Archive for the ‘Transformation Problem’ Category

Change of Guard at the Fed, the Specter of ‘Secular Stagnation,’ and Some Questions of Monetary Theory

December 22, 2013

Ben Bernanke will not seek a third term as chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – “the Fed.” President Obama has nominated, and the U.S. Senate is expected to formally approve, economist Janet Yellen as his successor. The Federal Reserve Board is a government body that controls the operation of the U.S Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed” lies at the heart of the U.S. central banking system, which under the dollar standard is in effect the central bank of the entire world.

A professional central banker

Janet Yellen is currently vice-chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. She has also served as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers. She headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks within the Federal Reserve System. If there is such a thing as a professional central banker, Yellen is it.

Yellen will be the first woman to serve as head of the Federal Reserve Board and will hold the most powerful position within the U.S. government ever held by a woman. Yellen’s appointment therefore reflects gains for women’s equality that have been made since the modern women’s liberation movement began around 1969.

Like other social movements that emerged out of the 1960s radicalization, the modern women’s liberation movement began on the radical left. The very name of the movement was inspired by the name of the main resistance organization fighting U.S. imperialism in Vietnam – the National Liberation Front. However, as a veteran bourgeois economist and a long-time major policymaker in the U.S. government, Yellen would not be expected to have much sympathy for the 20th-century revolutions and movements that made her appointment even a remote possibility.

Significantly, Yellen was appointed only after Lawrence Summers, considered like Yellen a major (bourgeois) economist and said to be the favorite of the Obama administration to succeed Bernanke, announced his withdrawal from contention. Summers became notorious when as president of Harvard University he expressed the opinion that women are not well represented in engineering and the sciences because of mental limitations rooted in biology.

Summers was obliged to resign as president of Harvard, and his anti-woman remarks undoubtedly played a role in his failure to win enough support to be appointed Fed chairman. In addition, Summers attacked the African American Professor Cornell West for his work on Black culture and his alleged “grade inflation,” causing West to leave Harvard. This hardly made Summers popular in the African American community. His nomination would therefore have produced serious strains in the Democratic Coalition, so Summers was obliged to withdraw.

Ben Bernanke like Yellen is considered a distinguished (bourgeois) economist. He had devoted his professional life to exploring the causes of the Great Depression, much like Yellen has. Essentially, Bernanke attempted to prove that the Depression was caused by faulty policies of the Federal Reserve System and the government, and not by contradictions inherent in capitalist production – such as, for example, periodic crises of overproduction. Bernanke denied that overproduction was the cause of the Depression.

Like Milton Friedman, Bernanke blamed the Depression on the failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent a contraction of money and credit. Bernanke put the emphasis on credit, while Friedman put the emphasis on the money supply. Blaming crises on currency and credit, according to Marx, is the most shallow and superficial crisis theory of all.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 1

July 7, 2013

The April 2013 edition of Monthly Review published an article entitled “Crisis Theory, the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall, and Marx’s Studies in the 1870s” by German Marxist Michael Heinrich. This is the same issue that published John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy,” which I examined the month before last.

Michael Heinrich teaches economics in Berlin and is the managing editor of “PROKLA A Journal for Critical Science.” His “new reading” of Marx apparently dominates the study of Marx in German universities.

The publication of Heinrich’s article brought about a wave of criticisms on the Internet from Marxists such as Michael Roberts who base their crisis theory precisely on Marx’s law of the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” or TRPF for short.

Today on the Internet, partisans of two main theories of capitalist crisis—or capitalist stagnation—are struggling with one another. One theory attributes crisis/stagnation to Marx’s law of the TRPF that Marx developed in “Capital” Volume III. The rival theory is associated with the Monthly Review school, which is strongly influenced by John Maynard Keynes and even more by Michael Kalecki. Unlike the supporters of a falling rate of profit theory of crisis, the Monthly Review school, like Kalecki, puts the question of monopoly and monetarily effective demand at the center of its explanation of capitalist crisis/stagnation.

