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

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st March 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 »

On Competition in Economic Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st July 2014

The assumption of ‘perfect competition’ is central to marginalist (neoclassical) economics. In classical economics, a strand of non-orthodox economics, a seemingly similar but fundamentally different assumption of ‘free competition’ is made. This blog post is about the differences between classical and marginalist economics with respect to their definitions of competition. A further comment relating to the method of economics is also made in connection with this matter in the concluding paragraph.

In marginalist economics, under conditions of ‘perfect competition’, the demand and supplies of commodities and all factors of production are in equilibrium. There is no unemployment of labour or any underutilization of capacity (‘capital’). What are these conditions of ‘perfect competition’? A large number of firms is assumed to exist, each too small to be able to set the price. That is, all firms are price takers and they attempt to maximize their profits. There are no barriers to entry or exit. Further, it is assumed that whatever the firms supply, there always exists sufficient demand. One wonders whether there is any real agency to these price-taking firms and entrepreneurs. When questions are posed in classrooms about their correspondence with reality, the response provided is that such conditions do not actually exist but are a first and a necessary abstraction so as to examine conditions of oligopoly or monopolistic competition. So, what is profit in marginalist economics under ‘perfect competition’? It is the marginal product of ‘capital’, which is zero entailing that profits just cover the interest costs; that is, are no returns to entrepreneurs undertaking risk and uncertainty? Ignoring the capital theoretic problems faced by marginalist economics, underlying this conception is the view that capitalists and workers are (‘justly’) rewarded for their contribution to production.

On the other hand, classical economists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, and contemporary economists following the classical tradition, after its revival by Piero Sraffa in 1960, assume ‘free competition’. There is free mobility of labour and ‘capital’. Firms and entrepreneurs are profit maximizers as in marginalist economics. No restrictions are imposed on the number of firms or their ability to set prices. The process of competition – profit-maximizing behaviour plus mobility of factors – tends to make the market prices gravitate towards long-period normal prices and a uniform rate of profit is obtained on the capital advanced. Note that the rate of profit is not zero as in marginalist economics. Alterations in demand and supply affect the market prices. If market prices fall below normal prices, production is not profitable and depending on their permanence the affected firms might exit the industry. Alternatively, production may be cut down because of the lack of adequate demand. Moreover, real wages are determined by wider social and political forces. If real wages are given (and given technology), the rate of profit and the configuration of normal prices are determined. Or, if the rate of profit is determined via the rate of interest set by monetary authorities, the real wage and the set of normal prices are determined. That is, distributive variables are capable of being determined exogenously. This is in stark contrast with the marginalist theory – the marginal productivity theory of distribution, as it is called. Classical economics in contrast to marginalist economics has a logically consistent theory of value and distribution embedded in a framework of competition with realistic conditions. Also, classical economics is able to accommodate institutions, be it collective bargaining or monetary policy, within its framework without any difficulties.

To conclude, besides other logical problems marginalist economics faces, it also possesses a rather restrictive notion of competition. But, does economic theorizing require such an assumption? My answer is in the affirmative. To identify casual chains, however short they might be, an environment of ‘free competition’ must be assumed. With free mobility of labour and ‘capital’ – a genuine conception of a competitive economy, a uniform rate of profit is obtained. But, note that a classical competitive equilibrium does not entail full employment. [Non-competitive elements will generate differential profit rates.] So, should we abandon the study of economic phenomena under ‘free competition’? No, because it conveys to us tendencies in a competitive economy and non-competitive processes are conceptualised as a departure from competitive ones.

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Posted in Classical Economics, Economics, Employment, Marginalist economics, Markets, Neoclassical Economics | No Comments »

Robert Torrens: An Introduction

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th September 2013

Robert Torrens’s An Essay on the Production of Wealth (1821) is an important contribution to economic theory, in particular, to classical economic theory. Torrens was involved in the founding of the London Political Economy Club along with James Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Tooke and others. Torrens has written extensively on monetary issues, on colonisation and on price theory. He is also credited with having discovered the comparative costs principle independently of Ricardo. This blog post focuses on his contributions to the theory of value and the possibility of a general glut in his debate with Ricardo.

