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The Character and Role of Economic Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 8th November 2012

Over the years, much has been written about the methods employed in economic theory. The recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic crisis in Europe have resulted in a marked increase in criticisms directed at mainstream economic theory – neoclassical economics (more precisely, marginalist economics). Internal critics of neoclassical economics have been modifying certain assumptions of marginalist economics and have ‘developed’ new forms of economic knowledge such as law and economics, welfare economics, neuroeconomics, new institutional economics and so on. Critics external to marginalist economics, often known as heterodox economics (examples include Classical/Sraffian economics, Post-Keynesian economics and Marxian economics), have provided compelling logical critiques of the theory. Additionally, they also supplement their analysis with empirical and historical details (which is not uncommon in neoclassical economic either). This post is reflective in nature and tries to comprehend the character of economic theory along with a commentary on its contemporary function in the form of questions, thereby reinforcing the reflective nature of this blog post.

First, the definition adopted has a critical influence on the aims and scope of economic theory. For instance, the definition of economics as a study of reproduction and accumulation of wealth/income (characteristic of the heterodox economic theories mentioned above) is qualitatively different from a definition which views economics as a study of allocating scarce resources among competing ends (characteristic of neoclassical economics). The former definition is more modest in scope and seeks to provide answers to a limited number of questions vis-à-vis the latter one which encompasses any and every issue where human decisions are involved. Examining the causes of accumulation and growth warrant the following theories: a theory of value and distribution; a theory of activity-levels (at times, this is absent); and a theory of economic growth. While examining the causal connections within these theories, some features of human behaviour are taken as given. The most important, perhaps, is the human propensity for self-betterment in material terms. Such a limited domain enables these economic theories to be more specific and definite thereby improving their explanatory power in the analysis of economic growth, unemployment, technical progress, wage dynamics and so on. An extremely wide scope is entailed by the definition of economics present in neoclassical economics; consequently, we see the emergence of sub-fields such as: cognitive economics, neuroeconomics, economics of philosophy, experimental economics, evolutionary economics, cliometrics, etc. The questions addressed in many of these sub-fields often have nothing to do with the generation of income or its distribution. The questions being asked are different, and quite relevant in understanding various aspects of human behaviour and institutions. However, if the aim of economic policy and economists is to improve material well-being, neoclassical economics and its sub-fields are not entirely satisfactory, primarily for logical reasons. The two most dangerous tenets of marginalist economics are the marginal productivity theory and the tendency to full employment.

Second, economic theory, I think, has two broad functions. One is to explain the logically necessary connections which exist between various economic variables, and the direction of causation. Usage of terms such as exogenous, endogenous, dependent and independent variables convey the direction of causation. For example, classical/Keynesian theory argues that activity levels and economic growth is demand-led whereas marginalist economics posits that activity levels and economic growth is supply-driven. This is a theoretical debate, which cannot be resolved by recourse to empirical data given the high degree of correlation present among (macro)economic variables such as income, investment, saving, etc. Another reason for the debate being unresolved is the incommensurability of the two kinds of economic theory involved – classical/Keynesian vs. marginalism. The other broad function of an economic theory is to provide an explanation for the manner in which these (marco)economic variables grow over time; strictly speaking, the dominant economics influences the way in which data is collected and presented and the explanation for the data is also provided by the dominant economics. (A chief, although not very reliable, exception to this is the econometric technique known as VAR which attempts to undertake ‘measurement without theory’.) Much of these numbers will need to be supplemented with contextual and historical details. Also, in economics, one needs to be careful about assigning too much ‘reliability’ to data so much so that they are considered ‘adequate’ to overturn a particular economic theory. This is not to say that data does not matter, but that it should be treated with significant caution.

Third and finally, it is of great practical importance to know what economic policies can be advanced based on economic theory, supplemented by data or not. In other words, what conditions must a particular theory fulfil in order for it to be reliable? Is an empirical assessment necessary or is it sufficient? How sound must the logic be? To what extent must the assumptions be scrutinised? Can econometric analysis provide conclusive evidence?

