Friday, May 31, 2019

Some Reviews of Quiggin's Economics in Two Lessons

I have been thinking of posting a review of Quiggin's book, but this is not it. I suppose I should mention that I am in the acknowledgements.

Quiggin has a response to a couple of the above. By the way, he had a paper, in 1987, on public choice.

I think any reviewer should note that Quiggin is extremely generous to Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. Hazlitt does not mention "opportunity cost". By focusing on this concept, Quiggin makes Hazlitt seem more coherent than he is. I agree with Quiggin that this coherence does not require Hazlitt to think the economy is always in equilibrium. It is consistent with prices providing signals, that, when entrepreneurs act on them, move the economy towards equilibrium. It is not consistent, as Quiggin notes in his book, with the economy persisting for a long time within the production possibility frontier, without any tendency to more towards the frontier.

It is no answer to or review of Quiggin's book to rattle on about Keynesianism or the logically incorrect AustrianBusiness Cycle theory. One has to also address Quiggin's points about externalities, information asymmetries, and the continual redefinition of property rights.

Furthermore, a fair reviewer would note that Quiggin does not recommend a mechanical calculation of, say, taxes and subsidies to correct market failures. Although, I guess, he does not mention "government failure" in his book, his consideration of policies is a lot more nuanced than that.

Furthermore, if one thinks the theory of public choice provides an answer to Quiggin, one should note that Hazlitt does not discuss these matters. Hazlitt was a propagandist and, for decades, should have not been taken seriously.

As far as I know, public choice is an application of neoclassical economics. Gloria-Palermo and Palermo (2005), as I recall this paper, argues that the Hayekian argument about the coordinating function of market prices does not provide a welfare criterion alternative to Pareto efficiency. I think I have such criteria in focusing on conditions for the continued reproduction of society, as opposed to the efficient allocation of given resources. One can also point to the Veblenian dichotomy, between instrumental and ceremonial aspects of institutions, as well as to the pragmatism of John Dewey. If I do review Quiggin's book, I want to point out how it is too accepting of Neoclassicism, as well as where it points beyond.

  • Sandy Gloria-Palermo and Giulio Palermo (2005). Austrian economics and value judgements: A critical comparison with Neoclassical Economics. Review of Political Economy 17(1): 63-78.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

All Combinations of Real Wicksell Effects, Substitution of Labor

Figure 1: A Pattern Diagram

Consider an example of the production of commodities, in which many commodities are produced within capitalist firms. Suppose two techniques are available to produce a given net output. These techniques use the same set of capital goods, albeit in different proportions. They differ in process in use for only one industry. Given the qualification about the same capital goods, generic (non-fluke) switch points are the intersection of the intersection of the wage curves for two techniques that differ in exactly one process.

Suppose that, due to technological progress, some coefficients of production decrease in the process unique to the Alpha technique. Figure 1 shows a possible pattern diagram for this generalization of a previous example. Here, switch points and the maximum rate of profits are plotted against the rate of profits. As time goes by, a reswitching pattern leads to a reswitching example. The switch point created at the larger rate of profits exhibits, after t = 1/2, a negative real Wicksell effect and a reverse substitution of labor. A pattern over the axis for the rate of profits then results in the existence of another switch point at an even higher rate of profits. Technological progress can bring about, in a single example, the combination of both non-zero directions of real Wicksell effects with both non-zero directions of the substitution of labor.

The regions in Figure 1 in which reswitching occurs also illustrate process recurrence. Process recurrence is more general, inasmuch as it can arise even without reswitching.

Since all four possible combinations, of nonzero-real Wicksell effects and the substitution of labor, are possible, the direction of real Wicksell effects and the direction of the substitution of labor are independent of one another. The choice of technique results in variation in gross outputs in multiple industries, for given net outputs. (The question of returns to scale is of interest in this context.) These variations in gross outputs also result in variation in the amount of labor firms want to employ. Around a switch point with a positive real Wicksell effect, firms want to employ more labor, per unit of net output, in the aggregate across all industries. A necessary consequence is that they want to employ more labor in at least one industry. This variation in aggregate employment is consistent with any direction in the variation in the labor coefficient of production in the industry with the varying process.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Alfred Eichner's Microfoundations, Or An Open Letter To Marco Rubio

The Growing Importance of Finance in the Post-War U.S. Economy

As I understand it, Marco Rubio takes from Post Keynesians the idea that, during the post-war golden age, investment decisions were dominated by industrial firms. But now, they are dominated by financial corporations. This change has been accompanied by deleterious effects on economic growth, stagnant wages, and an upward shift in the distribution of income and wealth. The increasing importance of finance in the economy in the United States, at least, is illustrated by the above graph. The impact of the global financial crisis is immediately apparent in 2008.

