Failure of Economics to Failure of Capitalism?

By Deepankar Basu, Sanhati.

On a visit to the London School of Economics last year, the Queen of England, expressed surprise at the apparent failure of the economics profession to predict the financial crisis and the Great Recession that came in its wake. “Why did no one see this coming?” asked the Queen to Luis Garicano, a professor of economics at LSE. Garicano’s colleague and economist Tim Besley and eminent historian of government Paul Hennessy stepped up to the task and attempted to answer the Queen in a short letter [PDF] written to her on behalf of the British Academy. In the letter they concluded that “the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.”

Post-Keynesian economist, Thomas Palley, called out the narrow vision of the Besley-Hennesy letter. According to Palley, the cause of the failure cannot be ascribed to the failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, whatever that might mean; instead the failure should be located in the unique “sociology of the economics profession,” which has hounded out most dissenting voices. This failure, moreover, “was a long time in the making and was the product of the profession becoming increasingly arrogant, narrow, and closed minded” and excluding all who did not adhere to the dominant ideological construction of mainstream economics. Interestingly, Palley also points to a host of articles written from a heterodox perspective which spelt out the seriousness of the problems facing the economy as early as 2006; of course, the mainstream media, the US administration and the mainstream economics profession did not heed their advice.

In July 2009, the London-based Economist, the most sophisticated and well-informed voice of capital, ran a series of articles on the problems ailing the discipline of economics. The series took a hard and critical look, always from the perspective of keeping the long-term inst rests of capital protected, at both macroeconomics and financial economics, the two branches of economics at the very center of the current crisis; it all began, one must remember, as a financial crisis – the bursting of the housing bubble, the collapse of investment banks, the falling stock market, the seizing up of the credit markets – and quickly turned into what commentators have started calling the Great Recession.

Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago is one of the key architects of recent mainstream macroeconomics, the founder and propagator of the so-called rational expectations “revolution” in economics. In the Chicago vision of the macro economy, all economic actors are super rational. How do they display their rational behaviour? By making decisions on the basis of all currently available and relevant information. In other words, all economic agents are magically endowed with unbelievably large computing capacities whereby they gather all the relevant information, process it at lightning speed and arrive at perfect decisions. In this world there are no manias, no panics, no herd behaviour, no contagion, no asset price bubbles, no crashes; there is only smooth and rational adjustments. If the real world of capitalism does not resemble this, so much the worse for the world! Unfazed, therefore, by the recent economic and financial crisis, Robert Lucas jumped in to defend the recent turn in macroeconomics: even mildly critical pieces in as friendly a journal as the Economist needed to be countered. His contribution, of course, started off a Lucas round table, which, by the way, has some interesting posts (for instance Smither’s post on why the Efficient Markets Hypothesis must be discarded).

University of Chicago economists are notorious for their devotion to the magic of the market. In what even then looked like a wacky position, Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago, a colleague of Lucas, had argued in early October that the economy was not doing as bad as it looked; the unemployment rate was only about 6 percent and so there was no need either to worry or for the government to work out a fiscal stimulus. Today when the official unemployment rate is nudging double digits and most sensible economists believe that it will remain high for the next year or so, making this the deepest recession since the Great Depression, Mulligan’s position, and the Chicago position in general, seems so horrendously out of touch with reality.

A detour into some details of how the unemployment rate is measured in the US might not be out of place. To start with, one must recall that one of the most serious problems that any capitalist economy, like the US, faces is to provide well-paying stable employment for its working population. The inherent logic of capitalism usually prevents this problem being solved in any satisfactory manner and for long periods of time. Hence, capitalist economies are typically plagued by serious labour underutilization.

