Classicals vs Neoclassicals: Tax and Rent

At the university I attended, a few of the academics were strongly influenced by classical political economy, especially that of Smith and Ricardo. Prior to my student days, one of them had published a paper in the Cambridge Journal of Economics entitled “On the origins of the term ‘neoclassical'” (no free link available), which is quite well known among scholars interested in the history of economic thought. In the paper, he argued that the ‘classical’ in the term ‘neoclassical’ is a misnomer and that neoclassical and classical economics actually have little in common, despite attempts by neoclassicals to claim Smith, in particular, as their forefather.

The classical-influenced economists at my university happened to belong to the Sraffian school. This school attempts to synthesize classical value and distribution with Keynesian output and employment determination, and is also known for its key role and victory in the capital debates. The school is named after Piero Sraffa, whose interpretation of classical political economy, particularly Ricardo’s work, has been influential.

Sraffians are not the only modern-day economists influenced by Smith and Ricardo. Another prominent example is Michael Hudson. In a recent interview (h/t to Tom Hickey), Hudson discusses one big difference between the classical economists and the neoclassicals: their analysis of taxation as applied to economic rent.

Hudson touches on a number of noteworthy points during the interview. He draws attention to a historical correspondence that would probably surprise many, between high top tax rates and strong economic growth, and observes that the top rates were high in the period prior to WWII. Importantly, the focus of taxation in classical political economy, which Hudson argues influenced US government policy in the late 1800s and much of the first half of the 1900s, was on confiscating economic rents. These rents include income that derives from ownership of assets that appreciate in value merely because of the growth in national income and/or improved public infrastructure, and not due to any participation in the production process (they arise especially in the real estate and financial sectors).

It is not mentioned in the interview, but profit, of course, is also income that derives from the mere ownership of assets – the means of production. However, the classical economists were engaged in a class conflict with rentiers, not capitalists. It was Marx who drew this reasoning out to its logical conclusion, and this probably goes a long way to explaining why neoclassical theory, rather than being a continuation of classical economics (as was often claimed once it was established), was an escape into a different conceptualization of a capitalist economy that sought to reframe the distribution of income as being the result of marginal contributions (an attempt that failed and was the chief target and theoretical casualty of the cambridge debates). Even so, there does remain a significant distinction between profit, which relates to assets employed in the production process, and economic rents. For this reason, Marx also distinguished between these two categories of income and spent a great deal of space in volume 3 of Capital analyzing the various forms of surplus value, including different types of rent.

Hudson goes on to stress that the taxation imposed in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s was highly progressive. Initially only the top 1 percent of income earners were required to submit tax returns. The purpose of this was to keep taxes on wages and profit low to promote price competitiveness against lower wage countries. This can be contrasted with neoliberal policies of today which seem to be designed almost with the opposite intent: to tax income, especially wage income, and also consumption but provide loopholes or tax breaks for the recipients of economic rents.

Above all, Hudson distinguishes between what the classical economists meant by the term “free market” and what that term has come to mean in the neoliberal period. Hudson emphasizes that, for the classical economists, “free market” meant a market unencumbered by rent-based claims on income that would draw economic activity away from income production and toward speculation. The aim of the classical economists was to incentivize production. This is a very different notion than the neoliberal one of labor-market “deregulation” (meaning regulation in favor of employers over employees), which is really just code for weakening unions and suppressing real wages, or the neoliberal deregulation of financial markets, which is a euphemism for enabling financial parasitism.

Hudson makes another observation in passing. The observation is not central to his argument in the interview, but is relevant to current debates over government deficits and public debt, and consistent with MMT. He notes that immediately prior to the commencement of the only extended period of high capitalist growth (WWII until the late 1960s), the US population was not in debt, and in fact had pent up savings from the war that it was waiting to spend.

By little or no debt, Hudson clarifies that he means little or no private debt. There was, of course, a large public debt – larger as a percentage of GDP than the current US government “debt”. This public debt did not matter, in spite of the familiar opposition to fiscal deficits and public debt, the echoes of which can be heard today, simply because the fiscal deficit shrinks endogenously once private-sector activity and income growth resume. This is precisely what happened in the immediate postwar period.

Today, with the US government the monopoly issuer of its own flexible exchange-rate currency, public “debt” is – or rather should be – even less of an issue. Unlike in the immediate postwar period, the government is not subject to the constraints of Bretton Woods or a similar commodity-backed money system. It is free to utilize its fiscal capacity to the extent necessary to restore full employment.

Public “debt” is nothing other than the accumulated financial wealth of non-government. Once non-government is ready to spend, income growth will deliver stronger tax revenues, reducing the fiscal deficit. But the private sector needs to have its debt under control before it can sustainably spend at levels sufficient to sustain strong economic growth.

In addition to the absence of significant private debt at the end of WWII, there were other factors that contributed to the strong growth of the immediate postwar period, including Keynesian demand-management policies, a progressive tax system, and significant financial regulation. All these beneficial features of the economy were gradually undermined, and then exposed to outright attack from the 1970s onwards.

Hudson discusses how, over time, much of the progressivity in the tax system was eroded, paving the way for the construction of the inequitable and anti-productive monster of today. Keynesian demand-management policies were also largely eschewed throughout the neoliberal era on the basis of an opportunistic misinterpretation of the stagflation of the 1970s. All this took place alongside deregulation of the financial sector and an aggressive dismantling of worker employment protections.

The result of this neoliberal policy mix was an increasing financialization and “rentification” of the economy, widening income inequality, and an adherence to fiscal austerity that directly corresponded, as a matter of accounting, to an unsustainable build up in the only US debt that matters – private debt – and culminated in the global financial crisis and Great Recession.

If the aim is to restore sustainable growth under capitalism (which is not my preferred social system, but presumably the one commanding the allegience of policymakers), the insights obtained from the classical economists in conjunction with the lessons of the postwar period would seem to suggest some combination of the following policy responses: tighter regulation of speculative activities; a more steeply progressive tax system targeted at the confiscation of economic rents and the incentivization of production; stronger worker protections; and the abandonment of the faulty neoclassical construct of a ‘government budget constraint’ and a return to government net expenditure sufficient to underpin non-government net saving and full employment.

But the actual policy response has instead been to manipulate financial markets to engineer a massive transfer of wealth to the rentiers and exacerbate income and wealth inequality; to continue with the approach of taxing income and consumption rather than economic rents; and possibly even to revert foolishly to austerity while the private sector remains deeply indebted.