Posts Tagged ‘Monthly Review school’

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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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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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 3

September 1, 2013

In this month’s post, I will take a look at Heinrich’s views on value, money and price. As regular readers of this blog should realize by now, the theory of value, money and price has big implications for crisis theory.

As we have seen, present-day crisis theory is divided into two main camps. One camp emphasizes the production of surplus value. This school—largely inspired by the work of Polish-born economist Henryk Grossman, and whose most distinguished present-day leader is Professor Andrew Kliman of Pace University—holds that the basic cause of crises is that periodically an insufficient amount of surplus value is produced. The result is a rate of profit too low for the capitalists to maintain a level of investment sufficient to prevent a crisis.

From the viewpoint of this school, a lack of demand is a secondary effect of the crisis but by no means the cause. If the capitalists find a way to increase the production of surplus value sufficiently, investment will rise and demand problems will go away. Heinrich, who claims there is no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is therefore anathema to this tendency of Marxist thought.

The other main school of crisis theory puts the emphasis on the problem of the realization of surplus value. This tendency is dominated by the Monthly Review school, named after the magazine founded by U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy and now led by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

The Monthly Review school roots the tendency toward crises/stagnation not in the production of surplus value like the Grossman-Kliman school but rather in the realization of surplus value. The analysis of this school is based largely on the work of the purely bourgeois English economist John Maynard Keynes, the moderate Polish-born socialist economist Michael Kalecki, and the radical U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy.

Kalecki’s views on markets were similar to those of Keynes. Indeed, it is often said that Kalecki invented “Keynesian theory” independently and prior to Keynes himself—with one exception. Kalecki, like the rest of the Monthly Review school, puts great emphasis on what he called the “degree of monopoly.” In contrast, Keynes completely ignored the problem of monopoly.

Needed, a Marxist law of markets

A real theory of the market is necessary, in my opinion, for a complete theory of crises. Engels indicated in his work “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” that under capitalism the growth of the market is governed by “quite different laws” than govern the growth of production, and that the laws governing the growth of the market operate “far less energetically” than the laws that govern the growth of production. The result is the crises of overproduction that in the long run keep the growth of production within the limits of the market.

This, however, is not a complete crisis theory, because Engels did not explain exactly what the laws are that govern the growth of the market. Unfortunately, leaving aside hints found in Marx’s writings, Marxists—with the exception of Paul Sweezy—have largely ignored the laws that govern the growth of the market. This, I think, would be a legitimate criticism of what Heinrich calls “world view Marxism.” As a result, the theory of what does govern the growth of the market has been left to the anti-Marxist Keynes, the questionably Marxist Kalecki and the strongly Keynes- and Kalecki-influenced Sweezy.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 2

August 4, 2013

In this post, I examine two questions: One is whether Heinrich’s critique of Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—TRPF—is valid. After that, I will examine Heinrich’s claim that Marx had actually abandoned, or was moving toward abandoning, his theory of the TRPF.

The determination of the rate of profit

If we assume the turnover period of variable capital is given and assume no realization difficulties—all commodities that are produced are sold at their prices of production—the rate of profit will depend on two variables. One is the rate of surplus value—the ratio of unpaid to paid labor. This can be represented algebraically by the expression s/v. The other variable is the ratio of constant to variable capital, or c/v—what Marx called the composition of capital.

Composition of capital versus organic composition of capital

The composition of capital will change if wages, measured in terms of values—quantities of abstract labor measured in some unit of time—changes. For example, if wages fall in terms of value, everything else remaining unchanged, there will be relatively more constant capital and less variable capital than before. The composition of capital c/v will have risen.

However, though less variable capital relative to constant capital will have been used than before, a given quantity of variable capital will now produce more surplus value. All else remaining equal, a rise in the composition of capital produced by a fall in the value of the variable capital will result in a rise in the rate of profit.

