A different perspective on modern economics (revised)

Part of an ongoing “Economic Myths Debunked” series.

Economics is often portrayed as being independent, devoid of value judgements, and immune to ethical or ideological influence. Over the past thirty years our politicians and policymakers, many economists in the media, and most economics textbooks have encouraged us, in the words of Harvard professor Dani Rodrik (2009),  “to think of economics as a discipline that idolizes [sic.] markets and a narrow concept of (allocative) efficiency.”

The mainstream view

The general public, media and indeed economic students have all been subtly indoctrinated with an emphasis on demand and supply (also called the model of perfect competition) as the central theoretical structure of an immutable reality: “…a world of perfect markets in which given resources are allocated as if by an invisible hand in a way that maximizes[sic.] the value of total production. The belief that this model approximates how markets operate in the real world is often referred to as ‘market fundamentalism’.” (Hill and Myatt, 2010, p.4)

[It is essentially a laissez-faire view. The core belief is that markets are efficient and that governmental attempts to ‘interfere’ with markets necessarily create inefficiencies. (ibid, p.264) They give the impression that markets generally are sufficiently competitive that (for the most part) they lead to efficient outcomes; that minimum wages and unions are harmful to workers themselves; and that government regulation is either ineffective or harmful. (ibid, p.1)]

Further still, most are under the impression “that economics is a value-free science; that economists have an agreed-upon methodology; and they know which models are best to apply to any given problem.” (ibid, p.1)

Most of this is myth.

The reality

“Value judgements pervade economics and economic textbooks. These value judgements reflect a social and political philosophy and can be called an ideology or world-view. It is one that textbook writers are implicitly attempting to persuade the reader to accept.” (ibid, p.1)

The point is not so much to claim that this ideology is wrong, but simply to point out that it exists, and that there are always alternative views that one ought to consider. Hill and Myatt agree with Rodrik (as quote in the first paragraph) that the typical text offers a view that ‘idolizes markets’ – “usually not in a crude way, but in a subtle way through its choice of themes, and through its emphasis on demand and supply (also called the model of perfect competition) as the central theoretical structure.” (Hill, 2010, p.4)  Australian economists Prof. Steve Keen goes further, implying that because the values that pervade the textbooks are so subtly woven through they present themselves as  neutral, yet only by absence of alternative views. A whole generation now exists that thinks  “neoclassical economics [is] economics.” (Keen, 2011, p.9)

Neoclassical, mainstream, economics  presents hypotheses and policy prescriptions with surprisingly little or no supporting evidence, or (worse) it ignores inconvenient contrary evidence. Indeed, what neoclassical economists don’t admit is that even their fundamental “totem of supply and demand” (as Keen refers to it) is based on an initial assumption that would leave the most ardent supporter of “free-markets” with their jaw planted firmly on the ground.

“Scientists … check their theories and models against observations of the real world at every opportunity. The central theory of the currently dominant stream of economics has not been properly checked against real economies for over a century. If it had, it would long-since have been abandoned.” (Davies, 2012)

Particularly, many  supporters of market fundamentalism, the modern free-market theory (or academically, the neo­clas­si­cal theory), are actually ignorant (or misinformed) about the foundations this theory is built upon and the assumptions of its economic models. It comes as a shock for many when they find how little this widely revered theory has to do with science and reality in the real world. When people who seem to vehemently support ‘free-markets’ start stating how they think they work and the basis of their understanding, they don’t realise that they ironically showing how much they don’t support market fundamentalism!

In 2000, a group of economics students in France circulated an open letter to their professors declaring ‘We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!’ and deploring the ‘disregard for concrete realities’ in their teaching.  They asked for less dogmatism and more pluralism of approaches. Since then, petitions and open letters have appeared in the United Kingdom and in the United States. (For details, see www.paecon.net.)

Forthcoming blogs

My aim with the forthcoming blogs on economics topics is to open up your views on economics; to see things in broader terms; to understand the differences and similarities in the many schools of thought outside of the current neoclassical dominated world view and hopefully to think more critically when presented with economic ‘facts’ and ‘discussions’ by the media, economists,  and politicians.

