Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

A Review of Mian & Sufi’s House of Debt

Posted by Alex M Thomas on October 31st, 2015

Lawrence Summers, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University and a Financial Times columnist, hailed Atif Mian & Amar Sufi’s book as ‘the most important economics book of the year’. The book was published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. This is a very readable book on issues of debt (particularly household debt in America), determination of activity levels, and on how to do good economics.

        Mian & Sufi begin by discussing the leverage ratio – ‘the ratio of total debt to total assets’ (p. 20). For the poorest homeowners, this ratio was near 80% and for the richest 20%, this ratio was only 7%. This is because the poor households borrow to purchase their assets (for example, a house). At the same time, the rich households deposit (credit) money with the banking sector to earn interest. The banking sector mediates the financial needs of the borrowers and the lenders. As Mian & Sufi write:

A poor man’s debt is a rich man’s asset. Since it is ultimately the rich who are lending to the poor through the financial system, as we move from poor home owners to rich home owners, debt declines and financial assets rise. (p. 20)

This observation immediately points to the need for looking at inequalities of income and wealth when studying debt or credit. Indeed, ‘[a] financial system that relies excessively on debt amplifies wealth inequality’ (p. 25). This is because when house prices fall, the decline in net worth for the indebted poor households will be more than proportional (p. 22-3).

       The authors rightly note that ‘the Great Recession was consumption-driven’ (p. 30) for ‘the decline in overall household spending in the third and fourth quarters of 2008 was unprecedented’ (p. 33). However, the dominant view in the US and across the world is what the authors term the ‘banking view’.

According to this view, the collapse of Lehman Brothers froze the credit system, preventing businesses from getting the loans they needed to continue operating. As a result, they were forced to cut investment and lay off workers. In this narrative, if we could have prevented Lehman Brothers from failing, our economy would have remained intact. (p. 31)

The dominant view locates the problem to be the lack of credit in the economy. And, they believe that if credit is made available at cheap rates (low rates of interest), the economy will revive. This view ignores the purpose of credit in an economy. Individual and firms demand money for consumption and investment (in a two-sector economy, aggregate demand is the sum of consumption and investment), and if aggregate demand falls so will the demand for credit. A fall in aggregate demand, as Keynes demonstrated in The General Theory, results in the reduction of activity and employment levels. This is precisely what happened during the Great Recession.

Job losses materialized because households stopped buying, not because businesses stopped investing. In fact, the evidence indicates that the decline in business investment was a reaction to the massive decline in household spending. If businesses saw no demand for their products, then of course they cut back on investment. (p. 34)

In other words, investment is not independent of consumption. This insight is of value in emerging economies like India where actual output is far below the potential output (large presence of disguised unemployment and underemployment), and political campaigns like ‘Make in India’ must be viewed with great caution. The dominant view is based on, what in growth theory is called, the supply-side growth theory. According to this theory, a growth in aggregate supply automatically generates an equivalent growth in aggregate demand. In House of Debt, the authors label this as the ‘fundamentals view’.

The basic idea behind the fundamentals view is that the total output, or GDP, of the economy is determined by its productive capacity: workers, capital, and the technology of firms. The economy is defined by what it can produce, not by what is demanded. Total production is limited only by natural barriers, like the rate at which our machines can convert various inputs into output, the number of working hours in a day per person, and the willingness of people to work versus relax. This is sometimes called the supply-side view because it emphasizes the productive capacity, or supply, of resources. (pp. 47-8)

That is, lower spending in the fundamentals view does not lead to contraction or job loss. Remember, output in the fundamentals view is determined by the productive capacity of the economy, not by demand. In response to a sharp decline in consumption, the economy in the fundamentals view has natural corrective forces that keep it operating at full capacity. These include lower interest rates and consumer prices … Obviously, however, these corrective forces weren’t able to keep the economy on track. (p. 49)

This view ignores the fundamental insight provided by Keynes in 1936. In a sense, the Say’s Law still lives on. And, in this theory, ‘[i]nvoluntary unemployment can only exist … if there are some “rigidities” that prevent wages from adjusting and workers from finding jobs’ (p. 56). These rigidities or frictions may be the following: presence of non-tradable jobs (that is, jobs which only cater to the local economy); wages do not fall; workers do not move; and the costs of reskilling if workers have to reallocate (p. 58, p. 63). For a critique and an alternative, see Thomas 2013.