Torrens is one of the very few (to be precise, nine) economists mentioned by Piero Sraffa in his Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities; Sraffa approvingly cites him for his method of treating fixed capital. Fixed capital is conceptualised as a distinct commodity (a joint product) alongside new commodities which emerge from the production process. Torrens utilises a theory of value based on ‘capital’ as opposed to Ricardo’s labour theory of value. But, how is ‘capital’ to be measured without the knowledge of values/prices? Ricardo recognises that when labour-capital ratios are not uniform across sectors, value will not be proportional to the embodied labour. And, as Carlo Benetti writes in his entry on Torrens in The Elgar Companion to Classical Economics, when the rate of profit is zero, the labour theory of value holds; however, the existence of positive profits does not per se invalidate Ricardo’s labour theory of value. A satisfactory resolution of this problem in value theory is to be found in Sraffa’s simultaneous determination of profits and prices.

The macroeconomics of Torrens, built on his theory of value and distribution, suggests the possibility of a general glut in the economy. On general gluts, Torrens writes: ‘a glut of a particular commodity may occasion a general stagnation, and lead to a suspension of production, not merely of the commodity which first exists in excess, but of all other commodities brought to the market’ (Torrens 1821: 414; as quoted in the Benetti entry on page 473). The underlying reason for this is a disproportion between the different sectors of the economy. Owing to the structural interdependence prevalent in an economy, a disproportion can lead to a fall in ‘effectual demand’. This will lead to a glut in commodities in that particular sector and in other sectors as a consequence of a fall in sales and incomes in that sector. This, evidently, is in direct contrast with Say’s law, loosely understood as – supply creates its own demand.

Other notable commentators on Torrens include Giancarlo DeVivo and Lionel Robbins. The latter published his work in 1958 entitled Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics. In 2000, DeVivo edited and put together the Collected Works of Robert Torrens. Studying Torrens will certainly prove invaluable in gaining a deeper understanding of classical economics, and especially his views on general gluts might have contemporary use in relation to the economics of Keynes and Kalecki.

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Posted in Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Michal Kalecki, Sraffa | No Comments »

Understanding India’s Economic Growth and Development

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 28th July 2013

This post is a review of the recent book by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen titled An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. An earlier post in this blog has dealt with the vexed relation between economic growth and development and elsewhere, I have discussed the need to focus on the structure of economic growth. Drèze and Sen’s book contains 10 chapters including the introduction (‘A New India?’) and the conclusion (‘The Need for Impatience’); the main text spreads across 287 pages. Their argument is buttressed with comparative exercises between Indian states, international comparisons, historical facts, surveys, published data sources and contemporary events apart from ample secondary literature. However, this review does not engage with their empirical findings.

For Drèze and Sen, the aim of any society should be the expansion of human capabilities. And, institutions such as markets and democracy are a means to that end. Similarly, economic growth ‘generates resources’ which can be used to improve human capabilities. As they write in the preface, ‘the achievement of high growth must ultimately be judged in terms of the impact of that economic growth on the lives and freedoms of the people’ (p. viii). Human capabilities, as is to be expected, refer to a spectrum of endowments and the ability to access all of them. For instance, it includes, in no particular order, nutrition (pp. 157-162), education (see ch. 5), health (see ch. 6), clean environment (pp. 41-44), access to energy (pp. 84-87), transportation, communication and banking infrastructure. The ability to access them, however, is severely constrained by caste (pp. 218-223). And some of them are also constrained by gender (pp. 224-239) besides other power relations.

Given India’s high growth rate, the authors pose one major question: why has the ‘pace of change … been excruciatingly slow’ for majority of the Indian populace (p. 29)? According to Drèze and Sen, the major cause for this is the abysmal situation of public education and health in India. (There are some Indian states which have done relatively better.) This is because of issues relating to accountability and also due to insufficient public spending. Moreover, the authors harshly criticize the Indian media for their ‘excessive focus on a relatively small part of the population whose lives and problems are much discussed’ (p. 261; see also pp. 262-267). This wide gap in public discourse provides their motivation in writing the book. Hence, they point out the ‘importance of enlightened public reasoning’ as ‘a central part of the general thesis of this book’ (p. 239). Furthermore, they state that ‘this book is aimed much more as an attempted contribution to public reasoning, including discussion in the media, than at giving professional advice to the government in office’ (p. 253).

