Archive for the ‘Direct Prices’ Category

Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 7)

July 10, 2017

“The real net rate of profit,” Shaikh writes, “is the central driver of accumulation, the material foundation around which the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalists frisk, with injections of net new purchasing power taking on a major role in the era of fiat money.” This sentence sums both the strengths and the basic flaw in Shaikh’s theory of crises, and without too much exaggeration the whole of his “Capitalism.”

By “net rate of profit,” Shaikh means the difference between the total profit (surplus value minus rent) and the rate of interest, divided by total advanced capital. This is absolutely correct.

But now we come to the devastating weakness of Shaikh’s analysis. Shaikh refers not to the net rate of profit but the real net rate of profit. “Real” refers to the use value of commodities as opposed to their value—embodied abstract human labor—and the form this value must take—money value. While real wages—wages in terms of use values—are what interest workers, the capitalists are interested in profit, which must always consist of and be expressed in the form of exchange value—monetary value (a sum of money).

In modern capitalism, as a practical matter the money that makes up net profit or profit as a whole consists of bank credit money convertible into state-issued legal-tender paper money that represents gold bullion. The fact that legal-tender paper money must represent gold bullion in circulation is an economic law, not a legal law. (More on this in next month’s post.) When Shaikh refers to real net profit, he does not refer to profit at all but rather to the portion of the surplus product that is purchased with the money that makes up the net profit.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 6)

May 21, 2017

Shaikh’s theory of money

Shaikh deals with money in two chapters—one near the beginning of “Capitalism” and one near the end. The first is Chapter 5, “Exchange, Money, and Price.” The other is Chapter 15, “Modern Money and Inflation.” In this post, I will concentrate on Shaikh’s presentation in Chapter 5. In Chapter 15, Shaikh deals with what he terms “modern money.” I will deal with his presentation in this chapter when I deal with Shaikh’s theory of inflation crises that is developed in the last part of “Capitalism.”

In Chapter 5, Shaikh lists three functions of money—considerably fewer than Marx does. The three functions, according to Shaikh, are (1) money as a medium of pricing (p. 183), (2) money as a medium of circulation, and (3) money as a medium of safety. Shaikh deals with money’s function as a means of payment under its role as a means of circulation. The problem with doing this is that money’s role as a means of payment is by no means identical to its role as a means of circulation and should have been dealt with separately.

Anybody who has studied seriously the first three chapters of “Capital” Volume I will be struck by how radically improvised Shaikh’s presentation here is compared to that of Marx. It is in the first three chapters of “Capital” that Marx develops his theory of value, exchange value as the necessary form of value, and money as the highest form of exchange value. He does this before he deals with capital. Indeed, Marx had to, since the commodity and its independent value form, money, is absolutely vital to Marx’s whole analysis of capital.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 5)

April 23, 2017

Shaikh’s wrong theory of interest rates

“The interest rate is the price of finance,” Shaikh writes at the beginning of Chapter 10, “Competition, Finance, and Interest Rates.” Shaikh treats the rate of interest as fluctuating around the price of production of the “provision of finance.” Late in Chapter 10, Shaikh indicates he was confused on this subject in the 1970s and the early 1980s but brought to his current views by the Sraffrian-neo-Ricardian Italian economist Carlo Panico. Is this the correct approach to ascertaining what actually determines the rate(s) of interest? I believe it is not.

Do interest rates really fluctuate around a “price” of the provision of finance the way market prices fluctuate around prices of production? Strictly speaking, price is the value of one commodity measured in terms of the use value of the commodity that serves as the universal equivalent—money. According to this definition, interest rates are not prices at all.

It is true that we often use price in a looser sense. For example, we talk about the prices of securities that are in reality legal documents that entitle their owners to flows of income. Another example is the price of unimproved land whose owners hold titles to flows of ground rent. It would be absurd to talk about the price of production of unimproved land if only because unimproved land is a form of wealth produced by nature and not by human labor.