There are several ways to measure labour underutilization and the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) in the US currently uses six measures (U-1 through U-6). Data for these measures come from two monthly surveys conducted by the BLS: (1) the Current Population Survey (which is a survey of about 60,000 households); (2) the Current Employment Statistics Survey (which is a survey of about 160,000 business and government agencies). For both surveys, as explained on the BLS website, the data for a given month relate to a particular week or pay period. For the household survey, “the reference week is generally the calendar week that contains the 12th day of the month.” For the establishment survey, on the other hand, “the reference period is the pay period including the 12th, which may or may not correspond directly to the calendar week.”

It has been known for quite some time now that the official unemployment rate (the U-3 measure) provides us with a seriously underestimated measure of labour underutilization. The reason is simple: U-3 does not count those workers who become so discouraged by long spells of unemployment that they stop looking for work altogether, drop out of the labour force and, therefore, not even counted among the unemployed. To deal with this problem, the BLS provides a more comprehensive measure of labour underutilization, U-6, which takes account of part-time workers (who want but cannot find full time jobs) and marginally attached workers (these are the “persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past”). While the official unemployment rate is 9.7 percent (see chart below), the current value of U-6 is a whopping 16.8 percent! And this despite the massive fiscal stimulus of the Obama administration. How about asking an unemployed worker who has not found a job for the last 15 months (say), and has possibly even stopped looking for one due to sheer discouragement, whether her being unemployed is the result of a “rational” decision she has made on the basis of some inter temporal calculations?


At the other end of the mainstream economics profession, liberal economist, Nobel Laureate and New York Times commentator Paul Krugman has written a balanced and even-handed critique of the recent turn in macroeconomics, precisely the turn that Lucas so painstakingly tries to defend. Krugman makes two points: (1) how the orthodox belief in the efficiency of the markets (and especially financial markets) is neither based on facts nor makes for good policy; (2) how and why fiscal policy, long banished from the realms of mainstream macroeconomics, came to the rescue in the Great Recession, i.e., in preventing the Great Recession from turning into the second Great Depression, and why it should become part of the mainstream curriculum again. Krugman ends with a plea to return to the deep wisdom of Keynes, knowing full well that Keynes’ efforts were all directed at reforming capitalism and not replacing it . Even this mild reproach drew fire from Chicago economist, John Cochrane; in his post, Cochrane has, to my mind, not managed to respond to any of the substantive points raised by Krugman. Much along Krugman’s line is also the recent piece by Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’ biographer and the recent interview of macroeconomist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University; in a similar tone, Richard Posner asks whether economists will escape a whipping; no prizes for guessing the answer. For more debates along similar lines see this page on the Financial Times.

As an interesting aside, there was an earlier round of debate between Krugman/De Long and Cochrane. Early in the year, Cochrane had written a piece on why fiscal stimulus will not work. In that article, he had basically repeated some pre-Keynesian fallacies (like the Treasury View that every dollar of debt-financed expenditure by the government necessarily cuts back the same amount of private investment expenditure and hence that fiscal stimulus is ineffective). Brad De Long of UC Berkeley and Paul Krugman took Cochrane to task for repeating these fallacies; here is Delong’s piece (which has a nice example on a credit economy with four agents) and here is Krugman’s. Cochrane makes the simple mistake, as Krugman points out, of assuming that the pool of savings is fixed (i.e., before and after the fiscal stimulus), which leads him to conclude that when the government dips into this pool of savings that must necessarily deprive some private entity of an equal amount of saving (and hence reduce private investment expenditure by that amount). It is amazing how this simple fallacy persists over time, despite repeated attempts by Keynesian economists to point it out over the last 60 years. When the government takes a part of the pool of savings available to society and uses it for making purchases, the multiplier effect of this government expenditure increases the output of the economy (especially so when there is massive unutilized capacity lying around) and, thereby, also the savings out of that output; when the multiplier has run its course, the economy has a larger pool of savings. Therefore, debt-financed government expenditure need not crowd out private investment, other than in the case when the economy is already operating near full-capacity, a far cry from the state of the US economy today.