       The marginal propensity to consume (MPC) varies across classes and therefore the assumption that everyone has the same MPC cannot be admitted. The MPC is high for poor households and low for rich households. ‘The larger the MPC, the more responsive the household is to the same change in wealth’ (p. 39; also p. 44). In fact, ‘the higher the leverage in the home, the more aggressively the household cuts back on spending when home values decline’ (p. 42). Therefore, debt matters. According to Mian & Sufi, ‘[t]he higher MPC out of housing wealth for highly levered households is one of the most important results from our research. It immediately implies that the distribution of wealth and debt matters’ (p. 42). Moreover, ‘[t]he MPC of households is also relevant for thinking about the effectiveness of government stimulus programs for boosting demand’ (p. 41).

       Very often, during recessions, the dominant policy response is the lowering of interest rates via monetary policy. But does the lowering of rates help? Is the problem a lack of availability of funds at cheap rates?

To help answer this, there is evidence from surveys by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). Proponents of the bank- lending view are particularly concerned about credit to small businesses. Because small businesses rely heavily on banks for credit, they will be disproportionately affected. Large businesses, however, can rely on bonds or commercial paper markets for debt financing. The NFIB is informative because it surveys exactly the small businesses that should be most vulnerable to being cut off from bank lending. The survey asks small businesses to list their most important concern, where “poor sales,” “regulation and taxes,” and “financing and interest rates” are a few of the options. The fraction citing financing and interest rates as a main concern never rose above 5 percent throughout the financial crisis— in fact, the fraction actually went down from 2007 to 2009. It is difficult to reconcile this fact with the view that small businesses were desperate for bank financing. On the other hand, from 2007 to 2009, the fraction of small businesses citing poor sales as their top concern jumped from 10 percent to almost 35 percent. As indebted households cut back sharply on spending, businesses saw a sharp decline in sales. (p. 128)

As the survey indicated in the passage shows, the problem is a lack of aggregate demand, particularly consumption demand. ‘Companies laying off workers in these hard-hit counties were the largest businesses. This is more consistent with businesses responding to a lack of consumer demand rather than an inability to get a bank loan’ (p. 128). There is another issue here; this has to do with the effectiveness of the monetary policy mechanism. Hence, Mian & Sufi write: ‘[a]n increase in bank reserves leads to an increase in currency in circulation only if banks increase lending in response to the increase in reserves. If banks don’t lend more— or, equivalently, if borrowers don’t borrow more— an increase in bank reserves doesn’t affect money in circulation’ (p. 154) limiting the ‘effectiveness of monetary policy’ (p. 155). And there is no strict connection between interest rates and household spending; at the very least, a strong association cannot be assumed (see p. 161).

       This brings us to the end of this book review. It was noted in the introductory paragraph that this book is also about doing good economics. Mian & Sufi point to the need for have a good theory to make sense of the macroeconomic phenomena. This blog concludes with their view on the role of theory.

The ability to interpret data is especially important in macroeconomics. The aggregate U.S. economy is an unwieldy object – it contains millions of firms and households. … But unless an economist can put some structure on the data, he or she will drown in a deep ocean of numbers trying to answer these questions.

Which brings us to the importance of an economic model. Macroeconomists are defined in large part by the theoretical model they use to approach the data. A model provides the structure needed to see which data are most important, and to decide on the right course of action given the information that is available. (p. 47)

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Posted in Book reviews, Economics, Employment, Financial Economics, Government, Macroeconomics, Supply side economics, Unemployment | No Comments »

The Monopoly of Credit Rating Agencies

Posted by Alex M Thomas on September 27th, 2015

“After Fitch, Moody’s lowers India’s growth forecast” reads a headline in The Hindu on August 25. Who are these agencies? They are credit rating agencies responsible for assessing the creditworthiness of big borrowers – companies and governments. The market for credit rating is dominated by 3 big firms – Standard & Poor, Moody’s and Fitch. Basically, these credit rating agencies sell information about the debtors to the creditors.

