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

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 5th May 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 »

Summers, Secular Stagnation and Aggregate Demand Deficiency

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 28th February 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 »

Hobson on Underconsumption

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 28th December 2014

Although not in the same tradition, but raising a similar concern as Lauderdale, Malthus and Sismondi, J. A. Hobson (along with Mummery) develops what is known in the literature as the ‘underconsumption theory’. Mummery & Hobson present this in The Physiology of Industry: Being an Exposure of Certain Fallacies in Existing Theories in Economics (1889). These themes are also expressed in other works of Hobson such as The Social Problem (1901) and Problems of Poverty (1905). This blog post completely draws from M. Schneider’s 1996 book titled J. A. Hobson (Macmillan Press; especially chapter 4). A contraction of output can happen through two different routes in a closed economy: (1) underconsumption and (2) underinvestment. The logic of this argument can be explained in the following manner. If planned expenditure – consumption or investment, falls short of the planned output at the aggregate level, output levels will contract in the subsequent period of production. Planned expenditure may be less than planned output either due to planned consumption and/or planned investment falling short of the expenditure necessary to validate the planned output.

Mummery & Hobson take as their focus the first route. As Schneider writes:

‘In the underconsumption theory, a deficiency of consumption, and hence excessive saving, is seen as being accompanied by excessive investment. …underconsumption is simply a case of excess supply in the consumption goods market and excess demand in the investment goods market…’ (Schneider p. 59)

They conceptualize the economy as being made up of two sectors – consumption goods and investment goods sector. Aggregate income can be used for consumption or saving. What is not consumed is saved, and this is assumed to be translated into investment. Therefore, if consumption falls (i.e., there is underconsumption) then saving and investment increases (i.e., there is overinvestment).

Mummery & Hobson assume unchanging technology. A certain amount of ‘capital’ (circulating and fixed) is required to produce the output. [No substitution between labour and ‘capital’ as in marginalist economics.] Given this specification of technology, a decrease in consumption will reduce the quantity of ‘capital’ that can be usefully employed.

…since ‘the profits which form the money incomes of all capitalists concerned in production, the wages of all the labourers concerned…are in a regular condition of commerce, paid out of the prices paid by consumers’ (1889, p. 71), a decrease in consumption would lead to a ‘general reduction in the rate of incomes’ (1889, p. 96) or, in other words, to a ‘depression in trade’, with ‘requisites of production’, including labour, consequently becoming unemployed or only partially employed. (as in Schneider p. 62)

That is, a decrease in consumption ceteris paribus leads to a decrease in aggregate income, since expenditure falls short of output. This also leads to an increase in unemployed labour. This idea of underconsumption has to implicitly assume that investment is ultimately a function of consumption demand. Otherwise, the underconsumption does not pose a problem as it is matched by an equivalent overinvestment. This is why ‘underconsumption leads to the accumulation of excessive capital equipment’ (Schneider p. 71).

The link between aggregate consumption demand, aggregate income and saving is visible in the excerpt from Mummery & Hobson below.

‘it is precisely because they [people] are consuming more that they can save more.’ (1889, p. 126; as in Schneider p. 63).

This excerpt is also suggestive of activity levels being determined by aggregate demand, particularly, consumption demand. A higher income means that the funds to save from are higher. To put the same point differently, saving is a positive function of aggregate income.

Keynes underscored the fact that what is true for an individual need not be true for the aggregate. This is now known as the fallacy of composition.

Every ‘attempt to save more by reducing consumption will so affect incomes that the attempt necessarily defeats itself.’ (Keynes 1936, p. 84; as in Schneider p. 63).

‘Hobson…called this (misleadingly) ‘the distributive fallacy’, which ‘consists in arguing that what is true of each must be true of all’ (1916, p 9; as in Schneider p. 63).

Hobson has made significant contributions to economics. The idea that saving should be favoured over consumption is shown to be false, and this principle is to be found in Kaleckian/Keynesian economics as well. Hobson demonstrated an implicit understanding of the accelerator principle – that investment is dependent of consumption (or that investment is a derived demand). Finally, underconsumption (or a deficiency of aggregate demand) leads to unemployment of labour and underutilized ‘capital’ stock.

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Posted in Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Keynes, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

Some Thoughts on Debt: The Indian Case

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th April 2014

Any entity, private or public, needs to borrow if its expenditure exceeds its income. The difference between expenditure and income will then be the volume of debt. This post discusses the following: the meaning and role of debt, a brief overview of various kinds of debt, the fundamental difference between private and public debt, the structure of the Indian debt market, corporate debt and government debt in India. The post ends with some reflections and suggestions.

It is public or government debt which receives maximum attention in the media and rightly so.  Some of the other kinds of debt are external debt (the proportion of a country’s debt borrowed from foreign lenders), household debt and corporate debt. Households borrow money in order to meet various needs such as the purchase of assets, for purposes of education, for medical expenses, etc. Corporate debt refers to the excess of expenditure over income which is financed through borrowing (via issuance of bonds and debentures) by the private non-bank sector. In India, besides these different kinds of debt, agricultural indebtedness has received significant attention from academics, policy makers and political agents. A market for credit is important not just for long-term asset purchases or constructing plants but it is also important for daily business transactions, and today, also for usual consumption needs. One needs only to look at the booming credit card industry for confirmation.

