Archive for the ‘Stagflation’ Category

Political and Economic Crises (Pt 6)

April 21, 2019

Storm over the Federal Reserve System

U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated that he will nominate right-wing economic commentator Stephen Moore and businessman Herman Cain to fill two vacancies on the
Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors – called the Federal Reserve Board for short. If confirmed, both Moore and Cain would serve for 14 years. While Trump’s other nominees to the “Fed” have been conventional conservative Republicans, Moore and especially Cain have been strongly attacked in the media and by economists and some Republicans for being completely unqualified.

Of the two, Cain has drawn the most opposition from within the Republican Party. As of this writing, his confirmation by the U.S. Senate looks unlikely. Republican Senators Mitt Romney (who ran against Obama for president in 2012), Lisa Murkowski, Cory Gardner, and Kevin Cramer have all indicated that they are leaning against voting to confirm Cain. If all them vote no, Cain’s nomination will fail unless he can win over some Democratic senators.

Cain – one of the few African-Americans Trump has nominated for high office – throughout his business career has expressed opposition to even elementary labor rights. In 2016, he briefly ran for president as a Republican on a platform of reforming the federal tax system in an extremely regressive way going beyond Trump’s own tax cut for the rich. Cain was then forced to withdraw from the presidential campaign when several women came forward alleging that he had sexually assaulted them. For Donald Trump, this was not a disqualification but it might be for some U.S. senators who have to face re-election.

Cain has not indicated that he supports inflationary monetary policies. On the contrary, he has said that he would like to see a return to the gold standard. For taking this stand, he has been ridiculed by liberals and progressives as well as mainstream economists. However, Cain does have actual central bank experience having served as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of 12 regional banks that make up the Federal Reserve System.

Capitalist opponents of Cain’s nomination – Cain has been a strong supporter of Trump – fear that Cain would do Donald Trump’s bidding on the Fed’s Open Market Committee (1). With the 2020 presidential election approaching, it is widely suspected that Cain would push for an “easy” monetary policy and cuts to the Fed’s target for the federal funds rate in a bid to stave off the looming recession until after the November 2020 election. Not only would such a policy put the dollar-centered international monetary system in danger in the short run, it would also erode the Federal Reserve System’s independence over the long run.

Trump’s other prospective nominee, Stephen Moore, has drawn much criticism from mainstream media and professional economists but so far less from Senate Republicans. Like most of Trump’s nominees for high positions, Moore is white. He is not even a professional economist. Although majoring in economics in college, he does not hold a PhD. Unlike Cain, Moore has never directed either a business enterprise – Cain in addition to serving as head the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City was also head of the Godfather Pizza Chain. However, like Cain, Moore has been accused of mistreating women. This raises the question whether Cain’s race could be a factor in the apparent lack of opposition to Moore on the part of Senate Republicans.

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Political and Economic Crises (Pt 2)

December 23, 2018

As boom slows, political instability rises in the imperialist countries

As 2018 winds down, political instability is sweeping the Western imperialist countries – both the United States and Western Europe. In the United States, as part of a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” pleaded guilty to violating with “Individual 1” U.S. campaign finance laws. Cohen faces three years in prison.

It is no secret that “Individual 1” is one Donald J. Trump, the current president of the United States. According to Cohen’s plea, Trump directed Cohen to break U.S. campaign finance laws in order to pay “hush money” to porn star Stormy Daniels and “Playboy playmate” Karen McDougall. Trump paid the hush money because he didn’t want the headlines of his extramarital affairs to dominate the news in the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election.

Since these payments violated federal election law, it is clear that Trump committed felonies. These felonies, it should be pointed out, are not connected with the so-called Mueller probe into whether Trump, other members of the Trump family, or other associates violated U.S. laws as part of their alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections. That is a separate matter. So far, Mueller and his prosecutors have not presented concrete evidence of law-breaking on the part of Trump in this matter, though there continues to be much speculation about this possibility in the media.

