Archive for the ‘Profit of Enterprise’ Category

Political and Economic Crises (Pt 11)

September 15, 2019

Trump versus the Fed

On Sept. 3, the U.S. Institute of Supply Management reported that its widely watched index, based on a survey of industrial purchasing managers, had dropped to 49.1 percent. Any number below 50 indicates a declining trend in U.S. industrial production. The index has not been so low since September 2009, when the U.S. industrial economy was near the trough of the Great Recession.

The ISM reports: “Falling orders among foreign clients dragged on overall new business growth and producer confidence. The degree of optimism about the year ahead hit a fresh seven-year series low amid growing business uncertainty. As such, employment was broadly unchanged and spare capacity was used to clear backlogs of work.”

This is just the latest in a series of reports indicating that the U.S. and world capitalist economies are on the brink of recession. The Trump White House and the electoral wing of the Republican Party fear that Trump will face the reelection in November 2020 amidst full-scale recession conditions, dramatically reducing Trump’s chances of winning a second term.

Trump has responded by stepping up his public attacks on Jerome Powell, the conservative Republican banker Trump himself nominated to head the Federal Reserve System. In the wake of the annual August meeting of bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Trump declared Jerome Powell to be worse for the U.S. economy than even Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump is pursuing two aims here. First, he hopes that the Federal Reserve and its Open Market Committee will lower its target for federal funds and flood the banking system with newly created U.S. dollar reserves that will at least postpone the arrival of a full recession and mass cyclical unemployment until after November 2020. If this happens, Trump will be able to run as a “prosperity president.” Experience shows that U.S. presidents have a tough time winning second terms when they have to run for reelection near the low point of the industrial cycle.

Secondly, if a recession does arrive by election day, Trump wants to be able to point to a scapegoat — in this case, the Federal Reserve Board and the “international financial elites” out to destroy his nationalist “Make American Great Again” policies.

Jerome Powell, for his part, has promised that he will act “as appropriate” to keep the expansion going. The key words here are “as appropriate.” Powell is indicating to the markets that he will not jeopardize the dollar and the dollar system in an attempt to “keep the expansion going” like Trump is demanding. Somewhat reassured, investors caused the dollar price of gold to fall after Powell’s remarks, while interest rates on government bonds have rebounded.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 6)

April 21, 2019

Storm over the Federal Reserve System

U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated that he will nominate right-wing economic commentator Stephen Moore and businessman Herman Cain to fill two vacancies on the
Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors – called the Federal Reserve Board for short. If confirmed, both Moore and Cain would serve for 14 years. While Trump’s other nominees to the “Fed” have been conventional conservative Republicans, Moore and especially Cain have been strongly attacked in the media and by economists and some Republicans for being completely unqualified.

Of the two, Cain has drawn the most opposition from within the Republican Party. As of this writing, his confirmation by the U.S. Senate looks unlikely. Republican Senators Mitt Romney (who ran against Obama for president in 2012), Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner, and Kevin Cramer have all indicated that they are leaning against voting to confirm Cain. If all them vote no, Cain’s nomination will fail unless he can win over some Democratic senators.

Cain – one of the few African-Americans Trump has nominated for high office – throughout his business career has expressed opposition to even elementary labor rights. In 2016, he briefly ran for president as a Republican on a platform of reforming the federal tax system in an extremely regressive way going beyond Trump’s own tax cut for the rich. Cain was then forced to withdraw from the presidential campaign when several women came forward alleging that he had sexually assaulted them. For Donald Trump, this was not a disqualification but it might be for some U.S. senators who have to face re-election.

Cain has not indicated that he supports inflationary monetary policies. On the contrary, he has said that he would like to see a return to the gold standard. For taking this stand, he has been ridiculed by liberals and progressives as well as mainstream economists. However, Cain does have actual central bank experience having served as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of 12 regional banks that make up the Federal Reserve System.

Capitalist opponents of Cain’s nomination – Cain has been a strong supporter of Trump – fear that Cain would do Donald Trump’s bidding on the Fed’s Open Market Committee (1). With the 2020 presidential election approaching, it is widely suspected that Cain would push for an “easy” monetary policy and cuts to the Fed’s target for the federal funds rate in a bid to stave off the looming recession until after the November 2020 election. Not only would such a policy put the dollar-centered international monetary system in danger in the short run, it would also erode the Federal Reserve System’s independence over the long run.

Trump’s other prospective nominee, Stephen Moore, has drawn much criticism from mainstream media and professional economists but so far less from Senate Republicans. Like most of Trump’s nominees for high positions, Moore is white. He is not even a professional economist. Although majoring in economics in college, he does not hold a PhD. Unlike Cain, Moore has never directed either a business enterprise – Cain in addition to serving as head the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City was also head of the Godfather Pizza Chain. However, like Cain, Moore has been accused of mistreating women. This raises the question whether Cain’s race could be a factor in the apparent lack of opposition to Moore on the part of Senate Republicans.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 2)

December 23, 2018

As boom slows, political instability rises in the imperialist countries

As 2018 winds down, political instability is sweeping the Western imperialist countries – both the United States and Western Europe. In the United States, as part of a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” pleaded guilty to violating with “Individual 1” U.S. campaign finance laws. Cohen faces three years in prison.