In addition to publishing Heinrich’s attempt to prove that there is in fact no tendency for the rate of profit to fall, Monthly Review Press published an English translation of Heinrich’s “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital,” originally published in German under the title (in English) “Critique of Political Economy—an Introduction.”

Is Michael Heinrich a new recruit to the Monthly Review school? In fact, we will see later that the Monthly Review school and Heinrich have radically different views on the questions of capitalist monopoly and imperialism. So at this point, it is more a question of an “alliance” between the Monthly Review school and Heinrich’s “new reading of Marx” trend against the TRPF school, whose leading academic representative today is Andrew Kliman, a professor of economics at Pace University.

The first thing I must say about Heinrich is that it is clear that he knows his Marx at least as well as any writer whose works have been published in English. He is also a remarkably clear writer. This reflects the fact that he has thoroughly mastered his material. This does not mean that Heinrich agrees with Marx on all questions. Indeed, Heinrich is more than willing to express his disagreements with Marx. And as we will see, Heinrich disagrees with Marx on some very important issues.

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Reply to Comments by Andrew Kliman and Doug Henwood

May 13, 2012

Andrew’s comments to my extended review of the “The Failure of Capitalist Production” has clarified both the points of agreement and the differences that exist between us in the field of Marxist economics.

First, the agreements. We both agree that the Keynesian-Marxism of the Monthly Review school as it stands is inadequate both as an analysis of monopoly capitalism and as a response to the current historic crisis of the capitalist system that began with the onset of the “Great Recession” in 2007.

We also agree as against Sweezy and Monthly Review that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is necessary both to understand the laws of motion of the capitalist system and the problem of capitalist crisis. We agree that Marx and not Keynes provides the answers.

We also agree that the “neo-Ricardian” claim that there are basic inconsistencies in Marx’s theory is value is incorrect. We both uphold Marx’s law of labor value.

We have important differences, however, on our interpretation of Marx’s law of value. I believe that Marx’s law of labor value requires the existence of commodity money, notwithstanding the end of the gold standard at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Andrew disagrees. This difference of opinion affects both our interpretation of capitalist crises and our approach to the transformation problem.

In addition, I think there are some misunderstandings on Andrew’s part on what defines a capitalist that should be clarified. In addition, I need to say a little more on the evolution of the rate of surplus value since the end of the post-World II prosperity 40 years ago.

Despite my differences with Andrew, I want to stress what I said at the beginning of this extended review. I liked “The Failure of Capitalist Production” and recommend it to all serious students of the Marxist critique of political economy and students of the present extended economic crisis of capitalism, which is increasingly becoming a grave political crisis—as the recent elections in France and especially Greece reveal.

I also found Doug Henwood’s remarks to be useful as well, since it sheds light on my critique of the attempts to mix Marx and Keynes.

I must stress that the aim of this blog is not to destroy or crush other Marxists with whom I disagree on one and other point, but to advance Marxist economic science in order to get nearer to the truth.

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‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 2

March 18, 2012

Measuring the mass and rate of profit

As Andrew Kliman correctly emphasizes, the rate of profit is the most important economic variable under the capitalist mode of production. Capitalist production is production for profit and only for profit.

But exactly how do we define profit, and in what medium is profit measured? As we will see, there is no general agreement among present-day Marxists on exactly what profit is and how it should be measured. And if we lack a precise definition of profit, we will obviously have difficulties in understanding the significance of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the role that this historical tendency plays in real-world capitalist economic crises.

Should we use historical or current prices in calculating the rate and mass of profit?

Kliman strongly supports the use of historical prices rather than current prices to measure the rate of profit. But other Marxists believe that profits are more meaningfully measured in terms of current prices, or what comes to the same thing, replacement costs.

Suppose after an industrial capitalist has purchased the means of production that are necessary for him to carry out the production of his commodity, a sharp fall in prices of the means of production occurs. If we measure profits in terms of historical prices, we may find that our industrial capitalist has not made a profit at all but rather a loss.

