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In the new millennium, the proliferation of financial assets, with  unstable economic growth, has given way to widespread to precarious jobs, income gaps and weaker welfare programs. The same policies that have obliterated social services and kept labour cheap have supported the expansion of short-termism and new global business models in the context of deregulated capitalism.

Besides, the onset of the 21st century represents a new political age  overwhelmed by the violation of democratic ideals of political equality and social peace. Indeed,  democracy has been allowing for election to office but not to power (Madi, 2015). And, as a consequence, policy makers might give priority to their sponsors instead of the needs of citizens – decent work and income equality.

In truth, the current trends in  global capital accumulation and production have shaped a scenario where unemployment, job instability and fragile conditions of social protection increased (Stiglitz, 2011). First, labour-saving technologies have reduced the demand for many middle-class, blue-collar jobs. Second, globalization has created a global marketplace, confronting expensive unskilled workers with cheap unskilled workers overseas and favouring outsourcing practices. Third, social changes have also played a role in the labor market changes, such as the decline of unions. Four, political decisions are influenced by the top 1% who favor policies that increase income inequality.

All these trends do reveal issues of current power, politics and economics in a social context where democratic institutions are being threatened.

Taking into account the overall  economic, social and political evidence in Western countries, Robert Kuttner, in his recent book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?  (2018, WW Norton), highlights that since the 1970s the globalization of capital has affected the very foundation of a healthy democracy. While analysing the consequences of this trend, he warns:

“If democracy cannot harness capitalism, it runs the risk of subverting itself and giving way to neo-fascist regimes that will pretend to manage the market but more often ally themselves with corporations and substitute ultra-nationalist symbols and scapegoats for reform.”

Indeed, this book calls for a deep examination of current power, politics and economics in a social context where democratic institutions are being threatened:

Do current trends of social inequality and economic instability stimulate disillusioned voters to support populism? Is the alliance of global finance and far-right parties inevitable?  Is it possible to build new conventions to make capitalism serve democracy?

Answering these questions  not only involves critical thinking on the failures of economic policies in the light of current  political challenges  but also  calls for a reflection on the alternatives to the reversal of the decline of democracy in the West.

 

 

References

Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?,   WW Norton, 2018.

Lima, G. & Madi, M.A. , Capital and Justice, WEA Books, 2016.

Madi, M. A.,  “2016: Promises and Problems”, WEA Pedagogy Blog, December 29, 2015
https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2015/12/29/2016-promises-and-problems

Stiglitz, J.,  “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”. Vanity Fair Magazine, April 30, 2011.
http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105.

 

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shortlink for this post: bit.do/azgtr

Polanyi offers a deep historical study of how European societies based on traditional values of cooperation and social responsibility were tansformed into modern secular societies. In Polanyi’s terminology, social relations became embedded within the market, creating a market society driven by the imperative of commercialization, which makes money the measure of all things, including human lives. This transformation has affected all dimensions of human existence – politics, economics, society and most importantly, our ways of thinking about these areas. In particular, Modern economic theory is a product of historical forces, and provides an intellectual framework for glorifying the market as the best way of organizing our economic affairs.

I believe that understanding Polanyi is of great importance in understanding the conflict between the values and intellectual frameworks of market societies and traditional society (and also Islamic ideal societies). Understanding how the great transformation took place also provides some clues as to how we can try to create the counter-revolution in thought and action that is needed to undo the damages caused by this commercialization of all spheres of human existence. Over the past decade, I have spent a lot of time thinking about ahd studying Polanyi. The links below provides an introduction to my papers, video-talks, and shorter posts about many aspects of Polanyi’s work in The Great Transformation:

Summary: My 1000+ word summary of Polanyi’s classic: “The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times” has been wildly popular, remaining constantly among the top ten on the RWER Blog since it was was published nearly five years ago.  I have recently (25/12/26) revised and updated the post to clean up extraneous elements and clarify the substance in light of readers comments as well as my own improved understanding. Perhaps the most important element of this post is that it explains how living in a market society shapes our thoughts to conform with the commercialization it creates. Creating radical changes requires the first step of liberating our selves from these blinders, to be able to imagine radical alternatives.  I have also recorded a 28m video-talk on this topic, which has been added to the original post.

Methodology: Moving forward from critique, Polanyi’s analysis is based on methodological principles radically different from those currently in use. Understanding and implementing these principles woujld allow us to create a new approach to economics and social sciences. My 20 page paper explaining the three fundamental principles used by Polanyi was published in the WEA Journal: Asad Zaman (2016) ‘The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation.’ Economic Thought, 5.1, pp. 44-63. A brief 1000 word explanation of this methodology is available in a WEA Pedagogy Blog post:    The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation. The post also provides a link to a 45m video lecture on this topic. (This lecture has been by far my most popular video-lecture, with more than 2000 views.) Polanyi’s analysis provides the basis for a radically different approach to economics, which considers politics, society, environment, and economics as inter-related subjects which cannot be understood in isolation. One of the deep insights of Polanyi is that economic theory itself is a product of a power struggle between different social classes and cannot be understood outside its historical context.