Is their account of economic growth and development entirely satisfactory? Their second chapter is about ‘Integrating Growth with Development’. First, what determines economic growth? According to mainstream (neoclassical) economics, a growth in physical capital, human capital (educated and healthy workforce) and technological progress causes economic growth. This is known as the supply-side view of economic growth. If we accept this growth account, then clearly an improvement in the quality of life directly contributes to faster economic growth. Drèze and Sen do not have theoretical dissatisfactions with mainstream economics, as is made very clear in the following passage written in the context of a discussion on markets.

Relying solely on the market has become a strongly advocated theme in India on the basis on highly exaggerated expectations, often based on a misreading of the conclusions of mainstream economics, which includes much scepticism of the performance of markets in the presence of externalities, public goods, asymmetric information and distributional disparities. We do not have to look for any “alternative economic paradigm” to see what the market cannot do, in addition to what it can do – and do very well. (p. 184; emphasis added)

They also approvingly cite Joel Mokyr and Elhanan Helpman who emphasize the importance of ‘accumulation of knowledge’ and ‘total-factor productivity’ through education in economic growth respectively (p. 35). This is the supply-side production function approach in understanding the growth determinants. No one denies their significance. However, if one is convinced by such a theory/view of economic growth, the popular version of it being the Cobb-Douglas production function in various clothes, then, theoretically, physical capital can be substituted with human capital. And, this would entail a very different method of attaining economic development from that mentioned in the book. Moreover, aggregate demand does not play a role in this growth account; as the authors write in the preface, the ‘expansion of human capability, in turn, allows a faster expansion of resources and production, on which economic growth ultimately depends’ (p. x). That is, economic growth is entirely determined by the growth of aggregate supply, without considering the problems which can arise from aggregate demand deficiency (such as a fall in wage income or decrease in government spending). Without getting into the details of the argument, it appears that their conception of economic growth and development sits more comfortably with the economics of the classical economists (such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx) combined with the effective demand theories of Michal Kalecki and John Maynard Keynes.

The surplus generated from economic growth can be utilized for societal needs which is further determined through socio-political movements and economic considerations of the entrepreneurs as well as the state. To put it differently, ‘the fruits of growth’ need to be allocated intelligently – based on our physical, economic, environmental, social and cultural needs (p. 9; cf. p. 14, p. 18, p. 38). There are two very different kinds of distribution that takes place – income distribution between wage-earners and profit-earners and the expenditure of the government from the revenue they collect as taxes and duties. They also observe,

The impact of economic growth on the lives of the people is partly a matter of income distribution, but it also depends greatly on the use that is made of the public revenue generated by economic expansion. (p. 37)

They mention the importance of collective bargaining (p. 141) and point out that the NREGA ‘strengthened the bargaining power of rural workers’ (p. 201). But their focus in the book is how to utilize public revenue in improving the quality of life (p. 269). Since this public revenue can be utilized in a variety of ways, Drèze and Sen assert ‘the constructive role of the state for growth and development’ (p. 39; italics in original). Hence, the organs of the state need to be made more accountable (ch. 4).

Since democracy offers ‘significant opportunities’ for improving the quality of life as well as its pace, the authors are ‘contingently optimistic’ (p. xii). In fact, the issues addressed by the authors are intended to be a contribution to a wider debate on how to construct a better society. Thus, the book aims to provide ‘reasoned solutions to the problems’ (p. 3). They also write that ‘economic reforms, even when appropriate, require informed public debate’ (p. 28). In sum, there ought to be a ‘greater use of informed reasoning in the practice of democracy’ (p. 181). As they observe, and correctly, I think, that daily troubles are ‘less spectacular and less immediate – [and hence] provide a much harder challenge’ to politicize (p. 14). The book is primarily about these issues and since they cover a vast terrain, there have been some omissions. Two very varied issues come to my mind: the influence of public debt on economic growth is only addressed briefly (p. 18) and the gap between English and non-English speakers get barely one paragraph (pp. 215-6). In addition, there is no mention of freedoms relating to sexuality. To conclude, the book is an excellent contribution in so far as it provides an accessible introduction to several social concerns such as armed conflicts, child mortality, corporate power, corruption, land ownership, minimum wages, nutrition, open defecation, pollution and sanitation.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Book reviews, Classical Economics, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, GDP, India, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics, Supply side economics | 1 Comment »