Some other ‘non-price’ prices

Another example of a price that is not a real price is the dollar “price” of gold. This very important economic variable is not really a price at all but instead measures the amount of gold that a dollar represents at any moment. Other examples of “non-price” prices are the “price” of one currency in terms of another—exchange rates—and the price of politicians.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 4)

March 27, 2017

The wave of reactionary racist economic nationalism represented by the British “Brexit” and election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has drawn attention to the question of world trade. Most capitalist economists are supporters of “free trade.” So-called free-trade policies have been protected and encouraged by what this blog calls the “U.S. world empire”—and what the economists call “the international liberal order”—since 1945. These policies followed an era of intense economic nationalism among the imperialist countries that led to, among other outcomes, Hitler’s fascism and two world wars within a generation.

Bourgeois economists who support free trade—the majority in the imperialist countries—claim that international trade is governed by an economic law called “comparative advantage,” first proposed by the great English economist David Ricardo.

The “law” of comparative advantage makes two basic claims about world trade.

The first is that the less role capitalist nation-states and their governments play in international trade the more the international division of labor will maximize labor productivity.

The second is that regardless of the relative degree of capitalist development among capitalist nation states, all such states benefit equally if they engage in free trade. In terms of government policy, this means that regardless of their degree of capitalist development, the best policy is no protective tariffs, no industrial policies, and no interference in the movement of money from one capitalist country to another.

In contrast, economic nationalists in the imperialist countries both right and left, though they sometimes claim to have nothing against free trade, insist that it must be “fair trade.” For example, President Trump insists that since 1945 global trade has been increasingly unfair to the United States, leading to the collapse of much of U.S. basic industry. Trump promises to change this and wants more government intervention in international trade, such as border taxes and other tariffs to make sure that trade is “fair.” This will, the Trumpists claim, lead to re-industrialization of the United States and the return of good-paying industrial jobs.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 3)

February 26, 2017

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, combined with the rise of similar right-wing demagogues in Europe, has prompted a discussion about the cause of the decline in the number of relatively high-wage, “middle-class,” unionized industrial jobs in the imperialist core countries. One view blames globalization and bad trade deals. The European Union, successor to the (West) European Common Market of the 1960s; the North American Free Trade Area; and the now aborted Trans Pacific Partnership have gotten much of the blame for the long-term jobs crisis.

This position gets support not only from President Trump and his right-hand man Steve Bannon and their European counterparts on the far right but also much of the trade-union leadership and the “progressive” and even socialist left. The solution to the problems caused by disappearing high-paid jobs in industry, according to economic nationalists of both right and left, is to retreat from the global market back into the safe cocoon of the nation-state. Economic nationalists insist that to the extent that world trade cannot be entirely abandoned, trade deals must be renegotiated to safeguard the jobs of “our workers.”

Most professional economists have a completely different explanation for the jobs crisis. They argue that changes in technology, especially the rapid growth of artificial intelligence in general and machine-learning in particular, is making human labor increasingly unnecessary in both industrial production and the service sector. Last year—though it now seems like centuries ago—when I was talking with one of this blog’s editors about possible new topics for future blogs, a suggestion was made that I take up a warning by the famous British physicist Stephan Hawking that recent gains in artificial intelligence will create a massive jobs crisis. This is a good place to examine some of the subject matter that might have been in that blog post if Brexit and Donald Trump had been defeated as expected and the first months of the Hillary Clinton administration had turned out to be a slow news period.

It is a fact that over the last 40 years computers and computer-controlled machines—robots—have increasingly ousted workers from factories and mines. The growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning is giving the “workers of the brain” a run for their money as well. This has already happened big time on Wall Street, where specially programmed computers have largely replaced humans on the trading floors of the big Wall Street banks. No human trader can possibly keep up with computers that can run a complex algorithm and execute trades based on the results of the computation in a fraction of a second.

