Posts Tagged ‘economist paul sweezy’

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 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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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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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 2)

June 21, 2015

Recently, I have been looking at Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Piketty, a French bourgeois economist, created a sensation by pointing out that over the last 45 years a growing proportion of national income—wages plus surplus value in Marxist terms—has been going to profit at the expense of wages. Piketty is alarmed that if this trend isn’t reversed capitalism will be seriously destabilized.

The title of his book is, of course, inspired by Marx’s great work “Capital,” though it predictably rejects Marx’s anti-capitalist revolutionary conclusions. Naturally, I was interested in what Piketty had to say about Marx.

What I found striking was that Piketty did not understand Marx at all. The reason is that he views Marx through marginalist lenses. Essentially, Piketty treats Marx as a fellow marginalist. Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, so completely at odds with the marginalist theory of value and surplus value, is literally beyond Piketty’s comprehension.

In examining the current debate about “secular stagnation” among economists like Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, we must never forget how deep the gulf between their economic theories and Marxism really is. This is true even when their terminology is similar. This month, I will contrast the theories of two economists of the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes, regarding capitalist growth and stagnation. Both men were marginalists, even if not the most “orthodox” ones, and therefore had much more in common with each other than with Marx.

Next month, I will begin to contrast their views with Marx and the views I have been developing in this blog. (1) But before we reach the “Marxist mountains” we will have to slog through the plains of modern bourgeois economics. Only when we begin to ascend into the Marxist mountains will we be able to explore whether any of the ideas of Schumpeter can be integrated into Marxism. I have already dealt with Keynes quite extensively in this blog. (See, for example, six-part series beginning here.)

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) was the most famous marginalist economist to deal with the question of technological changes, or “innovation,” under capitalism. Schumpeter was an Austrian economist in the sense he came from Austria, though he spent his last years in the United States as a professor at Harvard University. He was certainly influenced by the “Austrian economists” as well as other schools of post-classical bourgeois economics current in his day. Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter preferred to communicate his ideas in natural language as opposed to mathematics.

Also like the Austrians, he was a hardcore supporter of capitalism, disliked “socialism”—proposals to reform capitalism in the interest of the workers—and was an opponent of the “Keynesian revolution” in bourgeois economic theory of the 1930s. He was what would be called today a “neo-liberal.” Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter took a dim view of democracy, which he was convinced would inevitably lead to socialism. Yet he was a friend of Paul Sweezy and therefore had a certain influence on the Monthly Review school.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’

May 24, 2015

A debate has broken out between economist Larry Summers (1954- ), who fears that the U.S. and world capitalist economies are stuck in an era of “secular stagnation” with no end in sight, and blogger Ben Bernanke (1953- ). Blogger Bernanke is, no less, the Ben Bernanke who headed the U.S. Federal Reserve Board between 2006 and 2014. Bernanke claims that the U.S. and world economies are simply dealing with lingering aftereffects of the 2007-2009 “Great Recession,” which broke out while he was head of the Federal Reserve System.

In effect, Bernanke is saying that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with capitalism and that healthy growth and “low unemployment and inflation” will return once the lingering aftereffects of the crisis are fully shaken off. Bernanke is, however, alarmed by the rapid growth of German exports and the growing share of the world market going to German industry.

Last year, we “celebrated” the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Bernanke’s concerns show that the economic fault lines that led to both World War I and II have not disappeared. Instead, they have been joined by new ones as more countries have become industrialized. And the prolonged period of slow growth—and in some countries virtually no growth—that has followed the Great Recession is once again sharpening them. Competition both among individual capitalists and between capitalist countries is much sharper when world markets are growing slowly. World War I itself broke out when the early 20th-century “boom” was running out of steam, while World War II broke out after a decade of the Depression.

The debate between Summers and Bernanke on secular stagnation has been joined by other eminent U.S. economists such as Joseph Stiglitz (1943- ) and Brad DeLong (1960- ). Summers, Stiglitz and DeLong are Keynesian-leaning economists, while Bernanke, a Republican, leans more in the direction of “neoliberalism,” though like most U.S. policymakers, he is thoroughly pragmatic.