It is no secret that “Individual 1” is one Donald J. Trump, the current president of the United States. According to Cohen’s plea, Trump directed Cohen to break U.S. campaign finance laws in order to pay “hush money” to porn star Stormy Daniels and “Playboy playmate” Karen McDougall. Trump paid the hush money because he didn’t want the headlines of his extramarital affairs to dominate the news in the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election.

Since these payments violated federal election law, it is clear that Trump committed felonies. These felonies, it should be pointed out, are not connected with the so-called Mueller probe into whether Trump, other members of the Trump family, or other associates violated U.S. laws as part of their alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections. That is a separate matter. So far, Mueller and his prosecutors have not presented concrete evidence of law-breaking on the part of Trump in this matter, though there continues to be much speculation about this possibility in the media.

Theoretically, Trump can now be impeached because he committed felonies, which meets the U.S. constitutional standard for impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Some Democrats have suggested that in light of these facts impeachment proceedings against Trump in the House of Representatives should now commence. However, there is also a general feeling that crimes centered on sexual affairs are not sufficient grounds to remove a president from office. After all, who in Washington has not had an affair or two or more? While the Democrats will have a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in January, they would need a large number of Republican votes in the Senate to reach the two-thirds’ majority necessary to remove Trump from office.

The Republicans are reluctant to remove Trump on impeachment charges. If they do vote to remove him, they will likely lose Trump’s white racist “base,” which continues to adore him. The “Trump base” will be furious if their adored leader is removed over what is essentially a sex scandal. Can Trump – and this is a concern for those ruling-class circles of the “Party of Order” who do not like Trump – be removed from office without splitting the Republican Party in such a way that its continued existence as one of the two “major parties” in the two-party system would be in question?

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Modern Money (Pt 3)

August 26, 2018

In this post, I contrast the analysis of foreign trade found in Professor L. Randall Wray’s book “Modern Money Theory” to the analysis of foreign trade that logically emerges from Marx’s theory of commodities, money and capital.

From trade war to war?

The August 10 on-line edition of the British rag The Express has a headline blaring, “China Fires SIX WARNINGS to US Navy in South China Sea.” When Chinese air force planes demanded the U.S. aircraft leave the area, the U.S. pilots arrogantly answered, according to The Express, “I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.” Notice, this occurred in the South China Sea near China and not anywhere near the U.S.

Now, if this was an isolated incident, it might not mean much. But the incident occurred against the background of the growing trade war between the U.S. and China. The Trump administration has made it clear that it is determined to reduce China’s share of the world market, especially but not only the U.S. part. If Trump’s policies are successful, it will bring China’s era of rapid development of capitalism to an end. Though China has made amazing progress and now has the highest level of industrial production in the world, it has about four times the population of the U.S. To reach a level of development equivalent to the U.S., China would need to have about four times the industrial and agricultural production of the U.S.

Another weakness of Chinese industry is that Chinese factories are dependent on high-tech components manufactured in South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. In addition, patents for these components are owned by Silicon Valley and British companies. Recent sanctions imposed by the Trump White House against the Chinese mobile phone manufacturer ZTE for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and North Korea threatened to destroy the company because its phones depend on high-tech components that are not manufactured in China. Later, the Trump administration backed down amidst rumors that ZTE had to pay a bribe to Trump personally. The fact that a major Chinese company can be shut down at will by a U.S. president shows just how vulnerable Chinese industry is.

The productivity of labor in China, whether in industry or agriculture, is still far lower than that of the U.S. While wages have been rising in China, they are still far lower than the wages of U.S. workers or workers in the other imperialist countries. This means that industrial capitalists in China are far more likely to choose “labor-intensive” as opposed to “capital-intensive” methods of production. Or to use the more precise terminology of Marx, the organic composition of capital of Chinese industrial enterprises is much lower than those in the United States and other imperialist countries.

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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 8)

July 16, 2017

Engels wrote in “Socialism Utopian and Scientific”: “We have seen that the ever-increasing perfectibility of modern machinery is, by the anarchy of social production, turned into a compulsory law that forces the individual industrial capitalist always to improve his machinery, always to increase its productive force. The bare possibility of extending the field of production is transformed for him into a similarly compulsory law. The enormous expansive force of modern industry, compared with which that of gases is mere child’s play, appears to us now as a necessity for expansion, both qualitative and quantitative, that laughs at all resistance. Such resistance is offered by consumption, by sales, by the markets for the products of modern industry. But the capacity for extension, extensive and intensive, of the markets is primarily governed by quite different laws that work much less energetically. The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production. The collision becomes inevitable, and as this cannot produce any real solution so long as it does not break in pieces the capitalist mode of production, the collisions become periodic. Capitalist production has begotten another ‘vicious circle.’”

This famous quote was written when Marx was still alive. It passed his muster. Indeed, throughout their long partnership, the founders of scientific socialism described cyclical capitalist crises as crises of the general relative overproduction of commodities. However, most modern Marxist economists reject this idea. Among them is Anwar Shaikh.

Shaikh, in contrast to Marx and Engels, believes that the limit “modern industry” runs into is not the market but the supply of labor power. Marx and Engels believed that securing an adequate quantity of “free labor power” was crucial to the establishment of the capitalist mode of production. This was the big problem early capitalists faced, which was solved by separating the producers, often through force and violence, from their means of production. But once capitalism was firmly established, it has been the limit imposed by the limited ability of the market to grow relative to production that capitalism regularly runs up against.

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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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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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