Archive for the ‘Comparative advantage’ Category

The Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee Meets

June 27, 2021

On June 16, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee concluded its two-day meeting and announced its decisions. The FOMC consists of the seven members of the Board of Governors, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and (on a rotating basis) the heads of four of the 11 other Federal Reserve Banks that make up the Federal Reserve System. The four Federal Reserve Bank presidents serve one-year terms.

The only concrete decision announced was a rise in the interest rate Federal Reserve Banks pay on the deposits commercial banks keep with them, from 0.10% to 0.15% per year. This represents a very slight “tightening move.” However, as is usually the case, more attention was paid to the tone of the FOMC report than on any concrete decisions made.

Speculators in the gold market, commodities markets, bond market, and stock market hang on every phrase of Federal Reserve statements. The general reaction was that the FOMC indicated that it would move to “tighten” its stance sooner than had been expected. As a result, the price of stocks fell while the U.S. dollar rose sharply against gold.

The Fed’s leadership is nervous about the dollar’s recent weakness against gold and a surge in primary commodity as well as wholesale and consumer prices. Though the FOMC repeated its belief that the current surge in inflation will soon taper off, it no longer seems so sure. As I explained last month, Fed leaders cannot ignore the very real danger that dollar weakness and rising inflation could signal a return to “stagflation” over the next several years and the sharp rise in interest rates and deep recession that inevitably follow.

The Federal Reserve System’s leaders hope to guide the U.S. and world capitalist economies onto a path of a sustained rise in the global industrial cycle, which would normally be expected to last about nine years. They hope that the cyclical upturn will be stronger than the one that followed the Great Recession. But they have to reckon with the very real danger that the current apparent upturn in the worldwide industrial cycle will abort if the Fed allows the dollar to plunge against gold causing inflation and interest rates to rise.

This would make a deep global recession with soaring unemployment inevitable, perhaps before the end of Biden’s four-year term. Far worse from the viewpoint of U.S. imperialism, it would endanger the dollar system, which forms the foundation of the U.S. global empire.

Ultimately, the decisions of the Federal Reserve and its Open Market Committee are constrained by the economic laws that govern the circulation of money. This is why Pichit Likitkijsomboon’s article in Monthly Review critiquing what he calls the “anti-quantity theory of money” takes on special importance. Before we continue our examination of his critique, let’s take a brief look at the current economic situation.

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Analyzing Currency Circulation

May 30, 2021

On May 20, a ceasefire was announced between the Hamas-led government of Gaza and Israel. The truce followed an 11-day pounding of Gaza’s 2 million-plus residents by Israeli bombers and rockets. Residents of Gaza, described as the world’s largest open-air prison, are not allowed to leave. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, total deaths among Gaza residents — or perhaps we should say inmates — were at least 248. Of these, 39 were women and 66 were children. An additional 1,910 people were wounded. According to UN officials as a result of the Israeli assault, 800,000 people in Gaza do not have access to clean water. All of this is amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has swept through Gaza as it has through the rest of the world.

According to the Israeli government, Israeli casualties from rockets fired from Gaza include 12 deaths, of which two were children. Israel is well supplied by the United States with bombers and highly accurate computer-guided missiles, while Gaza residents have only highly inaccurate missiles that can only be shot in the general direction of their targets. In addition, most of the Gazan missiles have been shot down by the Israeli military using the U.S.-provided Iron Dome anti-missile system. As a result, physical damage done to Israel by Gazan missiles has been minimal.

The accuracy of the U.S.-provided bombs and missiles is illustrated by the destruction of a Gaza high-rise that housed both the Al Jazeera news agency and the U.S.-based Associated Press. The Israeli government gave journalists minutes to leave claiming that the building was being used by Hamas, the elected governing party in Gaza. However, AP claimed there was no evidence that Hamas used the building.

What is true is that the high-rise provided an excellent view of Gaza and therefore of the toll the Israeli assault was taking on the besieged city. Perhaps the Israelis were more concerned about Al Jazeera than they were about AP. Still, the attack on the building was a clear attack by the Israeli government on journalists and freedom of the press.

AP was therefore forced to protest. However, the next day AP under right-wing pressure fired an American journalist, Emily Wilder, for pro-Palestinian tweets when she was a college student as if that is a crime. Wilder was active as a college student in the Jewish Voice for Peace and so happens to be Jewish.