Limitations of the Debate

While this debate between the “saltwater economists” (liberal wing of the mainstream economics profession in the US, located mostly on the two coasts) and the “freshwater economists” (conservative wing of the economics profession in the US, located mostly in the central part of the country) is a welcome break from the free market fundamentalism of the mainstream press, one should not overlook the limitations of the framework within which the debate is being conducted. Roughly speaking, that framework is marked by its two boundaries, on the left by a version of Keynesianism (that economists like Krugman uphold) and on the right by Chicago-style economics. That is the space that is provided in this debate, and thus it naturally excludes: (a) any discussion of a much broader and richer heterodox tradition in economics (which includes Post-Keynesians, Ricardians, Institutionalists, Marxists, etc.), (b) any discussion of the material basis of the victory of freshwater over freshwater economics, and (c) any discussion of alternatives to capitalism.

It is surprising that Krugman does not even once refer in his piece to the heterodox tradition in economics, especially so because he devotes so much space to a discussion of macroeconomics. Over the last two decades, heterodox macroeconomists in the Marxian and post-Keynesian tradition have developed an impressive body of research, both theoretical and empirical, that speaks to most of the issues that mainstream macroeconomics so cleverly avoids. The Classical-Marxian theory of long run economic growth complemented by the short run theory of economic fluctuations of the post-Keynesian variety offers a real, comprehensive and coherent alternative to the theoretical sterility of mainstream macroeconomics, and it is indeed unfortunate that Krugman does not care to engage with this body of research.

When Krugman portrays the victory of freshwater economics over saltwater economics as a seduction of truth by beauty, he misses one very important aspect of that victory. The victory of conservative economics coincides beautifully with the rise to dominance of finance capital, the fraction of the global ruling class most closely allied with and deriving their incomes from the financial sector. How can one miss the coincidence of the exhaustion of the postwar temporary and partial victory of labour over capital and the rise of monetarism, mark I and then mark II? As economist Gerard Dumenil had pointed out long ago, the fads and fashions in mainstream economics is determined less by the internal logic of the discipline than by changes in the structure and functioning of the world economy and the changing correlation of class forces. This is an aspect that commentators like Krugman totally miss.

Talking of alternatives to capitalism, while it is obvious to many economists and activists that the current crisis is a crisis of capitalism, and that it necessitates the search for alternatives to capitalism by linking up with the long socialist tradition, the current debate does not even entertain discussion of such alternatives. While it is expected that freshwater economists will not tolerate any criticism of capitalism, saltwater economists are no less conscious about respecting the commonly accepted boundaries of the thinkable. For one must not forget that Krugman, like Keynes fifty years ago, is out to reform capitalism and not to replace it. And that is as far left as the framework will allow the debate to veer; even thinking about an alternative to capitalism is taboo within the terms of reference of this debate. Socialism is not even allowed to wander, if only by mistake, into the terms of the discourse.

That is the fundamental limitation of the discipline of mainstream economics: its inability to adopt a historical perspective and see capitalism as merely one way of organizing social production, a mode of production with a definite historical birth and therefore with a future historical transcendence. Mainstream economics, to the extent that it ever reflects on the philosophical foundations and founding assumptions of the discipline, sees the “laws” that it discovers as natural laws, valid for all historical epochs. The obvious corollary is that capitalism is eternal; the way things are organized today is how they have always been and will always be. Of course there will be technological progress and institutional development, but there never was nor will ever be any radical qualitative change in the way social production is organized, in the ownership of property. Much before Fukuyama, mainstream economics had silently accepted the non-existence of history.

This is where the Marxist tradition of political economy is far superior to what Marx called “bourgeois economics”. Grounded in a materialist conception of history, the Marxist tradition analyses the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system, contradictions which cannot be resolved within the parameters of the capitalist system. These contradictions cannot be dealt with by more or less regulation of the financial or product or labour markets, it cannot be dealt with by fiscal or monetary policy to stabilize business cycle fluctuations, it cannot be dealt with by better regulation of international trade and finance; these contradictions, while changing form according to the changing institutional setting of capitalism, will inevitably and recurrently break out on the surface as long as capitalism survives.

