Archive for the ‘Comparative advantage’ Category

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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Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 3

December 12, 2010

In the October 2010 edition of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster wrote that John Maynard Keynes demonstrated that ”the economy did not automatically [emphasis added—SW] equilibrate at full employment.” (“Notes from the Editors”)

Here Foster does not in any way distinguish his own views from those of Keynes. He seems to assume that Marx as well held the view that while capitalism does not automatically equilibrate at full employment it can be made to do so if the government and the monetary authorities follow policies designed to achieve full employment. This was indeed Keynes’s opinion. But did Marx agree? Is it really possible to achieve full employment under the capitalist system?

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Are Keynes and Marx Compatible? Pt 2

November 12, 2010

John Bellamy Foster’s Case for Keynes

I explained in last month’s reply that John Maynard Keynes is the leading economist of non-Marxist progressives. Marxists themselves are sharply divided on the nature and usefulness of Keynes’s work and its relationship to Marxism.

As a rule, Marxists who support the Grossman-Mattick school or other schools that blame capitalist crises on the periodic inability of the capitalists to produce sufficient surplus value to maintain capitalist prosperity are quite hostile to Keynes’s work. According to these schools, the only way out of a capitalist crisis within the limits of the capitalist system is to increase the rate of surplus value―the rate of exploitation of the workers―and thus restore an “adequate” rate of profit for the capitalists.

Any attempts by a government inspired by Keynes’s theories to restore the purchasing power of the people during a capitalist crisis only makes it more difficult for the capitalists to restore an adequate production of surplus value. Therefore, the “not enough production of surplus value” schools of Marxist crisis theory hold that Keynesian policies only make a capitalist crisis worse. By spreading dangerous reformist illusions about the possibility of improving the condition of the working class and its allies within the capitalist system, these schools of Marxists claim the “Keynesian Marxist” tendencies such as the Monthly Review School build support for opportunist reformist tendencies within the workers’ movement.

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A New Gold Standard?

July 4, 2010

A reader asks, what is the significance of the reported moves by the central banks of China, India, Russia and perhaps other countries to increase their gold reserves? Why are China, India and Russia moving to increase the percentage of their reserves held in gold as opposed to foreign currencies such the dollar and euro? Could the moves of these countries to increase their gold reserves point to a possible revival of the international gold standard in some form?

The answer to the first question is that these countries are nervous about the future of all paper currencies. During the first phase of the crisis of 2007-09, the dollar fell not only against gold but also against the euro. Naturally, countries increased the percentage of euros in their reserves, since it seemed like a good bet against the falling dollar.

Then came the sovereign debt crisis in Europe that assumed acute form just a month or so ago. The euro plunged against the dollar. But the dollar is not looking too good itself. While the dollar was soaring against the euro, it was slipping against gold, the money commodity. For the first time, the dollar price of gold inched above $1,200. Unlike paper currencies, gold is a commodity. And like all commodities, its value is determined by the amount of labor socially necessary to produce it under the prevailing conditions of production.

With the world’s gold mines facing growing depletion, the value of gold for the foreseeable future seems a little more certain than the future value of any paper currency, whether the dollar, euro or yen. No matter how bad things get, gold cannot be “run off the printing presses.” New gold can be produced and the existing supply increased only by the slow process of the labor of workers in the gold mines and in the gold refining industry.

Does this mean that the international gold standard is about to be restored? The answer for the immediate future is a definite no. The three countries that are reportedly moving to increase their gold reserves are not imperialist countries. Indeed, these countries have few gold reserves. The great bulk of the gold that is held by governments or central banks is held by the governments of the United States and the European satellite imperialist countries such as Germany, France and Italy.

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Can Gold Ever Be Overproduced?

June 20, 2010

Reader Julio Huato quotes me as writing, “Gold as money cannot be overproduced.”

“Do you,” Julio writes, “mean that somehow the commodity money abolishes the laws of the relative value form? I think not.”

He continues: “For a given period of time, the demand for gold is the sum of the demand for gold as object of use plus its demand as money — i.e. as a means of circulation, payment, and value storage. And that total is never an infinite figure. Gold has to be ‘purchased’ with other commodities, which are not produced in infinite amount, since the productive force of labor is always finite. You seem to be conflating the qualitative determination of money as universally desirable (vis-a-vis other commodities) and its quantitative determination, which is necessarily bounded.

“Marx’s critique of the view that the inflows of gold into the New World led to price inflation do not imply that an oversupply of gold above and beyond the size of the social stomach for gold will not lead to a fall in the relative value of gold in terms of the other commodities. His view is that, on average, that relative value is determined by the requirements of social labor producing, respectively, gold and the other commodities. But fluctuations around that average are allowed. The aim of Marx’s critique is the misunderstanding that gold makes the commodities valuable, rather than their being products of labor.

“I suggest that you re-check that section on the quantitative determination of relative value in chapter 1. And also this, from Marx:

“‘The expression of the value of a commodity in gold — x commodity A = y money-commodity — is its money-form or price. A single equation, such as 1 ton of iron = 2 ounces of gold, now suffices to express the value of the iron in a socially valid manner. There is no longer any need for this equation to figure as a link in the chain of equations that express the values of all other commodities, because the equivalent commodity, gold, now has the character of money. The general form of relative value has resumed its original shape of simple or isolated relative value. On the other hand, the expanded expression of relative value, the endless series of equations, has now become the form peculiar to the relative value of the money-commodity.'”

Julio is asking, if too much gold is produced relative to other commodities, won’t what Marx calls the expanded relative form of the value of gold—in plain language, price lists read backwards—fall? Or what comes to exactly the same thing, won’t an overproduction of gold cause prices in terms of gold to rise?

And therefore, isn’t it true that in fact gold can be overproduced?

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 7)

August 14, 2009

Eightieth anniversary of start of super-crisis

To understand the policies that are being followed by the governments and central banks today as they combat the aftermath of the panic of last fall and winter, you need to understand the events of 80 years ago. The current governments and central bankers are very much haunted by the ghost of the Depression.

Several weeks ago, I explained how World I and its war economy had led to a huge divergence between prices and values. This contradiction reached it peak in the spring of 1920 and was partially resolved by the deflationary recession of 1920-21. Why then didn’t the Great Depression begin with the deflation of 1920 rather than in 1929?

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Does Capitalist Production Have a Long Cycle? (pt 6)

August 7, 2009

Germany and the super-crisis of 1929-33

The super-crisis of 1929-33 is eminently bound up with events, both economic and political, in Germany. Let’s review the events that were to end with the transformation of the German Wiemar Republic into the Third Reich. The roots of these terrible events lie deep in the years before World War I.

For many decades before the outbreak of World War I, there had been a steady erosion of Britain’s industrial powerrelative to the industrial power of the other major capitalist powers, especially Germany and the United States. At a certain point, the continued financial, military and political domination of Britain was in such contradiction to the vastly reduced weight of its industry, British overlordship simply could not continue. Something had to give.

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Ricardo’s Theories Challenged by the Crises of 1825 and 1837

May 15, 2009

Shortly after Ricardo’s death, the crisis of 1825, the first global crisis of overproduction, swept over Britain. In 1837, a second global crisis erupted with far more devastating results. It was followed by years of industrial depression and mass unemployment. Stormy class struggles broke out, and in Britain out of this came the Chartist Movement, the first mass working-class political party. It was during the depression that followed the crisis of 1837 that Marx and Engels were themselves radicalized.

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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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