The distinction between having investment directed by finance or by industry might not make any sense to you if you think of every investment as like purchasing a bond. In this sort of way of looking at things, every investment can be evaluated by a Return On Investment, taking suitable account of risk, the payback period, and so on. It does not matter if one is talking about a college degree; research and development in, say, clean energy; a painting by Monet; or a stock option. To the financier, it is all one.

I take some of the most notable work of Alfred Eichner (1937-1988) as a description of the previous era. Eichner learned a lot about how corporations set prices by looking at the results of Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, as chaired by Estes Kefauver. Various corporate executives from the steel industry testified. Rubio, as I understand it, could similarly investigate how American businesses operate now.

Eichner theorized megacorporations. These are corporations that operate multiple plants and produce multiple products and that try to maintain market power. Eichner took aboard the idea, as developed by Gardiner Means and Adolfe Berle (1932), that ownership and control are separate in the modern corporation. In a sense recently explained by Dan Davies, Eichner's approach is microfounded. His theory is consistent with recognizing the principal agent problems that come about when a corporate board is somewhat independent of stock owners, when corporate executives are another group of personnel, and so one. According to Eichner, managers in the megacorp are interested in pursuing a satisfactory rate of growth, not in maximizing economic profits.

Eichner recognizes that corporations set prices as a markup on costs. He builds on the survey findings of R. L. Hall and C. J. Hitch. Eichner's ideas relate to theories of administered or full cost pricing. I guess they are consistent with Robin Marris's managerial theory of the firm.

Markups vary among industries and within an industry over time. How is the markup set? According to Eichner, the markup, at least for industry leaders in price-setting, are put at the level needed to finance investment for planned growth targets. Eichner draws an analogy to a tax, in the Soviet Union, on turnover. This tax was used to finance planned investment.

Eichner had some correspondence with Joan Robinson. He saw his theory of the megacorp as compatible with Post Keynesian theories of growth.

I explicitly do not claim that this theory is descriptive of how investment is determined nowadays in the United States. But I find lots of interesting ideas here.

  • Alfred S. Eichner. 1973. A Theory of the Determination of the Mark-up Under Oligopoly pp. 1184-1200.
  • William Milberg (ed.) 1992. The Megacorp & Macrodynamics: Essays in memory of Alfred Eichner M. E. Sharpe.

Saturday, May 18, 2019


Thursday, May 16, 2019

How To Defend Capitalism?

1.0 Summary of Defense

Last month, Mike Munger purports to "summarize the basic argument for capitalism" (emphasis added). He acknowledges his argument is superficial. I find it excessively so. Munger argues that capitalism:

  • Supports the division of labor
  • Provides price signals so as to direct production appropriately
  • Promotes economies to scale

Ultimately, this defense is that capitalism delivers the goods. Here's a well-expressed, simple defense that, partially, argues along these lines:

It is possible to defend our economic system on the ground that, patched up with Keynesian correctives, it is, as he put it, the 'best in sight'. Or at any rate that it is not too bad, and change is painful. In short, that our system is the best system that we have got.

Or it is possible to take the tough-minded line that Schumpeter derived from Marx. The system is cruel, unjust, turbulent, but it does deliver the goods, and, damn it all, it's the goods that you want.

Or, conceding its defects, to defend it on political grounds - that democracy as we know it could not have grown up under any other system and cannot survive without it.

What is not possible, at this time of day, is to defend it, in the neoclassical style, as a delicate self-regulating mechanism, that has only to be left to itself to produce the greatest satisfaction for all.

But none of the alternative defences really sound very well. Nowadays, to support the status quo, the best course is just to leave all these awkward problems alone." -- Joan Robinson (1962). Economic Philosophy, p. 130

2.0 Division of Labor and Efficiencies of Scale

I am not sure that Munger has three principles. I think of the division of labor and efficiencies of scale as closely related. But are either specific to capitalism, as opposed to any society with large scale production? In some sense, Munger is not necessarily attacking a strawperson. Here's an expression of a wish for a post-capitalist society that is arguably not consistent with large-scale production:

" communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." -- Karl Marx, The German Ideology.

But, maybe with enough automation, such a society would be possible.

I find it of interest that Marx, in The Communist Manifesto and in Capital describes how capitalism brought about a remarkable increase in productivity. I find Marx, on the division of labor, much more concrete and extensive than Adam Smith, even though he is writing about the abstraction of capital in general. How much has been written about what Marx took from Charles Babbage's On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures? This book has a lot to say about what would now be called Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I)?