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Posted in Classical Economics, Cliometrics, Economic Philosophy, Economic Thought, Economics, Experimental Economics, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics, Sraffian Economics | No 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 »

Sraffa: The Origins of ‘Marginal’ Analysis

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 10th April 2010

Since the advent of the ‘marginal’ method, the doctrines of the old classical economists have been submerged and forgotten. It is this standpoint that Sraffa revives in his 1960 book Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. Being third in the series of posts [Post 1; Post 2] on Sraffa, this post examines the origin of the ‘marginal’ method and its subsequent (mis)use by the neoclassical economists. The posts concludes with a brief mention of how history of economic thought is important so as to place theories in a proper context.

In the preface of his book, Sraffa points out that in a system of production where the scale of an industry or proportions of factors of production remained unchanged, one would not be able to locate marginal product and marginal cost. To put it differently, marginal analysis is done by considering ‘potential change’. That is, we try to find out variations in equilibrium quantities and prices with respect to infinitesimal changes in the neighbourhood. [Bharadwaj 1986, p 39]

What we do not pay adequate attention to, is that the most familiar case of ‘marginal analysis’ is that of the product of marginal land (also known as no rent land) in agriculture, when lands of different qualities are cultivated side by side. This refers to the well known differential rent theory of David Ricardo. In fact, it is the case of diminishing marginal returns on land which is at the junction of the “fundamental methodological shift from classical to equilibrium theory”. [Bharadwaj 1986, p 40] This can be understood only through a discussion of ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’ margins.

Cultivation on lands of different qualities is visualised as the outcome of a process of ‘extensive’ diminishing returns. On the other hand, successive use of more output producing techniques refers to the process of ‘intensive’ diminishing returns. [Sraffa 1960, p 76] In the case of ‘extensive’ margins in cultivation, “the rents can directly worked out on the basis of the single observed situation.” [Bharadwaj 1986, p 41] Whereas, in the case of ‘intensive’ margins, the calculation of rent requires a quantitative change in the situation. That is, successive doses of labour and ‘capital’ need to be added to the land. And, a further assumption is made on the nature of these ‘doses’. These ‘doses’ are considered to be homogeneous. As Krishna Bharwadwaj explains: “At any moment of observation, no dose is distinguishable from each other. No ‘marginal product’ can, therefore, exist in this case without introducing potential change.” [Bharadwaj 1986, p 42]

Thus, it is the Ricardian theory of rent which provided the basis for the neoclassical theory of distribution by providing an inverse relationship between successive doses of labour and ‘capital’ and their remuneration. This theory of Ricardo was intended to explain the origin of rents. In the hands of later authors, this was generalised to labour and ‘capital’. Hence, we see the inverse relation between ‘capital intensity’ and rate of profit in microeconomics textbooks of today.

From this excursion into the Ricardian theory of rent, two aspects are very clear. First, the concept of ‘marginal’ or ‘margins’ was used exclusively in the domain of cultivation. In ‘intensive’ cultivation, it is obvious that the output would increase only until a certain point, owing to the quality of that piece of land. Whereas, in the case of ‘extensive’ cultivation, the output would increase till all the acres of land are cultivated- notice the scarcity element here. What is not clear is the rationale of extending such an analysis into the area of manufacturing! Also, it is well accepted that land is scarce; but, is ‘capital’ or produced commodities scarce in a similar way?

No book of microeconomics mentions the origins of the famous ‘marginal’ analysis. And this method is so entrenched in the profession, that it is almost impossible to throw it away. It is in this context that other conceptual frameworks, that pay more attention to the changing historical conditions, assume importance. Probably, we need to revisit earlier theories and theorists not just for their own sake but for our sake as well in throwing light on contemporary issues. Sraffa’s work has inspired a lot of work on the history of economic thought, which will be summarised in a later post.

References

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

Sraffa, Piero (1960), ‘Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory‘, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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Posted in Classical Political Economy, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Krishna Bharadwaj, Neoclassical Economics, Piero Sraffa, Political Economy, Sraffa, Sraffian Economics | 4 Comments »