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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 »

A Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 5th September 2012

Published in 1936, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money remains a valuable book for both economists and policy makers. The recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic crisis have revived popular interest in this 1936 classic. The year 2009 saw the publication of two concise books on Keynes by two eminent scholars, Skidelsky and Clarke; an earlier blog post reviewed both their works. Not much will be said about the author – John Maynard Keynes, in the following paragraphs. The main objective of this blog post, as the title suggests, is to provide a foreword to The 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 rapidly expanding market for economics textbooks has, to a significant extent, substituted the reading of original works. In this environment, where our understanding of Keynes is based upon what Blanchard, Branson, Mankiw or Romer write, the following blog post strives to remain faithful to Keynes unlike the IS-LM version of Keynes proposed by Hicks and popularised by these textbooks. Keynes labelled Ricardo, Marshall and Pigou as Classical economists; this definition is not adhered to in the present blog post for Classical economics is a system of economic theory (to which Ricardo belongs) which is distinct from and a rival to Marginalist economics of which Marshall and Pigou are important members (see Thomas 2011 for more).

For Marshall, Pigou and marginalist economists of today, unemployment is a transitory phenomenon caused by ‘imperfections’ in the operation of the market forces. In their theoretical world characterised by competition, full employment is the ‘general’ case. However, Keynes demonstrated that this notion was based on assumptions contrary to the real world such as flexibility of money wages, absence of store of value function of money and rate of interest as a real phenomenon capable of equilibrating savings and investment and hence can only be considered a ‘special’ case. As he writes, ‘there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of how in this respect the economy in which we live actually works’ (p. 13). Opposed to this state of affairs, Keynes argued that the ‘general’ situation in an economy with competitive markets is the prevalence on unemployment. In other words, the central purpose of Keynes’s work is to demonstrate that unemployment is the usual situation in a competitive economy.

The main subject matter of The General Theory is the determination of aggregate employment and income or ‘the theory of output as a whole’ (Preface, p. vi). This needs to be seen against the then prevalent mode of economic analysis which was largely Marshallian in nature. Marginal productivity theory along with the principle of substitution was employed to understand the allocation of a given level of output; under conditions of competition, in equilibrium, full employment was (and still is) expected to prevail. And questions concerning the determination of the level of output were carried out within a theory whose primary subject matter was allocation, and not determination, of output levels. (On this, see especially Keynes’s preface to the German edition of his 1936 book.)

Marginalist economics, in the 1900s, looked up to the works of Marshall, and Pigou.  Keynes was brought up on a large dose of their works. Theories of production concentrated on determining the output levels in individual markets, and more often on allocation of output. Similarly, theories of distribution examined the allocation of income to workers and capitalists. Policy recommendations were made on the basis of such theories. The remedy to unemployment, according to Pigou and other orthodox economists, consisted in lowering workers’ wages. Economics certainly did not have an apparatus or a framework to study the ‘level of output as a whole’, or macroeconomics as it is called today. Besides output levels, Keynes also stressed the role played by money in ‘real’ analysis – the examination of income, employment, investment, consumption and saving. Rate of interest, according to Keynes, is a monetary phenomenon which depends on liquid preference. In short, the scope of his work remained the same as that of earlier economists – the study of wealth. Today, economics has broadened its scope to include any subject which can be examined by employing some form of the cost-benefit analysis. (See Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy)

Being brought up in the marginalist Marshallian tradition, Keynes attempted to completely break away from their method. In the preface to the German edition, he makes his desire explicit: ‘It was in this [Marshallian] atmosphere that I was brought up. I taught these doctrines myself and it is only within the last decade that I have been conscious of their insufficiency. In my own thought and development, therefore, this book represents a reaction, a transition away from the English classical (or orthodox) tradition.’ However, his attempt was not entirely successful. This is especially visible in his analysis of investment, where he develops the ‘marginal efficiency of capital’; much has been written on this in the context of the capital theory debates. The role he assigned to ‘expectations’ and the links to investment levels have been considered an improvement of the economists’ toolkit and consequently seen as an improvement in the capacity of economic theory to understand reality.

