ageing population.

The report points out that while, globally, inequality between countries has been “decreasing at an accelerating pace over the past 30 years”, within countries, since the 1980s the share of income going to the top 1% has increased in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and Australia (although not in Germany, Japan, France, Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands).  Actually, as I have shown in recent posts, global inequality (between countries) has only decline because of the huge rise in incomes per head in China.  Excluding, there has been little improvement, with many lower income countries having worsening inequality.  And as the WEF says, the slow pace of economic recovery since 2008 has “intensified local income disparities with a more dramatic impact on many households than aggregate national income data would suggest.”

No automatic alt text available.

The latest measures of inequality of incomes and wealth as presented by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Daniel Zucman and recently deceased Tony Atkinson, are truly shocking, with no sign of any reduction in inequality in the US, in particular.

zucman

Since the global financial crisis the incomes of the top 1% in the US grew by more than 31%, compared with less than 0.5% for the remaining 99% of the population, with 540 million young people across 25 advanced economies facing the prospect of growing up to be poorer than their parents.  And to coincide with Davos, Oxfam, using the data compiled for the annual Credit Suisse wealth report, finds that the world’s eight richest individuals have as much wealth as the 3.6bn people who make up the poorest half of the world!

global-wealth

In my blog and book, I discuss the reasons for this sharp increase in inequality.  Inequality is a feature of all class societies but under capitalism it will vary according to the balance of power in the class struggle between labour and capital.  The WEF report likes to think that the cause is the differential of skills between those who are better educated and therefore can obtain higher wages.  But research has shown this to be nonsense.  The real disparity comes when capital can usurp a greater proportion of value created in capitalist production.  Increased profitability, lower corporate taxes and booming stock and property markets since the 1980s have shifted up incomes from capital compared to wages, particularly for the top echelons in corporations.

And then there is the impact of ‘capital bias’ in capitalist production that I have referred to before.  According to the economists Michael Hicks and Srikant Devaraj, 86% of manufacturing job losses in the US between 1997 and 2007 were the result of rising productivity, compared to less than 14% lost because of trade.

us-manuf-emp

“Most assessments suggest that technology’s disruptive effect on labour markets will accelerate across non-manufacturing sectors in the years ahead, as rapid advances in robotics, sensors and machine learning enable capital to replace labour in an expanding range of service-sector job.  A frequently cited 2013 Oxford Martin School study has suggested that 47% of US jobs were at high risk from automation and in 2015, a McKinsey study concluded that 45% of the activities that workers do today could already be automated if companies choose to do so.” (WEF).

Image may contain: text

Technological change is shifting the distribution of income from labour to capital: according to the OECD, up to 80% of the decline in labour’s share of national income between 1990 and 2007 was the result of the impact of technology.  While at a global level, however, many people are being left behind altogether: more than 4 billion people still lack access to the internet, and more than 1.2 billion people are without even electricity.

In my book, I cite the next challenge for capitalism is climate change from global warming.  The WEF report does too.  There are a growing “cluster of interconnected environment-related risks – including extreme weather events, climate change and water crises” .Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are growing, currently by about 52 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.  Last year was the warmest on the instrumental record according to provisional analysis by the World Meteorological Organisation. It was the first time the global average temperature was 1 degree Celsius or more above the 1880–1999 average.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, each of the eight months from January through August 2016 were the warmest those months have been in the whole 137 year record.

CO2

As warming increases, impacts grow. The Arctic sea ice had a record melt in 2016 and the Great Barrier Reef had an unprecedented coral bleaching event, affecting over 700 kilometres of the northern reef. The latest analysis by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, on average, 21.5 million people have been displaced by climate- or weather-related events each year since 2008,59 and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reports that close to 1 billion people were affected by natural disasters in 2015.

The Emissions Gap Report 2016 from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that even if countries deliver on the commitments – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – that they made in Paris, the world will still warm by 3.0 to 3.2°C. To keep global warming to within 2°C and limit the risk of dangerous climate change, the world will need to reduce emissions by 40% to 70% by 2050 and eliminate them altogether by 2100.

The World Bank forecasts that water stress could cause extreme societal stress in regions such as the Middle East and the Sahel, where the economic impact of water scarcity could put at risk 6% of GDP by 2050. The Bank also forecasts that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two thirds by 2050, as a result of climate change and competition from energy generation and agriculture. The Indian government advised that at least 330 million people were affected by drought in 2016. The confluence of risks around water scarcity, climate change, extreme weather events and involuntary migration remains a potent cocktail and a “risk multiplier”, especially in the world economy’s more fragile environmental and political contexts.

The third big challenge cited by the WEF is restoring global economic growth.  The report points out that permanently diminished growth translates into permanently lower living standards: with 5% annual growth, it takes just 14 years to double a country’s GDP; with 3% growth, it takes 24 years. “If our current stagnation persists, our children and grandchildren might be worse off than their predecessors. Even without today’s technologically driven structural unemployment, the global economy would have to create billions of jobs to accommodate a growing population, which is forecast to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, from 7.4 billion today.”

So the WEF report highlights a whole batch of problems ahead for the stability and success of global capitalism. And what are the answers for a ‘responsive and responsible’ global leadership gathering in Davos?  Capitalism must be preserved, of course, but it will necessary “to reform market capitalism and to restore the compact between business and society.”

But having said that globalisation is failing in its report, the WEF then says that the way forward is really more of the same.  “Free markets and globalization have improved living standards and lifted people out of poverty for decades. But their structural flaws – myopic short-termism, increasing wealth inequality, and cronyism – have fueled the political backlash of recent years, in turn highlighting the need to create permanent structures for balancing economic incentives with social wellbeing.”