Theoretically, Trump can now be impeached because he committed felonies, which meets the U.S. constitutional standard for impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Some Democrats have suggested that in light of these facts impeachment proceedings against Trump in the House of Representatives should now commence. However, there is also a general feeling that crimes centered on sexual affairs are not sufficient grounds to remove a president from office. After all, who in Washington has not had an affair or two or more? While the Democrats will have a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in January, they would need a large number of Republican votes in the Senate to reach the two-thirds’ majority necessary to remove Trump from office.

The Republicans are reluctant to remove Trump on impeachment charges. If they do vote to remove him, they will likely lose Trump’s white racist “base,” which continues to adore him. The “Trump base” will be furious if their adored leader is removed over what is essentially a sex scandal. Can Trump – and this is a concern for those ruling-class circles of the “Party of Order” who do not like Trump – be removed from office without splitting the Republican Party in such a way that its continued existence as one of the two “major parties” in the two-party system would be in question?

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 15)

February 4, 2018

Reader Manuel Angeles commented: “In Cambridge (UK) in the 1970s, a whole slew of them rejected marginalist theory. Joan Robinson, in fact, frequently ridiculed it, in spite of Keynes´s chapter in the General Theory.”

Angeles refers to the so-called Cambridge Capital Controversy, which pitted economists from Cambridge, Mass., led by Paul Samuelson against Cambridge UK-based economists led by the Italian-British economist Piero Sraffa (1898-1983). Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), who was considered perhaps the leading (bourgeois) U.S. economist of his generation, defended marginalist theory. Samuelson combined marginalism with a watered-down Keynesianism that he called the “Grand Neoclassical Synthesis.”

Sraffa and his supporters clearly came out on top against the Samuelson-led marginalists. Sraffa’s attack on marginalism is contained in his short book “Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities,” where he exposed logical and mathematical paradoxes in marginalist theory.

But what value theory did Sraffa and his generally left Keynesian supporters propose in place of marginalism? Nothing, really, beyond that, given free competition, prices will tend toward levels where capitals of equal size earn equal profits in equal periods of time. The Sraffians also claimed that, with a given level of productivity of labor, wages and “interest rates”—by which is meant the rate of profit—will vary inversely.

Whatever he may have thought in private about the labor value schools of Ricardo and Marx—Sraffa was a great admirer and scholar of Ricardo and was well acquainted with Marxism having been a sympathizer of the Italian Communist Party in his youth—”neo-Ricardian” followers of Sraffa’s work have often used it against Marx’s labor value and surplus value theory. Once we accept the “neo-Ricardian” “price of production school” in place of Marxist value theory, we are forced to draw the conclusion that constant capital—machines and raw materials—as well as land produce value and surplus value.

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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 9)

August 14, 2017

Last month, we saw that Shaikh’s view of “modern money” as “pure fiat money” is essentially the same as the “MELT” theory of money. MELT stands for the monetary expression of labor time.

The MELT theory of value, money and price recognizes that embodied labor is the essence of value. To that extent, MELT is in agreement with both Ricardian and Marxist theories of value. However, advocates of MELT do not understand that value must have a value form where the value of a commodity is measured by the use value of another commodity.

Supporters of MELT claim that since the end of the gold standard capitalism has operated without a money commodity. Accordingly, prices of individual commodities can be above or below their values relative to the mass of commodities as a whole. However, by definition the prices of commodities taken as a whole can never be above or below their value.