Contradictory to what neoclassical economists insist, economics is not an immutable science or natural force with set physical laws; it is socially and philosophically driven, morally adaptable and is fundamentally controllable. The “free market” as is defined by the political ‘right’ and neoclassical economics is not natural or inevitable, and does not exist outside government. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them.

I want you to imagine how you believe economics should look and behave; and then be an influence that can make that change. In the words of Akerlof and Shiller (2009, p.173):

‘There is then a fundamental reason why we differ from those who think that the economy should just be a free-for-all, that the least government is the best government, and that the government should play only the most minimal role in setting the rules. We differ because we have a different vision of the economy.’

Postlog: Myth of the ‘free-market’

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/free-market_b_3935173.html (extract)

Who should decide on the rules [of the ‘free-market’], and their major purpose? If our democracy was working as it should, presumably our elected representatives, agency heads, and courts would be making the rules roughly according to what most of us want the rules to be. The economy would be working for us; we wouldn’t be working for the economy.

Instead, the rules are being made mainly by those with the power and resources to buy the politicians, regulatory heads, and even the courts (and the lawyers who appear before them). As income and wealth have concentrated at the top, so has political clout. And the most important clout is determining the rules of the game.

Not incidentally, these are the same people who want you and most others to believe in the fiction of an immutable “free market.”

If we want to reduce the savage inequalities and insecurities that are now undermining our economy and democracy, we shouldn’t be deterred by the myth of the “free market.” We can make the economy work for us, rather than the other way around. But in order to change the rules, we must exert the power that is supposed to be ours.

Bibliography and Cited Works

  1. Akerlof, G. A. and R. J. Shiller (2009) Animal Spirits: How human psychology drives the economy and why it matters for global capitalism, Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  2. Davies, G. (2012) The nature of the Beast – How economists mistook wild horses for a rocking chair, Ebook, Online: Geoff Davies.
  3. Hill, R. and Myatt, T. (2010)  The Economics Anti-textbook: A critical thinker’s guide to microeconomics, Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.
  4. Keen, S. (2011) Debunking Economics: The naked emperor dethroned?, London and New York: Zedbooks.
  5. Rodrik, D. (2009) ‘Blame the economists, not economics’, Guatemala Times, 11 March, available at www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/commentary/blame-the-economists

If you have an area of economics, or political philosophy that you would like to see discussed in these blogs, or questions that you feel need to be addressed, please let me know via the comments below.

The Great GDP Fallacy

The economic figures for the UK released on 1st May caused economists and not least the government to exhale a sigh of relief. The UK had narrowly avoided a third technical recession because ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP) had grown by 0.3%. Not quite trebles all round, but perhaps at least a thumbs up at any rate.

GDP is not an indicator of wealth, or consumption, or growth. It is a recording of transactions.

However, at the heart of mainstream neoclassical economics, and thus in our financial system, there lies some uncomfortable fallacies, or delusions, and they are very seductive. Like sirens they draw us into putting too much stall by metaphors used to explain the market; and the illusion that “the system” can be analysed as if it is like a physical system subject to scientific laws.

The Language Gap

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

All sciences develop their own language, just as Humpty Dumpty invented his own meanings for words. They take words in common usage, but endow them with quite different technical meanings. But no other science plays so fast and loose with the English language as economics. (Keen: p.271)

“Efficiency” is one such term. “When economists say that the stock market is efficient, they [actually] mean that they believe the stock markets accurately price stocks on the basis of their unknown future earnings. [It shifts the meaning] from something that is obvious to something which is debatable. But that is not the end of the story, because to ‘prove’ that markets are efficient in this sense, economists make three bizarre assumptions:

  • “that all investors have identical expectations about the future prospects of all companies;
  • “that these identical expectations are correct; and
  • “that all investors have equal access to unlimited credit.