Thus the WEF report calls on the rich elite “to be responsive to the demands of the people who have entrusted them to lead, while also providing a vision and a way forward, so that people can imagine a better future.” And how to do this?  “Leaders will have to build a dynamic, inclusive multi-stakeholder global-governance system…the way forward is to make sure that globalization is benefiting everyone.”

Reducing inequality and poverty, boosting productivity and growth through new technology while preserving jobs and raising incomes; reducing gas emissions into the atmosphere to avoid global catastrophes, while preserving and reforming capitalism through global cooperation from Trump in the US, Xi Ping in China, Putin in Russia and Brexit Britain and the European Union.  Hmm…

Optimism reigns

January 4, 2017

Global stock markets ended 2016 near record highs and have started 2017 in a similar vein. Optimism about global economic growth, employment and incomes has bounced.

confidence

The latest data on manufacturing, as measured by the so-called purchasing managers’ index (PMI), the view of companies on their sales, exports, employment and orders, show a rise in December across the board and particularly in Europe and the US. PMIs measure whether manufacturing companies think that their activity is expanding or contracting. Anything above 50 suggests expansion. In Europe, the PMIs suggest that manufacturing is now expanding at a record pace (from a low level), while the global average PMI has now reached levels not seen since 2013.

Global PMI.png

Gavyn Davies, former chief economist at the infamous investment bank, Goldman Sachs, now blogs in the Financial Times and produces a measure of global economic activity with his Fulcrum Nowcast model. The latest monthly estimates show that economic growth has recovered markedly from the low point reached last March. Then fears of global recession were high. But Davies says now “not only were these fears too pessimistic, they were entirely misplaced. Growth rates have recently been running above long-term trend rates, especially in the advanced economies, which have seen a synchronised surge in activity in the final months of 2016.”

According to Fulcrum, the growth rate in global economic activity is currently running at 4.1 per cent, compared with an estimated trend rate of 3.8 per cent. This represents a vast improvement on the growth rates recorded in 2015 and early 2016, when growth dipped to below 2.5 per cent at times. The latest estimate for the advanced economies shows ‘activity growth’ running at 2.5 per cent, a rate achieved only rarely during the post-crash economic expansion.

JP Morgan investment bank is also more optimistic, if only a little. “Our global economic outlook calls for a 2.8% gain in global GDP in 2017 (4Q/4Q), a few tenths above potential. The year-ago rate bottomed out at 2.5% this year (during 1Q16-3Q16, we think), so the forecast represents a modest though still meaningful improvement over recent performance.” Goldman Sachs takes a similar view in its look ahead to 2017: “We expect global growth to improve modestly, from 2.5% in 2016 to 2.9% in 2017, with looser fiscal policy and still easy monetary policy in key countries.”  goldman-sachs-isg-outlook-2017

As I argued in my forecast for 2017, optimism that the world capitalist economy is now getting permanently out of its depressed state is driven by the possibility that the new US President Trump will activate a Keynesian-style fiscal stimulus of corporate tax cuts and infrastructure spending that will ‘pump-prime’ the US and other economies out their weak growth.

At the same time, China, having been close to a financial crash, according to mainstream economics this time last year, has steadied and is also picking up some traction. Indeed, China’s pick-up has confounded mainstream expectations that China’s seven-year credit boom, during which the debt/GDP ratio rose from 150% to 250%, would inevitably end in 2016. Almost all non-Chinese economists anticipated a significant slowdown, which would intensify deflationary pressures worldwide.

But the Chinese economy is a weird beast, not understood by mainstream (and even Marxist economists). President Xi may have endorsed in 2013 “the decisive role of the market,” but that hasn’t diminished the leading role of the state. As Aidan Turner put it recently, “Suppose that a full quarter of Chinese capital investment – currently running at around 44% of GDP – is wasted: that would mean China’s people are unnecessarily sacrificing 11% of GDP in lost consumption: but if the remaining 33% of GDP is well invested, rapid growth could still result. And, alongside obvious waste, China makes many high-return investments – in the excellent urban infrastructure of the first-tier cities, and in the automation equipment of private firms responding to rising real wages.”

Thus, according to Fulcrum, emerging economies are currently growing steadily at close to their 6 per cent trend rate, or 2 percentage points higher than achieved in 2015. They have therefore ceased to be a drag on the global expansion. No wonder stock markets are off to the races.

I won’t repeat myself with the arguments I presented against the view that capitalism has turned the corner and is entering a new boom period. I made these in my last post. But let me now add some caveats to the optimism of the banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions in investing our pension funds and savings in the stock market.

First, the expert financial consultants are notoriously wrong in their forecasts. Since 2000, they have predicted the S&P 500 would gain about 10% a year, grossly overshooting the market’s actual performance. And, on average, the consensus always has predicted annual gains, missing all five down years in that stretch. A study by CXO Advisory Group collected more than 6,500 forecasts from 68 so-called market gurus. More were wrong than right.

Second, in the last analysis, stock market prices depend on the expected earnings (profits) of companies. The ratio of the market valuation or price of the US stock market is now pretty high compared to profits by historic standards. When profits are set against the value of a company’s assets, the so-called return-on-equity for the top five listed companies in each industry is double that of the rest. And indeed, if you exclude the top five companies in each sector of US business, profitability (return on stocks purchased) is near 30 year-lows. In other words, earnings are concentrated in the very big oligopoly firms. Most American corporations are scratching a return.

And third, as I have pointed out before, corporate indebtedness has also been rising. A company’s value is measured by investors by its liabilities (net debt and stock value). Currently, those liabilities are at levels compared to earnings not seen since the dot.com collapse of 2000-1.