The aim of this blog post has been mainly to put The General Theory in the 1936 context, where Marshallian economics reigned supreme. Today, central governments, central banks and policy makers employ macroeconomic theory to understand the real world and to frame policies which increase output levels, stabilise prices and ensure financial stability. However, majority of these theories remain rooted in the orthodox tradition (variants of Marshall, Walras, Pigou and others resurface in the form of DSGE, New Classical macroeconomics or New Keynesian macroeconomics) which Keynes broke away from. Truly, The General Theory published in 1936 remains an economics classic, which is of enduring value to those who find terrible problems with the current orthodoxy!

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Posted in Economic Thought, Economics, Employment, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Malthus, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics | 3 Comments »

Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st April 2012

In these difficult times we live in, what economics needs is perhaps, depth and not breadth. Unemployment, poverty, inflation, food insecurity, financial fragility, debt crisis, etc can be better understood and tackled by diverting increased resources (time and financial) in understanding the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of wealth. This blog post very briefly examines Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) view of political economy – its method, scope, uses and limitations.  For this purpose, I have used John Pullen’s definitive variorum edition of Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy published as 2 volumes by Cambridge University Press in 1990.

According to the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, ‘scope’ is defined as the ‘range of subjects covered’. In the context of political economy, scope refers to the range of subjects it covers. That is, the scope of political economy informs us about the sphere of analysis, the boundaries or limits, the kind of situations it describes and its applicability in the real world or, its relevance. Keeping in mind that mathematics played only a small role in political economy during Malthus’s time, let us see what his view of political economy is: ‘the science of political economy bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics that to that of mathematics’ (p. 2). Undoubtedly, morals played and still play an important role for interventions in the economy based on what we consider to be a ‘good society or economy’. And politics, distributional conflicts over income, land, natural resources and employment are integral part of any economy. Thus, it is important that political economy (and economics) takes into account these distributional conflicts when theorising or modelling an economy. However, for purposes of theory, these conflicts can be taken as given from outside economics (exogenous) or can be determined within economics, in the manner of behavioural economics.

It would not have mattered if political economy was/is not a very important branch of knowledge. Reminiscent of Keynes’s words, Malthus writes: ‘The science of political economy is essentially practical and applicable to the common business of human life. There are few branches of human knowledge where false views may do more harm, or just views more good’ (p. 12). But, Malthus wrote it more than a century earlier. (See also Sismondi’s words of a similar nature). Since Malthus viewed political economy to have significant practical applications, the complete title of his book reads ‘Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to their Practical Application’. The editor, Pullen, gives us a bit more information on this matter. ‘This was apparently a lifelong concern. As a student at Cambridge in 1786 Malthus wrote to his father: ‘I am by no means, however, inclined to get forward without wishing to see the use and application of what I read. On the contrary I am rather remarked in college for talking of what actually exists in nature, or may be put to real practical use’’ (p. 291, Vol II; all other page numbers excepting this refer to Vol I).

Malthus understands that ‘To trace distinctly the operations of that circle of causes and effects in political economy which are acting and re-acting on each other, so as to foresee their results, and lay down general rules accordingly, is, in many cases, a task of very great difficulty’ (p. 12). Economic processes are caused by a multiplicity of causes and often not by a single one. Owing to this and because of his view of economics as a practical science, he maintained that ‘[t]o know what can be done, and how to do it, is, beyond a doubt, the most valuable species of information. The next to it is, to know what cannot be done, and why we cannot do it’ (p. 17). In other words, we must be very aware of the ‘scope’ of our knowledge.

Furthermore, if our objective is to understand the problems of unemployment and poverty, we must perhaps, as mentioned in the introduction, study in-depth the process of generation and distribution of wealth. I conclude with a statement by Malthus: ‘If we wish to attain anything like precision in our inquiries, when we treat of wealth, we must narrow the field of inquiry, and draw some line, which will leave us only those objects, the increase or decrease of which is capable of being estimated with more accuracy’ (pp. 27-8).