“Clearly, the only way these assumptions could hold would be if each and every stock market investor were God… Yet economists atsset that stock markets are ‘efficient,’ and dismiss criticism of these assumptions [by saying] that you can’t judge a theory by its assumptions. …this defence is bunk.” (Ibid.)

Neoclassical Market Liberalism

In my recent post, a reblog under the title ‘What is Neoliberalism,’ I explained that the free market is not simply ‘exchange’ or ‘trade’. I will summarise some of the points made:

  • the market is the primary process, and market transactions are the interaction;
  • economic transactions should take place in a framework which maximises the effect of each transaction on every other transaction;
  • there is a desire to intensify and expand the market, by increasing the number, frequency, repeatability, and formalisation of transactions. The ultimate (unreachable) goal of neoliberalism is a universe where every action of every being is a market transaction, conducted in competition with every other being and influencing every other transaction, with transactions occurring in an infinitely short time, and repeated at an infinitely fast rate;
  • new transaction-intensive markets are created on the model of the stock exchanges – electricity exchanges, telephone-minute exchanges. Typically there is no relationship between the growth in the number of transactions, and the underlying production;
  • new forms of auction are another method of creating transaction-intensive markets;
  • artificial transactions are created, to increase the number and intensity of transactions. Large-scale derivative trading is a typically neoliberal phenomenon, although financial derivatives have existed for centuries. It is possible to trade options on shares: but it is also possible to create options on these options, an accumulation of transaction on transaction;
  • there is contract expansionism and therefire transaction costs play an increasing role in the economy. For example in the privitisation of British Rail, there were 30,000 contracts and these had to be drafted by lawyers, and all the assessments have to be done by assessors. There is always some cost of competition, which increases as the intensity of transactions increases.

In even shorter bullet points, neoclassical free markets require and produce:

  • transaction maximalisation
  • maximalisation of volume of transactions (‘global flows’)
  • contract maximalisation
  • supplier/contractor maximalisation
  • conversion of most social acts into market transactions
  • artificial maximalisation of competition and stress
  • creation of quasi-markets
  • reduction of inter-transaction interval
  • maximalisation of parties to each transaction
  • maximalisation of reach and effect of each transaction
  • maximalisation of hire/fire transactions in the labour market (nominal turnover)
  • maximalisation of assessment factors, by which compliance with a contract is measured
  • reduction of the inter-assessment interval
  • creation of exaggerated or artificial assessment norms (‘audit society’)

I am hoping that you can already see where this is all going and its relationship to GDP.

What is it, what does it do?

  • Financial and economic markets are transactions. [If the references above to transactions didn’t pop-out at you, they sure should now!] GDP is not an indicator of wealth, or consumption, or growth. It is a recording of transactions. That is why, for instance, GDP in Japan rose after their tsunami. As people cleaned up the mess, they transacted more. (Sell)

So when we say that the UK’s GDP went up by 0.3%, we all perceive that the UK is growing, doing well. However, the metaphor and the system has deluded us. Of course, this sounds very different from “Britons transacted 0.3% more.” And free market economics artificially creates reason for there to be an increasing number transactions. Increased transactions are assumed to mean (and we already know that their meaning of assume is nothing like ours!) that output has increased, and thus the ‘product’ of the nation has increased.

Take the loyalty card of the global coffee chain Starbucks, for instance. It is a ‘pre-pay’ card system, but it can also be used on a mobile phone. I charge the card up in the app, and can pay for my coffee by scanning the bar code on the screen. A fantastically swift cashless interaction and far quicker than chip and pin. However, as was said previously, the amount of transactions has dramatically increased from the one transaction, handing over cash in exchange for the coffee,  to a complex chain:

  • I request that the loyalty card be charged with £10 on my phone app;
  • the app requests this amount from the issuer of my registered credit/debit card;
  • the card issuer charges a transaction fee for this process to Starbucks;
  • VISA charge a transaction fee to the issuer for using the VISA payment system and branding;
  • the £10 is then transferred from my bank account and there is yet another transaction fee applied (the banking system is a complex series of transaction in itself, most of them probably pointless in reality);
  • a Starbucks subsidiary company that runs the loyalty card scheme receive this money, and another transaction with its corresponding fee is registered;
  • when I scan the bar code, there is yet another flurry of transactions between subsidiaries and accounts, causing work for auditors and accountants, and transferring money via various other chains, through to their next temporary purgatory.