Finally, the US stock market relative to GDP is nearly back to the level seen just before the global financial crash in 2007-8. In other words, it is reaching extremes compared to the sales revenues and profitability of companies.

stock-market

Stock prices are being artificially driven up by corporations using their profits to buy back their own shares or make higher dividend payments. According to research by WPP, a global communications firm, among companies listed on the S&P 500, share buybacks and dividends have exceeded retained earnings (that is, profits withheld by companies and generally earmarked for investment) in five of the six quarters up to June 2016. Moreover, the ratio of payouts and buybacks to earnings has risen from around 60 percent in 2009 to over 130 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

The locus of what is going to happen to the global economy over the next year or two is to be found in the US. This remains the largest and most productive economy in the world, including manufacturing, and of course so-called services and finance. And the ‘recovery’ after the end of the Great Recession in 2009 has been weakest in post-war US economic history.

recovery

US investment and consumption have still not recovered to levels relative to GDP seen before the Great Recession.

over-capacity

So my mantra of a Long Depression is confirmed by these figures – even for the US, which has had the best ‘recovery’ of the major capitalist economies.

Moreover, the duration of this US recovery is the fourth-longest, at 30 quarters of a year, only exceeded by the recoveries in the ‘golden age’ of the 1960s and the profitability boom periods in the ‘neoliberal era’ after the slumps of 1980-2 and 1991.

recessions

So the US is due for another slump on the law of averages, within a year or two.

But all mainstream economic forecasters rule out a new recession in 2017. The mantra is that recoveries ‘do not just die of old age’. Something must happen to stop them. As Goldman Sachs puts it: “Recessions in the US have been triggered by Federal Reserve tightening of monetary policy; by economic imbalances such as the bursting of the dot-com and housing bubbles in 2000 and 2008, respectively; or by external shocks such as the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The first two triggers are unlikely to occur in 2017, and the third, a shock, is not something that we can typically anticipate.”

GS goes on: “Historically, since WWII, the odds of a recession occurring over a 12-month period have been 18%. Our composite recession model, incorporating end-of-year financial and economic data, estimates the probability of a recession in 2017 at 23%.” So slightly higher than average. But “once we incorporate the likely passage of a fiscal stimulus package of tax cuts and infrastructure investments in the latter half of 2017, the probability of a recession this year declines to about 15%.”

The question is whether the optimism of markets and mainstream economists of an extended and permanent boom in global production based on fiscal spending and corporate tax cuts in America is justified. As I have argued in other posts, Keynesian-style policies have miserably failed in Japan to get that economy out of its long depression.

And I have argued that sustained growth depends on increased investment in productive sectors and that depends on corporate profits in the US rising, not falling as they have done up to the second half of 2016. This measure is ignored by Goldman Sachs, although not by others.

Trumponomics, in cutting corporate taxes and delivering tax breaks for infrastructure investment, might boost profits for some sectors. But as the data above show, the vast majority of US corporations are seeing the profitability in their investments falling, not rising. The odds of a new recession may be higher than Goldman Sachs thinks.

The system is broken

December 25, 2016

In an end of the year piece, the biographer of John Maynard Keynes, economist Lord Robert Skidelsky writes that Let’s be honest: no one knows what is happening in the world economy today. Recovery from the collapse of 2008 has been unexpectedly slow. Are we on the road to full health or mired in “secular stagnation”? Is globalization coming or going?”

He goes on: “Policymakers don’t know what to do. They press the usual (and unusual) levers and nothing happens. Quantitative easing was supposed to bring inflation “back to target.” It didn’t. Fiscal contraction was supposed to restore confidence. It didn’t.”

Skidelsky lays the blame for this on the state of macroeconomics – he reminds us of the now infamous visit of the British Queen Elizabeth to the London School of Economics at the depth of the Great Recession in 2008 when she asked a group of eminent economists: why did they miss this coming? (see my book, The Long Depression).  They replied that they did not know why they did not know!

Skidelsky goes on to consider various reasons for the failure of mainstream economics to see the crisis coming or now to know what to do about it.  One reason might be the concentration of economics education on unrealistic models and mathematical formulas, rather than grasping “the whole picture”. He reckons economics has cut itself off from “the common understanding of how things work, or should work.”  This analysis follows that recently argued by Paul Romer, the new chief economist at the World Bank, who, on resigning from academia, also attacked the state of macroeconomics today.

Skidelsky’s second reason is that mainstream economics views society as like a machine that can achieve equilibrium of supply and demand so that “deviations from equilibrium are “frictions,” mere “bumps in the road”; barring them, outcomes are pre-determined and optimal.”  What this fails to recognise, says Skidelsky, is that there are human beings operating in an economic system and they cannot be fitted into an equilibrium model or machine.  Mathematics then gets in the way of the big picture with all its human unpredictabilities and changes. What is wrong with economics, according to Skidelsky is that there is a lack of “broad education and outlook”.  Economists need to know about wider things in social organisation and behaviour and the history of human development, not just models and maths.

While Skidelsky’s arguments have more than an element of truth about them, he does not really explain why mainstream economics has become divorced from reality.  This is not a mistake of education or lack of recognition of wider social sciences like psychology; it is a deliberate result of the need to avoid considering the reality of capitalism.  ‘Political economy’ started as an analysis of the nature of capitalism on an ‘objective’ basis by the great classical economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Mill and others.  But once capitalism became the dominant mode of production in the major economies and it became clear that capitalism was another form of the exploitation of labour (this time by capital), then economics quickly moved to deny that reality.  Instead, mainstream economics became an apologia for capitalism, with general equilibrium replacing real competition; marginal utility replacing the labour theory of value and Say’s law replacing crises.

As Marx succinctly put it: Once for all I may here state, that by classical political economy, I understand that economy, which, since the time of W. Petty, has investigated the real relations of production in bourgeois society, in contradistinction to vulgar economy, which deals with appearances only, ruminates without ceasing on the materials long since provided by scientific economy, and there seeks plausible explanations of the most obtrusive phenomena, for bourgeois daily use, but for the rest, confines itself to systematizing in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the trite ideas held by the self-complacent bourgeoisie with regard to their own world, to them the best of all possible worlds.”