How reliable are they? As the regulator of the Indian securities market, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) writes in its FAQ, ‘A credit rating is a professional opinion given after studying all available information at a particular point of time. Nevertheless, such opinions may prove wrong in the context of subsequent events. There is no contract between an investor and a rating agency and the investor is free to accept or reject the opinion of the agency.’ As a matter of fact, the credit ratings were proven to be completely wrong in the wake of the Great Recession because they grossly misrepresented the risk on the mortgage-backed securities. Joseph Stiglitz is quoted as saying: “I view the rating agencies as one of the key culprits.” And not surprisingly, between 2001 and 2007, the operating margins of Moody’s exceeded 50 per cent, three to four times those of Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s biggest oil company. Also, as a CFR report states, the “EU governments and ECB policymakers accused the Big Three [S&P, Moody and Fitch] of being overly aggressive in rating eurozone countries’ creditworthiness, exacerbating the financial crisis”.

A financial market mediates between debtors and creditors through the buying and selling of financial instruments with varying risk and liquidity (to meet the different preferences and needs of the market participants). Unlike in a product market, say for tomatoes, it is difficult to assess the ‘value’ (let alone the quality) of a financial instrument. Suffice to note here that different financial theories exist which provide explanations for the ‘value’ of a financial instrument. The creditor needs to know whether the debtor is credit-worthy, i.e., whether the probability of the debtor to default is low. This information need is met by the credit rating agencies, of course, not very satisfactorily. For, they also seem to fall prey to the irrational exuberance characterizing the financial markets. More importantly, as during the Great Recession, evidence points to them as perpetrating a financial crime by aiding and abetting the housing bubble by issuing top ratings to bad mortgage-backed securities.

Global investors obtain information on investment avenues from multiple sources. And in the specific case of India, most of the financial savings are parked in time deposits, Post Office savings and with LIC and not in the stock market. Should a credit rating downgrade worry us? Are we worried because of how the stock market may react? Will it affect capital inflows? Rational investors make informed decisions by examining the macroeconomic situation, the ease of investing and the transparency and stability of macroeconomic policies. For example, any amount of mere rhetoric of ‘Make in India’ will not help – as seen by the exit of Jim Rogers, a global commodities trader and hedge fund manager, from India. As Rogers’ says, “one can’t invest just on hope.”

The argument of this blog post is not that all the assessments by credit rating agencies are incorrect. The argument is rather than we must critically appraise them and contextualize them. For instance, the lowering of Asia’s growth forecasts on account of slowing exports and subdued demand by Moody’s on 8th September 2015 should be a cause for concern. Why are we not focusing on policies which generate domestic demand?

I end with the financial commentator John Kay’s observation on the power of the bond markets in Britain. “So how do bond markets acquire their power to intimidate? Politicians spend too much time talking to people who take a daily interest in the bond market, and come to believe that their obsessions are important. Britain’s economic performance should be judged by benchmarks relating to employment, productivity, growth and innovation, not credit ratings.” This should be the case in India too.

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Posted in Capital Market, Economics, Financial Economics, India, Irrational Exuberance, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

A Review of Banik’s The Indian Economy: A Macroeconomic Perspective

Posted by Alex M Thomas on June 24th, 2015

Undergraduate economics education in India relies heavily on American textbooks, especially to teach Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. So it was a welcome change to see Nilanjan Banik’s The Indian Economy: A Macroeconomic Perspective published in 2015 by Sage Publishers. It is intended to be a Macroeconomics textbook for Indian students. As Banik writes in the Preface, ‘the available standard macroeconomic textbooks have limited information about how macroeconomics works for India.’ And therefore, ‘[t]his book is for anyone who wants to clear their concepts on Indian macroeconomy.’ This blog post critically reviews (only) Chapter 1 of this book titled ‘Introducing Macroeconomics’.