All of this ‘activity’ looks absolutely fantastic as far as economists and free marketeers are concerned, despite what looks like an utter waste to anyone on the outside looking in. In this surreal world of free market economics, if you were to pay for your shopping basket each individual item at a time, they would be in absolute glee and the GDP figures would look astounding if we all did that.

But it is and will always remain a fallacy.

Postscript

Sell:
The second of the twin delusions is to mathematicise the recording of the transactions. So, for instance, economic transactions such as GDP, which is a number, can be cross referenced with other numbers in the financial sphere, such as interest rates, or currency transactions.

“Interest rates fell and GDP went up so that must be an indication of XYZ ratio., especially when we look at the $A cross-rate ….”
[This] mathematicisation [of the system] creates the illusion that these correlations are necessary, like physical laws. That is far from inevitable. Except for the purely computer driven activity (admittedly becoming increasingly dominant) transactions are created by people. People have to decide that there is some shared value system and minimum level of trust to engage in a transact. I often think that the word is interesting: trans (across) act (an act). I wonder “across what?” The answer must be some shared belief about value. So when that belief starts to come apart, such as during the GFC, the artifice starts to fall to bits, the “system” starts to disintegrate.

The point about the twin delusions is that they take us a step away from the fact. The fact is that transactional systems are a human artifice conducted by humans. Humans are at its centre. And humans produce that wonderfully unpredictable thing: HUMAN BEHAVIOUR. They are self conscious, unpredictable, they feel more strongly about losing money than gaining it and so on.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs described an environment of Wall Street buying off politicians with their huge campaign contributions. In the 2012 election cycle, political contributions by the securities and investment sector totalled some $271.5 million, compared with $176 million in 2008, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics.

“I meet a lot of these people on Wall Street on a regular basis right now,” Sachs told the conference, hosted earlier this month by the nonprofit Global Interdependence Center. “I am going to put it very bluntly: I regard the moral environment as pathological. And I am talking about the human interactions . . . I’ve not seen anything like this, not felt it so palpably.”

Greed and Wall Street have been bedfellows as long as Wall Street has existed.

What is new is the way the “pathology” is concealed. It is easy to cover up greed and its immorality by either deploying a metaphor – “these are the way the capital “flows” are going and we have to invest accordingly – or by creating a mathematical equation. In both cases the activity is pushed one step away from what it is – an activity between humans – and so decoupled from anything human such as morality, or ethics or what is good for society. By being denuded of its human element, scientised, as it were, the question of personal responsibility is removed. In other words, the greed is not new. It is the sophistication of the cover up that is new.

“Sachs said these same people on Wall Street are out to make billions of dollars, and believe nothing should stop them from doing that. “They have no responsibility to pay taxes; they have no responsibility to their clients; they have no responsibility to people, to counterparties in transactions,” he said. “They are tough, greedy, aggressive and feel absolutely out of control in a quite literal sense, and they have gamed the system to a remarkable extent.”

Sachs’ outburst stunned the crowd. “There was an initial shudder, is how I would describe it, because they could feel the passion that was in the discussion,” said attendee Dennis Peacocke, head of Strategic Christian Services, a religious group that advocates on topics of economic and social justice. “Jeffery Sachs’ comments were full of conviction. I was applauding him for bringing values and ethics into the discussion.”

 

Bibliography

Books:
Keen, S. Debunking Economics.London: Zed Books, 2011.

Web pages:
Sell. “The insufferable conceit.” Macro Business. Published: 5 May 2013. Accessed: 5 May 2013. <http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2013/05/the-insufferable-conceit>.