Posts Tagged ‘economist John Maynard Keynes’

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 5)

March 24, 2019

Trump’s Islamophobic demagoguery and the New Zealand massacre

On March 15, the world was shocked when a far-right gunman killed 50 Muslim worshipers and injured many others at two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman hailed U.S. President Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” but complained that he is not a good “policymaker and leader.”

This fascist terrorist mass murderer put his finger on the relationship between “Trumpism” and the growing fascist “white nationalist” movement, which if it should win state power in a major imperialist country would put in the shade the crimes of its 20th-century predecessor.

Trump lacks a mass movement organized not only as a political party but as a mass armed militia based on middle-class youth driven to desperation by a crisis of monopoly capitalism. Such a movement, once it reaches a certain degree of development, is capable of launching a civil war against the organized workers’ movement and its allies as well as “racial” and religious minorities of all classes. Once a fascist movement becomes powerful enough to wage a civil war, it always does so in the interest of its finance-capital masters. From the viewpoint of today’s fascists, since Trumpism is only preparing the way for the real thing, Trump falls short as a “policymaker and leader.”

But Trump is preparing the way for 21st-century fascism through his role as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” not only in the U.S. but in all the imperialist countries. Our hearts must go out to the victims of this unspeakable crime, casualties of Trump’s racism and the capitalist system that breeds it.

We must fight Trumpism and all it stands for with all our strength. But to do this effectively, we must also fight the Party of (the current imperialist world) Order, which is doing all it can to cripple the fight against Trumpism by usurping the leadership of the “resistance” to Trump from within.

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The Current U.S. Economic Boom in Historical Perspective (Pt 2)

May 6, 2018

Trump’s attempts to reverse the decline of U.S. capitalism

In April 2018, the U.S. political world was shaken by the news that Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand/Austrian school-inspired Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, would not be running for re-election in this year’s mid-term race. Ryan claimed he was retiring at the age of 48 from politics “to spend more time with my family.”

It is widely believed, however, that Ryan is retiring from Congress because he fears a humiliating defeat at the hands of his Democratic Party opponent, the construction worker, trade unionist, and “Berniecrat” Randy Bryce. Over the last year, many of Ryan’s constituents were no doubt shocked to learn that their handsome, genial congressperson wanted to take away their health insurance.

It seems likely that Ryan, who is believed to harbor presidential ambitions, plans to lie low, make lots of money in the private sector, and count on the public forgetting (with the assistance of the mass media) about his attempt to throw tens of millions of people off their health insurance. At a later day, Ryan will be poised to reenter electoral politics and ride a new Republican wave, perhaps all the way to the White House.

But how could there be another Republican wave in the aftermath of the ever-growing debacle of the Trump presidency and the self-exposure of the Republican Party on the health insurance issue? To assume that a Republican comeback is impossible, would be to ignore the lessons of the last great “progressive” victory in U.S. politics—the election in November 2008 that brought into the White House the first African-American president, combined with solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. However, at the end of Obama’s triumph lurked the racist Donald Trump, backed by Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House.

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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 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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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 6)

May 21, 2017

Shaikh’s theory of money

Shaikh deals with money in two chapters—one near the beginning of “Capitalism” and one near the end. The first is Chapter 5, “Exchange, Money, and Price.” The other is Chapter 15, “Modern Money and Inflation.” In this post, I will concentrate on Shaikh’s presentation in Chapter 5. In Chapter 15, Shaikh deals with what he terms “modern money.” I will deal with his presentation in this chapter when I deal with Shaikh’s theory of inflation crises that is developed in the last part of “Capitalism.”

In Chapter 5, Shaikh lists three functions of money—considerably fewer than Marx does. The three functions, according to Shaikh, are (1) money as a medium of pricing (p. 183), (2) money as a medium of circulation, and (3) money as a medium of safety. Shaikh deals with money’s function as a means of payment under its role as a means of circulation. The problem with doing this is that money’s role as a means of payment is by no means identical to its role as a means of circulation and should have been dealt with separately.

Anybody who has studied seriously the first three chapters of “Capital” Volume I will be struck by how radically improvised Shaikh’s presentation here is compared to that of Marx. It is in the first three chapters of “Capital” that Marx develops his theory of value, exchange value as the necessary form of value, and money as the highest form of exchange value. He does this before he deals with capital. Indeed, Marx had to, since the commodity and its independent value form, money, is absolutely vital to Marx’s whole analysis of capital.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 5)

April 23, 2017

Shaikh’s wrong theory of interest rates

“The interest rate is the price of finance,” Shaikh writes at the beginning of Chapter 10, “Competition, Finance, and Interest Rates.” Shaikh treats the rate of interest as fluctuating around the price of production of the “provision of finance.” Late in Chapter 10, Shaikh indicates he was confused on this subject in the 1970s and the early 1980s but brought to his current views by the Sraffrian-neo-Ricardian Italian economist Carlo Panico. Is this the correct approach to ascertaining what actually determines the rate(s) of interest? I believe it is not.

Do interest rates really fluctuate around a “price” of the provision of finance the way market prices fluctuate around prices of production? Strictly speaking, price is the value of one commodity measured in terms of the use value of the commodity that serves as the universal equivalent—money. According to this definition, interest rates are not prices at all.