However, since the purchasing power of money has risen relative to the means of production used by our capitalist, he will be able to purchase a greater quantity of the means of production than before. Therefore, in real terms he will be able to carry out production on an expanded scale. In that case, hasn’t our capitalist made a profit after all?

Suppose the fall in the level of prices reflects a fall in labor values of the commodities that make up the means of production. In terms of value—abstract human labor embodied in commodities measured in terms of time—he will be in possession of less value than when he started. In value terms, he will have made a loss, but in terms of material use values he will have made a profit.

As we know, capitalists are forced under the pressure of competition among themselves to maximize their accumulation of capital and not means of personal consumption, nor in terms of means of production used to produce means of personal consumption. Instead, each individual capitalist, according to Marx, is forced to maximize the accumulation of capital in terms of value.

Therefore, if an industrial capitalist is losing wealth as measured in value terms, won’t he be losing capital, not accumulating it? And if this continues, won’t he lose all his capital? That is, at a certain point won’t he cease to be a capitalist? Kliman, if I understand him correctly, would strongly agree with this argument.

However, not all economists would agree. For example, the “neo-Ricardians”—or “physicalists” as Kliman likes to call them—claim that labor values have no relationship to prices. The physicalist economists therefore deny that labor value has any importance at all to the capitalist economy. According to these economists, the accumulation of capital cannot therefore be measured in terms of labor values; it must be measured in terms of the accumulation of material use values.

Our physicalists would argue—and the physicalists here include not only “neo-Ricardians” but economists of the neo-classical and Austrian persuasions—that once the effects of deflation—falling prices—have been taken into account, our industrial capitalist has indeed made a profit.

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Are Marx and Keynes Compatible? Pt 7

February 13, 2011

Last week, I examined the letter Baran sent to Sweezy in 1960 that dealt with the concept of the “economic surplus.” Over the next two weeks, I will examine the letter Sweezy sent to Baran dated September 25, 1962, which deals with monopoly, capitalist stagnation and Keynes.

Sweezy and stagnation

Sweezy described himself as a “stagnationist.” In his mature writings, he came to believe that the “default” condition of monopoly capitalism is a state of “stagnation.” But what exactly did Sweezy mean by “stagnation”? To understand what he meant, we have to understand the traditional marginalism that formed the starting point of Sweezy’s economic studies.

Marginalist, or “neoclassical,” economics claims that a capitalist economy has a strong tendency toward full employment of both the means of production and workers. Remember, the marginalists hold that, assuming there are no unions or social legislation, the capitalist economy will have as its normal condition a situation of full employment of both the means of production and workers.

When Sweezy began his economic studies at Harvard before both the New Deal and the rise of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), there was virtually no social legislation or social insurance of any kind in the United States. The union movement was very weak and, outside of mining, in basic large-scale industries was virtually nonexistent.

Therefore, according to marginalist theory the U.S. economy should have been very close to a situation of full employment of both the means of production and the workers. But in the early 1930s as Sweezy was studying economics at Harvard, the U.S. was facing an extreme crisis of mass unemployment. Clearly, there was something very wrong with the economics that Sweezy was learning.

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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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Andrew Kliman and the ‘Neo-Ricardian’ Attack on Marxism, Pt 2

August 29, 2010

Marx, Okishio and Kliman and the rate of profit

The more interesting part of Kliman’s book “Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’” is actually not his non-treatment of the transformation problem but rather his treatment of the laws that govern the rate of profit. Of special concern for Kliman is the so-called Okishio theorem, which supposedly refutes Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The Okishio theorem, which was clearly inspired by the “neo-Ricardians,” is named after the Japanese economist Nobuo Okishio, who developed it. Okishio began as a bourgeois marginalist mathematical economist but evolved toward Marx. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he seems to have fallen into the “neo-Ricardian” swamp, which the Japanese economist perhaps confused with Marxism—apologies to Ricardo, who developed the law of labor value as far as he could rather than scrap it like the misnamed “neo-Ricardians” have done.