She is not alone in the American Jewish community. Increasingly, younger Jews have come to oppose the actions of the Israeli government, which claims to represent all Jews, including those who do not live or wish to live in Israel, but not its Arab citizens. Most of the American Jewish community opposed the administration of Donald Trump, not least because Trump’s racist demagoguery was reminiscent of the ideology that eventually led to the Third Reich in Germany. Indeed, extreme antisemitism is widespread among Trump’s supporters.

This did not prevent Trump from claiming that he was the most pro-Israel president ever. He pointed to his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. The former president when speaking to Jewish-American organizations repeatedly described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” which drew protests even from docile (to American imperialism) pro-Zionist Jewish organizations. This did not prevent these same organizations from coming out once again in support of the latest Israeli war against the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu and most of the Israeli population, in contrast, strongly supported Trump. The racist rhetoric of the former — and possible future — U.S. president was music to their ears. The latest crisis broke out when the Israeli government moved to evict some four Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make room for Jewish settlers in the historically Arab area. The Zionist propaganda machine claimed that this was a routine eviction case involving the fact that the Arab residents had not paid rent for 39 years to Jewish landlords who the Zionists claim had owned the apartments since the 1870s.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 15)

January 12, 2020

Trump orders assassination of top Iranian general

On Jan. 2, 2020, Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that the next day assassinated among others General Qassem Soleimani, considered Iran’s leading general and one of the most powerful and popular leaders of the Islamic Republic. Soleimani was killed at the Baghdad airport while on a diplomatic mission aimed at improving relations among Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and the United States on the other. The murder of such an important military and political leader while on a peaceful diplomatic mission has few if any precedents in the history of diplomatic relations stretching back over thousands of years. Rather, Trump’s action is straight out of the history of the 20th-century New York mob.

This has brought the U.S. to the brink of full-scale military war with Iran, and frankly, as I write these lines it is hard to see how this war can be avoided. The U.S. is already at war with Iran in the economic and political sense. Iraq’s Parliament has now demanded that the U.S. withdraw its 5,000 troops in the country, which are supposedly there to fight ISIS, though the U.S. has announced it has now “suspended” its war with ISIS.

Trump responded by saying he will refuse this demand unless Iraq repays the U.S. for the “aid” it has given Iraq and threatened Iraq with vicious sanctions if it does not withdraw the demand. For its part, Iran has announced it is finally pulling out of the nuclear accord it signed under Obama that exchanged intrusive inspections for promises by the U.S. and its imperialist satellites to relax economic sanctions — dial back economic warfare. These events have raised the chilling possibility that the year 2020 could be for this century what 1914 was to the last.

Trump’s action should remove the illusions shared apparently by the government of Russia and even a few progressives that, however racist and reactionary he is, in other ways Trump is part of some right-wing “isolationist” anti-war tradition that opposes the “Wilsonian” imperialism that has long dominated the Democratic Party, and since at least 1940 the Republican Party as well. In reality, Trump’s economic and political nationalism has always pointed in the direction of war, not peace, whether Trump personally wants war or not. History shows that the beginning of a major war brings with it a “rallying around the commander in chief.” Such an effect could considerably increase Trump’s chances of reelection. True, as the experience of many countries shows, as wars drag on public support for the war and the government turns into its opposite. But by then, Trump may be thinking, the election of 2020 will be far behind him.

In general, there seems to be an unofficial rule that U.S. presidents don’t start major military campaigns in election years. Otherwise, every president facing dubious reelection prospects would be tempted to start a war. But Trump’s Bonapartist and autocratic tendencies mean that he does not feel bound by such a rule, any more than he feels bound by the rule that the president should not criticize the Federal Reserve System.

However, while Trump’s unstable personality and autocratic tendencies are extremely dangerous factors in the current crisis, it is not the main factor behind the current war danger. The roots of the current war crisis can be traced back to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq — supported by Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden — on March 19, 2003. The Bush administration intended to create a new Iraqi puppet government that would provide a thin veneer over what would amount to U.S. colonial control of Iraq.

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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 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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Trump and the Resurgence of Imperialist Economic Nationalism

January 30, 2017

As the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president approached, a political uproar unfolded in Washington that was more fury than substance. A little more than a week before Trump took the oath of office, the on-line site BuzzFeed published an unverified 35-page document by a “former” member of MI6, Britain’s counterpart of the CIA, on Trump’s alleged relationship with the Russian government and its intelligence agencies. Reportedly, the document was originally created on behalf of anti-Trump—Republicans eager to find some dirt that could be used to stop the billionaire political adventurer in the Republican primaries.

