Archive for the ‘Comparative advantage’ Category

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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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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Economic Stagnation, Mass Unemployment, Budget Deficits and the Industrial Cycle

February 17, 2013

A few months ago I had dinner with a some friends from the old days. One of them expressed the view that the current economic situation of prolonged economic stagnation, continuing mass unemployment, and falling real wages represented a fundamental change in the workings of the capitalist system. He asked what is behind this change? This a good question and is worth examining in a non-trivial way.

A month or so ago the media, which had been painting a picture of a steadily improving economy, was startled when the U.S. government announced that its first estimate showed that the fourth-quarter GDP declined at an annual rate of .01 percent. Though slight, this would be a decline nonetheless.

Those economists who make a business of guessing the U.S. government’s GDP estimate expected an annualized rate of growth of 1.5 percent for the fourth quarter (of 2012). This would represent a historically low rate of growth, but growth nonetheless.

The media has been working hard to create an impression of a recovery that is at last gaining momentum. Therefore, if we are to believe the capitalist press, a “new era” of lasting prosperity is on the way. This latest “new era” will be fully assured if only the Obama administration and both Democrats and Republicans can settle their differences on the need to bring the current deficit in the finances of the U.S. federal government under control.

This is to be done by some combination of “entitlement cuts” for the working and middle classes and very modest tax increases for the rich. With the tax question settled by the New Year’s Day agreement, the only question now is how deep the entitlement cuts will be, spending on the military and “national security” being largely untouchable.

Thrown somewhat off balance by the estimated fourth-quarter GDP decline, the economists, bourgeois journalists and Wall Street brokerage houses—ever eager to paint the U.S. economy in glowing terms in order to sell stocks to middle-class savers—explained that “special factors” were behind the slight fall in the estimated GDP, not a new recession.

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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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