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Keynes, Malthus, Thomas Malthus | 4 Comments »

Short Introductions to Keynes: Skidelsky vs Clarke

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st March 2012

The recent global financial crisis has led to a renewed interest in the works of John Maynard Keynes. In part, this is motivated by the intellectual failure of contemporary economics and the search for important insights into the working of the real and financial sectors. Another part owes to the dissatisfaction with conventional economics and restoring the research programme of Keynes seems to point at a better alternative. Together, revisiting the works of Keynes does assume great importance in the current economic and political climate. Two books stand out in this regard: Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master and Peter Clarke’s Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century’s Most Influential Economist. Both of them were published in 2009. This blog post is a critical examination of these two books.

Skidelsky

According to Skidelsky, ‘the root cause of the present crisis lies in the intellectual failure of economics’ (p. xiv). To avoid such crises in the future, Skidelsky encourages economists to think of economics ‘as a moral, not natural, science’ (p. xvi). We are quite aware of the affinities between Malthus and Keynes, on the role of consumption. Besides this, Malthus had a similar vision of economics (political economy as it was known then) as Keynes. That is, Malthus also views economics as a ‘science of moral and politics’; For Keynes, economics is a ‘moral science . . . it deals with introspection and with values . . . it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties’ (p. 81). Keynes’s economics and broader ideas, argues Skidelsky, aids in contemporary economic thinking and policy making. In particular, the role of uncertainty is emphasised.

The intellectual stature of Keynes is something that is well-established. Skidelsky provides the readers with a statement from the philosopher, Bertrand Russell: ‘Keynes’s intellect was the sharpest and clearest I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool’ (p. 57). In any case, Keynes was extremely active in academic and policy discussions.

Keynes argues that investment is determined by expectations and depending on the state of confidence, investment would increase or decrease. This renders investment unstable, as a policy variable. In addition, if savings are greater than investment, it diverts resources ‘from the wider economy into financial speculation and conspicuous consumption’ (p. 69). Consumption is seen as the stable component of demand. Keynes also clarified the very important distinction between decisions to save and actual saving. Firstly, ‘If everyone wants to save more, firms will sell less and therefore output will fall, unless the inducement to invest is increasing at the same time (p. 91). This is the paradox of thrift, a simple enough idea but very powerful which had not been presented clearly so far. Therefore, if increases in saving are not matched by increases in investment, it will cause a fall in output and employment. In short, ‘It is spending, not saving, which creates output and employment; and when spending falls short of earnings, unemployment results’ (p. 91). Skidelsky captures the most important conclusion of Keynes’s General Theory which is ‘that a decentralized market economy lacks any gravitational pull towards full employment’ (p. 97).

So far, so good. However, when it comes to Keynes’s views on classical economics, Skidelsky falls prey to the conventional view. The conventional view being that Keynes attempted to disprove the economic theories of classical economissts such as Smith, Ricardo and Malthus. This view is far from the reality. (For a concise account of this, see my short article in the DSE Journal.) In fact, Skidelsky, being very faithful to Keynes’s words calls Arthur Pigou a classical economist (see p. 104). Suffice it to say here that classical economists such as Smith, Ricardo and Malthus maintained that unemployment could be a permanent feature of capitalistic economies. By classical economists, Keynes actually meant the (neoclassical) economics of Marshall and Pigou. In the following paragraphs, we will see that Clarke deals with this issue in a more satisfying way.

Clarke

We need to read Keynes today, says Clarke, because of his ‘lifelong commitment to the strategy of institutional reform through reasoned argument’ (p. 23). This means that we need to understand the historic and political context in which he lived. Also, reading ‘Keynesian economics’ is no substitute for understanding Keynes. In fact, as Clarke informs us: ‘After dining with a group of American Keynesian economists in Washington, DC, in 1944, Keynes said at breakfast the next morning: ‘I was the only non-Keynesian there’’ (p. 168).