The text’s most sensational part was the claim that Russian intelligence obtained documentation of Trump’s perverted sexual tastes while he was staying at the Ritz-Carleton hotel during a visit to the Russian capital in 2013. It is well documented by many other sources that Trump has abused women throughout his adult life. So even if the claims of the document are taken at face value—they would, to tell the truth, be rather tame stuff. For the record, President Trump has strongly denied the allegations, as has the Russian government.

Far more importantly, the document claims that, in exchange for the help of Russian intelligence obtaining and distributing through Wikileaks damning evidence about the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Trump’s business organizations passed information about the activities of “Russian oligarchs” in the West back to Russian intelligence. If true, that would mean that Trump engaged in activities that could leave him open to charges of spying for a foreign power, namely Russia, an impeachable offence. Could this form the basis of bi-partisan—”Party of Order“-sponsored—articles of impeachment against Donald Trump in the not too distant future? Stay tuned on that one.

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Germany and the U.S. Empire (Pt. 1)

October 11, 2015

The Volkswagen scandal

It has recently been revealed that the Volkswagen Corporation, the world’s largest automobile producer in terms of revenue in 2014, had installed software in its diesel vehicles designed to circumvent U.S. emissions standards.

Motor vehicles of all types are increasingly controlled by computer software. Volkswagen engineers wrote subroutines in Volkswagen’s control software able to detect whether the vehicle was going through an emissions test or was in normal operation. If the software detected a test situation, the engines would strictly comply with the U.S. government’s Environmental Projection Agency guidelines and the vehicle would pass the test with flying colors. If the software determined the vehicle was in normal operation, the emissions restrictions would be ignored. In this way, buyers of the vehicle could enjoy the benefits of a more powerful vehicle apparently complying with the U.S. government’s emission standards while in practice ignoring them.

This was not a question of some accidental damage done by dangerous cost-cutting that is so common throughout capitalist production. The subroutines were not written “by mistake.” Even more than is the case in the U.S., the automotive industry is important for Germany’s industry-centered, export-oriented economy. Unlike the U.S. and Britain, Germany has largely avoided the process of “de-industrialization.” German automobiles are considered among the best in the world. The scandal is therefore a major blow not only to Volkswagen but to the German economy as a whole.

However, what is a loss for Germany is a boon for Germany’s competitors. If the Volkswagen “brand name” should be discredited, or if Volkswagen is forced to reduce its research and development expenditures on the next generation of automobiles because it has to pay costly fines, it could be permanently damaged. In the worst case, it might even go out of business. Rival automobile manufacturers, both present and aspiring ones, including those headquartered in Detroit—and Silicon Valley—are among those who would happily fill the market space vacated by Volkswagen’s demise.

What was the motive of the EPA, an arm of the U.S. government? As far as I know—and I won’t make any allegations I cannot prove—it was the best. Perhaps it wanted to protect the environment from the effects of releasing nitrous oxide, which causes acid rain, threatening countless lifeforms, both plant and animal, on the land and in the sea. Still, an attack on Germany’s export-oriented auto industry, whatever the motive, has the objective effect of undermining Germany’s economy as a whole. And it is also quite in line with Silicon Valley’s plans to invade the auto industry.

Above all, it is quite in accordance with the nature of competition between capitalist nation-states. An important function of a capitalist nation-state is to put its own capitalists in the best possible position relative to rivals headquartered in rival nation-states. A little less than 70 years ago—within the lifetime of many people still living—the efforts of the U.S. to curb Germany’s competitive threat to U.S. industry took the form of open shooting warfare that ended with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Germany. That occupation has never really ended.

Is it possible the U.S. government is using selective enforcement of the law to curb the same economic threat today? In order to explore this question, we should first start with the policies of the U.S. government that made Volkswagen’s crime possible in the first place.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 5)

September 13, 2015

Rudi Dornbusch predicts unending capitalist expansion

“The U.S. economy likely will not see a recession for years to come,” economist Rudi Dornbusch (1942-2001) wrote in 1998. “We don’t want one, we don’t need one, and, as we have the tools to keep the current expansion going, we won’t have one. This expansion will run forever.”