It is true that we often use price in a looser sense. For example, we talk about the prices of securities that are in reality legal documents that entitle their owners to flows of income. Another example is the price of unimproved land whose owners hold titles to flows of ground rent. It would be absurd to talk about the price of production of unimproved land if only because unimproved land is a form of wealth produced by nature and not by human labor.

Some other ‘non-price’ prices

Another example of a price that is not a real price is the dollar “price” of gold. This very important economic variable is not really a price at all but instead measures the amount of gold that a dollar represents at any moment. Other examples of “non-price” prices are the “price” of one currency in terms of another—exchange rates—and the price of politicians.

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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 3)

February 26, 2017

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, combined with the rise of similar right-wing demagogues in Europe, has prompted a discussion about the cause of the decline in the number of relatively high-wage, “middle-class,” unionized industrial jobs in the imperialist core countries. One view blames globalization and bad trade deals. The European Union, successor to the (West) European Common Market of the 1960s; the North American Free Trade Area; and the now aborted Trans Pacific Partnership have gotten much of the blame for the long-term jobs crisis.

This position gets support not only from President Trump and his right-hand man Steve Bannon and their European counterparts on the far right but also much of the trade-union leadership and the “progressive” and even socialist left. The solution to the problems caused by disappearing high-paid jobs in industry, according to economic nationalists of both right and left, is to retreat from the global market back into the safe cocoon of the nation-state. Economic nationalists insist that to the extent that world trade cannot be entirely abandoned, trade deals must be renegotiated to safeguard the jobs of “our workers.”

Most professional economists have a completely different explanation for the jobs crisis. They argue that changes in technology, especially the rapid growth of artificial intelligence in general and machine-learning in particular, is making human labor increasingly unnecessary in both industrial production and the service sector. Last year—though it now seems like centuries ago—when I was talking with one of this blog’s editors about possible new topics for future blogs, a suggestion was made that I take up a warning by the famous British physicist Stephan Hawking that recent gains in artificial intelligence will create a massive jobs crisis. This is a good place to examine some of the subject matter that might have been in that blog post if Brexit and Donald Trump had been defeated as expected and the first months of the Hillary Clinton administration had turned out to be a slow news period.

It is a fact that over the last 40 years computers and computer-controlled machines—robots—have increasingly ousted workers from factories and mines. The growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning is giving the “workers of the brain” a run for their money as well. This has already happened big time on Wall Street, where specially programmed computers have largely replaced humans on the trading floors of the big Wall Street banks. No human trader can possibly keep up with computers that can run a complex algorithm and execute trades based on the results of the computation in a fraction of a second.

Wall Street traders are not the only workers of the brain whose jobs are endangered by the further development of AI. Among these workers are the computer programmers themselves. According to an article by Matt Reynolds that appeared in the February 22, 2017, edition of the New Scientist, Microsoft and Cambridge University in the UK have developed a program that can write simple computer programs.

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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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Three Books on Marxist Political Economy

October 9, 2016

The year 2016 will be remembered for an exceptionally toxic U.S. election cycle. More positively, it will also be remembered for a series of new books on Marxist political economy. Among these, two stand out. Oxford University Press published “Capitalism, Competition and Crises” by Professor Anwar Shaikh of the New School. Monthly Review Press published John Smith’s “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.” Smith, unlike Shaikh, has spent most of his adult life as a political activist and trade unionist in Britain.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital.” Monthly Review writers, led by editor John Bellamy Foster, treat this book as a modern-day classic playing the role for monopoly capitalism that Karl Marx’s “Capital” played for classical competitive capitalism. Monthly Review magazine devoted its special two-month summer edition to marking the anniversary.

Shaikh’s “Capitalism,” published 50 years after “Monopoly Capital,” can be viewed, at least in part, as the “anti-Monopoly Capital.” In sharp contrast to the Monthly Review school, Shaikh has held throughout his career that the basic laws of motion governing today’s capitalist economy are the same as those that governed the capitalism of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Marx. This is what Shaikh attempts to prove in his “Capitalism” and what Baran and Sweezy denied. We can expect that Shaikh’s “Capitalism” and Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” will be dueling it out in the years to come.

Monopoly stage of capitalism, reality or myth?

Shaikh rejects the idea that there is a monopoly stage of capitalism that succeeded an earlier stage of competitive capitalism. He rejects Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which Lenin summed up as the monopoly stage of capitalism. According to Shaikh, the basic mistake advocates of this view make is to confuse real competition with “perfect competition.”

Real competition, according to Shaikh, is what exists in real-world capitalism. This was the competition Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo and Marx meant when they wrote about capitalist “free competition.” The concept of perfect competition that according to Shaikh is taught in university microeconomic courses is a fiction created by post-classical bourgeois marginalist economists. Nothing, according to him, even approximating perfect competition ever existed or could have existed during any stage in the development of capitalist production.

In this month’s post, I will take another look at Baran and Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital” and contrast it with Shaikh’s “Capitalism.” I will hold off on reviewing John Smith’s book, since his book is in the tradition of Lenin’s “Imperialism” published exactly 100 years ago, which Shaikh considers severely flawed. There are other important books on Marxist economics that have recently been published, and I hope to get to them next year, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

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