Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

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?

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Classical Economics, Cliometrics, Economic Philosophy, Economic Thought, Economics, Experimental Economics, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics, Sraffian Economics | No 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).

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

Who prices the products?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st January 2011

Recently, Indians have witnessed an escalation in onion prices followed by a hike in fuel prices. Price rise is a phenomenon which affects all sections of the society in varying degrees. Earlier, through the work of Michal Kalecki, a Russian economist, this blog showed the difference between cost-determined and demand-determined prices. The current post examines how products are priced. Majority of the arguments in this post is taken from the book Smart Pricing, authored by Jagmohan Raju and Z. John Zhang published in 2010.

Textbook economics teaches us that it is demand and supply which determine prices. Are the prices of vegetables, rice, chicken, train travel, milk, bread, toothpaste, parathas, etc determined in a similar way? When price changes are attributed to demand and supply, it means that prices are taking their “normal course”. In other words, price movements arising from demand and supply are considered as normal as the law of gravitation. Economic theory ascribes the term ‘invisible hand’ to denote demand and supply factors which cause prices to alter. However, as repeatedly pointed out in this blog, manufactured goods and producer/consumer services are not priced in the market via bargaining. As Raju and Zhang rightly point out, “Price setting is a tangible process with a tangible outcome – a dollar figure. The process of arriving at that number might not be tidy, but it cannot be so mysterious that it does not involve any human intervention. Someone, somewhere must make a concrete, numerical decision about the price of a product or service” (2010, p 2). Further, they argue that “the market does not set prices. Marketers do. All the prices we observe in the marketplace do not just spring out of an autonomous, impersonal market. The managers’ hands in setting those prices are entirely “visible,” regardless of whether such interventions are acts of expediency or strategy” (Ibid, p 11-12).

According to Raju and Zhang products are usually priced based on three approaches: (1) cost-plus based, (2) competition based and (3) consumer based. An overwhelming majority of U.S. Companies use this approach to set prices. Here, the mark-up is determined by the company’s targeted internal rate of return on investment or by some vaguely defined industry convention. Competition based pricing is the second most popular approach and is considered to be strategic. In this approach, the prices are fixed taking into account the prices of similar products in the market. In the case of consumer based pricing, the company tries to determine how much each consumer is willing to pay and then accordingly fixes a price. All the above mentioned approaches indicate that price fixing is a conscious and deliberate action carried out by the company or individual producer.

In microeconomics textbooks and in the media we find statements which ascribe price rise to demand-supply factors. The group of individuals – the capitalists, the brokers, the intermediaries etc – who cause the prices to rise with their actions are completely absent in this account. The book by Raju and Zhang therefore is a must read for all economists who wish to understand how products are actually priced in today’s consumerist society.

Reference

Raju, Jagmohan and Zhang, John (2010), Smart Pricing: How Google, Priceline, and Leading Businesses Use Pricing Innovation for Profitability, Pearson Education: New Jersey.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Economics, Inflation, Markets, Neoclassical Economics, Prices | 2 Comments »