Instead of the autocracy of gold, MELT value theory sees a democratic republic of commodities where, as far as the functions of money are concerned, one commodity is just as good as another. Under MELT’s democracy of commodities, all commodities are money and therefore no individual commodity is money.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 8)

July 16, 2017

Engels wrote in “Socialism Utopian and Scientific”: “We have seen that the ever-increasing perfectibility of modern machinery is, by the anarchy of social production, turned into a compulsory law that forces the individual industrial capitalist always to improve his machinery, always to increase its productive force. The bare possibility of extending the field of production is transformed for him into a similarly compulsory law. The enormous expansive force of modern industry, compared with which that of gases is mere child’s play, appears to us now as a necessity for expansion, both qualitative and quantitative, that laughs at all resistance. Such resistance is offered by consumption, by sales, by the markets for the products of modern industry. But the capacity for extension, extensive and intensive, of the markets is primarily governed by quite different laws that work much less energetically. The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production. The collision becomes inevitable, and as this cannot produce any real solution so long as it does not break in pieces the capitalist mode of production, the collisions become periodic. Capitalist production has begotten another ‘vicious circle.’”

This famous quote was written when Marx was still alive. It passed his muster. Indeed, throughout their long partnership, the founders of scientific socialism described cyclical capitalist crises as crises of the general relative overproduction of commodities. However, most modern Marxist economists reject this idea. Among them is Anwar Shaikh.

Shaikh, in contrast to Marx and Engels, believes that the limit “modern industry” runs into is not the market but the supply of labor power. Marx and Engels believed that securing an adequate quantity of “free labor power” was crucial to the establishment of the capitalist mode of production. This was the big problem early capitalists faced, which was solved by separating the producers, often through force and violence, from their means of production. But once capitalism was firmly established, it has been the limit imposed by the limited ability of the market to grow relative to production that capitalism regularly runs up against.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 7)

July 10, 2017

“The real net rate of profit,” Shaikh writes, “is the central driver of accumulation, the material foundation around which the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalists frisk, with injections of net new purchasing power taking on a major role in the era of fiat money.” This sentence sums both the strengths and the basic flaw in Shaikh’s theory of crises, and without too much exaggeration the whole of his “Capitalism.”

By “net rate of profit,” Shaikh means the difference between the total profit (surplus value minus rent) and the rate of interest, divided by total advanced capital. This is absolutely correct.

But now we come to the devastating weakness of Shaikh’s analysis. Shaikh refers not to the net rate of profit but the real net rate of profit. “Real” refers to the use value of commodities as opposed to their value—embodied abstract human labor—and the form this value must take—money value. While real wages—wages in terms of use values—are what interest workers, the capitalists are interested in profit, which must always consist of and be expressed in the form of exchange value—monetary value (a sum of money).

In modern capitalism, as a practical matter the money that makes up net profit or profit as a whole consists of bank credit money convertible into state-issued legal-tender paper money that represents gold bullion. The fact that legal-tender paper money must represent gold bullion in circulation is an economic law, not a legal law. (More on this in next month’s post.) When Shaikh refers to real net profit, he does not refer to profit at all but rather to the portion of the surplus product that is purchased with the money that makes up the net profit.

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Prospects for the Economy Under Trump

January 1, 2017

This article will come in two parts. This month, I examine policies of the Federal Reserve and Trump’s domestic policies. Next month, I will end this series with an examination of Trump’s global economic policies.

The Federal Reserve and Donald Trump

On December 14, 2016, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee announced that it had finally decided to raise the federal funds rate—the rate that commercial banks, not the Fed itself, charge each other for overnight loans—by a quarter of one percent. Instead of targeting a rate of 0.25 to 0.50 percent like it did between December 2015 and December 2016, its new target is 0.50 to 0.75 percent.

Since Trump’s victory on November 8, long-term interest rates have risen sharply. This combined with the decision of the Fed to finally nudge up the fed funds rate indicates that the money market has tightened since Trump’s election. In the course of the industrial cycle, once the money market starts to tighten it is only a matter of time before recession arrives. The recession marks the end of one industrial cycle and the beginning of the next.