In the late 1990s, the Internet was making rapid progress. Fueled by various technologies including the digital computer, the transistor and electronic circuit board—the “computer on a chip”—and the GNU/Linux computer operating system, world communications were, and are, being revolutionized. And this technological revolution was no illusion.

For the first time, home computer users could connect to the Internet, which now featured its own graphical user interface called the World Wide Web. No longer was the Internet confined to text but would soon include audio and video files. With such a great technological revolution under way, many capitalist economists—and this was echoed by some Marxists as well—foresaw an era of never-ending capitalist expansion. The Clinton boom of the late 1990s was to be just the beginning.

During the Clinton administration, stocks soared on Wall Street while the rise in the NASDAQ stock index—which lists “high-tech” stocks—seemed to know no limit. Goldman-Sachs economist and financial analyst Abby Joseph Cohen’s (1952- ) predictions of continuing soaring stock market prices drew skepticism from many seasoned stock market veterans, yet she continued to be proved right. Until March 2000, that is. Then things began to go horribly wrong as the NASDAQ index sagged and then crashed.

“Her reputation was further damaged when she failed to foresee the great crash of 2008,” Wikipedia writes. “In December 2007, she predicted the S&P 500 index would rally to 1,675 in 2008. The S&P 500 traded as low as 741 by November 2008, 56% below her prediction. On March 8, 2008, Goldman Sachs announced that Abby Joseph Cohen was being replaced by David Kostin as the bank’s chief forecaster for the U.S. stock market.” Although Internet technology continued to make great strides and stock markets both crashed and soared, the world capitalist economy entered into a period of slow growth—interrupted by the the turn-of-the-century recession that included the NASDAQ crash that Cohen missed and then the much deeper “Great Recession.”

Indeed, the world economy has, since Dornbusch made his prediction of unending capitalist prosperity, seen the worst growth figures since the 1930s Depression. The situation has gotten so bad that some capitalist economists have revived the term “secular stagnation,” last widely used among economists in the late 1930s. What did Cohen and Dornbusch and so many others miss?

They were right about the technological revolution. They left out only one little thing: the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Though both Dornbusch and Cohen were/are highly trained economists, they didn’t learn about the contradictions of capitalism in their university studies. It wasn’t part of their course work. For that, they would have had to turn to the work of Karl Marx, and that they apparently neglected to do.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 4)

August 16, 2015

How gold production drives expansion of the market

Here I assume that gold bullion serves as money material unless I indicate otherwise.

In a previous post, I indicated that there cannot be an overproduction of gold in its role as money material. This has been more or less the received view among Marxist writers over the years.

However, in thinking about this question more carefully I think my earlier post was incorrect on this point. I was correct in stating that from the viewpoint of capitalists as a whole there cannot be “too much” gold as far as the realization of value of (non-gold) commodities is concerned. The more gold there is relative to the quantity of other commodities, everything else remaining equal, the easier it will be for industrial and commercial capitalists to sell their commodities at their prices of production and thus realize the surplus value contained in them in the form of profit.

But what is true for the non-gold producing capitalists is not true for the gold producing capitalists. Indeed, from the viewpoint of an individual industrial capitalist there can never be too much of the commodities produced by their suppliers. As a productive consumer, industrial capitalist A can hope for nothing better than that supplier industrial capitalist B overproduces as much as possible. When B overproduces, all other things remaining equal, A gets to pocket some of the surplus value contained in B’s commodities. But from B’s point of view, the overproduction of B’s commodity is an absolute disaster.

True, the (non)gold producing capitalists do not consume gold, insomuch as gold serves as money material as opposed to raw material. But it is absolutely essential for them that gold is produced in adequate quantities if the value, including the surplus value, contained in their commodities is to be realized.

Even if gold bullion played no role whatsoever as raw material, a certain level of gold production would still be necessary for capitalist expanded reproduction to proceed. And capitalism can only exist as expanded reproduction.

How much gold capitalism needs—with the development of the credit system, banking, clearing houses, and so on being given—depends on the level and vigor of expanded reproduction at a particular time. The greater the possibilities of exploiting wage labor and the higher the rate of surplus value and the potential rate of profit in value terms, the higher the level of gold production must be if the process of expanded capitalist production is to proceed unchecked.

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