Banik starts Chapter 1 with an explanation of why macroeconomics – output, employment and inflation levels – is of significance to a ‘common man’. Here, basic macroeconomic concepts and their measurement are explained. Some discussion on the evolution of growth theories is also present. Economic prosperity of common person, according to Banik, is ‘encapsulated in a higher growth rate of GDP and lower inflation and unemployment rate, since these are the factors which directly or indirectly affect his/her well-being.’ But, we must also recognise that an individual’s employment and India’s overall unemployment rate are interdependent variables, and consequently we cannot draw a simple causal line of ‘prosperity’ running from overall employment rate to an individual’s well-being. [By interdependent, I mean that the aggregate employment rate is a summation of individual employments. Not only this, but also that the magnitude and trend of aggregate employment rate often impacts the rate of investment and therefore individual employment.] And, later, on p. 19, he draws a totally reverse causal line: ‘A summation of individual well-being gives us a sense about how an economy is doing.’

Output and employment levels are determined by factors affecting aggregate supply and demand. ‘Economy-wide demand and supply conditions are aggregation of all individual market conditions.’ Is this correct? Market supply and demand curves are an aggregating of individual market supply and demand curves. But, is it legitimate to extend this argument to aggregate supply and demand? Or, is Banik here making a microfoundations argument? A macroeconomic equilibrium is characterised by the equality between planned saving and investment and therefore of aggregate supply and demand. Banik is committing the fallacy of composition in the above quoted sentence wherein aggregate demand condition is seen as an aggregation of all the individual market demand conditions.

Subsequently, Banik starts the discussion on economic growth by clarifying to the reader that the growth rate of an economy refers to the growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP) of that economy. ‘Supply of output is determined by the availability of factor endowments such as labour, capital, organization, and technology in the economy.’ Aggregate demand is made up of consumption, investment, government and foreign demand. The full-employment level of output, as in neoclassical economics, according to Banik, is determined by supply-side factors. Therefore, it follows that supply-side policies are to be undertaken in order to increase the full-employment level of output. Hence, he writes:

‘However, any policy measure to increase the supply of output requires time. … So managing supply-side components is not that effective in the short run; however, in the long run, components such as investment in education, health-care, and physical infrastructure will have an influence over the availability of future supply of output.’ (p. 6)

What is the role for demand-side policies in this growth framework? They are employed only to take care of ‘fluctuations’ for they have no role to play in determining the full-employment level of output. This is validated by the following excerpt from Banik.

‘Demand management policies would not have been important if there was no fluctuation in demand, taking the output away from the full employment level of output.’ (p. 7)

It suffices here to note that this is a contested assertion with the contestation emerging from the research on demand-led growth.

Among historians of economic thought and economists with a historical understanding, classical economists refer to Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Robert Malthus and Karl Marx, who, while distinguishing himself from their works also employed their framework – the surplus approach to value and distribution. However, in textbooks of Macroeconomics, pre-Keynesian economics is commonly, although incorrectly, classified as classical economics; Keynes is also responsible for this confusion. Banik has a very different understanding of classical economics or as he writes, the ‘classical school of economics’. For him, it comprises ‘particularly, the Austrian school of economists led by Hayek, Robbins, and Schumpeter’ (p. 7).

On Keynes’s principle of effective demand, Banik has the following to say. ‘

Keynes tried to explain the occurrence of an event like the Great Depression through his notion of effective demand. Effective demand is the quantity of goods and services that consumers buy at the current market price. According to Keynes, economic agents behave like animals – all of a sudden becoming optimistic or pessimistic about the future. When on average, economic agents become pessimistic about the future, then consumers start spending less money, firms cut down their production, and the economy enters into recession. In Keynesian model, the emphasis is on demand-side factors.’ (p. 7)

The principle of effective demand states that aggregate activity levels are determined by aggregate demand, and that planned saving adapts to planned investment. This principle was advanced in opposition to the neoclassical Say’s law which states that supply creates its own demand. Moreover, this principle works even without having recourse to animal spirits.

Following this, Banik presents a brief overview of Samuelson’s neoclassical synthesis, Lucas’s critique, real business cycle theory and new classical approach (pp. 10-11); and, he categorises the following economists within the ‘new Keynesian group’: ‘Gregory Mankiw, Lawrence Summers, Olivier Blanchard, Edmund Phelps, and John Taylor’ (p. 12). Such a classification of economists along with the overview of different macroeconomic schools is of much value to the student readers.