There is an overwhelming tendency to impose rules of finance employed by households on the government. This is fallacious. As individuals, we try to live within our means; we borrow reluctantly. Agricultural farmers, industrial firms and service providers need to borrow too. For, it is unlikely that every person who wants to start an enterprise will possess the required funds. If that were so, the meaning of entrepreneurship would have been different from what we know it to be. Similarly, for a government (central, state or local), which is expected to conduct policies which have social and environmental benefits, it becomes necessary to borrow. Taxation incomes are seldom sufficient to meet the recurring and capital expenditure of the government. Moreover, social programmes relating to education, employment, environment, food and health have very long gestation periods. The point is that government bodies (Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation to name a few) are not profit-maximizing bodies; but, this does not imply that they can be inefficient or irresponsible. By virtue of the fact that they are democratic bodies and because their incomes and borrowing are mainly from households (the voters), it is imperative that their functioning is transparent and organizationally efficient. Government borrowing or public debt is not, or rather, should not be, synonymous with organizational inefficiency.

The sovereign debt in India is issued by the Central and State government. The instruments include Treasury bills, Index bonds and zero coupon bonds. Government agencies, public sector undertakings (PSUs) and government owned banks issue debt instruments – bonds, debentures, commercial paper (CP) and certificate of deposit (CD). The private sector comprising the non-bank corporate sector and private sector banks issue bonds, debentures, CPs and CDs. In advanced economies, the debt market is the preferred route for raising funds. However, in India, the equity market is more preferred than the debt market, and government securities dominate the Indian debt market. [For more details, see the 2004 SEBI working paper no. 9 titled ‘Corporate Debt Market in India: Key Issues and Some Policy Recommendations’. Conditions are changing and more corporate debt is being issued, as a more recent (2013) CRISIL document indicates.]

A 2013 Credit Suisse report on India’s financial sector pointed out the high growth in the debt levels of ten corporate groups – Lanco, Reliance ADA, GVK, Jaypee, Adani Enterprise, Essar, GMR, KSW and Vedanta. Despite profitability pressures, their debt levels rose between 2012 and 2013. Also, 40-70% of the loans are foreign currency denominated. Delays in their planned projects can cause further strain on their cash flows and therefore on their debt servicing ability. Some of them have undertaken asset sales, but they have proved insufficient. Indian banks need to be concerned as well; although, majority of the non-performing assets (NPAs) are from agriculture and small & medium enterprises (SMEs). In 2014, the International Monetary Fund sounded a warning too.

The debt-to-GDP ratio is more important than debt levels themselves. Why is this so? This is because an economy whose GDP is growing faster than its growth in debt will not face the problem of repayment. However, if the GDP grows at a smaller pace than debt growth, the economy will not have adequate surplus (aggregate output net of replacement) to repay the debt. This is what we mean by debt sustainability. In early 2014, the credit rating agency, Moody’s warned that India’s sovereign rating can be affected due to the slowdown in growth and high inflation. [In so far as public authorities, via the central bank, can create money ex nihilo, debt can always be repaid (referred to as monetising the debt). However, this is the case if and only if the public debt is denominated in the local currency. In India, most of the public debt accrues to Indians and is therefore denominated in Rupees.] The following chart compares debt-to-GDP ratio of India with three advanced economies – Australia, UK and US.

 

Data from World Bank

Clearly, advanced economies have different debt-to-GDP ratios (also see this link for data on OECD countries). In short, there is no economic reason why a high debt-to-GDP ratio is bad for the economy; it is the growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio that must be closely monitored and appropriate measures undertaken to ensure that the economy grows at a faster pace than the growth in debt. As previously noted, government expenditure on education, environment and health have long-term positive benefits (significant positive externalities). Over time, these expenditures will boost economic growth and will therefore aid in debt repayments. Of course, the returns from any investment – private or public, depend on the effectiveness of the project undertaken such that they generate the expected yields.

The financial liabilities of the household sector have also risen over time, due to the attractive home loans and increased ease of obtaining credit cards. All economic agents – be it households, corporate bodies or the government, often (and have to) resort to borrowing. This post has shown that the borrowings undertaken by the Indian household sector, the Indian corporate sector and the Indian government have grown over the years. This, per se, is, and should not be a cause of immediate concern. However, this does warrant a more detailed analysis of the ability of the Indian government to make debt repayments, which hinge crucially on the rate at which the Indian economy grows and its rate of inflation. A serious macroeconomic analysis, perhaps based on the economics of Domar, Keynes and Lerner is in order.

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Posted in Economic Growth, Economics, GDP, Government, India, Keynes, Macroeconomics | No Comments »