Similar in spirit to Brtrand Russells’ comment, Clarke shares with us that ‘Friedrich von Hayek, Keynes’s most formidable academic opponent, wrote that ‘he was the one really great man I ever knew, and for whom I felt admiration’’ (p. 10). Clarke sheds light on the not often discussed aspect of Keynes’s life – his training in economics. Alfred Marshall, Keynes’s family friend, taught economics to Keynes. ‘It was the usual Cambridge system of individual supervision, one hour a week for the eight weeks of the teaching term – the only formal instruction in economics that Keynes ever received’ (pp. 24-25). In any case, this doesn’t matter and clearly, it didn’t matter. For him, economic theory was not an end in itself (like the classical economists). ‘The whole point lies in applying them to the interpretation of current economic life’ (p. 49). In this quest, there are no roles for dogmas. Hence, he expressed his dissatisfaction with both anti-capitalist as well as free trade dogmas. However, the latter emerged as his primary target (p. 68). On the free trade system, Keynes writes the following: ‘It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods’ (p. 72). To this end, by writing the General Theory, Keynes wanted to change the thinking of economists first and foremost. This is why the General Theory is ‘a concentrated assault on inside opinion as the necessary prelude to converting outside opinion’ (p. 77). Given those difficult times, the theoretical and policy oriented intervention of Keynes was essential. For, ‘Many people [were] trying to solve the problem of unemployment with a theory which is based on the assumption that there is no unemployment’ (p. 148).

We have already pointed the crucial distinction between saving and investment. Clarke puts forth the importance more clearly. ‘At the time, saving remained prized and honoured as the key to economic recovery. Keynes’s serious point is to distinguish saving (or thrift), which is essentially negative, from the real motor of economic growth, investment (or enterprise)’ (p. 106). Furthermore, Keynes is correct when he states: ‘I think it makes a revolution in the mind when you think clearly of the distinction between saving and investment’ (p. 107). Too much saving diminishes income. ‘It is a paradox because it seems natural to suppose that if individual saving enriches the individual concerned, it must also enrich the community’ (p. 152). Despite these crucial differences between saving and investment, much of the modern theories of economic growth seems to take the equality for granted; thanks to the single-good models and continuous production functions.

The commentary by Clarke on Keynes’s view of classical economics is historically accurate and therefore more satisfying than that of Skidelsky. The following extracts bear testimony to this. ‘Keynes later took him [Pigou] as representative of the ‘classical school’, devoting seven pages of the General Theory to a demolition of Pigou’s The Theory of Unemployment (1933)’ (p. 108). ‘Orthodox economics assumed that the system reached its own equilibrium through the effect of interest rates in reconciling the level of investment to the amount of saving available – through flexible prices, of course’ (p. 131). ‘‘Classical’ economics – really Marshallian orthodoxy – said an infinitely adjustable price mechanism will deliver equilibrium via interest rates’ (p. 134). Finally, Keynes’ friend and a reviver of classical economics, Piero Sraffa, is said to have brought the terms ‘effective demand’ to the attention of Keynes. ‘Keynes decided to salute Malthus as yet another brave Cambridge pioneer by purloining his term ‘effective demand’ to describe his own theory of output as a whole’ (pp. 143-4).

Concluding thoughts

The two introductory books on Keynes by Clarke and Skidelsky attest to the intellectual and practical relevance of his work. A few points are in order. First, a perfectly competitive economy does not have intrinsic forces that result in full employment. Secondly, saving and investment are conceptually distinct variables. Finally, economic theory is a means to understanding contemporary society and not an end in itself. I let Clarke have the last word: ‘Keynes’s name is thus rightly invoked to license fresh approaches to the novel economic difficulties of our own era – to tackle them actively rather than take refuge in inert doctrinal purity’ (p. 180).

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Posted in Classical Economics, Economic Thought, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, History of Economic Thought, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Neoclassical Economics, Piero Sraffa | 1 Comment »