What is wrong with mainstream economics is not (just) that economists of today are too narrowly mathematical and focused on economic models – there is nothing inherently wrong with using maths and models – or that most economists do not have the wider “erudition and multiple talents” of the classical economists of the past.  It is that economics is no longer ‘political economy’, an objective analysis the laws of motion of capitalism, but an apologia for all the ‘virtues’ of capitalism.

The assumption of economics is that capitalism is the only viable system of human social organisation that will deliver the wants and needs of people.  There is no alternative.  Capitalism is eternal and it works as long there is not too much interference in markets from outside forces like government or from ‘excessive’ monopolies.  Occasionally, the task is to control ‘shocks’’ to the system (neoclassical view) or make interventions to correct ‘technical problems’ in capitalist production and circulation (Keynesian view).  But the system itself is fine.

Take Paul Krugman’s reaction to Skidelsky’s piece.  What upsets Krugman is the suggestion from Skidelsky that mainstream economics reckons that fiscal contraction (austerity) was necessary to “restore confidence” after the Great Recession.  Krugman, as the modern doyen of Keynesianism, disagrees with the biographer of Keynes.  Mainstream economics, at least the Keynesian wing, argued the opposite.  More government spending, not less, would have got the capitalist economy out of its depression.   This is basic macroeconomics, Krugman says.

He then goes onto to claim that austerity is “strongly correlated with economic downturns”.  Actually the evidence for that claim is weak indeed, as I have shown in various places on my blog and in papers (published and upcoming).  The great Keynesian solutions of easy money, zero interest rates and fiscal spending have come well short of delivering an end to the depression when they have been tried (and all three have been tried in Japan).  Krugman, of course, tells us that they have not been tried, at least not enough.  Policymakers refused to use fiscal policy to promote jobs; they chose to believe in the confidence fairy to justify attacks on the welfare state, because that’s what they wanted to do. And yes, some economists gave them cover. But that’s a very different story from the claim that economics failed to offer useful guidance. On the contrary, it offered extremely useful guidance, which policymakers, for political reasons, chose to ignore.”

In my view, policy makers may have chosen to ignore fiscal spending to solve the ‘technical problem’ of the Long Depression partly “for political reasons”.  But there are also very good economic reasons for arguing that in a capitalist economy, increased government spending and running budget deficits would not get an economic recovery if the profitability of capital is low.

Skidelsky mentioned the other great blindspot of mainstream economics: the claim that the free movement of goods and capital, globalisation, works for all.  Angus Deaton,winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2015, is an optimistic defender of globalisation.  Deaton’s 2013 book The Great Escape argued that the world we live in today is healthier and wealthier than it would otherwise have been, thanks to centuries of economic integration. In an interview in the FT, Deaton says that “Globalisation for me seems to be not first-order harm and I find it very hard not to think about the billion people who have been dragged out of poverty as a result”.

I have discussed Deaton’s arguments in previous posts.  Deaton represents all that is best in mainstream economics now, as he looks at the big issues: globalisation, robots, inequality and human health and happiness.  He is now worried about the threat of robots for labour’s share, the growing inequalities from “rent-seeking” and the deteriorating health of Americans from over use of drugs pumped into them by pharma companies.  He reckons that happiness effectively peaked once a person was earning the equivalent of $75,000 a year.”  Of course, most don’t have even that, as Deaton knows.  But he remains confident that capitalism is the best system of social organisation as it has taken a billion people “out of poverty” over the last 250 years. So capitalism works, even if its apologists ignore its workings and cannot explain when it does not work.

The FT interviewer left Deaton and wandered back to his car “There is a limp, wet parking ticket stuck to my windscreen, a $40 fine. I smile. I’m also drawn back to the advice Deaton offered when I first sat down and mentioned my fear of a looming ticket.  “I’m sure you can get out of it,” the Nobel laureate told me. “Just tell them the system was broken.”

Well, the system is broken and the economists cannot get us out of it.

 

Top ten posts of 2016

December 23, 2016

As has become customary at the end of the calendar year, here are the top ten most popular posts from my blog for this year.  Topping the list was my review post of Anwar Shaikh’s magnum opus, Capitalism: competition, conflict and crises.  The fact that this was the most popular post is a credit to Shaikh’s magisterial book and also to the serious attitude that my blog readers take to Marxist economics.

As I said in the post, Shaikh’s book is a product of 15 years work.  A theory of ‘real competition’ is developed and applied to explain empirical relative prices, profit margins and profit rates, interest rates, bond and stock prices, exchange rates and trade balances.  Demand and supply are both shown to depend on profitability and interact in a way that is neither Say’s Law nor Keynesian, but based on Marx’s theory of value.  A classical theory of inflation is developed and applied to various countries.  A theory of crises is developed and integrated into macrodynamics.

In the post, I concentrated on Shaikh’s view on the causes of crises under capitalism and highlighted that he had a position is similar to my own on the causes of capitalist crises, the nature and existence of depressions, and the role of Kondratiev and profit cycles.  In a later post, however, I raised criticisms of his position on Marx’s theory of value,, particularly his attempt to reconcile Ricardo with Marx on value.  In my view, there is no reconciliation possible between Marx’s value theory and that of Ricardo and Sraffa.  There is also no unification possible between Marx’s law of profitability as the underlying cause of recurrent crises and slumps and the post Keynesian/Kalecki view of a ‘profit-wage share’ economy.  And there is no meeting between Marx’s view of profitability and credit in modern capitalism and those who hold that finance creates value and that ‘financial speculation’ lies at the centre of capitalist crises.  Shaikh stands for Marx on most of these issues but seems want to build a bridge to other side too.