What are these fundamental contradictions of capitalism? The contradiction between social production and private appropriation and control of the product of that production process; the contradiction between use-value and value; the contradiction between the two fundamental social classes, workers and capitalists, of capitalist society. While the first of these is easy to grasp and therefore needs no elaboration, it might be worthwhile spending some time thinking about the other two.

For Marx, capitalism was a type, a sub-class, of commodity producing society and so, to understand the dynamics of capitalism, he started his analysis in Volume I of Capital with commodity production. But what is a commodity? Every society must produce to meet its material needs. Where the products of human labour emerge as the private property of economic agents, and which are then exchanged through a process of bargaining, they are called commodities. Another way to see this is to realize that the products of human labour that emerge in a system of production organized through exchange are precisely what Marx calls commodities.

Come to think of it, there are only two ways that human needs can be satisfied in a commodity producing society, either by consuming one’s own product or by exchanging it for something else that one needs. This simple observation immediately throws up the dual nature of commodities. On the one hand every commodity is a use value because it can satisfy human needs; on the other hand, every commodity can also be exchanged for every other commodity. The aspect of exchangeability of commodities is what Marx terms value. What is the essence of the aspect of exchangeability of commodities? The fact that they are all products of human labour. For Marx, therefore, value is created by labour, properly defined, and is expressed in money (value separated from any particular commodity). What has all this to do with capitalism?

Capitalism is the special class of commodity producing society where labour power (the capacity to perform useful human labour) itself becomes a commodity. While a commodity producing society with owner-producers typically “sell to buy”, the characteristic transaction under capitalism is “buy to sell”. A representative capitalist starts with a sum of money, buys raw materials and labour power with it, brings them together in the production process and then sells the products to end up with a sum of money which is larger than the sum he started out with. If we now recall that money is nothing but the expression of value, we see that the capitalist ends up with more value that he started with, in a word surplus value. Capitalism, therefore, is a system of social production, that is governed by the logic of producing surplus value. The production of use values, things that can actually satisfy human needs, is just incidental; as far as capital is concerned, the aim is to produce surplus value by producing no matter what use values. When those use values cannot satisfy existing needs, new and artificial needs can always be “manufactured” by the capitalist media. Value needs to be embodied in use values and yet it is totally indifferent to the existence of particular use values; this is the sense in which use values and value stand in a contradictory relation under capitalism.

What about the contradiction between the fundamental social classes? Every class divided society rests on the appropriation of unpaid surplus labour by the ruling class (or bloc of classes) from the direct producers. In feudal societies, the ruling class directly appropriates the surplus labour of peasants as “labour services”; similarly, in capitalism, the capitalist class appropriates, but now through the institution of wage-labour, the surplus labour of the workers. The apparent freedom and equality (between the two parties to an exchange) guaranteed to workers through the institution of wage-labour and markets makes the appropriation of surplus labour almost invisible; equality of the relations of exchange make the exploitation of the working class difficult to see. But it exists nonetheless and the tools of Marxian political economy brings it to light.

It is these fundamental contradictions that manifest themselves periodically as crises of the system, the most characteristic feature of which is the simultaneous existence of unfulfilled human needs (unemployment) and unused capacity (idle plant and machinery) to fulfill those needs. Capitalism, as a system, is defined by these contradictions, they are not extrinsic to capitalism; hence, only a positive transcendence of the capitalist system can resolve them. It would have been useful if the current crisis of economics was utilized to focus our attention on the crisis of capitalism, but the way the terrain of debate has been circumscribed by agreed upon assumptions, this seems rather unlikely.

(I would like to thank Amit Basole and Debarshi Das for helpful comments on an earlier version.)

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