Archive for the ‘Absolute advantage’ Category

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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The Bloody Rise of the Dollar System

October 16, 2011

The current dollar-centered international monetary system is the result of a century of competition among the capitalist nations, especially the imperialist countries. The competition that led to the current dollar system was not only economic but also political and not least military. The military competition took the form of not one but two of the bloodiest wars in world history.

Relationship between economic, political and military competition

Although there is not a one-to-one relationship between political-military and economic competition among capitalist countries, political-military competition is ultimately rooted in economic competition. So in examining competition among capitalist countries, we first have to look at economic competition. What are the economic laws that govern competition and trade among different capitalist countries?

First, let’s review the laws that do not govern international trade under the capitalist system. Using the quantity theory of money and, at least implicitly, Say’s Law, the (bourgeois) economists picture competition among capitalist nations as a friendly game in which everybody emerges the winner. Within each country, according to the economists, “full employment” reigns.

According to the modern marginalist economists, under perfect competition each “factor of production”—land represented by landowners, capital represented by capitalists, and labor represented by workers—gets back in rent on land, interest on capital, and the wages of labor precisely the value each creates. Our economists claim that as long as “perfect competition” exists, no “factor of production” can exploit another factor of production.

Similarly in world trade, every country benefits by “free trade.” According to the theory of comparative advantage, each country concentrates its production on what it is comparatively best at, not necessarily absolutely best at. According to this theory, even if a given country has a below-average level of labor productivity in every branch of production, there will always be some branch where it will enjoy a comparative advantage enabling it to prevail in international competition.

Therefore, if we are to believe the economists, countries that are deficient in modern productive forces benefit from international trade just as much as the countries that monopolize the world’s most advanced productive forces. The result, the economists claim, is the most efficient system of global production that the prevailing technical and natural conditions of production allow.

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World Trade and the False Theory of Comparative Advantage

September 18, 2011

Some introductory remarks

This reply and the one that will follow should be seen as a continuation of my reply criticizing the view of economist Dean Baker that the U.S. dollar is “overvalued” and his claim that the U.S. trade deficit could easily be corrected and the U.S. unemployment crisis eased by simply lowering the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar against other currencies.

I had originally planned to continue the discussion of world trade and currency exchange rates the following month but the contrived U.S. government debt crisis in August forced a change of plans.

Reader Mike has made some interesting remarks about world trade and the dollar system—the foundation of the American empire, which has dominated the world politically, militarily as well as economically since World War II. To understand the growing threat of a renewed crisis barely two years after the official end of the “Great Recession” of 2007-09, it is important to understand both world trade and the dollar system.

Discussing Baker’s arguments for a lower dollar, Mike wants to know if there is an objective basis for determining if currencies are “high” or “low” in relation to one another. Baker summarizes his argument as follows:

“The U.S. pattern of spending more than it takes in is due to the fact that the dollar is too high. In a system of floating exchange rates, like the one we have, the price of currencies is supposed to fluctuate to bring trade into balance. This means that the trade deficit is caused by the over-valued dollar and a decline in the dollar is the predictable result.”

The obvious problem with the view that the U.S. dollar is “overvalued” is that ever since the end of the Bretton Woods system 40 years ago, the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar has shown a secular tendency to decline against other currencies. If the dollar was “too high” in the sense that there is a correct level of exchange rates that would end the U.S. trade deficit, why hasn’t the secular fall in the dollar brought the U.S. trade account into balance?

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Dean Baker on the Price of Oil

June 26, 2011

Recently, Mrzine, the online magazine of the Monthly Review Foundation, published the testimony of the left Keynesian economist Dean Baker to the U.S Congress. Baker attempted in his testimony to refute the claims made by right-wing bourgeois economists that the spike in oil and gasoline prices earlier this year was caused by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board’s policy of “quantitative easing.”

What is “quantitative easing”? And why has the U.S. Federal Reserve System, which under the dollar system acts in effect as the world’s central bank, been following such a policy?