The second most popular post was also a book review – of John Smith’s Imperialism in the 21st century, in many ways ground-breaking in its analysis of modern imperialism.  Smith shows that capital in the North restored much of the fall in its profitability in the 1970s on the back of the exploitation of the South in the 1980s onwards: “surplus-value extracted from these new legions of poorly paid workers helped to dig the capitalism system out of its hole in the 1970s”.

Smith firmly dismisses the idea that is prominent among mainstream and heterodox economics alike that the global financial crisis and the Great Recession were financial in origin. Smith reckons that gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of value hides the fact that much of the US GDP is not value created by American workers but is captured through multinational exploitation and transfer pricing from profits created from the exploitation of the workers of the South.

Smith argues that the exploitation of the workers of the South is less through an expansion of absolute and relative surplus value and more through driving wages below the value of labour power (super-exploitation).There was a vigorous debate on my blog over whether Smith was right about this as the dominant characteristic of modern imperialism. That debate continues.

Smith’s view of imperialist exploitation is complemented by Tony Norfield’s book showing how the imperialist financial centres capture the value expropriated from the periphery.  My post on Norfield’s also made the top ten. A key part of Norfield’s book is to weave in facts like that about modern imperialism with a Marxist analysis of the role of finance capital.  And Norfield is incisive in illuminating the nature of the modern British economy.  I have described Britain in the past as the world’s largest ‘rentier’ economy.  That’s an old-fashioned French word for an economy based on sucking up ‘rents’ through the monopoly ownership of capital (or land) from the profits of the productive sectors.  Both the sectors exploit labour but the rentier economy relies on its financial and legal monopoly to take a share of the surplus value of productive capitalist sectors appropriated from labour. This gives British capital its important role in modern imperialism, but also its Achilles heel in any global financial crash or in the shock of Brexit.

The third most popular post in 2016 was on whether Marxist economic theory better explains what had happened in the last ten years than Keynesian economics, which remains the dominant thinking among leftist organisations. Leading Keynesian Brad Delong told us Marxist economists at the annual American Economics Association Conference in San Francisco last January that we are like pessimists just ‘waiting for Godot’, when capitalism can be made to work with the ‘concrete economics’ of Keynesian social democracy (the title of DeLong’s new book this year). Well, the last ten years cast doubt on that view and the next few years will see who is right.

In the post I argued that the cause of the Great Recession and the subsequent Long Depression is not the product of a ‘lack of demand’ as such or ‘pro-cyclical’ government spending policies (austerity) but is caused by a collapse of the capitalist sector, in particular, capitalist investment.  And that investment collapsed because profitability in the capitalist sector fell, then the mass of profits fell, leading to investment, employment and incomes to fall, in that order.  Then it’s the change in profits that leads to changes in investment and demand (consumption), not vice versa, as the Keynesians argue.

At the beginning of 2016, the world economy was looking pretty weak and there was much talk that a growing debt crisis in China was likely to lead to a major crash there, which would then spread globally.  But in a post that proved popular, I questioned the doom-mongering about China and also the size of the impact that China would have on the major capitalist economies. I argued that the US remains the pivotal economy for a global capitalist crisis, particularly as it dominates in financial and technology sectors.  In 1998, the emerging economies had a major economic and financial crisis but it did not lead to a global slump.  In 2008, the US had a biggest slump in its economic post-war history and it led to the Great Recession.  In my view, this weighting still applies.  That proved right, at least for 2016.

One of the big politico-economic events of 2016 was the referendum vote in Britain to leave the European Union.  My post on the day after Brexit got a lot of hits. I got it wrong, having expected a vote to remain in the EU. I had got two previous predictions right: that Scotland would vote to stay in the UK and that the Conservatives would win the 2015 UK general election, but I did not get a hat trick in 2016,  as former Conservative PM David Cameron’s wild political gamble did not come off.  In the post, I analysed the reasons why there was a vote for Brexit and looked at the possible economic impact. That impact has still to be felt both for the UK and for world trade.

The other major political event of 2016, of course, was the surprise victory of Donald Trump for the US presidency, despite polling more than 2m votes less than his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.  In a post directly after the result, I again analysed the reasons for Trump’s victory.  I said that, like the vote of the Brits for Brexit, against all expectations, a sufficient number of voters in America (mainly white, older and in small businesses or working in failing industries in smaller central US states) overcame the vote of the youth, the more educated and better-off in the big cities along the coasts.

But it was not so much a working class vote for Trump because hardly more than 50% or so of eligible voters turned out to vote.  A huge swathe of people never vote in American elections and they constitute a sizeable part of the working class.  The most significant issue (52%) for voters, when asked at the booths, was the state of the US economy, with terrorism next (but well down at 18%) and immigration (the Trump card) even lower.  So Trump won because he claimed he could improve the conditions of those ‘who have been left behind’ by globalisation, failing domestic industries and crushed small businesses.

Stock markets are now riding high on expectations that Trump can boost the US economy.  But in the post, I argued that Trump had been handed a poisoned chalice and the US economy would not recover.  Trump would not be able to deliver and his big business cabinet would do in the opposite of what those ‘left behind’ want.  We shall see in 2017.

One of the features of Brexit and Trump events is that it heralds the end of the great neo-liberal era of globalisation and ‘free trade’.  My post on the end of globalisation made the top ten.  It critiqued the views of Keynes in the 1930s and his modern epigone Brad Delong (again!) in claiming that capitalism has been the most successful mode of production in human history and it would be again. Instead, I argued that capitalism is really past its use-by date.  One indicator is that ‘globalisation’ (the spread of capitalism’s tentacles across the world) has ground to a halt.  And growth in the productivity of labour, the measure of future ‘progress’, has also more or less ceased in the major economies.

