Practice Exam Question. “Capitalism is unstable, but not that unstable.” Explain and discuss this statement with special reference to Harrod’s knife-edge problem and modern developments in growth theory. (Please take this exercise seriously and treat like a real exam. You will be glad you did come finals.)
Student Response. Roy Harrod’s famous ‘knife edge’ suggested a capitalist susceptibility to extreme instability in which, other than at the ‘warranted’ rate of growth, the economy would either shrink to zero or explode toward hyperinflationary infinity. Because capitalism, though unstable, is clearly not that unstable, economists scrambled to find a reason for the system’s track record of not being that unstable.
In view of the xenophobia that seems to be rearing its ugly head in various parts of the world, I broach this topic with hesitation. To be very clear from the outset, I am not an opponent of international trade. I do think there need to be controls and safeguards, and the ideal should be ‘fair’ and ‘managed’ rather than so-called ‘free’ trade. I think it is in the interests of any nation to develop a broadly based network of production to enable self-sufficiency in the event of external conflict. And moves to weaken sovereignty and democracy (such as through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and similarly notorious “trade” deals) need to be resisted. When it comes to the negative impacts of global capitalism, I am not inclined to privilege the interests of disgruntled westerners over workers in lower-income countries. Many westerners, judging by post-Second World War voting patterns, appear to have thought it perfectly okay for much of the world to be poverty-stricken and war-ravaged just so long as they retained their relatively high-paid jobs. It’s not clear why the workers of any particular country have the right to a job or income over anybody else. If somebody is going to miss out, why not westerners who only now react against the social and ecological calamity that is global capitalism, and even then in a misguided manner? The problem is the existence of war and environmental destruction per se; poverty amidst plenty per se; exploitation per se; the fact that many who want decent living conditions and the opportunity to contribute to society in a meaningful way are denied their chance. The mistreatment of a westerner is abhorrent; the mistreatment of anybody else, equally so. Having spelled out my starting point, I want to comment on a statement tweeted out by Donald Trump (hat tip to Matt Franko, who reproduces the actual tweets in this post).
This post concerns total value creation (Marx) in a context of demand-determined output and employment (Kalecki, Keynes). A ‘macro rule’ employed by Marx seems central to this connection. Marx held that, in real terms, an hour of average living labor “always yields the same amount of value, independently of any variations in productivity” (Marx, 1990, Capital, Vol. 1, Penguin Edition, p. 137). Value in ‘real’ terms is expressed as an amount of socially necessary labor time, whereas ‘nominal’ value is expressed in terms of a monetary unit of account. If it is true, as Marx maintained, that an hour of average living labor always creates the same real value, then at the aggregate level, total ‘productive’ employment provides a straightforward measure of ‘new value added’.
Viewed from a certain vantage point, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a very general framework that offers insight into how we might go about making genuine social progress. It does not simply facilitate an understanding of capitalism, but points to a way of transcending the present system. It enables insight into the opportunities available to any society that forms for itself a government and operates a monetary economy.
In a recent post, JW Mason draws an insightful comparison:
Conventional policy and functional finance represent two different choices about which instrument to assign to which target. The former says the interest rate instrument should focus on demand and the fiscal-balance instrument should focus on the debt-ratio target, the latter has them the other way around. … In this sense, the functional finance position is less radical than either its supporters or its opponents believe.
Scott Fullwiler has explained (for example, in this five-part series) that functional finance, far from being reckless or radical if assessed on orthodox criteria, turns out to be “ricardian” as that term is employed by the mainstream. So, the leading Modern Monetary Theorists would likely agree that functional finance is not radical in this sense. What is “radical” – for want of a better word – is that functional finance, like much of currently heterodox macroeconomics, turns the current conventional wisdom on its head.
Sometimes the view is expressed that Marx’s theory, while perhaps applying to an earlier, competitive version of capitalism, has little relevance to the era of ‘monopoly capitalism’ in which we supposedly live today. This view seems to result from mistaking ‘competition’ in Marx – and classical political economy, more generally – with neoclassical ‘perfect competition’.
In explaining why it is investment that creates saving, and not the other way around, different economists have offered different ways of looking at the matter. Keynes (see previous posts here and here) distinguished planned (ex ante) from actual (ex post) investment and saving to note the way in which planned saving adjusts to planned investment via changes in income. Kalecki (discussed previously here) emphasized the initiating role of decision making. Firms can decide how much to invest, but not how much profit they will make, because profit depends on the spending decisions of others. Post Keynesian analysis of institutions and monetary operations suggests an explanation summed up with characteristic insight and clarity by Warren Mosler in the short video embedded below. The purpose of the present post is just to flesh out the explanation a little and highlight a few of its implications.
Three previous posts (here, here and here) outlined the operational differences and similar macro effects of some alternative approaches to government spending; namely, bond issuance to the private sector, interest on reserves, and overt monetary financing. Since these posts were quite detailed, it might be worth spelling out the short answer to what is going on in each case. Further details can then be found in the earlier posts.