Anyways, questions arise when a defense of capitalism echoes capitalism's greatest critic.

3.0 Price Signals Consistent with Market Socialism

Munger's second principle, about price signals, draws, I assume, on Friedrich Hayek. I do not see how this is a defense of capitalism, as opposed to markets. Whatever you think of it, a large literature on market socialism exists. Private ownership of capitalist enterprises is not necessary for the existence of price signals. I suppose one could argue about incentives in this context, which I do not think Munger does.

4.0 Other Arguments

I think interesting that Munger does not say anything about the efficient static allocation of resources or the first and second welfare theorems. In some sense, he is correct to put these ideas aside, since a good apologetic argument for capitalism cannot be fashioned in these terms.

On the other hand, Munger avoids all of the issues that John Quiggin brings up in his recent Economics in Two Lessons. Issues with unregulated capitalism include externalities, the assignment and distribution of property rights, and periodic bouts of widespread unemployment. (I find unpersuasive talk of "government failure" as a response to the demonstration that unregulated capitalism is bound to misallocate resources. Is a claim being made that anybody can calculate a closed-form optimal allocation at any point in time?)

5.0 What is Capitalism?

I suspect that Munger supports a fairly hierarchical version of capitalism, with widespread private, brutal, and authoritarian institutions (for example, corporations). Inspired by Chapter 9, "Security and Freedom", of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, I would ask what is compatible with Munger's apologetics for capitalism? Widespread co-operative, syndicates, and and factory councils? Co-determination, in which union representatives are on corpation boards? Sovereign Wealth Funds, Employee Stock Ownership Plans, Universal basic income, government insurance, and social security?

So Munger's three principles do not seem to rule out either an extensive social democracy or even democratic socialism.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Positive Real Wicksell Effect, Forward Substitution Of Labor

Figure 1: Wage-Rate of Profits Curves

Consider a comparison of stationary states. Net output is taken as given, and a unit of net output is the numeraire. Technology consists of a finite set of techniques. In each technique, net output is produced from inputs of labor and produced circulating capital goods. No fixed capital is used, and land of the best quality is in such abundance that it is free. Also assume constant returns to scale.

One can find a wage-rate of profits curve for each technique. The cost-minimizing technique at is the technique its wage curve on the outer envelope, also known as the wage-rate of profits frontier, at that wage. Switch points are points at which two or more wage curves intersect (on the frontier). Suppose the same gross vector commodities are produced, albeit in different proportions, at a switch point. Generically, the techniques differ in the process in use for one industry. The same processes are in use in all other industries. (I have argued that fluke switch points in which wage curves for more than two techniques intersect at a single switch point are of importance for understanding how qualitative changes in the properties of the wage frontier can come about from, for example, technological progress.)

A generic switch point can exhibit positive or negative real Wicksell effects. And it can exhibit a forward or reverse substitution of labor.

Around a switch point with a positive real Wicksell effect, a higher wage is associated with firms wanting to employ more labor throughout the economy, per unit of net output.

Around a switch point with a reverse substitution of labor, a higher wage is associated with firms, in the industry in which the process of production varies, wanting to employ more labor per unit of gross output.

I have previously given a numerical example that illustrates switch points with:

  • A positive real Wicksell effect and a reverse substitution of labor.
  • A negative real Wicksell effect and a reverse substitution of labor.
  • A negative real Wicksell effect and a forward substitution of labor.

Figure 1 illustrates a switch point can have a positive real Wicksell effect and a forward substitution of labor. Suppose that the wage curves for two techniques have three intersections. One intersection is between a rate of profits of negative one hundred percent and zero. The other intersections are at two feasible poisitive rates of profits. Then the switch point at the largest positive rate of profits has a positive real Wicksell effect and a forward substitution of labor. (I have not actually specified a technology, with three or more produced commodities, that generates wage curves like those illustrated.)

Since all four possible combinations are possible, the direction of real Wicksell effects and the substitution of labor are independent of of one another. The choice of technique results in variation in gross outputs in multiple industries, for given net outputs. These variations also result in variation in the amount of labor firms want to employ. This variation in aggregate employment is consistent with any direction in the variation in the labor coefficient of production in the industry with the varying process.

If somebody explains wages and employment by supply and demand for labor, they are making a political point. This holds even if they argue that a supply and demand explanation provides a baseline. They may be demonstrating that economists continue to adopt a price theory that has been known for decades to be incoherent nonsense.