More short term, a key question for me and it seems my readers, was whether the world economy is heading for another slump.  In a post written early in the year, Can we avoid the coming recession?, I presented the facts as I saw them and offered a cautious forecast that a new economic recession was “due and will take place in the next one to three years at most.” I said that maybe there won’t be one in 2016 (as it has proved)… “But the factors for a new recession are increasingly in place: falling profitability and profits in the major economies and a rising debt burden for corporations in both mature and emerging economies.”

And finally there is my post on how unequal the world is, according to annual study by Credit Suisse, which makes the top ten every year.  This year was no exception, with the finding that the top 1% of the adult wealth holders in the world own 51% of all global personal wealth, while the bottom half of adults own only 1%.  Indeed, the top 10% of adults own 89% of all the world’s personal wealth!  This is a record.

In the past 12 months, global wealth has risen by 1.4% and so it has barely kept pace with population growth. As a result, in 2016, the mean average wealth per adult was unchanged for the first time since 2008, at approximately $52,800.  This mean average tells you that the vast majority of the world’s adults have way less wealth than that.  On average, wealth did not rise, while inequality between rich and poor rose again.

That’s the message of 2016 from my posts: continued depression for the majority and more for the tiny elite.

 

Best books of 2016

December 21, 2016

I thought I would remind myself and blog readers of what seemed to me were the best books on economics published this year.  The criteria for me were whether the book added any new idea or understanding of developments in modern capitalism or in Marxist economic theory. Yes, I know, very boring with no jokes or stories involved.

Let start with those books that looked at the activities of finance capital and imperialism in the major economies and globally.  In his excellent new book, Finance Capital Today, French Marxist Francois Chesnais analysed in detail the key developments in modern finance and the causes of the global financial crash in 2008.

As Francois says in a comment to my blog,  “Today not enough surplus value is being produced to re-launch the accumulation process and the amount that is serves to consolidate the accumulation of dividend and interest bearing assets by banks, funds and individuals (financial accumulation) and so the claims on this already very insufficient amount of surplus value. This has led both to the dead-end of the quasi-zero long term interest rate regime, which not simply the outcome of quantitative-easing and to the endless small shocks in the global financial system. Of course government debt and the resulting pro-rentier, pro-cyclical austerity policies only aggravate this situation but they do not explain it and their reversal would not solve capitalism’s basic problem.”  Tony Norfield provides a really comprehensive and positive review of Chesnais’ book on his blog site.

And of course, in 2016, Tony published his own analysis of modern capitalism with The City: London and the Global Power of FinanceNorfield brings us key insights into understanding the nature of modern financial systems and what role they play in the working (or non-working) of capitalism.  Tony defines as imperialism where a small number of countries dominate world markets through their multi-national corporations, which can be both making things, providing services and financial, or often all three.  Financial privilege is a form of economic power, enabling imperialist countries to draw upon resources and value created elsewhere in the world.   Finance and production in 21st century capitalism are inseparable – “they are close partners in exploitation”.  Norfield also reveals the large role of British capitalism in imperialism.  Britain is second only to the US in the importance of its financial sector globally and in some areas like foreign currency trading it leads. In a way, Britain is the world’s largest ‘rentier’ economy.  For that reason alone, the Brexit referendum vote puts the future of London as the centre of global finance capital in jeopardy.

While Tony Norfield’s book looked at modern imperialism from the apex of finance capital, John Smith, in his Imperialism in the 21st century, looked at it from the point of view of billions living under the grip of imperialism in what used to be called the Third World and is now called the ‘emerging’ or ‘developing’ economies.  There was quite a debate on my blog during the year on John’s view that it was the ‘super-exploitation’ of wage workers in the ‘South’ that is the foundation of modern imperialism.  That only helped to emphasise the importance of John’s book.

The role of finance in causing instability in modern capitalism was the theme of Jack Rasmus’ intriguing book, Systemic Fragility in the Global Economy. Rasmus reckons that mainstream economic theory has completely failed to account for this fragility; or forecast any crises like the Great Recession; or explain the ensuing depression.  But Jack is not only damning about mainstream economics.  He maintains that heterodox theories of crises in the post-1970s world economy have also been found wanting.  The followers of Keynes and Marx come in for criticism.  The Keynesians are at fault because they have lost the essence of Keynes’ insight into the instability and uncertainty found in a monetary and financially-dominated economy.  His book is certainly a thought-provoking contribution to an understanding of the fragility of modern capitalism.

The various theories or explanations of the cause of crises under capitalism from a Marxist or radical perspective were brought together in a collection of papers entitled The Great Financial Meltdown cleverly edited by Turan Subusat.

Turan provides an excellent introduction and summary of the views of top Marxist scholars.  It includes a debate between David Harvey and myself on the relevance of Marx’s law of profitability to crises.  Turan argues that the causes of crises under capitalism and, in particular, the recent global financial crash and subsequent Great Recession, can be considered from three angles: is there a systemic underlying cause of crises (the falling rate of profit or underconsumption); or is it conjunctural (each crisis has a different cause); or is it the result of policy decisions (eg the neoliberal agenda, financial deregulation etc)?

The failure of mainstream economics to have any useful part to play in such discussion was exposed Ben Fine in two volumes, called Microeconomics and Macroeconomics: a Critical Companion, Fine (along with co-author Ourania Dimakou) delivers a comprehensive critique of all mainstream economic theories and models.  This makes it an invaluable antidote to the conventional poison of marginalism and general equilibrium theory in microeconomics; and Say’s law and the denial of crises or slumps in macroeconomics.

