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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 »

Some Logical Fallacies in Economics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 7th December 2011

Economic theory of various kinds are often employed to formulate policies in the real world. Often, certain conclusions of a particular economic theory are utilised in policy making. For instance, some of the insights/conclusions arising from mainstream economics are: fiscal deficits are inefficient and inflationary; a perfectly competitive economy is desirable because it is efficient; increase in money supply causes inflation and increase in investment (domestic and foreign) will create employment. Hence, we are regularly advised to lower fiscal deficits, encourage ‘efficiency’, etc.

Broadly, two kinds of logical fallacies are committed by economists and policy makers. Firstly, there are logical fallacies in the domain of economic theory. Secondly, a logical fallacy is committed when real-world policy decisions are derivatives of conclusions from a particular economic theory. This blog post makes use of Stephen F Barker’s book The Elements of Logic (1965) to illustrate some of the logical fallacies in economics.

According to Barker, a “fallacy is a logical mistake in reasoning.” He identifies three broad categories of logical fallacies: (1) non sequitur, (2) petition principia and (3) inconsistency. Fallacies of non sequitur (Latin: “it does not follow”) occur when there is an insufficient link between premises and conclusion. “If the premises are related to the conclusion in such an intimate way that the speaker and his hearers could not have less reason to doubt the premises than they have to doubt the conclusion, then the argument is worthless as a proof, even though the link between premises and conclusion may have the most cast-iron rigor,” logical fallacy of petition principia (Latin: “begging the question”) occurs. Lastly, fallacies of inconsistency occur “when someone reasons from a set of premises that necessarily could not all be true.”

Logical fallacies in economic theory

An economic theory like any scientific theory begins from a set of premises. These premises can be based on observation, fact, other theories, (reasonable) assumptions, etc. Obviously, these premises have to be sufficiently general for it to be a ‘theory.’ From these premises, through the process of (deductive) reasoning, we arrive at certain conclusions. Note that unrealistic assumptions do not render an economic theory fallacious. However, their utility in real-world policy making is contingent on how ‘approximate’ the assumptions are to the particular context.

Hence, given the premises, if the conclusions do not follow, the economic theory under consideration is said to be logically fallacious. This, in fact, happened to the marginalist theory of value and distribution. In the 1960s, it was demonstrated bySraffaGaregnani and others that marginalist theory of value and distribution is logically fallacious. This was shown so clearly that defenders of the theory, notably, Paul Samuelson, admitted this defect. The main reason for this logical fallacy was/is that prices (value) and distribution are interdependent and hence are simultaneously determined. Therefore, the distribution theory in neoclassical economics (marginal productivity theory) cannot be logically prior and independent of the theory of prices (value). In other words, capital cannot be treated as a distinct factor of production, independent of prices. This is because, at an aggregate level, capital is comprehensible only as a value magnitude. Therefore, the construct of the aggregate production function breaks down and with it the whole neoclassical edifice of value and distribution crumbles. In any case, to circumvent such logical critiques, the concept of inter-temporal equilibrium was constructed. So far, it seems to have been ‘successful’ in warding off capital-theoretic critiques. But, this shift towards inter-temporal equilibrium from long period equilibrium has seriously compromised the relevance of such economic theory. For, ‘anything goes’ in temporary equilibrium. The capital theoretic fallacy is of the non sequitur type as there is an insufficient link between the premises and conclusion.

Marginalist economics studies human behaviour. It is a science of choice thanks to Lionel Robbins who presented a clear definition of neoclassical economics (which originated in the works of Jevons, Walras and Menger in 1870s). Hence, the theory assumes scarcity of both factors and commodities. The central problem in economics becomes that of – allocation. The theory starts with specifying endowments to agents and concludes  that there is full employment of resources. After all, if the issue is that of allocation, there will necessarily be a full-employment of resources both before and after the process of allocation (carried out by the market forces of demand and supply). In this case, the premises and the conclusion are connected in such an intimate manner that it seems to commit the fallacy of petition principia.

Consumers maximize utility. Producers maximize profits. This gives us equilibrium. However, is there a clear line of demarcation between a producer and a consumer? What if an agent is both a consumer and a producer? In the language of set theory, what if the intersection between consumers and producers in an economy is not a null set? If so, is it logically consistent to have a strict demarcation between producers and consumers?

Logical fallacies in economic policy

Economists, policy makers and journalists argue for a particular economic policy based on certain premises. These premises are nothing but an admixture of various economic theories. Note the emphasis on ‘theories’, for there is not just one economic theory but multiple economic theories. Most of them are competing paradigms, i.e., they ask similar questions but provide dissimilar answers. Examples include Austrian economics, Marxian economics, Classical economics and Keynesian economics. The dominant paradigm, of course, is the marginalist one; variants of this include New Classical Macroeconomics, Monetarism, New Keynesian Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, etc.