Last year, the outbreak of the European sovereign debt crisis, followed by a distinct pause in the global economic recovery, brought fears of a renewed global recession. The U.S. Federal Reserve Board announced that it would purchase $600 billion worth of U.S. bonds in a bid to stave off a “double-dip” global recession. Or what comes to exactly the same thing, the Fed in effect announced that it was going to transform $600 billion in U.S. government debt into green U.S. paper dollars—or their electronic equivalent.

Since last December when the quantitative easing program actually kicked in—it had been announced earlier—the quantity of token money denominated in U.S. dollars has jumped by more than 35 percent. To put this number into perspective, during the prosperous post-World War II years, the quantity of U.S. token money rarely grew more than 3 percent per year.

Between May 21, 2010, and April 29, 2011, oil prices jumped almost 62 percent, peaking out at over $113 per barrel. In response, gasoline prices have soared. World food prices have also increased sharply in terms of the depreciated U.S. dollar.

Even before the explosion in the quantity of dollar token money began, speculators anticipating the expected increase in token dollars began to push up the dollar price of gold, oil and primary food commodities. The dollar price of gold rose from $1,177 per troy ounce on May 21, 2010, to $1,556 per troy ounce on April 29, 2011. Or what comes to exactly the same thing, the U.S. dollar in terms of gold was devalued against gold by more than 24 percent in the same period.

When speculators expect a change in the quantity, or rate of growth of the quantity, of token money, they act accordingly, causing currency prices of gold and primary commodities to change even before the expected change actually occurs. If the expected change fails to materialize, markets will then react sharply in the opposite direction. This is exactly what happened in late 2008. But this was not the case in 2010 and 2011, since this time the expected changes in the quantity of dollar token money have indeed fully materialized.

So it would seem on this issue that the right-wing bourgeois economists who blame the U.S. Federal Reserve System for the spiking oil, gasoline and food prices have a point, though the alternative might well have been a renewed global recession.

However, in his congressional testimony the progressive economist Dean Baker challenged the view that the Federal Reserve policies have had much to do with this year’s spiking oil and gasoline prices. (Baker didn’t deal with the question of food prices in his congressional testimony.) Since the MRzine editors decided that Baker’s testimony was worth publishing, it is worth examining Baker’s arguments in some detail.

Presumably, MRzine published Dean Baker’s testimony because the editors believe that Baker is the kind of left Keynesian that Marxists can and should be working with as part of Monthly Review’s general policy of attempting to push the U.S. economics profession back toward Keynesianism, which dominated it in the years immediately after World War II, as opposed to the neo-liberal theories that have dominated since the 1970s. Indeed, Baker as an economist is probably about as far to the left as you can get in the U.S. and still be a bourgeois economist. It is therefore instructive to examine Baker’s approach to the question of the recent rise in oil and gasoline prices.

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Ricardo’s Theory of International Trade

May 8, 2009

Over the last few weeks, I have been examining a “typical” industrial cycle. For sake of simplification, I have assumed the world was a single capitalist nation. In order to do this, I have abstracted the effects on the industrial cycle of the division of the capitalist world into different countries and currencies. But in reality, the capitalist world has always been divided into many nations and currencies. Therefore, no theory of real industrial cycles and crises can be complete without a theory of international trade and exchange rates.

Our starting point will be the theory of international trade put forward by the great English classical economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). The Ricardian theory of international trade is called by the modern bourgeois economists the theory of comparative advantage.

The theory of comparative advantage dominates the theory of international trade taught in the universities to this day. It forms the basis of the claim of neoliberal economists that free trade operates to the advantage of every nation, the capitalistically advanced nations as well as the capitalistically underdeveloped or oppressed nations. It is, therefore, particularly popular among neoliberal economists such as the followers of Milton Friedman. For reasons that will become apparent in the coming weeks, bourgeois economists inspired by the theories of John Maynard Keynes tend to be more critical of “comparative advantage” and “free trade” in general.

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