After carrying out a short empirical discussion on India’s macroeconomy and empirical definitions such as consumer durables, service exports, etc, Banik makes a fallacious statement regarding the relationship between saving (S) and investment (I).

‘…in a closed economy framework … one would expect domestic savings to be the only source of investment. Accordingly, what is saved is invested and hence investment is expected to be equal to savings. In the present context, however, there is a divergence between investment and savings components of GDP. This divergence is on account of the fact that we are considering an open economy framework where we allow for foreign transactions. Typically, the more open is the economy, the more is the extent of this divergence.’ (p. 17).

In a two-sector economy (with firms and households), the accounting identity S=I holds. But, what is the explanation or theory behind this? It is the principle of effective demand: planned saving adapts to planned investment (via changes in activity levels). The mainstream neoclassical view is that planned investment adapts to planned saving (via changes in a sufficiently sensitive rate of interest). In a three-sector economy (with firms, households and a government), the accounting identity becomes: S+T = I+G, where T is taxes and G is government expenditure. And, in a four-sector economy (with firms, households, a government and the foreign sector), the accounting identity is: S+T+M = I+G+X, where M is imports and X is exports. In other words, the above 3 identities reaffirm the condition for macroeconomic equilibrium: leakages must equal injections. Thus, in equilibrium, there can be no divergence between saving and investment in a two-sector economy and in general, in equilibrium, leakages equal injections. Banik appears to be confusing macroeconomic theory with accounting identities, and disequilibrium with equilibrium positions. The above statement of Banik is therefore conceptually incorrect.

Next, he presents a commentary on growth economics, with a focus on the Harrod-Domar and Solow growth models.

‘One of the earlier works in the area of supply-side economics was independently undertaken by two economists – Roy Harrod in 1939 and Evsey Domar in 1946. The relevance of the Harrod-Domar model lies in its ability to give a dynamic flavour to the Keynesian model. The Keynesian model is a static model putting emphasis on aggregate demand and its effect on the output gap in the short run.’ (p. 21)

In the mushrooming, although at a moderate pace, research on demand-led growth, the growth model of Harrod is a seen as an early contribution to demand-led growth and not supply-side growth. It is not clear why Banik places Harrod’s contribution under supply-side economics. He goes on to point out limitations of Harrod’s model.

‘Another limitation of the model is that it assumes that labour and capital and used in equal proportions (equal prices for labour and capital).’ (p. 22).

Here, he makes yet another incorrect statement because Harrod assumed that labour and capital are used in constant not equal proportions. With this glaring error, one cannot help but wonder whether this macroeconomics textbook went through any serious internal or external reviewing. Banik then goes on to discuss the Solow model and undertakes a very brief survey of the endogenous growth models of Paul Romer, discusses the work of Robert Hall and Charles Jones on social infrastructure, and Robert Fogel’s study of the positive association between health and economic growth. Next, the author moves on to issues involved in the measurement of GDP, and in this context clarifies the meaning of operating surplus and mixed incomes.

To conclude, whilst Banik’s macroeconomics book for Indian students contains serious conceptual errors, the design of the structure of chapter one (and the others) deserves some merit. There is indeed ample scope for improvement and enlargement of the contents. Yet, it is deeply disappointing to come across the errors, such as the ones mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, in a book such as this which is stated to be an advance over existing (foreign) macroeconomics textbooks.

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Posted in Book reviews, Economics, India, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

A Foreword to Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities

Posted by Alex M Thomas on May 5th, 2015

Piero Sraffa’s classic Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (PCMC) was published in 1960. It runs into 87 pages of main text (inclusive of the content list), 6 pages of appendices, less than 3 pages of Preface and a 3-page index. As we pointed out in A Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory, by foreword, we mean the following: ‘The introduction to a literary work, usually stating its subject, purpose, scope, method, etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book is subtitled ‘Prelude to a Critique of Political Economy’. This slim book is divided into 3 parts: (1) ‘single-product industries and circulating capital’; (2) ‘multi-product industries and fixed capital’; and an untitled third part containing a single chapter titled ‘Switch in Methods of Production’. In the Preface, Sraffa acknowledges Keynes, A. S. Besicovitch (‘for invaluable mathematical help’), Frank Ramsey and Alister Watson. Sraffa was friends with Gramsci and Wittgenstein. [Ramsey, a friend of Keynes, supervised the 40-year old Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis at the age of 26 (source).] Appendix D contains the ‘references to the literature’ wherein works by Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Torrens, Malthus and Marx are mentioned. As Sraffa writes in the appendix, ‘[t]he connection of this work with the theories of the old classical economists have been alluded to in the Preface. A few references to special points, the source of which may not be obvious, are added here’ (p. 93). The orthodox economists mentioned by Sraffa are Marshall and Wicksteed.