Fine makes the point that macroeconomics has shifted from theory to models.  Mathematical models replaced theory, with models to be tested ex-post.  What is wrong with mainstream modelling is the lack of realism in the starting assumptions.  Fine goes through the famous accelerator-multiplier Keynesian model that shows the instability of capitalism but does not show why.  Fine goes onto analyse the counter-revolution against Keynes’ more radical model of instability and how the mainstream has castrated that into a model that moves to equilibrium given the assumptions of falling prices and wages – indeed, a synthesis with neoclassical theory.  Growth models are divorced from short-run fluctuation models.

It is interesting to compare Fine’s critique with that of Paul Romer, a mainstream economist, also lays into the state of macroeconomics in his paper The trouble with macroeconomics, Romer says that the explanation of crises under capitalism as just being the result of ‘exogenous shocks’ to an inherently harmonious process of economic growth is useless. If you just keep adding possible ‘imaginary shocks’ to explain sharp changes in an economy, “more variables makes the identification problem worse.”  As Romer points out, “solving the identification problem means feeding facts with truth values that can be assessed, yet math cannot establish the truth value of a fact. Never has. Never will.

Two great books on the big issues of modern capitalism: rising inequality and falling productivity and growth, were produced by non-Marxists.  In his book, Global Inequality, former World Bank chief economist Branco Milanovic shows that global inequality has increased since the early 1980s, when ‘globalisation’ got moving.   Rising inequality is the result the drive of capital to reduce labour’s share and raise profits and to the recurrent and periodic failures of capitalist production.  Growth of incomes has been concentrated in China, and to a lesser extent and more recently, India.

The most controversial economics book among the mainstream in 2016 was Robert J Gordon’s The rise and fall of American growth.  In his book, the accumulation of research over the last decade, Gordon concludes that the great new productivity-enhancing paradigm that is supposedly coming from the digital revolution is actually over already and the future robot/AI explosion will not change that.  On the contrary, far from faster economic growth and productivity, the world capitalist economy is slowing down as a product of slower population growth and productivity.

Balanced against Gordon are a myriad of techno-optimists and economists who reckon that the world is on the brink of a productivity explosion driven by robots, artificial intelligence, genetics, and a range of new ‘disruptive technologies’ – disruptive in the sense that traditional jobs and functions are going to disappear and be replaced by robots and algorithms.  The optimists argue that, since the time of Thomas Malthus, eras of depressed expectations like our own have inspired predictions of doom and gloom that were proved wrong when economies turned up a few years down the road.

Providing a balanced view of the impact of technology under capitalism is a short but great book, The Bleeding Edge, by Bob Hughes.  Hughes graphically outlines in a series of chapters that, if technology was controlled by public organisation and in common (or as he prefers, following Kropotkin, the thoughtful anarchist, in ‘mutual association’), then huge strides in innovation could be made.  He provides a host of examples for solving global warming, reversing environmental destruction, reducing wasteful production and protecting natural resources, including flora and fauna.

Finally, but by no means least, I come to the two great books of Marxist economic theory released this year.  Anwar Shaikh says he is not a Marxist but a ‘classical economist’.  In his magisterial 1000-page Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises, Shaikh explains that his “approach is very different from both orthodox economics and the dominant heterodox tradition.”  He rejects the neoclassical approach that starts from “Perfect firms, perfect individuals, perfect knowledge, perfectly selfish behavior, rational expectations, etc.” and then “various imperfections are introduced into the story to justify individual observed patterns” although there “cannot be a general theory of imperfections.

Shaikh emphasises that it is profit under capitalism that drives growth and there are cyclical fluctuations in profitability.  These are expressed in business and fixed capital cycles inherent in capitalist production.  Crises are normal in capitalism.  The history of market systems reveals recurrent patterns of booms and busts over centuries, emanating precisely from the developed world.  The key crises under capitalism are ‘depressions’, such as that of the 1840s, the “Long Depression” 1873-1893, the “Great Depression” of the 1930s, the “Stagflation Crises” of the 1970s and the Great Global Crisis now.

Shaikh reckons that on the surface, the last crisis, the Great Recession, looks like a crisis of excessive financialization. But this fails to identify the real cause of the crisis.  Keynesians and Post Keynesians argue that the cause of the current crisis is inequality and unemployment, so there is a need to maintain a stable wage share and to use fiscal and monetary policy to maintain full employment. But Shaikh argues that such policies would not work because, at least in the US, the post-Keynesians have got the causes of the crisis wrong, the cause of which is the movement in profitability – the dominant factor under capitalism.

Fred Moseley’s book Money and Totality is a profound defence of Marx’s value theory and its relevance to the laws of motion in modern capitalism.  Moseley takes the reader carefully and thoroughly through all the competing interpretations of Marx’s value and price theory and shows that a Marxist analysis delivers a single realistic system of capitalism.  If we interpret Marx’s as a single system, an actual capitalist monetary macro-economy, then it is perfectly possible (with all the caveats of measurement problems and data) to carry out empirical analysis to verify or not Marx’s laws of motion of capitalism. Testing theory and laws with evidence is now the name of the game.  Fred Moseley allows us to do that with confidence that we are testing a logical and consistent theory that is verifiable empirically.

Oh, I forgot.  There is also my book, The Long Depression.

The elephant in the room

December 19, 2016

A review of The Bleeding Edge by Bob Hughes, New Internationalist, £10.99.

This is a very good book, which stands above many others in the ever-growing genre that looks at the role and impact of the new technologies of robots and artificial intelligence on the future of human social organisation. As Betsy Harmann, Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College US, says in the book’s blurb: “Rejecting both apocalyptic pessimism and techno-optimism, Hughes provides a compelling map to the future in which information technologies are harnessed for the common good.”

Bob Hughes taught digital media at Oxford Brookes University, but he is also an activist, particularly for the rights of migrants, co-founding a campaigning organisation, No One is Illegal UK in 2003.  Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, writes a foreword in which he argues that “technology is neutral.. how we use technology is up to us.  The machine is not in control, corporations and politicians are… it has not been artificial intelligence that has made our world more unequal.  It has been us.” This is Hughes’ message.