The debate began with Summers’ speech to the IMF’s Fourteenth Annual Research Conference in Honor of Stanley Fisher. Summers noted that the panic of 2008 was “an event that in the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009 … appeared, by most of the statistics—GDP, industrial production, employment, world trade, the stock market—worse than the fall of 1929 and the winter of 1930. …”

At the very least, this was a major defeat for “stabilization policies” that were supposed to iron out the capitalist industrial cycle and abolish panics. But the problem extends far beyond the 2008 panic itself.

“… in the four years since financial normalization,” Summers observed, “the share of adults who are working has not increased at all and GDP has fallen further and further behind potential, as we would have defined it in the fall of 2009.”

The highly misleading unemployment rate calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor notwithstanding, there has been a massive growth in long-term unemployment in the U.S. in the wake of the crisis, as shown by the declining percentage of the U.S. population actually working.

In the days before the “Keynesian revolution” in the 1930s, the “classical” neoclassical marginalist economists, whose theories still form the bedrock of the economics taught in U.S. universities, were willing to concede that some “outside shock” to the economic system (for example, a major policy blunder by the central bank or a major harvest failure) might occasionally create a severe recession and considerable amount of “involuntary unemployment.” But these learned economists insisted that since a “free market economy” naturally tends toward an equilibrium with full employment of both workers and machines, the capitalist system should quickly return to “full employment” if a severe recession occurs.

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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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David Harvey, Michael Roberts, Michael Heinrich and the Crisis Theory Debate

February 1, 2015

Recently David Harvey, the well-known writer on Marxist economics, criticized Marxist economics blogger Michael Roberts’ views on crisis theory. According to Harvey, Roberts has a “monocausal” crisis theory. What Harvey objects to is Roberts’ emphasis on Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (FRP for short) as the underlying cause of capitalist crises.

Harvey goes further than simply criticizing Roberts’ FRP-centered crisis theory. He says that he is skeptical that a tendency of the rate of profit to fall even exists. He indicates that he agrees with the views of the German Marxist economist Michael Heinrich on the invalidity of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. Heinrich’s views are developed in “An Introduction of the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” (Monthly Review Press, 2004). He elaborated them in this article.

In this work, Heinrich tries to demonstrate that Marx himself in the final years of his life moved away from his own theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Heinrich holds that an examination of Marx’s manuscripts that form the basis of Volume III of “Capital” show that Marx had moved toward a theory of crises centered on credit. Heinrich accuses Frederick Engels of editing the manuscripts in such a way as to hide Marx’s alleged movement away from an FRP-centered theory of crises to a credit-centered theory of crises.

In his defense of the falling rate of profit school from the criticism leveled by Harvey, Roberts makes an indirect reference to this blog: “… recently, one Marxist economist from the overproduction school called me a monomaniac in my attachment to Marx’s law of profitability as the main/underlying cause of capitalist crises (see Mike Treen, national director of the New Zealand Unite Union, at the annual conference of the socialist organization Fightback, held in Wellington, May 31-June 1, 2014, and a seminar hosted by Socialist Aotearoa in Auckland in November 10, 2014 http://links.org.au/node/4156).”

Mike Treen, a New Zealand Marxist, is indeed an organizer of the New Zealand trade union Unite (not to be confused with the U.S. trade union of a similar name, UNITE HERE, which also organizes fast food and other low-wage workers). The “overproduction school” Roberts refers to is actually the position of this blog, of which Mike is an editor.

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (pt 2)

August 24, 2014

Wars rarely turn out the way their initiators expect. In our own time, we can point to many examples. George W. Bush and Tony Blair, when they ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, believed that the U.S.-British forces would defeat Iraq’s armed forces—weakened by years of sanctions, continued military attacks, and forced unilateral disarmament—within weeks with hardly any casualties on the side of the invaders. It would then be “mission accomplished.”

But now in August 2014—100 years to the month since the outbreak of the “Great War”—the U.S. has resumed bombing Iraq as the government it created crumbles. The reason this government is failing is that virtually no Iraqi wants to fight and die for it. Why should an Iraqi fight for a foreign-imposed government?

Nor should we forget the war against Afghanistan launched by the Washington war-makers in October 2001 against the Taliban government, which had no modern armed forces, only a militia. Within weeks, U.S. media were writing about that most unequal war in the past tense. But now, 13 years later, the U.S. is still struggling to find a way to exit that war without the return of the Taliban to power. That war didn’t turn out as the Washington war-makers expected either.