Suppose, however, that the capitalists replace some of their variable capital—workers—with machines. Remember, we are measuring the machines here in terms only of their value. Here, in contrast to the first case, we assume the value of variable capital and the rate of surplus value s/v remains unchanged.

Now, more of the total productive capital will consist of constant capital, which produces no surplus value, and less will consist of variable capital, which does produce surplus value. Since here, unlike in the first example, the rate of surplus value has remained unchanged, the fall in the portion of the capital that produces surplus value will produce a fall in the rate of profit.

In order to differentiate between these two very different cases, which produce opposite effects on the rate of profit, Marx called a rise in the composition of capital produced by a rise in the use of machinery a rise in the organic composition of capital.

Capitalist competition forces the individual industrial capitalists to do all they can to lower the cost price of the commodities they produce. The term cost price refers the cost to the industrial capitalist of producing a given commodity, not the cost to society of producing it. (1) The cost price represents the amount of (abstract) labor that the industrial capitalists actually pay for. It is in the interest of the industrial capitalists to reduce as much as possible the amount of labor that they pay for while increasing as much as possible the amount of the labor that the industrial capitalists do not pay for—surplus value.

The cost price of the commodity is, therefore, the capital—constant plus variable—that industrial capitalists must productively consume to produce a given commodity of a given use value and quality.

As capitalism develops, the amount of capital that is used to produce a given commodity of a given use value and quality progressively declines. But capitalist production is a process of the accumulation of capital. Leaving aside temporary crises, the quantity of capital defined in terms of value must progressively increase over the life span of the capitalist mode of production.

Therefore, the fall in the capital used to produce the individual commodities must be compensated for by a rise in the total quantity of commodities produced if the value of total social capital is to grow. Outside of crises and a war economy, the history of capitalist production sees a continuous rise in the total quantity of commodities produced. This is why the capitalists must find new markets or enlarge old ones if capitalism is to continue. Contrary to Say’s Law, the increase in commodity production does not necessarily equal an increase in markets.

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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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John Bellamy Foster’s Latest Attempt To Reconcile Marx and Kalecki

May 12, 2013

In the “Review of the Month,” entitled “Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy,” in the April 2013 edition of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster once again attempts to show that the views of economist Michal Kalecki (1899-1970) are fully compatible with Marx. Foster even quotes Marx’s “Value, Price and Profit” to show that Marx agreed with Kalecki—and Keynes—that higher wages lead to higher prices.

Foster writes, “Although a general rise in the money-wage level, Marx indicated, would lead to a decrease in the profit share, the economic effect would be minor since capitalists would be enabled to raise prices ‘by the increased demand.’”

Foster’s promotion of the theory that higher money wages cause prices to rise is so out of line with Marx’s whole body of work in general and “Value, Price and Profit” in particular that I could not let it pass without comment.

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The September 2012 Unemployment Numbers and the ‘Surplus Population’

October 28, 2012

This post concentrates on the U.S. economy. However, the basic trends are the same in all imperialist countries.

On October 5, the U.S. Labor Department issued its monthly estimate of unemployment for September 2012. Much to the surprise of most observers, the figures showed a drop of unemployment from 8.1 to 7.8 percent. For the first time in 44 months, unemployment dropped below the psychologically significant level of 8 percent.

The reported drop in unemployment gave a much needed shot in the arm for the Obama reelection campaign, which had been reeling in the wake of the president’s poor performance in his first debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. As could be expected, Democrats were delighted by the unemployment report, which at first glance seemed to indicate that the lagging recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” was finally gaining momentum.

Republicans, on the other hand, were disappointed, and some could hardly hide their anger. Jack Welch, the former head of the General Electric Company and a staunch Republican, infamous for his “downsizing” and layoffs when he was head of GE, even hinted that the unemployment report was deliberately falsified by the Obama administration to boost the president’s chances of reelection.

Is it possible that Welch is right? As we will see, of far greater importance is what the Labor Department’s rate of unemployment actually measures.

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