With respect to method, Sraffa adopts the standpoint of the old classical economists – the surplus approach to value and distribution. This is contrast to the orthodox marginalist scarcity approach to value and distribution. In the surplus approach, one distributive variable is exogenously determined. This is in fact a realistic assumption because the rate of interest is set by monetary authorities and the rate of profit can be conceptualised as a sum of the riskless rate of interest (on government securities) and a pure rate of return on capital.

The conception of the ‘system of production and consumption as a circular process’, Sraffa notes in Appendix D, is to be found in Quesnay which ‘stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory [marginalist], of a one-way avenue that leads from “Factors of production” to “Consumption goods”’ (p. 93) [cf. Kurz & Salvadori 2005]. The subject matter of PCMC is the theory of value and distribution – how are relative prices and distributive variables determined? More specifically, in an economy where the production of commodities is undertaken by means of commodities, how are prices and distributive variables determined? Sraffa’s correct solution is that ‘the distribution of the surplus must be determined through the same mechanism and at the same time as are the prices of commodities’ (p. 6). What are the data or givens? (1) size and composition of output; (2) methods of production; and (3) one distributive variable (either the wage rate or profit rate). The first two givens are mentioned in the Preface when Sraffa writes that his ‘investigation is concerned exclusively with such properties of an economic system as do not depend on changes in the scale of production or in the proportions of “factors”’ (p. v). The rationale for the third given is as follows: ‘…the practice, followed from outset, of treating the wage rather than the rate of profits as the independent variable or “given” quantity’ has been reversed because the ‘rate of profits, as a ratio, has a significance which is independent of any prices, and can well be “given” before the prices are fixed … in particular by the level of the money rates of interest’ (p. 33).

While the scope of PCMC is limited to the subject matter, its implications on general economic theory are far reaching; for instance, his work has implications for the theory of value and distribution (capital theory forms an important part of this). Therefore, his work has positively contributed to the theorising of economic growth and environmental economics. Also, Sraffa’s work is to be a ‘basis for a critique of’ ‘the marginal theory of value and distribution’ (p. vi). Sraffa’s work is a coherent articulation of the theory of value and distribution the classical economists attempted to solve. At the same time, it also forms the basis for a critique of the marginalist theory of value and distribution by underscoring the logical fallacy in treating capital as a quantity independent of prices.

In a sense, the purpose of Sraffa’s work depends on the use that is made of it and there is a growing body of literature emanating from PCMC (a useful survey is Aspromourgos’s 2004 paper titled ‘Sraffian Research Programmes and Unorthodox Economics’). The classical approach to economics has been made more articulate and coherent. By marrying the classical or ‘surplus’ approach to value and distribution with the principle of effective demand, an alternative explanation for the determination of activity levels and economic growth has been developed. Work is also going on in the areas of environmental economics, public debt, monetary economics and history of economic thought, all of which draws upon and/or are inspired by Sraffa’s work.

The Indian readers would be interested to know that an Indian edition of PCMC was published by Vora & Co. Publishers, Bombay (available online).  However, PCMC is out of print since 1996 according to Cambridge University Press.

Those of us who are dissatisfied with mainstream neoclassical economics will find valuable insights and an economically superior but modest basis in Sraffa’s work to develop a coherent alternative to the mainstream approach to economic thinking. Particularly fruitful is this research programme when combined with the rich insights of the classical economists and Marx as well as the principle of effective demand of Kalecki and Keynes.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Karl Marx, Keynes, Malthus, Sraffa, Thomas Malthus | No Comments »