Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

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 »

A Very Brief Introduction to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Posted by Alex M Thomas on March 31st, 2015

The Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WoN hereafter) was published on 9th March, 1776. It was advertised in the concluding paragraph of Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). This blog post is a very brief introduction to Adam Smith’s theory of political economy as presented in the WoN. According to John Rae, the biographer of Smith, the WoN ‘took twelve years to write, and was in contemplation for probably twelve years before that.’ Smith never engaged in any commercial activity unlike his predecessor, Richard Cantillon or his successor, David Ricardo, yet his insights into the working of the competitive economy is intellectually deep and of enduring relevance. His intellectual acquaintances include David Hume, Francois Quesnay, Jacques Turgot and Voltaire.

WoN is divided into 5 books: Book I presents a detailed examination of how labour becomes productive, and contains a theory of supply (of output). On what factors does the annual supply of commodities depend? Book II builds on this and contains a theory of accumulation (of capital stock). The growth policies undertaken by various nations form the content of Book III. The existing theories of political economy are critically appraised in Book IV; this book also includes the policy effects of these theories. Finally, in Book V, a theory of public finance – the theory of the revenue, expenditure and borrowing of the government – is outlined. Given the recurring themes of economic growth and development in this blog, the title of books I and II deserve to be quoted in full.

Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order according to which its Produce is naturally distributed among the different Ranks of the People

Book II: Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment of Stock

In other words, the first book contains a theory of income distribution and the second contains a theory of economic growth. Recent research has noted the similarities between Smith’s theory of economic growth and neoclassical ‘new economic growth theory’ of Romer; in fact, Smith’s theory clearly emerges as a superior one.

The ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’, according to Smith, are produced by labour. That is, labour produces the annual aggregate supply of commodities and services. The nation is considered better supplied if the proportion between the annual aggregate supply and annual population is high. To expand this definition and adopting modern terminology, we can say that this idea of Smith corresponds to that of output per capita (for example, a high GDP per capita is favoured over a low GDP per capita). Further, Smith asks: what determines the output per capita? According to Smith, there are two factors which determine this proportion. (1) The productivity of labour, and (2) the ratio of workers employed in physical and human capital generation to other workers. Smith uses a different terminology: the ratio of productive to unproductive labour. The number of workers employed in physical and human capital formation is necessarily in proportion to the capital advanced in these sectors. And, labour productivity depends on the capital advanced. But, what is there in Smith’s theory of economic growth which ensures that the growth in aggregate supply is validated by an equivalent growth in aggregate demand?

Smith’s WoN, particularly the first 2 books, is of much contemporary relevance in understanding the socio-cultural idea of ‘subsistence wage’. Also, it contains a rich exposition of productivity unlike the ‘blackbox’ of productivity commonly found in the Solow-type growth theory. Smith’s WoN contains both logical rigour as well as rich prose, and together they vastly enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

Summers, Secular Stagnation and Aggregate Demand Deficiency

Posted by Alex M Thomas on February 28th, 2015

The foundations of a coherent theory of activity levels were first put forth by Kalecki and Keynes in the 1930s. Their economic theory states that an economy’s output levels are determined by aggregate demand and that there are no economic forces which ensure full employment of labour or the full utilization of capacity. In other words, aggregate supply adapts to aggregate demand. This principle was then extended to the question of economic growth, most notably by Roy Harrod. Subsequent work in this line of enquiry suggests that growth is demand led, as opposed to the mainstream/neoclassical view of economic growth as supply driven.

The idea of secular stagnation, recently articulated and advocated by Larry Summers, will be critically appraised in this blog post amidst the above backdrop. Here, we almost exclusively focus on Summers’ 2014 paper in Business Economics titled ‘U.S. Economic Prospects: Secular Stagnation, Hysteresis, and the Zero Lower Bound’. The principle (also simultaneously a policy prescription) of secular stagnation can be stated as follows: since interest rates have reached their lower bounds and aggregate activity levels are depressed, the solution is expansionary fiscal policy. Why are aggregate activity levels depressed? Secular stagnation suggests that negative fluctuations re-quilibrate the economy to a position characterised by lower output and employment levels. Moreover, ‘the amplitude of fluctuation appears large, not small’ (p. 65).

Macroeconomic equilibrium is characterised by equality between actual and potential output. According to Summers, ‘essentially all of the convergence between the economy’s level of output and its potential has been achieved not through the economy’s growth, but through downward revisions in its potential.’ (p. 66) This is because of aggregate demand insufficiency. ‘The largest part [of the downward trend in potential] is associated with reduced capital investment, followed closely by reduced labor input.’ (p. 66) To put it differently, aggregate demand deficiency leads to the unemployment (and underemployment) of labour and underutilization of capacity.