Wall Street traders are not the only workers of the brain whose jobs are endangered by the further development of AI. Among these workers are the computer programmers themselves. According to an article by Matt Reynolds that appeared in the February 22, 2017, edition of the New Scientist, Microsoft and Cambridge University in the UK have developed a program that can write simple computer programs.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt. 2)

November 6, 2016

Profit of enterprise and monopoly profit

As we saw last month, Marx’s prices of production are not identical to the marginal cost = equilibrium prices of “orthodox” bourgeois microeconomics. The biggest difference is that prices of production include not only the cost price and interest on capital but also the profit of enterprise. Modern bourgeois microeconomic orthodoxy holds that in “general equilibrium” any profit in excess of interest will be eliminated by “perfect competition.”

In contrast, Marx—and the classical economists before him—did not believe that competition had any tendency to eliminate the profit of enterprise. Instead, they believed that in addition to interest, there is an additional profit of enterprise that is appropriated by the commercial and industrial capitalists. Profit of enterprise is defined as total profit minus interest. The profit of enterprise must not be confused with monopoly profits. The only monopoly necessary for the profit of enterprise is the monopoly of the means of production by the capitalist class.

True monopoly profits do exist. But within the classical-Marxist tradition, monopoly profit is an addition to the profit of enterprise. Anwar Shaikh affirms that monopoly profits exist but he has little to say about them in his “Capitalism.” Instead, Shaikh is interested in “real competition,” which quickly eliminates any profit beyond the profit of enterprise.

Shaikh’s failure to analyze monopoly profit is in full accord with his rejection of the Monthly Review and heterodox post-Keynesian schools, which often treat any profit, or at least any profit beyond interest, as monopoly profit.

Shaikh’s lumping together of these two quite different theories of a monopoly capitalist stage—the Hilferding-Lenin and the “Monopoly Capital” theories—is in my opinion a legitimate criticism of Shaikh’s “Capitalism” and his “fundamentalist school” in general. In “Monopoly Capital,” Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were quite clear that they were not simply repeating or writing yet another popularization of the Hilferding-Lenin theory of monopoly capitalism. They found that theory inadequate and developed another, quite different theory of monopoly capitalism.

I believe that Shaikh is correct in seeing the influence of the Leon Walras-inspired theory of perfect competition in “Monopoly Capital” and other theories of modern capitalism influenced or inspired by Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital.”

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 3)

July 19, 2015

Secular stagnation and the Greek crisis

Many on the left have expressed acute disappointment that the Syriza government has agreed to accept more “austerity” in the wake of the No! vote of the Greek people. We must remember that the Syriza government is not a revolutionary socialist government—a dictatorship of the proletariat—and a socialist revolution is not, or rather is not yet, unfolding in Greece or anywhere else in Europe at the moment. The logic of the class struggle does point in the direction of a European socialist revolution, but we are not yet there. This blog will not attempt to lay out strategy and tactics for Greek revolutionaries during the present acute crisis.

Instead, I am interested in another question: Why is the “troika” so unreasonable in its dealings with the Syriza government? The government leaders have made it clear that they are determined to remain within the European Union and the Eurozone. Their program has always been quite modest—an end to the relentless austerity that has led to a depression worse in terms of both the unemployment rate and duration than the early 1930s super-crisis was in the United States or in Germany.

The super-crisis proper of the early 1930s lasted “only” three and a half years in the U.S. and Germany. The Greek crisis has lasted six years. A brief rise in the Greek GDP late last year had already given way to renewed recession before the crisis that shut down the Greek banking system for two weeks. The agreement between Syriza and the troika for still more austerity in exchange for loans that will enable the gradual reopening of the Greek banks threatens to further prolong the Greek slump.

It has been almost 50 years since the May-June 1968 General Strike in France. The French government of the day, headed by General Charles de Gaulle, largely conceded the economic demands of the strikers in order for the ruling class to hold on to power. The French government was prepared to do this through civil war if necessary. De Gaulle’s willingness to wage civil war to uphold capitalist rule combined with a willingness to make concessions in the economic sphere prevented a prolonged social and political crisis in France in 1968 of the type that is now unfolding in Greece. Why isn’t the troika, the de Gaulle of today, following the same policy for Greece that worked so well for de Gaulle and the French capitalists in 1968?

