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As Edward Fullbrook highlights in his recent book Narrative Fixation in Economics, the Cartesian view of human reality has deeply shaped the way Neoclassical Economics theorizes about the economic and social existence (2016, p. 45). Indeed, while emphasizing the relevance of the pure thought of a disembedded human subject,  Neoclassical Economics has reinforced the relevance of the Cartesian method of inquiry  that moved the so called scientific (true) knowledge  out of the general flux of experience.

In the second part of the Discourse of Method, Descartes presented some principles that should be followed in order to acquire knowledge: 1) human beings cannot  admit any ideas that are not absolutely clear; 2) human beings must divide each problem in so many parts as appropriate for its best resolution; 3) human beings should apply deductive reasoning to organize their  thoughts from the simplest to the most complex ones 4) the analytical-synthetic process of reasoning leads to true knowledge.

According to Descartes, the first principle of his method focuses the importance of “never accepting something as true that I clearly don’t know as such” (Discourse of Method, Part II). Indeed, Descartes inspired himself in Geometry as a model of Science. As a result, he considered the postulates of Geometry not only as universal and necessary but also as clear and distinctive ideas related to intellectual intuition. Only these clear and distinctive ideas  are considered to be the pillars of true knowledge.

Based on the second principle, Descartes builds his research method of analysis that isolates the clear and distinctive ideas from the most complex ones. His emphasis on the order of thoughts strengthens the role of Mathematics in the Cartesian method of pure inquiry. Moreover, the third principle of his method leads to a special kind of organization of thoughts. In his own words, the organization of thought should start “with the simplest and easier to gradually rise, as if by means of steps, to the knowledge of the more composed, and assuming an order between the ones that don’t precede naturally each other” (Discourse of Method, Part II).

Departing from the mathematical method of reasoning, Descartes arrives at the notion of order in scientific thought, that is to say, once the human subject knows the simple elements of a problem, he can assume all the consequences that derive from those first ideas considered as absolutely certain. Those first ideas have the characteristics of clarity and distinction. Besides, they are known intuitively and constitute the pillars on which relies true knowledge.

Finally, Descartes reinforced the analytical-synthetic process of reasoning. Following the deductive method of pure inquiry, human knowledge grows throughout a rigorous chain of ideas. As a consequence, new thoughts arise while the human subject applies deductive reasoning so as to create a chain of ideas that links the most simple to the most complex ones. In this attempt, true knowledge can be obtained.

As a matter of fact, the Cartesian method presents the intellectual intuition and the deductive reasoning as crucial elements of the discovery and construction of true knowledge. Moreover, clarity, distinction and order overwhelmed the mathesis universalis that turned out to be considered as the pinnacle of the epistemo-ontological construction of Cartesian thinking.  The mathesis universalis is, according to the Cartesian epistemology, a general method of pure inquiry able to explain everything, regardless of the nature of the objects to be studied.

As E. Gilson (1945) highlighted, the Cartesian method represents an attempt to extend the mathematical method of inquiry to all of human knowledge in the form of the mathesis universalis.  Indeed, this extension is at the center of the a priori foundations of scientific knowledge in Neoclassical Economics.

 

 

 

References

DESCARTES, René.  Discurso do Método. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1973.

FULLBROOK, E. Narrative Fixation in Economics, WEA Books, 2016.

WILLIAMS, Bernard. Descartes: The Project Of Pure Enquiry. UK: Penguin, 1978

A relevant feature of the current crisis in economic knowledge is the recurrence of the  Ricardian Vice. Joseph A. Schumpeter coined this term in his book History of Economic Analysis when he criticized the habit assigned to Ricardo to represent the economy by a set of simplified assumptions and to use tautologies to develop practical economic solutions. Indeed, Schumpeter rejected the kind of economic thought that mainly favours deductive methods of inquiry – based on mathematical reasoning- because the  habit  known as the Ricardian Vice generates analytical unrealistic results that are irrelevant to solve the real-world economic problems.

Also Keynes warned that the understanding of the economic phenomena demands not only purely deductive reasoning, but also other methods of inquiry along with the  study of other fields of knowledge- such as History and Philosophy. In his own words:

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.” (Keynes, Collected Writings, vol. X: Essays in Biography)

Today, Schumpeter’s and Keynes’s criticism could be certainly addressed to those economists whose beliefs ultimately privilege the deductive method of inquiry in Economics. Due to these beliefs,  mainstream economists favour the adoption of a nominalist bias. And as a consequence, the trouble is that the dialogue between economic theories and the economic reality turns out to be abandoned not only in academic research but also in the policy making process.