As it became increasingly likely that Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, the Fed put on hold its earlier plans to raise the fed funds rate multiple times in the course of 2016. The normal practice is for the Federal Reserve System to raise the fed funds rate repeatedly in the later stages of the industrial cycle. Indeed, this is central banking 101. These policies are designed to hold in check credit-fueled “over-trading” (overproduction), as well as stock market, land and primary-commodity speculation that can end in a crash with nasty consequences.

If the central bank resists raising interest rates too long by flooding the banking system with newly created currency, this leads sooner or later to a run on the currency, which is what happened in the 1970s. The result back then was stagflation and deep recessions with interest rates eventually rising into the double digits, which effectively wiped out the profit of enterprise—defined as the difference between the total profit and the rate of interest. At the end of the stagflation in the early 1980s came the explosion of credit, sometimes called “financialization,” the aftereffects of which are still with us today.

Under the present dollar-centered international monetary system, the repeated failure of the Federal Reserve System to push up interest rates would lead to the collapse of the U.S. dollar and the dollar system. The inevitable result would be a financial crash and thus the military and political crash of the U.S. world empire, which has held the capitalist world together since 1945.

In this cycle, however, the Federal Reserve waited more than eight years after the outbreak of the crisis in August 2007 before it began to push up the federal funds rate. The reason for the prolonged delay is that the current U.S. economic expansion, which began in 2009—representing the rising phase of the current industrial cycle—has been the slowest on record.

During this extraordinarily feeble expansion, the U.S. GDP has grown, with some fluctuations, at a rate of only about 2 percent a year. This performance contrasts sharply with the double-digit U.S. GDP rates of growth that occurred during the expansion of 1933-1937 and again after the severe but brief recession of 1937-1938 during the Great Depression. Far more than in the 1930s, the current era has been marked by “secular stagnation” in the U.S. as well as Europe and Japan.

Beginning with the panic that broke out with the failure of the giant Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, the Federal Reserve engineered an explosion in the dollar-denominated monetary base designed to stave off a new super-crisis that could have been much worse than the one in 1929-1933. This effort succeeded in preventing the crisis from reaching the extremes the earlier super-crisis did in most countries—but not all. For example, the crisis/depression that began in the U.S. in 2007 has been far worse in Greece than the crisis of the 1930s was in that country. But even in countries where a full-scale repeat of the 1930s Depression was avoided, the post-crisis stagnation has been far more stubborn than anything seen in the 1930s.

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Can Trump Become the Next U.S. President?

March 27, 2016

In the “super-Tuesday” primaries held March 15, Donald Trump solidified his lead in the struggle for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. He knocked right-wing Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida out of the race.

Rubio had been considered one the best hopes of the pro-Wall Street establishment Republicans in their increasingly desperate struggle to stop Trump. The only bright spot for the Republican leadership was that John Kasich, the establishment Republican governor of rust-belt state Ohio defeated Trump in that state’s primary.

However, Kasich has few delegates pledged to him. In normal circumstances, that would mean that he would have virtually no chance of winning the nomination for the presidency. He would simply be a “favorite son” candidate who would be expected to release his delegates to vote for the eventual winner. At most, Kasich might hope to win the vice-presidential nomination.

The super-Tuesday results barely keep alive the hopes of the Republican leadership that Trump might still be denied enough delegates to clinch the nomination before the Republican convention to be held this coming July in Cleveland, Ohio. If this proves to be the case, there remains the possibility a majority of delegates might be scraped together to nominate a more traditional Republican for president, but who that might be is anybody’s guess at this point.

The only other Republican besides Trump and Kasich still officially in the race is Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz mixes extreme “neo-liberal” economics with an appeal to the religious fanaticism of the so-called Christian Right. His colleagues in Republican Party leading circles consider him personally obnoxious. They also fear that he is likely to lose big time in November to the presumed Democratic nominee, Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton, due to his neo-liberalism combined with his support of extreme sectarian Protestant Christian religious fundamentalism.