Last week, in a special post on Greece, I explained that behind the hard-line policies pursued by the troika lies the current “tightening” phase of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board monetary policy. This tightening phase is, in turn, rooted in the extraordinary policy of “quantitative easing” that the Fed followed in response to the near collapse of the U.S. banking system in the fall of 2008. But they could not continue this policy indefinitely without incurring a fatal crisis of the dollar system sooner or later.

As the quantity of U.S, dollars has begun to grow relatively more scarce than in the years of quantitative easing, there have been a few shocks—for example, the recent Chinese stock market panic. But for now, the crisis in Greece is the most dramatic. So in order to understand the deep roots of the Greek crisis and the troika response to it, we have to understand the causes of the crisis of 2008 and the quantitative easing it led to. The “Great Recession” itself was embedded in a more chronic problem of prolonged slowing economic growth that economist Larry Summers calls “secular stagnation.”

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 2)

March 29, 2015

Bourgeois value theory after Ricardo

As I explained last month, the rising tide of struggle of the British working class obliged Ricardo’s bourgeois successors to abandon the concept of value based on the quantity of labor necessary on average to produce a commodity of a given use value and quality. They were forced to do this because any concept of labor value implies that profits and rents—surplus value—are produced by the unpaid labor performed by the working class. The challenge confronting Ricardo’s bourgeois successors was to come up with a coherent economic theory that was not based on labor value. Let’s look at some of the options open to them.

Malthus, borrowing from certain passages in Adam Smith, held that the capitalists simply added profit onto their wage costs. Like Smith and Ricardo, Malthus assumed that what Marx was to call constant capital could be reduced to wages if you went back far enough. Therefore, constant capital really consisted of wages with a prolonged turnover period—what the 20th-century “neo-Ricardian” Pierro Sraffa (1898-1983) was to call in his “Commodities Produced by Means of Commodities” “dated labor.”

Malthus held that since capitalists are in business to make a profit, they simply added the profit onto their costs—ultimately reducible to the price of “dated labor,” to use Sraffa’s terminology.

The idea that profits are simply added onto the cost price of a commodity is known as “profit upon alienation.” This notion was first put forward by the mercantilists in the earliest days of political economy. In this period, preceding the industrial revolution, merchant capital still dominated industrial capital. After all, don’t merchants make their profits by buying cheap and selling dear?

But what determined the magnitude of the charge above and beyond the cost of the commodity to the capitalist? And even more devastating for Malthus, since every capitalist was overcharging every other capitalist—as well as working-class consumers who bought the means of subsistence from the capitalists—how could the capitalists as a class make a profit? If Malthus was right, the average rate of profit would be zero!

But perhaps we don’t need the concept of “value” at all? Why not simply say that the natural prices of commodities are determined by the cost of production that includes a profit? But then what determines the prices of the commodities that entered into the production costs of a given commodity? Following this logic to its end, the natural prices of commodities are determined by the natural prices of commodities. This is called circular reasoning.

We haven’t moved an inch forward from our starting point. To avoid a circle, we have to determine the prices of commodities by something other than price. There is no escaping some concept of value after all.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value

March 1, 2015

This March marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of general secretary of the then-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At first, the election of Gorbachev seemed to involve a long overdue shift of power to a new generation of Soviet leaders. As we now know, it involved a lot more.

A process was unleashed that was soon to be called “Perestroika.” In the name of “radical economic reforms,” the Soviet planned economy was progressively dismantled. Perestroika ended not only with the restoration of capitalism but the breakup of what had been the Soviet federation.

The combined process of the restoration of capitalism and breakup of the Soviet federation was accompanied by a massive collapse of both industrial and agricultural production. The living standards and life expectancy of the working class plummeted. A generation later, the economies of not only the Russian federation but the economies of the other former republics are yet to recover.