This dialogue is complex and should be considered in any attempt to build realistic economic theories, as Keynes warned. Indeed, the changing environment of real-world markets through time -that is irreversible-  refers to a certain degree of ontological indeterminacy that should be considered in realistic economic theories and in the study of Economics.

Recent active learning experiences have been associated with “flipped” or “inverted” classroom (Norman and Wills, 2015). Indeed, this method has been receiving increasing attention by professors that search for alternatives to traditional lectures so as to cover some topics of the course content.

By adopting the flipped  classroom in economics instruction, professors out to enhance a larger pre-class involvement of the students not only by reading the selected bibliography but also by watching instructional videos.

Before the class, professors provide instructional short videos (five to fifteen minutes) that cover the main ideas related to a selected topic of the syllabus. The videos generally emphasize theoretical approaches, definitions, formulas and graphs. Recent evidence shows that many professors actually record a narration of the lecture slides and notes.

As students should watch the video before the class, professors can privilege active learning methods during class time. Therefore, the class activities aim to apply the material that was covered in the videos in order to enhance a real-world approach to economics education. These activities- that are supervised and oriented by professors – can include, for instance:

  • Presentation, analysis and discussion of real-world problems
  • Team–work exercises oriented to solve practice problems followed by class-room discussion of the main results.

Indeed, internet technologies are also affecting the economics classroom. Topics in macroeconomics, microeconomics, international economics, financial economics, among others, can certainly benefit from flipped classrooms since this teaching practice does not mean the replacement of professors with videos.

 

References

Bishop, J. L., & Verleger, M. A. (2013, June). The flipped classroom: A survey of the research. In ASEE National Conference Proceedings, Atlanta, GA.

Honeycutt, B. (2013). Looking for ‘Flippable’ Moments in Your Class. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/looking-for-flippable-moments-in-your-class/

Norman, S, & Wills, D. (2015). Flipping your Classroom in Economics Instruction: It’s not all or nothing. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/normanse/uploads/2/9/8/5/29853431/flipping_your_classroom.pdf

By 2020, the largest pools of pension fund assets are projected to remain concentrated in the US and Europe. In North America, pension fund assets reached $19.3 trillion in 2012 and PwC estimates that by 2020, pension fund assets will rise by 5.7 percent a year to achieve over $30 trillion of the $56.5 trillion in total global assets, more than 50 percent of the global total.

Indeed, according to the PwC report, Asset Management 2020: A Brave New World, demographic changes, accelerating urbanization, technological innovations and shifts in economic power are reshaping the asset management environment where pension funds have been playing and  will play an outstanding role in the global saving and investment process.  Three key factors seems to stimulate the global growth in assets: i) changes in government-incentivized or government-mandated retirement plans that will turn out to increase the use of defined contribution (DC) individual plans; ii) faster growth of high-net-worth-individuals in South America, Asia, Africa and Middle East regions up to 2020; iii) the expansion of new sovereign wealth funds.

However, in spite of the pension funds’ power to centralize huge amount of “savings from workers”, in this scenario of financial globalization, workers do not seem to have strong defense against the impacts of the current global scenario on the savings of workers and the flows of workers’ income.

In a context of uncertainty, the pension funds’ portfolio management is based, as Keynes warned, on precarious conventions.  Pension funds are part of a set of interrelated balance sheets and cash flows between the income-producing system (hedge, speculative and Ponzi firms) and the financial structure that affect the valuation of the stock of capital assets, the evolution of credit and the pace of investment. Current pension funds’ performance ultimately relies on the endogenous nature of financial instability.  Throughout the business cycle, when profits decline, as they inevitably do, credit and external sources of funding generally become restricted and the price of assets also fall. This scenario affects the performance of these institutional investors and reduces the value of the stock of workers’ savings in pension funds.

As a matter of fact, the connection between pension funds and speculative finance is one of the contemporary features of the management of the working savings. Continued low interest rates would impact the future profitability of pension funds, particularly in those portfolios where income-fixed assets predominate.

Among other current challenges to the management of pension funds is the evolution of austerity programs. In many countries, austerity programs have also relied on changes in retirement plans. Soon after the global crisis of 2007-2008, many European countries  announced austerity measures that included  changes in retirement age and pension payments. As a result, loss of retirement rights has turned out to become part of the new set of public policies.

