Archive for the ‘Industrial Cycle’ Category

The Current U.S. Economic Boom in Historical Perspective (Pt 1)

April 1, 2018

U.S capitalism has been in decline for decades. Within that long-term trend, U.S. capitalism continues to experience cyclical booms. During its dramatic rise between 1865 and 1929, the U.S. economy experienced three major financial panics—1873, 1893 and 1907—along with numerous lesser recessions. However, the increase of the number of workers employed in manufacturing—which represents the core of capitalist production and the core of the working class—that occurred during the industrial booms of that era was greater than the declines that occurred during recessions. In the years 1945-1979, though the number of workers in manufacturing began to decline relative to overall employment—a symptom of capitalist decay—that number continued to grow in absolute terms.

However, since the recession 1979-82, known as “the Volcker shock,” the pattern has reversed. The U.S. economy has continued to experience cyclical booms—defined as periods of above-average business activity in terms of industrial production, manufacturing, and overall employment and trade—as well as recessions. But the rise in manufacturing employment during booms—if any—has been far less than the declines during recessions. Therefore, the year 1979, which marks the beginning of the Volcker shock recession, represents the most important turning point—not excepting 1929—in the history of U.S. capitalism.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 15)

February 4, 2018

Reader Manuel Angeles commented: “In Cambridge (UK) in the 1970s, a whole slew of them rejected marginalist theory. Joan Robinson, in fact, frequently ridiculed it, in spite of Keynes´s chapter in the General Theory.”

Angeles refers to the so-called Cambridge Capital Controversy, which pitted economists from Cambridge, Mass., led by Paul Samuelson against Cambridge UK-based economists led by the Italian-British economist Piero Sraffa (1898-1983). Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), who was considered perhaps the leading (bourgeois) U.S. economist of his generation, defended marginalist theory. Samuelson combined marginalism with a watered-down Keynesianism that he called the “Grand Neoclassical Synthesis.”

Sraffa and his supporters clearly came out on top against the Samuelson-led marginalists. Sraffa’s attack on marginalism is contained in his short book “Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities,” where he exposed logical and mathematical paradoxes in marginalist theory.

But what value theory did Sraffa and his generally left Keynesian supporters propose in place of marginalism? Nothing, really, beyond that, given free competition, prices will tend toward levels where capitals of equal size earn equal profits in equal periods of time. The Sraffians also claimed that, with a given level of productivity of labor, wages and “interest rates”—by which is meant the rate of profit—will vary inversely.

Whatever he may have thought in private about the labor value schools of Ricardo and Marx—Sraffa was a great admirer and scholar of Ricardo and was well acquainted with Marxism having been a sympathizer of the Italian Communist Party in his youth—”neo-Ricardian” followers of Sraffa’s work have often used it against Marx’s labor value and surplus value theory. Once we accept the “neo-Ricardian” “price of production school” in place of Marxist value theory, we are forced to draw the conclusion that constant capital—machines and raw materials—as well as land produce value and surplus value.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 14)

January 7, 2018

[Note: In this post when I refer to Smith I mean John Smith, not Adam Smith.]

Smith and value

Unlike Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” and Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital,” Smith in his “Imperialism” has set himself the task of explaining the imperialist—monopolist—phase of capitalism in terms of Marx’s theory of value and surplus value. Smith has set himself the extremely ambitious task of unifying Marx’s “Capital” with Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet. In addition, he seeks to update the Leninist theory of imperialism for the early 21st century. The logical starting point of such an ambitious undertaking is the theory of value.

John Smith, Keynes and left Keynesians on value

“The exchange-value of a commodity,” Smith writes on p. 58 of his “Imperialism,” is determined not by the subjective desires of the buyers and sellers, as both orthodox and heterodox economic theory maintains, but by how much effort it took to make it.” Smith makes an important point here. Both orthodox economists (the so-called neoclassical school and the Austrian school) and heterodox economists (left Keynesians) support or at least do not challenge the marginalist theory of value, which for more the century has dominated academic economic orthodoxy.

The marginalist theory of value holds that value arises from the scarcity of useful objects, which may be products of either human labor or nature, relative to subjective human needs. Instead of beginning with production and labor, as both the classical school and Marx did, marginalists begin with the subjective valuations of the consumer.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 11)

October 8, 2017

John Smith’s ‘Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century’

The year 2016 marks the centenary of V.I. Lenin’s famous pamphlet “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” subtitled “A Popular Outline.” The pamphlet has immensely influenced politics of the last century. This is largely but not only because the author the following year became the leader of the first socialist revolution as well as chief inspirer and de facto leader of the Third (Communist) International—also known as the Comintern. If Lenin had not led the first socialist revolution and/or had not lived to found the Third International, the pamphlet would still have had considerable influence but of course not the influence it has had.