While it is possible that Trump has considerable support among the coupon clippers in the country club locker rooms—I don’t know, since I don’t personally move in these circles—serious political strategists of the U.S. ruling class, whether Democrat or Republican—what Marx called the “political bourgeoisie“—consider Trump completely unqualified to assume the U.S. presidency. This is not because they doubt Trump’s loyalty to the capitalist system. On the contrary, Trump is a multi-billionaire and therefore has a personal stake in the survival of capitalism greater than all but a handful of his fellow billionaires.

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Big Challenges Facing Janet Yellen

February 23, 2014

Yellen testifies

Janet Yellen gave her first report to the House Financial Services Committee since she became chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board in January. In the wake of the 2008 panic, her predecessor Ben Bernanke had indicated that “the Fed” would keep the federal funds rate—the interest rate commercial banks in the U.S. charge one another for overnight loans—at near zero until the unemployment rate, as calculated by the U.S. Labor Department, fell to 6.5 percent from over 10 percent near the bottom of the crisis in 2009.

However, the Labor Department’s unemployment rate has fallen much faster than most economists expected and is now at “only” 6.6 percent. With the U.S. Labor Department reporting almost monthly declines, it is quite possible that the official unemployment rate will fall to or below 6.5 percent as early as next month’s report.

But there is a catch that the Fed is well aware of. The unexpectedly rapid fall in the official unemployment rate reflects the fact that millions of workers have given up looking for jobs. In effect, what began as a cyclical crisis of short-term mass unemployment has grown into a much more serious crisis of long-term unemployment. As far as the U.S. Labor Department is concerned, when it comes to calculating the unemployment rate these millions might just as well have vanished from the face of the earth.

In reality, the economic recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” has been far weaker than the vast majority of economists had expected. Indeed, a strong case can be made that both in the U.S. and on a world scale—including imperialist countries, developing countries and the ex-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as oppressed countries still bearing the marks of their pre-capitalist past—the current recovery is the weakest in the history of capitalist industrial cycles.

The continued stagnation of the U.S. economy six and a half years since the outbreak of the last crisis has just been underlined by a series of weak reports on employment growth and industrial production. For example, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, U.S. industrial production as a whole declined 0.3 percent in January, while manufacturing, the heart of industrial production, declined by 0.8 percent.

Yellen, as the serious-minded policymaker she undoubtedly is, is well aware of these facts. She told the House committee:”The unemployment rate is still well above levels that Federal Open Market Committee participants estimate is consistent with maximum sustainable employment. Those out of a job for more than six months continue to make up an unusually large fraction of the unemployed, and the number of people who are working part time but would prefer a full-time job remains very high.”

Over the last several months, the growth of employment, which serious economists consider far more meaningful than the the U.S. Labor Department’s “unemployment rate,” has been far below expectations.

Bad weather

Most Wall Street economists are sticking to the line that the recent string of weak figures on employment growth and industrial production reflect bad weather. The eastern U.S. has experienced extreme cold and frequent storms this winter, though the U.S. West has enjoyed unseasonable warmth and a lack of the usual Pacific storms, resulting in a serious drought in California. So it is possible that bad weather has put a kink in employment growth and industrial production.

But there is also concern—clearly shared by the new U.S. Fed chairperson, notwithstanding rosy capitalist optimism maintained by the cheerleaders that pass for economic writers of the Associated Press and Reuters—that the current global upswing in the industrial cycle has failed to gain anything like the momentum to be expected six years after the outbreak of the preceding crisis.

Two ruling-class approaches

This growing “secular stagnation”–lingering mass unemployment between recessions—has produced a growing split among capitalist economists and writers for the financial press. One school of thought is alarmed by continued high unemployment and underemployment. This school thinks that the government and Federal Reserve System—which, remember, functions not only as the central bank of the U.S. but also of the world under the current dollar-centered international monetary system—should continue to search for ways to improve the situation. Another school of thought, however, believes that all that has to be done is to declare the arrival of “full employment” and prosperity.

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