Nor has the air war fought by U.S-NATO against Libya in 2011 turned out the way the Obama administration, which launched that war, expected. And the same will probably be true of the most recent war—if it can even be called a war—launched by Israel, with at least the tacit support of the U.S., against the people of tiny Gaza, which has no army, air force or navy.

This August marks not only the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I but also the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident. If we were to believe the U.S. propaganda of the time, (North) Vietnam’s tiny navy attacked without any provocation the mightiest navy the world had ever seen! This “incident” occurred—or rather didn’t occur—on August 2, 1964, just two days short of the 50th anniversary of the start of the “Great War.”

The U.S. Congress used this faked incident to grant the Johnson administration cart blanche to wage war against Vietnam, which the administration took full advantage of by launching a series of bombing raids on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that August. This gave way to a steady air bombardment of (North) Vietnam—the South had been subject to steady U.S. bombardment for the preceding five years—the following year after Johnson won re-election as the “peace candidate.”

While the Washington war-makers succeeded in killing millions of Vietnamese people and doing incalculable damage to the environment with Agent Orange and other forms of environmental warfare, in the end the war against Vietnam did not turn out the way the war-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress expected. For example, the renaming of Saigon Ho Chi Minh City was probably not part of Washington’s war plans.

Nor did the war against Korea, which is usually seen as beginning in June 1950 but really began when Washington occupied the southern part of Korea in 1945, turn out exactly as the Washington war-makers intended, though they succeeded in killing millions of Korean people and left no multistory building standing in the northern part of the country.

The rule that wars seldom turn out the way those who start them expect was certainly true of the general European war that began exactly a century ago. To the generation that actually fought, it was known as the “Great War” or “the World War,” ”the war to make the world safe for democracy,” or, most ironic of all, “the war to end all wars.” But as a result of unintended consequences of the war, it had to undergo a name change. It was renamed World War I, a mere prelude to the even greater bloodbath of World War II.

‘Before the leaves fall’

When the general European war commenced on August 4, 1914, each warring imperialist power was convinced that it would be a short war and that it would emerge victorious. Or as was said, the war would be over “before the leaves fall.”

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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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Capitalism and ‘High Tech’

October 27, 2013

A reader has asked why many of the examples I have given are from the “high-tech” industry. Actually, there are good reasons to use examples from high tech to illustrate the laws that govern the capitalist economy.

Capitalist production develops unevenly, not only from country to country but from industry to industry. Marx makes clear in “Capital” that not all industries made the transition from handcraft to manufacture and from manufacture proper to “machinofacture” at the same time.

In the 19th century, what Marx and Engels called “modern industry” meant the industries that had adopted steam as their main source of motive power. By this definition, the textile industry, both spinning and weaving, was during the first three-quarters of the 19th century the most modern of modern industries. Consequently, in the early and middle 19th century—the time of Marx—the textile industry was the industry where the laws of motion of capitalism showed themselves most clearly. Understanding the development of the textile industry was (and is) crucial to understanding the politics of the 19th century.

The main center of textile production was in Britain, centered on the industrial city of of Manchester. Frederick Engels, Marx’s co-worker, worked there for many years managing his family’s textile factory. The main raw material for the 19th-century textile industry—cotton—was produced in the United States, not by wage labor but by the labor of African slaves.

During the 19th century, the U.S. was developing its own textile industry, based in the New England states, then the center of U.S. industry. Like the British textile industry, the U.S. textile industry was dependent on cotton produced by slave labor in the southern states of the U.S.

At the time of the American war of independence of 1775-1783, which represents the first phase of the U.S. bourgeois-democratic revolution, slavery, which existed in both southern and northern states, appeared to be dying out. But the invention of the cotton gin, combined with the dramatic rise of the steam-powered textile industry in both Britain and New England, gave a new lease on life to slavery in the southern states of the U.S.

The issue of whether the U.S. would be dominated by the free labor—wage labor—system or chattel slavery moved to the center of U.S. and even world politics, where it was to remain until it was finally resolved by force in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 and then the post-Civil War Reconstruction that ended in 1876.

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