The question we are interested in asking is: what is the basis on which a particular economic policy is favoured. A few examples are provided below.

I

Premise: Increase in money supply causes inflation.

Conclusion: Therefore, increase interest rates to reduce inflation.

II

Premise: Inflation is determined by inflation expectations.

Conclusion: Therefore, the Central Bank should target inflation expectations.

III

Premise: Given full-employment of all resources, an increase in expenditure will raise prices.

Conclusion: Fiscal deficits are inflationary. Therefore, reduce fiscal deficits.

The premise in the first example is from a Monetarist paradigm; the premise in the second one is a New Keynesian perspective and the premise in the third example is a typical neoclassical/marginalist view. Are these kinds of policy conclusions logically correct? Do the conclusions follow from the premises? Or, are we taking a leap of faith? For, the economies which the premises talk about and describe aretheoretical worlds which (hopefully) have certain characteristics of the real-world. In any case, hasty conclusions should not be made. This is especially important for policy making in an economy like India which is very distinct from the theoretical worlds mentioned above.

Yet another commonly used argument is to favour a policy based on its success in another economy. For a long time, India followed economic doctrines which were promoted in the advanced economies of the West. Today, we see a similar trend where examples and case-studies from ‘other emerging economies’ are used to argue for a particular policy recommendation in India. But, India is structurally – socially, culturally, politically and economically different from these other economies. Hence, we again take a leap of faith. I end with such a claim which was made to argue that FDI is favourable: “in Indonesia 10 years after allowing 100 per cent FDI, 90 per cent of the retail sector is controlled by the small shopkeepers.”

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Posted in Capital Theory, Classical Economics, Economic Philosophy, Economic Thought, Economics, India, Inflation, Neoclassical Economics, Paul Samuelson, Philosophy and Economics, Pierangelo Garegnani, Piero Sraffa | 2 Comments »

Pierangelo Garegnani (1930 – 2011)

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 25th October 2011

On October 14, 2011, heterodox economics (in particular, classical economics) lost one of its warriors. This post attempts to summarise some of his key contributions towards economic theory. First and foremost, he was an economic theorist par excellence. He contributed to the famous (now, almost forgotten) capital theory debates in 1960s along with Piero Sraffa and Joan Robinson on his side and Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow on the other. Alongside others, he pointed out logical flaws in the marginalist conception of capital and its devastating effects on equilibrium. Basically, marginalist theory of value and distribution (in modern parlance, microeconomic theory) was shown to be logically inconsistent. Today, these debates hardly ever appear in economics textbooks because marginalist or neoclassical economics invented inter-temporal equilibrium to take care of capital-theoretic issues. Moreover, history of economic thought has been sidelined – through famous graduate economic programs and by preaching that history of economic thought is of no use to a “practical” economist, both in academia and in business.

Garegnani made significant contributions to the revival of classical economics on the foundations laid down by Piero Sraffa. In particular, Garegnani, through various journal articles (in Italian and English) resurrected the works of old classical economists – mainly Smith, Ricardo and Marx. More than Sraffa, perhaps, it is Garegnani who has aided the revival and resurrection of classical economics. His command over the history of economic thought with a special focus on old classical economists and ‘old’ and ‘new’ neoclassical economists (Walras, Wicksell, Hicks, etc) is evident from his clear exposition of their analytical structure.

Like ‘old’ classical economists, Garegnani’s interest has been to explain growth dynamics of an economy. This, he believed and also demonstrated that it is possible by drawing insights from Keynes and working on a classical (Sraffian) foundation. In this regard, Garegnani and his friends-colleagues-students have been quite successful in their analysis of capacity utilization, supermultiplier, role of wages, profits being a monetary phenomenon and so on.

Given the massive contributions made by Garegnani, it has been an honour for me to have been introduced to his work during my Masters in Economics at University of Hyderabad. It is one of the few Universities, in India and possibly, in the world, which still teaches classical economics as a distinct approach to understanding contemporary economies. I hope that more Universities begin to recognise the benefits of a pluralist education and start teaching classical economics as a distinct subject.

Others

Robert Vienneau  Susan Pashkoff  Francesco Saraceno  Tyler Cowen  David Ruccio  Matias Vernengo

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Economics, Karl Marx, Keynes, Krishna Bharadwaj, Neoclassical Economics, Paul Samuelson, Pierangelo Garegnani, Piero Sraffa, Richard Cantillon, Sraffa, Sraffian Economics | 1 Comment »

Krishna Bharadwaj: The Ideal Economist

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 24th October 2010

Krishna Bharadwaj is an economist who made lasting contributions to economic theory. She is especially known for her understanding of the classical theories of value and distribution. In particular, she has successfully traced out the history of classical as well as neoclassical economics. This kind of conceptual history writing is important, especially for the economist who wants to apply these theories in understanding the socio-economic reality. And because of her firm grasp of various theoretical approaches in economics, she was able to judiciously analyse problems of the Indian economy. She was, in fact, the first economist to point out the exploitative nature of inter-linked markets which are prevalent in Indian agriculture. She also placed emphasis on the power relations which dominated the production structure of agriculture in India.