Perestroika led to a wave of capitalist counterrevolutions that in 1989 swept through eastern Europe with the active support not only of imperialism, as would be expected, but also the Gorbachev government. As part of this process, Germany was reunited on a capitalist basis while staying in NATO. The former socialist countries that had been members of the now dissolved Warsaw Pact joined NATO as did the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Georgia Republic—Stalin’s homeland—is very close to NATO and openly striving to become a formal member, while the new right-wing government in Ukraine has joined NATO in all but name.

Perestroika, therefore, resulted in a massive expansion of the U.S. world empire into the one area of the planet—the Soviet Union and its allies—that remained outside the Empire after World War II.

The destruction of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc and their planned economies would have been enough if that was all that was involved. But it was not. The capitalists and their spokespeople everywhere pointed to the Soviet collapse as final proof that “socialism had failed.” The result was a wave of demoralization that spread through a workers’ movement that was already in retreat before the neoliberal capitalist offensive symbolized by such political figures as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

National liberation movements were also pushed back, though the hopes of political figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that the old-fashioned colonialism that had dominated the world in 1914 would return—with the difference that the United States and not Britain or France would be the chief colonizer—has not been so easy to achieve.

Between November 7, 1917, when the Bolshevik-led Congress of Soviets seized power, and the election of Gorbachev as general secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in March 1985, the peoples of the oppressed nations got accustomed to the idea that they should be independent and not colonial slaves of the West. Therefore, attempts by the U.S. world empire to push these nations and peoples back into something like pre-1914 colonial relationships have met, to the chagrin of the imperialists, unexpected and growing resistance.

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The Marxist Theory of Ground Rent (Pt 2)

December 14, 2014

Landed property and the housing crisis

In its Dec. 5, 2014, editorial, the San José Mercury News commented on the city of San José’s heartless move to close down once and for all a homeless camp. “The dismantling of San Jose’s Story Road homeless encampment known as the Jungle has drawn national attention,” the Mercury News noted. “Once again, it’s those crazy Californians—in the middle of one of the wealthiest regions in the United States, they managed to amass what may well have been the country’s largest homeless encampment, with estimates as high as 300 residents.”

The Mercury News went on to observe: “The ranks of the homeless increased dramatically during and since the recession because so many individuals and families lost jobs and homes. Then, when the economy picked up, rents quickly soared—but many of the jobless had to re-enter the workforce at lower pay.”

The closing of San Jose’s “Jungle” encampment is part of a much larger housing crisis many workers and even middle-class people are feeling. For many workers, the crisis takes the form of rapidly rising apartment rents, which force workers to move to distant suburbs, perhaps a hundred or more kilometers from their places of work. In the worse cases, workers like unfortunate former residents of San José’s “Jungle” are facing complete homelessness.

Nor are the homeless necessarily among the unemployed. (1) Low-wage workers are often unable to afford the rent on even substandard apartments. Some are forced to live in their cars, which end up serving the dual use values as means of transportation and means of shelter. Or low-paid workers are forced to divide up their apartments with other low-paid workers. It’s either that, their automobile—if they have one—or the street.

Frederick Engels on the ‘housing question’

In the early 1870s, articles appeared in the press of the German Social Democratic Party claiming that the relationship between house owners and tenants was analogous to the relationship between industrial workers who sell their labor power and industrial capitalists who buy it. According to these articles, the key to the “social question” was workers’ ownership, whether individual or collective, of their own housing.

Karl Marx’s co-worker Fredrick Engels sounded the alarm and wrote his booklet “The Housing Question” to refute this view. Engels’ basic point was that the key to the “social problem”—the evils caused by the capitalist mode of production including the lack of housing—is to be found not in the ownership of the means of shelter but in the ownership of the means of production.

In his booklet, Engels gave many examples of the housing crisis of the 19th century. A lot of this material is necessarily dated and largely of historical interest. But there is still much in the booklet that is all too familiar for today’s workers. Once again, the housing question is growing acute with rising homelessness, unaffordable house rents and “gentrification.”

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