Indeed, many governments, under global investors’ pressure, should meet budgetary targets and pursue further structural reforms- also related to age and amount of pension within retirement plans.  In truth, the current era of financialization and austerity – and its impacts on retirement plans and job creation – is certainly affecting day-to-day life of workers and the future of pensions. In other words, it is affecting the flows of workers’ income and the savings of workers.

 

Joan Robinson (1903- 1983) studied microeconomic issues, such as pricing, consumer demand, producer supply, competition and monopolistic strategies. Her first major book was The Economics of Imperfect Competition, published in 1933. In the same year, Edward Chamberlin published The Theory of Monopolistic Competition.

Robinson restates the Marshallian contribution to price theory so as to examine the outcomes of imperfect competition. In her understanding, perfect competition is considered to be a very special case where buyers should have the same preferences and each buyer should deal with only one firm at any one time. If these conditions are fulfilled, an increase in the price of one firm would lead to a complete cessation of its sales if the prices of other firms remained the same.

Considering the markets where imperfect competition dominates, Robinson starts the analysis with a single firm in an industry. She clarifies that physical differentiation is not a necessary condition for market imperfection because two commodities may be alike in every respect except the names of the firms producing them. However, the market in which they are sold will be imperfect if different buyers have different scales of preference as between the two firms.

Imperfect competition in the markets affects the slope of the demand curve of an individual firm and of the industry. The first prerequisite of perfect competition is a product clearly demarcated from others, that is to say, the characterization of a perfect market depends on the clear demarcation of the commodity that is sold and bought. In particular, she examines how price discrimination and market segmentations policies influence the slope of the curve of the individual firm and the market equilibrium. Competition will be less perfect the lower is the elasticity of the total demand curve. Indeed, the form of the demand curve represents the degree of competition between the product of this industry and other products.

 

Besides, in a context of imperfect competition, the firm’s supply curve could express increasing, decreasing, or constant costs. As a result, the equalization of the marginal cost curve and the price as a condition of equilibrium is considered as the main problem in those imperfect markets.  According to Robinson, competition will be less perfect the higher is the ratio of the output of one firm to the output of the industry. If competition is imperfect, an increase in the output of one firm by one unit of its good would change the output of the industry and this may lead to a relevant change in the price of this good.

Robinson addresses that it is empirically true that a high level of normal profits will often be found where competition is imperfect.           The normal level of profits will be different according to the industry and the scales of production in the same industry because  the level of normal profits will depend upon the conditions of supply of the firm. An old-established firm enjoys a “good will” which turns out not only to enable the firm to influence the price of the commodity but also to set increasing costs of entry to new rivals. Powerful firms which use methods of “unfair competition” to strangle rivals are unlikely to sell in perfect markets. In these powerful firms, managerial decisions, including price discrimination and market segmentation, for instance, are practices oriented to increase market share and profits.

Joan Robinson’s microeconomic approach is still relevant to show the failures of a theory of value and distribution based on the assumptions of either perfect competition or perfect monopoly. In truth, her analysis of the monopolistic trends in contemporary capitalism sheds light on how powerful firms fix prices and strengthen  their power in the markets.

 

Throughout 2016, many countries around the world keep on competing for market share in high-wage, innovation-based industries. Indeed, these countries have turned to “innovation mercantilism” by imposing protectionist policies to expand domestic production and exports of high-tech goods and services.

In this setting, innovation mercantilist policies are being oriented to high-value tech sectors such as life sciences, renewable energy, computers and electronics, and Internet services. There are new “beggar-thy-neighbor” strategies adopted by nation-states, such as forcing companies to transfer the rights to their technology or forcing them to relocate their production, research and development (R&D), or data-storage activities. These strategies aim at   both replacing imports with domestic production or promoting exports.

At this respect, the 2016 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation annual report shows that:

  • China introduced a new cybersecurity law so as to impose local data-storage requirements, and forced intellectual property and source code disclosures.  This country also introduced new cloud-computing restrictions so as to exclude and prevent foreign firms from operating in the Chinese market.
  • Germany introduced forced local data-storage requirements as part of a new telecommunications data law.
  • Indonesia introduced forced local data-storage requirements for Internet-based content providers. The country also introduced a patent law amendment in order to force local production and technology transfers.
  • Russia introduced forced local data-storage requirements and encryption-key disclosure as part of a new telecommunications data law. The country also introduced new government procurement rules in order to ban the purchase of foreign software.
  • Turkey introduced a new data-protection law that, as a matter of fact, forced local data storage.
  • Vietnam introduced forced local data-storage requirements for Internet-based content providers. The country also introduced a new network-security law that forces disclose encryption keys and source codes a condition of market access.