Apart from struggling to show the distinct and superior nature of classical economics over neoclassical economics, Bharadwaj also relentlessly worked on Indian economic issues. In particular, Bharadwaj analysed the structural linkages between agriculture and industry in India and also examined the production conditions which characterise Indian agriculture. In her latter study, she pointed out the inadequacies of neoclassical economics in understanding Indian agriculture. She particularly criticised the application of production functions. In addition, Bharadwaj explained the origin of neoclassical economics and how it suffers from various logical as well as other methodological issues.

For Bharadwaj, theory was only a tool to understand the questions and problems which arose from the social reality. This is why, she promoted the teaching of different economic approaches in Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), such as classical, Marxian, Keynesian as well as Walrasian. As Prabhat Patnaik writes in a foreword of The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture, “according to her [Bharadwaj]…we had to evolve a research-cum-teaching agenda of our own. No centre in India could flourish, by international standrads, merely by mimicking what was happening abroad, merely by showing proficiency in solving problems which were posed abroad. The problems has to be rooted in the social reality of our own country, and the effort to grapple with them had to be, very consciously, located within the intellectual endeavour of our country…[However] Her emphasis on taking up problems rooted in the Indian social reality was not a plea for turning one’s back upon theory or theoretical struggles. On the contrary, her plea for investigating our real problems, was simultaneously a plea for a richer theory, a theory with a body to it, one which is all the more powerful because it has been used for investigating real problems facing economies like ours.”

From her work on economic theory and its applications to the Indian economy, what becomes clear is her philosophy that economic theory should be based on concepts which can be observed and be amenable to measurement in reality. This is one of the reasons why she criticised the demand and supply theories; for, values were determined by subjective utilities. Another quality worth mentioning is her firm belief that economic theories are not mere intellectual constructs; rather, they arise out of a particular socio-historical situation, often to promote a certain ideology. In her R C Dutt Lecture, which was later published as a book in 1986, she makes it clear that the emergence of demand and supply theories were primarily a reaction against Ricardo and Marx. For, in both Ricardo and Marx, a conflict of interest is visible between social classes. In order to promote the ‘idea’ of a just and harmonius system, the theories (especially the labour theory of value) of Ricardo and Marx were criticised as being limited, and an alternative was proposed. This new theory completely did away with social classes. Individuals were chosen as the primary unit of analysis. Social classes, actually was modified into ‘factors of production’. A very interesting and important methodological shift, with powerful political implications! All the factors of production were assigned equal importance, and it was also shown how both labour and capital recieved incomes according to their contribution to the production process. That is, a capitalist system, with free mobility of labour and capital and with clear property rights (contracts), is essentially a just and stable system.

To conclude, the following are the reasons why Krishna Bharadwaj is an ideal economist. (1) She had an in-depth understanding of the various theoretical approaches in economics, be it, Marxian, Classical, Neoclassical, Austrian or Keynesian. (2) She did not blindly apply these theories (mainly Classical and Marxian) to understand the Indian economy; instead, her inquiry was based on extensive empirical observations, which made the theory richer. (3) She considered it very necessary to understand the history of economic theory, especially because of the historical specificity of all theories. Also because, most theories are responses to certain socio-political events or interests. (4) Lastly, she applied all her experience in setting up a new centre, which paid close attention to both economic theory and its application to the Indian economy, in close connection with other disciplines.

References

Bhaduri, Amit (1992), Krishna Bharadwaj, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 10/11 (Mar. 7-14, 1992), p. 490.

Bharadwaj, Krishna (1963), ‘Value Through Exogenous Distribution’, The Economic Weekly, August 1964.

Bharadwaj, Krishna (1986), Classical Political Economy and the Rise to Dominance of Supply and Demand Theories, Calcutta: Universities Press.

Harcourt, G C (1993-94), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj, August 21, 1935 – March 8, 1992: A Memoir’, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Winter, 1993-1994), pp. 299-311.

Patnaik, Utsa (1991), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj: 21 August 1935 – 8 March 1992,’ Social Scientist, Vol. 19, No. 12. (Dec., 1991), pp. 63-67.

Patnaik, Prabhat (1996), Foreword, in Time as a Metaphor of History: Early India, by Romila Thapar, The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Roncaglia, Alessandro (1993), ‘Krishna Bharadwaj, 1935-1992. In Memoriam’, Metroeconomica, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 187-194.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Classical Political Economy, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, India, Karl Marx, Krishna Bharadwaj, Neoclassical Economics, Piero Sraffa, Political Economy, Sraffa, Sraffian Economics | 5 Comments »