According to the Okishio theorem, as long as the real wage remains unchanged it will never be in the interest of an individual capitalist to adopt a method of production that will cause the rate of profit to fall. Marx showed that the real wage—the use values of the commodities the workers buy with the money they receive in exchange for their labor power—is determined by what is necessary to reproduce their labor power.

Marx explained that the real wage consists of two fractions. One is an absolute minimum that is required to biologically reproduce the workers’ labor power. The real wage can never fall below this level for any prolonged period of time. If it did, the working class would die out and surplus value production would cease. The second fraction is the historical-moral component, which depends on the history of a given country and the course of the class struggle. The latter fraction of the real wage enables the workers to a certain extent to participate in the fruits of the development of civilization.

By contrast, Okishio assumed that the real wage of the workers would never change. Okishio then went on to prove mathematically that assuming this unchanged real wage it would never be in the interest of an individual capitalist to adopt a method of production that would actually lower the rate of profit. Assuming this unchanged real wage, the only innovations that would be adopted by the capitalists would be those that would raise the rate of profit.

Making these assumptions and using a “neo-Ricardian” model, Okishio drew the conclusion that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was internally inconsistent and therefore invalid. Okishio’s conclusion is very disturbing to Andrew Kliman, because Kliman’s theory of crises depends entirely on a falling rate of profit and not on the problem of realizing surplus value. Therefore, from Kliman’s point of view, if the Okishio theorem cannot be disproved, capitalism should be able, at least in theory, to develop without crises.

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Andrew Kliman and the ‘Neo-Ricardian’ Attack on Marxism, Pt 1

August 15, 2010

[The following is the first of a two-part reply to a reader’s question. Since the reply had to be broken into two parts due to its length, part 2 will be posted two weeks after this part appears. My plan is to return to a monthly schedule after that.]

A while back a reader asked what I thought about the work of Andrew Kliman. Kliman is the author of a book entitled “Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital,’” published in 2007. In this book, Kliman, a professor of economics at Pace University, attempts to answer the claims by the so-called “neo-Ricardian” economists that Marx’s “Capital” is internally inconsistent. According to the “neo-Ricardians,” Marx was not successful in his attempts to solve the internal contradictions of Ricardo’s law of labor value.

The modern “neo-Ricardian” school is largely inspired by the work of the Italian-British economist and Ricardo scholar Piero Saffra (1898-1983). But elements of the “neo-Ricardian” critique can be traced back to early 20th-century Russian economist V. K. Dmitriev. Other prominent economists and writers often associated with this school include the German Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz (1868-1931) and the British Ian Steedman.

The Japanese economist Nobuo Okishio (1927-2003), best known for the “Okishio theorem”—much more on this in the second part of this reply—evolved from marginalism to a form of “critical Marxism” that was strongly influenced by the “neo-Ricardian” school.

In the late 20th century, the most prominent “neo-Ricardian” was perhaps Britain’s Ian Steedman. While Sraffa centered his fire on neoclassical marginalism, Steedman has aimed his at Marx. His best-known work is “Marx after Sraffa.” The “neo-Ricardian” attack on Marx centers on the so-called transformation problem and the Okishio theorem.

The Okishio theorem allegedly disproves mathematically Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The transformation problem is more fundamental than the Okishio theorem, since it involves the truth or fallacy of the law of labor value itself. I will therefore deal with the transformation problem in the first part of this reply and the Okishio theorem in the second part. However, Andrew Kliman seems to be more interested in the Okishio theorem for reasons that will soon become clear.

I have already dealt with the transformation problem in an earlier reply. But here I will take another look at it in the light of Kliman’s work.

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Why Capitalism Requires Expanded Reproduction

July 18, 2010

A friend Nick wants to know why capitalism can only exist as expanded reproduction. In Volume II of “Capital,” Marx developed the diagrams for both simple and expanded reproduction. Why can’t capitalism function as a system of simple reproduction?