A century after Lenin’s “Imperialism” appeared, Monthly Review Press published “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century,” by the British Marxist John Smith. As the title indicates, this book aims to do for the Marxist analysis of imperialism in our new century what Lenin’s “Imperialism” did for the last. Smith holds against innumerable critics that Lenin’s basic thesis was not only correct for its own time but also for our own, at least in broad outline.

But Smith’s book is more ambitious than that, and this is what attracted the interest of this blog. Smith is not entirely satisfied with Lenin’s work, which in the Third International, and the more loosely organized international Communist movement that continued after the Third International was dissolved in 1943, was often treated as virtually on a par with Marx’s “Capital.” Smith is dissatisfied with Lenin’s classic pamphlet because, unlike Marx in “Capital,” Lenin does not directly apply value theory. Value analysis is implicit rather than explicit as it is in “Capital.”

Smith in his “Imperialism” attempts to accomplish two tasks. One, he attempts to update Lenin’s “Imperialism.” More ambitiously, he attempts to “complete” Lenin’s work, bringing it into line with Marx’s “Capital,” first published 150 years ago this year. Smith explicitly puts value analysis at the center of his analysis of modern imperialism.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 10)

September 10, 2017

History of interest rates

A chart showing the history of interest rates over the last few centuries shows an interesting pattern — low hills and valleys with a generally downward tendency. During and immediately after World War I, interest rates form what looks like a low mountain range. Then with the arrival of the Great Depression of the 1930s, rates sink into a deep valley. Unlike during World War I, interest rates remain near Depression lows during World War II but start to rise slowly with some wiggles through the end of the 1960s.

But during the 1970s, interest rates suddenly spike upward, without precedent in the history of capitalist production. It is as though after riding through gently rolling country for several hundred years of capitalist history, you suddenly run into the Himalaya mountain range. Then, beginning in the early 1980s, interest rates start to fall into a deep valley, reaching all-time lows in the wake of the 2007-09 Great Recession. Clearly something dramatic occurred in the last half of the 20th century.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 9)

August 14, 2017

Last month, we saw that Shaikh’s view of “modern money” as “pure fiat money” is essentially the same as the “MELT” theory of money. MELT stands for the monetary expression of labor time.

The MELT theory of value, money and price recognizes that embodied labor is the essence of value. To that extent, MELT is in agreement with both Ricardian and Marxist theories of value. However, advocates of MELT do not understand that value must have a value form where the value of a commodity is measured by the use value of another commodity.

Supporters of MELT claim that since the end of the gold standard capitalism has operated without a money commodity. Accordingly, prices of individual commodities can be above or below their values relative to the mass of commodities as a whole. However, by definition the prices of commodities taken as a whole can never be above or below their value.

Instead of the autocracy of gold, MELT value theory sees a democratic republic of commodities where, as far as the functions of money are concerned, one commodity is just as good as another. Under MELT’s democracy of commodities, all commodities are money and therefore no individual commodity is money.

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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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Prospects for the Economy Under Trump

January 1, 2017

This article will come in two parts. This month, I examine policies of the Federal Reserve and Trump’s domestic policies. Next month, I will end this series with an examination of Trump’s global economic policies.

The Federal Reserve and Donald Trump

On December 14, 2016, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee announced that it had finally decided to raise the federal funds rate—the rate that commercial banks, not the Fed itself, charge each other for overnight loans—by a quarter of one percent. Instead of targeting a rate of 0.25 to 0.50 percent like it did between December 2015 and December 2016, its new target is 0.50 to 0.75 percent.

Since Trump’s victory on November 8, long-term interest rates have risen sharply. This combined with the decision of the Fed to finally nudge up the fed funds rate indicates that the money market has tightened since Trump’s election. In the course of the industrial cycle, once the money market starts to tighten it is only a matter of time before recession arrives. The recession marks the end of one industrial cycle and the beginning of the next.

As it became increasingly likely that Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, the Fed put on hold its earlier plans to raise the fed funds rate multiple times in the course of 2016. The normal practice is for the Federal Reserve System to raise the fed funds rate repeatedly in the later stages of the industrial cycle. Indeed, this is central banking 101. These policies are designed to hold in check credit-fueled “over-trading” (overproduction), as well as stock market, land and primary-commodity speculation that can end in a crash with nasty consequences.