New protectionist trends have also been observed in the United States. As of January 23, 2017, the new American president Donald Trump’s decided to remove the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or T.P.P. This decision signalizes that the United States are not willing to be permanently tied to East Asia, mainly a rising China, by free-trade strategies. Instead, it is believed that American workers would be protected against competition from low-wage countries, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, also parties to the trade deal.

As America looks inward to increase investment in manufacturing, to reduce the dependence on East Asia imports and to stimulate job creation, among other  domestic challenges, the outcomes of the revision of free-trade strategies will certainly carry out relevant geopolitical implications.

 

Much of the comments on the global financial and economic crisis have focused on the proximate causes and governance issues related to risk management, monetary policy and weak regulation. New political alignments allowed a process of global financial deregulations in the early 1970s. The political ascendancy of financial capital and extensive capital market liberalization, employment goals were abandoned in the economic policy agenda. Indeed,   price stabilization and “fiscal prudence” turned out to be the primary objectives of the economic policy. As a result, prior to the 2008 global crisis, inflation was low and close to official inflation target rates in the advanced economies. However, credit bubbles threaten the macroeconomic stability.

After the Global Crisis, academic economists and policy makers have actively participated in the debate on monetary policy in the United States and European Union. In the face of the outcomes of the crisis, central banks have dealt with a triple challenge

  • how to contain the crisis
  • how to prevent a recessionary downturn
  • how to avoid enhancing financial instability in the form of inflationary pressures or asset  and credit bubbles.

The Federal Reserve (Fed) and the European Central Bank (ECB) have faced major global financial challenges together. However, within their respective zones, they coped with their institutional set-up and governance guidelines.

After the bail-outs, their main concern is whether nominal interest rates really have a lower bound around zero per cent. After the crisis, central banks responded to the large fall in aggregate demand and the under- utilized productive resources by adjusting  the policy interest rates to, or very close to, zero. Indeed, these central banks have focused on lender-of-last-resort program extensions. The main question is: to what extent central banks can deal with huge levels of leverage, structural flaws of financial innovations (securitization, structured finance, and derivatives above all) and  lack of transparency in terms of  risk management?.

Central banks have shown that they can innovate and coordinate with other central banks on short notice when unprecedented situations of financial crisis arise. However, central banks cannot prevent financial crisis.  Considering the menace of deepening the recession, the outcome of the central banks’ management of  nominal interest rates is that  real interest rates may be (and may continue to be) negative.  Despite the evolution of nominal and real interests, big banks have restricted new lending operations because of credit and market risks. Indeed, big banks have enlarged the amount of cash in order to cope with their own losses more easily in the future.

In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes said the liquidity trap was a period in which cash and bonds became perfect substitutes and, after the nominal interest rate has fallen to a very low level, liquidity-preference may become virtually absolute. In other words, it is difficult for central banks to reduce their policy interest rates much below zero as cash can be held as an alternative to negative interest rate bearing assets. Most people would prefer cash to holding a debt which yields. In this event the monetary authority would have lost effective control over the rate of interest.

The modern Keynesian literature emphasizes that, even if increasing the current money supply has no effect, monetary policy is far from ineffective at zero interest rates. What is important, however, is not the current money supply but managing expectations about the future nominal and real interest rates. Thus, recent research indicates that monetary policy is far from being ineffective at zero bound levels, but it worked mainly through expectations.

Therefore, the question is how very low or negative interest rates translate into improved growth rates (Hannoum, 2015).  It is worth remembering that central banks consider that the monetary stimulus could stimulate short-term growth through five main channels:

  • by boosting credit to the real economy
  • by lifting asset prices
  • by forcing investors towards riskier ones
  • by lowering the exchange rate
  • by attempting to avoid deflationary pressures.

Up to now, the monetary policy of prolonged very low or negative interest rates relies on the uncertain effectiveness of these transmission channels. However, potential serious consequences for central banks could emerge. here is the threaten that  monetary policy could become subordinated to the demands of the financial markets and to the public debt burdens.

Reference

Hannoun, H (2015) “Ultra-low or negative interest rates: What they mean for financial stability and growth”, BIS Speech at Eurofi High-Level Seminar, Riga