Hughes starts by arguing that technological progress has gone hand in hand with the development of capital.  As a result, computers, electronics, intellectual ideas have been converted into private property for profit, leading to “entrenched inequality”.  Yes, capitalism has been the social system under which massive technological progress has been made, reducing the material inputs and time it takes to deliver goods and services people need.  But this has been at the expense of growing inequality and the rapacious destruction and wasteful use of natural and human resources.

As Dorling says in his foreword, “profit maximisation is the anathema for true innovation.” Echoing Mariana Mazzucato in her book, The Entrepreneurial State, which shows how many key technological developments were not the results of capitalist innovation or ‘animal spirits’ but the product of state funding and public scientific research that were then ‘commodified’ by capitalist corporations like Apple, Microsoft or Google.

But Hughes also gives us excellent examples of the way that capitalism and the drive for profits distorts (and delays) innovation from meeting the needs of people.  Kodachrome, the first mass market film launched in 1935 (p32) did not come from research by capitalist corporations but from two musicians working in their spare time at the kitchen sink.  No corporation spent time and money trying to see if manned flight could be achieved; it was done by two Wright brothers on their own.  It is the same story with xerography (later privatised into Xerox), or disk memory (later IBM).  These advances were achieved by individuals in their own time and often in face of opposition from their employers who preferred research for a quick buck than for innovation.

One of the most famous was Colossus, the world’s first true programmable digital computer, which was developed by engineers in the state-owned British Post Office during WW2.  These pioneers were then consigned back to mundane jobs after the war and computer development was stunted for decades by corporate neglect.  A Brookings Institute study found that 75% of computer development funding had come from the state in 1950 – after which corporations did little to develop this exciting innovation, delaying its impact until well into the 1980s.

Hughes then gives us a chapter on the development of technology in class societies going back to the feudal period, arguing that it was the “takeover of egalitarian societies by unequal ones” that held back technological development.  It is here and really throughout the book, that I have my biggest disagreement.  Inequality or an “unequal world” is the bugbear for Hughes.  But this is an imprecise concept.

Inequality has existed for most of human civilisation, but it is driven by the control and distribution of surplus labour and output by a tiny elite.  The history of human social organisation after the primitive communism of hunter-gatherer societies has been the history of classes, to paraphrase Marx.  Inequality is a thus a product of class society; it is not the cause of it.  Thus it is the capitalist mode of production that has incentive to turn technology toxic, not ‘inequality’ as such.  If you were go through Hughes’ text and replace the words “inequality” or “unequal society” with the word “capitalism”, the picture of causality would be clear.

Making ‘inequality’ the enemy of technical progress smacks of the same ambiguity as found in such books as The Spirit Level, a book that has had wide success. That book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”.  But the real contradiction is not between an unequal society and technical progress, but between technical advances to boost the productivity of labour and the profitability of capital.

Hughes covers excellently the damage that capitalism (sorry, unequal societies) do to life expectancy, height, violence, the environment etc, just as the Spirit Level did.  These are chapters not be missed.  Hughes concludes that “inequality is the elephant in the room” that nobody likes to mention (p111).  Actually many refer to rising inequality now (as Thomas Piketty, the modern economist of inequality, put it in the interview: “I believe in capitalism, private property, the market” — but “how can we tackle inequality?” ).  But few (including Piketty) attach its cause to the capitalist mode of production. That is the real elephant in the room.  By delineating inequality, there is a danger that the elephant will be mistaken for a mouse.

Hughes graphically outlines in a series of chapters that, if technology was controlled by public organisation and in common (or as he prefers, following Kropotkin, the thoughtful anarchist, in ‘mutual association’), then huge strides in innovation could be made.  He provides a host of examples for solving global warming, reversing environmental destruction, reducing wasteful production and protecting natural resources, including flora and fauna.

Planning for need is not only necessary; Hughes shows that it now clearly viable with modern computer techniques like big data, artificial intelligence and quantum computers (see chapter 12 for an excellent account of the so-called ‘calculation debate’ of the 1980s that was supposed to show that planning was impossible because of the millions of decisions involved and therefore socialism was infeasible).  Indeed, Hughes reveals that during its brief rule, the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, actually developed Cybersyn, a project that showed the possibility for harnessing digital computing to plan for social need.

In his final chapter, Utopia or Bust, Hughes discusses the key contradiction for the technology of the future. “Automation under capitalism (here the true elephant is mentioned) is less to relieve drudgery than to relieve manufacturers of some of their wage bills and reduce their reliance on skilled workers” (p310).  Automation under capitalism stunts individual ideas and innovation.  And it is also wasteful e.g. building roads rather than public transport and communications (“when you look at the hours a car can save you and the hours spent paying for it.. a worker has to dedicate each year about two months of work”) (p320).  Airplanes can be more ecologically friendly and more comfortable and useful if they just went slower (p322).  Labour saving devices to reduce toil in the home (washing machines) actually have increased the time spent on child care (nearly 30 hours a week for a woman, the same as in 1900! – p324).  Communal developments would save time and toil for housework – and so mainly for women.  Yet, as Hughes says, the “capitalist world seems specifically designed to eliminate communal activity” (p326).

At the end of the book, Hughes asks “dare we demand equality?” and he calls for the ‘banning of inequality’.  But is this the way to pose the issue?  Technology is indeed the handmaiden of the social order controlling it.  Inequality is the result of that social order.  What is needed is the removal of that social order and its replacement by what used to be called socialism (not ‘post-capitalism’ or ‘equality’).  Then technology can flourish for all and inequality itself will fade.  The demand we must dare for is the common ownership and control of technology, not ending the unequal distribution of its fruits.