Despite Summers’ correct identification of the problem, his marginalist conceptualization forces him to connect this with the ‘equilibrium or normal real rate of interest’ which equilibrates saving and investment. As a consequence, he argues that a ‘significant shift in the natural balance between savings and investment’ (p. 69) has occurred. This post will only state that the idea of the rate of interest being sufficiently sensitive to changes in planned saving and investment is one that has been severely criticized and rightly so. [A follow-up post will examine this matter more closely.]

Towards the end of the paper, Summers makes a point which Keynes (and Kalecki) made in the 1930s: ‘We are seeing very powerfully a kind of inverse Say’s Law. Say’s Law was the proposition that supply creates its own demand. Here, we are observing that lack of demand creates its own lack of supply’ (p. 71). However, Summers states this as a contingent principle and not a general proposition as it is in Keynes (or Kalecki). This is not surprising given Summers’ economics being marginalist in nature.

Therefore, since demand creates its supply, Summers advocates public investments and vocally states the counterproductive nature of fiscal austerity. Furthermore, he hypothesises that ‘increases in demand actually reduce the long run debt-to-GDP ratio’ (p. 73). Lastly, he favours policy measures which place ‘substantial emphasis on increasing demand as a means of achieving adequate economic growth.’

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Posted in Economic Growth, Economics, Employment, Government, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Michal Kalecki, Neoclassical Economics | No Comments »

An Economic Analysis of the ‘Make in India’ Program

Posted by Alex M Thomas on January 7th, 2015

The ‘Make in India’ program webpage states as its objectives the following: (1) to facilitate investment, (2) to foster innovation, (3) to enhance skill development, (4) to protect intellectual property, and (5) to build manufacturing infrastructure. This short blog post focuses of selected aspects of the program as laid out of the webpage and then critically examines them and the economics underlying them.

Selected features of the program from the webpage are outlined in this paragraph.  The process of industrial licensing has become simpler and for some, the validity has been extended. There is an impetus to develop industrial corridors and smart cities. The cap of foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence raised from 26% to 49%, with further easing of FDI norms underway in the construction sector. Labour-intensive sectors such as textiles and garments, leather and footwear, gems and jewellery and food processing industries, capital goods industries and small & medium enterprises will be supported. Further, National Investment & Manufacturing Zones (NIMZ) will be set up. Incentives for the production of equipment/machines/devices for controlling pollution, reducing energy consumption and water conservation will be provided.

To summarize, the government will provide incentives for the construction of green technology while at the same time making it easier for firms to get environmental (land) clearances. Setting up industrial zones is a good idea because it reduces transportation costs and common infrastructure can be better streamlined; also, they should be located at a safe distance from populated areas. Investment by foreign companies is beneficial if they these investments entail the learning of new technology and scientific and managerial collaboration. FDI should not be forthcoming solely to exploit the low wages prevailing in India.

Undoubtedly, India needs to revive its manufacturing sector. Globally, Indian manufacturing products need to be competitive. To achieve these two objectives, the present government’s ‘Make in India’ program is necessary. As always, we need to wait and see how the program works in practice. This program is aimed at improving the supply-side of the economy – improving the capacity to supply manufactured products. Creating of physical infrastructure will also have multiplier effects on agricultural and services sector.

Two related issues need to be raised in this context. Firstly, what about economic ‘reforms’ targeted at the demand-side of the economy? Secondly, isn’t it more prudent to validate the supply of manufactured commodities from domestic demand than foreign demand? Let us take each of them in some more detail. Raghuram Rajan made the second point in his December 12, 2014 Bharat Ram Memorial Lecture. Ashok Desai, in the Outlook, criticises the previous government for their corruption scandals and economic schemes which, according to Desai, primarily benefited the non-poor and due to their consumption raised the industry and services growth rates.

While supply-side measures are important, we must not lose sight of demand-side measures – such as public investment in health and education. The recent cut in public health expenditure by the current government is indeed very alarming. Equally important is a good labour law framework which ensures good working conditions for workers and a decent minimum wage. This will ensure adequate domestic demand, as our workers will earn above-subsistence incomes and be healthy. If the core institutions of health and education (and clean environment) are also strengthened alongside the labour market ones, then domestic demand-led growth will not be difficult to manage.

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Posted in Economics, Education, Employment, India, Industrial sector, Macroeconomics | No Comments »