I examined the question of simple and expanded reproduction in my main posts, especially here and here. Here I want to focus on the question of why capitalism can’t exist as a system of simple reproduction. Didn’t Marx, after all, create a mathematical model that shows exactly how simple capitalist reproduction works? Yet in many places throughout “Capital,” Marx emphasized that capitalism can exist only as expanded reproduction.

Without going into detail, let’s review the basics of Marx’s diagrams of simple and expanded reproduction.

First, Marx assumed a pure capitalism. He was not interested in other modes of production such as simple commodity production that in the real world exist side by side with capitalist production.

Second, Marx was interested only in the two most economically important fractions of the two major classes in capitalist society. These are the industrial capitalists—defined as the capitalists who purchase the labor power of productive-of-surplus-value workers—on one side, and the industrial workers—the workers who produce surplus value—on the other. The non-industrial capitalists such as merchants and money capitalists and non-productive workers—workers who do not produce surplus value—play no role in the diagrams.

Simple reproduction

In Marx’s diagram, or mathematical model, of simple reproduction, the accumulation of capital is absent. The total social capital is simply conserved, not accumulated. All the surplus value produced by the working class is consumed in the form of items of personal consumption by the capitalist class. This consumption consists of what Marx called necessities, items that are also consumed by the working class, and luxury items that are consumed by the capitalist class alone.

The economy simply reproduces itself without any change. As machines are used up, they are replaced by identical machines. Raw materials and auxiliary materials that are consumed are replaced by identical raw and auxiliary materials. As workers die or retire, they are replaced by other workers with identical skills.

The market and the monetary system in Marx’s diagrams of reproduction

Many Marxists when they produce diagrams of simple reproduction—as well as expanded reproduction—simply leave out the question of money and the market. By leaving out money, they imply a system of barter where commodities exchange directly with commodities. They therefore build Says’s so-called law—that commodities are purchased by means of commodities, and therefore a general overproduction of commodities is impossible—right into the foundations of their model. Attempts to explain crises on the basis of mathematical models of either simple or expanded reproduction that leave out money are doomed to failure from the start.

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Productive Versus Unproductive Labor

May 9, 2010

Reader Mike Treen—who is a trade union leader in New Zealand—has some questions regarding what is and what is not productive labor. He gives specific examples, and asks whether the labor in question is productive or unproductive labor. I will examine his questions below.

First, I will begin with some general remarks.

The classical economists, Marx, and productive versus unproductive labor

The classical bourgeois political economists made a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Marx’s greatly improved theory of value and surplus value brings into crystal-clear focus what is meant by unproductive and productive labor under the capitalist mode of production.

What is the aim of capitalist production? It is the production of an ever greater mass of profit. But profit is only the money form of surplus value. Therefore, as far as the capitalist system is concerned, labor is only productive if it creates a surplus value. It is not enough that labor creates value—that is, abstract labor embodied in a material commodity or service—but rather in addition it must create a surplus value.

Marx’s criticism of Adam Smith

The classical economists considered the labor of personal servants to be unproductive in the capitalist sense—the only sense they were interested in. They were quite correct in this. But this caused Adam Smith, in Marx’s view, to make an incorrect generalization. Smith held that only labor that makes material commodities, as opposed to services, is productive labor.

Suppose that I am a rich man—it doesn’t matter whether I am a capitalist or a landlord—who decides to hire workers to produce a piece of furniture that I will use only as an article of personal consumption. In this case, even though the workers who I hire produce a material use value and perform surplus labor (labor over and above the value of their labor power), their labor will not take the form of value because the furniture will not be exchanged. It will never be sold on the market. Since no value is produced, no surplus value can be produced either. Therefore, the fact that the labor of the workers produces a tangible material use value does not make their labor productive in the capitalist sense of the word.

But what about the opposite situation? What happens if I as a theatre owner who runs my theatre as a profit-making enterprise hire an opera singer with the intention of her giving live performances that I allow only money-paying customers to attend? Is the labor of the opera singer productive in the capitalist sense? Does it produce surplus value?

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