Archive for the ‘International Trade’ Category

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 ‘Implications’ of Paul Baran, Pt 3

September 30, 2012

Forty-six years after ‘Monopoly Capital’

The special July-August 2012 edition of Monthly Review, devoted to the critique of economics, not only includes Paul Baran’s “Implications” and correspondence between Baran and Sweezy that is invaluable in understanding the past of Marxist political economy and monopoly capitalism. It also contains an article by John Smith of Kingston University in London that points to the kind of Marxist economics that is necessary to understand the monopoly capitalism of the early 21st century.

“Monopoly Capital” was published 56 years after Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital” and 50 years after Lenin’s pamphlet “Imperialism.” The period of time that now separates us from “Monopoly Capital” is approximately the same as that separating Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital” and Lenin’s Imperialism from Marx’s “Capital.”

The world of ‘Monopoly Capital’

As we have seen, “Monopoly Capital” was very much a book of its time. It reflected the changes that had occurred between the era of Hilferding and Lenin and the time that “Monopoly Capital” was written in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Let’s review what those changes were.

The most important was the impact of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which proved to be the defining event of the entire 20th century. For the first time in history, the working class seized and held state power for a substantial period of time. The working class held power long enough to embark on the construction of socialism. As a result, for the first time world capitalism faced a rival economic system that proved in practice, not just in theory, that capitalists are not necessary for modern industrial production.

The other defining event of the last century was the great Chinese Revolution of 1949. Only today can we fully appreciate the significance of this revolution. It began a process of shifting the center of human civilization from Europe and its “white colonies”—including the United States—toward Asia. The days of using the term “Asiatic” as a synonym for backwardness are gone for good.

These revolutions—and there were many others—forced the capitalist classes to make unheard-of concessions to the working classes of the imperialist countries in order to maintain capitalist rule. These revolutions also completely undermined the old European colonial empires—most importantly the British Empire. In contrast, the European empires were near the peak of their power when Hilferding published “Finance Capital” in 1910.

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Empire, Revolution and Counterrevolution

January 22, 2012

Reader Terry Coggan commenting on my reply on the European crisis wrote: “Thank you for your series of posts over the last several years—I have found them extremely useful. You wisely avoid overt political comment. Where you do depart from your own guideline, as in note 8 to this post where you label the rebellions in the Arab world as ‘counter-revolutionary’—an opinion that can at best be described as controversial—I feel you risk compromising the value of your blog.”

Politics and economics

I have and will continue to keep this blog focused on basic economic theory, especially crisis theory. But as Marxists, we cannot really separate economics from politics. It is a basic tenant of historical materialism that changes in the economic situation will lead sooner or later to important political developments, including both revolutions and counterrevolutions.

Over the last several years, we have seen increasingly radical shifts in the politics of many quite different countries. For example, we have seen waves of demonstrations and strikes in Greece, Spain, Ireland, France, Ireland and Britain. In the United States, we saw after decades of retreat by the trade unions the struggle of the Wisconsin public workers against the attempt to deny them the basic labor rights of collective bargaining and union representation. Just months later we saw the rise of the Occupy movement, beginning in the United States and then spreading around the world. The Occupy movement itself was inspired by the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the hated long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak last February.

In analyzing the revolutions of 1848, Marx explained that the outbreak of the European revolutions of that year, which stretched from France in the west to Hungary in the east, was triggered by the worldwide crisis of overproduction that came to a head in London in October 1847.

The ebbing of that revolutionary wave, according to Marx, was largely determined by the onset of a historic wave of economic prosperity caused by the discovery of gold in far-off California in 1848 and Australia in 1851. He considered this development to have had even greater importance than the revolutions of 1848.

It is pretty clear that the current upheavals—of which the revolutions in the Arab world are the most important component, so far at least—are rooted in the worldwide crisis of overproduction that came to a head in New York in September 2008 with the collapse of the Lehman Brother’s bank. Although the future evolution of the economic situation is as always uncertain, it seems extremely unlikely that the world political situation will be stabilized by new gold discoveries comparable to the discoveries of 1848 and 1851.

In my footnote to which Terry Coggan refers, I most certainly did not say that “the rebellions in the Arab world” were “counterrevolutionary.” We have seen “rebellions” in Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain, and even demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, as well as the overthrow of the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. In addition, we saw a movement that succeeded in overthrowing the Muammar Qaddafi government in Libya but only with the help of direct U.S. and NATO military intervention.

There is also a movement in Syria trying to bring down the government of Bashar Assad. Unlike the movement in Yemen against the long-time dictatorial President Abdullah Saleh, or movements against the absolute monarchies in the Arab world, the movement against Assad and his Baath Party enjoys the support of the governments of the U.S., Britain and the European Union.

U.S. President Obama has demanded that President Assad leave office, just like he previously demanded that Qaddafi surrender power in Libya—though Qaddafi held no formal posts in Libya. Such a demand goes counter to the basic principle of bourgeois democracy that the question of who leads the government of a given country is the business of the people of the given country alone—especially if it is a historically oppressed country—and is none of the business of the leaders of a foreign government.

All democrats, as well as socialists if they are to remain consistent with their principles, must demand that the Obama administration and other imperialist governments halt their interference in the internal affairs of Syria and resume normal relations with the Syrian government. This should be done independently of whether or not we like or approve of the Bashar Assad government.

I expressed an opinion in a footnote that the movements in Libya and Syria are out of step with the movements against the U.S.-supported monarchies and dictatorships in other Arab countries. This opinion, I admit, goes counter to the view propagated in the 1 percent-controlled media that there is a common “Arab Spring” that includes the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions but also the overthrow of the government of Libya with the help of NATO’s bombers. The same false amalgam includes the movement attempting to overthrow the Syrian government with the support of the U.S. and Europe as well as the Arab League, which is dominated by reactionary Arab governments, many of them monarchies.

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The American Empire and the Evolution of the International Monetary System

November 20, 2011

As we have seen, the law of uneven development as it manifests itself under capitalism is rooted in the fundamental laws that rule capitalist production.

The law of the uneven development of capitalism means that capitalist production in one country will develop with a vigor that far exceeds the development of other countries engaged in capitalist production. But in the next historical period, the country that was developing its capitalist production with exceptional force begins to decay while another country—or group of countries—develop their capitalist production with great vigor, which in turn will be doomed to decay in the following historical period.

At the very dawn of capitalist production, the Italian city state of Venice was the leading capitalist power. Then came the turn of the Netherlands, followed by Britain and now the United States. During the 20th century, the United States evolved into a world-spanning empire with military bases around the globe.

The American empire commands military power that dwarfs any potential competitor. As Mao-Zedong bluntly put it, (political) power grows out of the barrel of a gun. And indeed, America’s unchallenged military power—the gun—translates into unprecedented political power. This is what we mean by the American empire, or “the Empire” for short. But “the gun” depends on the ability to produce “guns,” and the ability to produce guns reflects the development both relatively and absolutely of the productive forces.

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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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