If the central bank resists raising interest rates too long by flooding the banking system with newly created currency, this leads sooner or later to a run on the currency, which is what happened in the 1970s. The result back then was stagflation and deep recessions with interest rates eventually rising into the double digits, which effectively wiped out the profit of enterprise—defined as the difference between the total profit and the rate of interest. At the end of the stagflation in the early 1980s came the explosion of credit, sometimes called “financialization,” the aftereffects of which are still with us today.

Under the present dollar-centered international monetary system, the repeated failure of the Federal Reserve System to push up interest rates would lead to the collapse of the U.S. dollar and the dollar system. The inevitable result would be a financial crash and thus the military and political crash of the U.S. world empire, which has held the capitalist world together since 1945.

In this cycle, however, the Federal Reserve waited more than eight years after the outbreak of the crisis in August 2007 before it began to push up the federal funds rate. The reason for the prolonged delay is that the current U.S. economic expansion, which began in 2009—representing the rising phase of the current industrial cycle—has been the slowest on record.

During this extraordinarily feeble expansion, the U.S. GDP has grown, with some fluctuations, at a rate of only about 2 percent a year. This performance contrasts sharply with the double-digit U.S. GDP rates of growth that occurred during the expansion of 1933-1937 and again after the severe but brief recession of 1937-1938 during the Great Depression. Far more than in the 1930s, the current era has been marked by “secular stagnation” in the U.S. as well as Europe and Japan.

Beginning with the panic that broke out with the failure of the giant Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, the Federal Reserve engineered an explosion in the dollar-denominated monetary base designed to stave off a new super-crisis that could have been much worse than the one in 1929-1933. This effort succeeded in preventing the crisis from reaching the extremes the earlier super-crisis did in most countries—but not all. For example, the crisis/depression that began in the U.S. in 2007 has been far worse in Greece than the crisis of the 1930s was in that country. But even in countries where a full-scale repeat of the 1930s Depression was avoided, the post-crisis stagnation has been far more stubborn than anything seen in the 1930s.

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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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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy

October 9, 2016

The year 2016 will be remembered for an exceptionally toxic U.S. election cycle. More positively, it will also be remembered for a series of new books on Marxist political economy. Among these, two stand out. Oxford University Press published “Capitalism, Competition and Crises” by Professor Anwar Shaikh of the New School. Monthly Review Press published John Smith’s “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.” Smith, unlike Shaikh, has spent most of his adult life as a political activist and trade unionist in Britain.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital.” Monthly Review writers, led by editor John Bellamy Foster, treat this book as a modern-day classic playing the role for monopoly capitalism that Karl Marx’s “Capital” played for classical competitive capitalism. Monthly Review magazine devoted its special two-month summer edition to marking the anniversary.

Shaikh’s “Capitalism,” published 50 years after “Monopoly Capital,” can be viewed, at least in part, as the “anti-Monopoly Capital.” In sharp contrast to the Monthly Review school, Shaikh has held throughout his career that the basic laws of motion governing today’s capitalist economy are the same as those that governed the capitalism of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Marx. This is what Shaikh attempts to prove in his “Capitalism” and what Baran and Sweezy denied. We can expect that Shaikh’s “Capitalism” and Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” will be dueling it out in the years to come.

Monopoly stage of capitalism, reality or myth?

Shaikh rejects the idea that there is a monopoly stage of capitalism that succeeded an earlier stage of competitive capitalism. He rejects Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which Lenin summed up as the monopoly stage of capitalism. According to Shaikh, the basic mistake advocates of this view make is to confuse real competition with “perfect competition.”

Real competition, according to Shaikh, is what exists in real-world capitalism. This was the competition Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo and Marx meant when they wrote about capitalist “free competition.” The concept of perfect competition that according to Shaikh is taught in university microeconomic courses is a fiction created by post-classical bourgeois marginalist economists. Nothing, according to him, even approximating perfect competition ever existed or could have existed during any stage in the development of capitalist production.

In this month’s post, I will take another look at Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” and contrast it with Shaikh’s “Capitalism.” I will hold off on reviewing John Smith’s book, since his book is in the tradition of Lenin’s “Imperialism” published exactly 100 years ago, which Shaikh considers severely flawed. There are other important books on Marxist economics that have recently been published, and I hope to get to them next year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

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