Ecological Collapse: The relationship between the Great Transformation and the looming environmental catastrophe which threatens the future of humanity on planet Earth is discussed in Zaman, Asad, “Unregulated Markets and the Transformation of Society” Chapter 18, Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics: Nature and Society. Editor Clive Spash. 2016. Major points made in this 5000 word paper are summarized in my earlier post on “Markets and Society” which also provides links to the full paper and a 50min Video-Talk on this topic. Very briefly, markets generate profits by appropriating and exploiting resources, eventually exhausting them, before moving on to the next frontier. The dynamics of growth is such that it is threating to exhaust the last remaining frontiers at the planetary level, leading to collapse. This topic is also addressed in my paper on “Evaluating the Costs of Growth” Real World Economics Review, issue 67, 9 May 2014, page 41-51.. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2499115.

Islamic Economics: One of the central themes of Polanyi is the opposition between values of traditional societies and those of Market Societies. Islamic Economics is aligned with traditional values and opposes the commercialization generated by market societies. Studying these contrasts leads to a sharper understanding of the underlying principles of an Islamic Economy. These relationships are clarified in my 30 page essay on   “The Rise and Fall of the Market Economy,” Review of Islamic Economics, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2010, pp. 123–155. A brief explanation is also available from a post on “The Great Transformation in European Thought” in my “Islamic WorldView Blog”. A longer 5000 word explanation, meant as an entry for an Encyclopedia of Islamic Economics, was never published: The Limits of Market Economy.

Four Lectures on Polanyi: In my Advanced Micro class, I covered “The Great Transformation” in detail in four lectures listed below. Each lecture is about 90 minutes. The links provide both video-recording and transcripts of the lecture for faster reading.

  1. L16: From Hunter-Gatherer to World War 2
  2. L17: The Transition from traditional paternalistic and regulatory economies to market economy.
  3. L18: Three Artificial Commodities – Labor, Land, Money. Analysis of Social Change.
  4. L19: Devastating Impact of Unregulated & Expanding Markets, and how to reverse the Great Transformation – concluding lecture on Polanyi.

In addition to the longer articles/talks above, some short previous posts on the WEA Pedagogy Blog deal with topics related to Polanyi; these are listed below.

Meta-Theory and Pluralism in the Methodology of Polanyi: Post explains the meta-theoretical methodological stance of Polanyi. Polanyi is concerned with the process of social change. He analyzes how theories emerge as attempts by different social classes to understand, explain, control, and harness for their own benefit, changes which are created by external drivers. Thus, his is a meta-theory which studies the emergence of theories about economics, society and politics, and the impact of these theories on the alignment of power between different social groups.

The Neo-Liberal Way of Life: Madi’s post explains how the market society molds our way of life, as well as our ways of thinking, in accordance with Polanyi’s conception of “embeddedness” – that is, social relations are embedded within economic relations in a market society.

Hunter-Gatherer Societies: The idea that political and social structures of a society depend on the economic relations of production is cleanly demonstrated in context of primitive hunter-gatherer societies. This shows how economic theories are situated within historical context, unlike scientific theories which are universal invariants. It also shows the impossibility of analyzing economics in isolation from political, social and historical context.

Three Methodologies: The differences between contemporary, Marxist, and Polanyi methodology are clarified in this post. Contemporary economics treats the economy like a physical system subject to laws which are independent of what observers think – that is, economic theories do not affect the laws governing the economic system. Marx tells us that the economic relations of production are primary, and give rise to the social and political systems. Also economic theories emerge to justify the powerful (capitalist) classes. Thus economic theories are born out their historical context. This is well-illustrated by the Hunter-Gatherer Societies. Polanyi argues for two-way interactions. Economic theories are born out the historical context as a result of the struggle for power between different classes. At the same time, these theories are use to explain and control the economic system, so that theories actually influence the behavior of the economic system. For example, Marx’s theory of communism influenced the structure of the economy of Russia and China. This idea, that economic theories influence the behavior of the economic system, is alien to both modern economics and also to Marx, since material determinism excludes human will and interpretation from influencing the behavior of economic systems. However, human agency is at the heart of Polanyi’s analysis. For a link to more materials and a 90m video lecture on this topic, see: Advanced Micro Lecture 15: 19th Century European History

Entanglement of the Objective and Subjective:   Western epistemology is built on numerous false dualities which deeply damage our ability to understand the world we live in. Sharp separation of the body and soul, the unobservable motivations and the observable behaviors, normative and positive, and objective and subjective, are just a few examples. As philosopher Hilary Putnam has said, facts and values are inextricably entangled within the body of economic theory. We cannot separate the two, as economists assume, and assert. Many authors have realized how numerous un-appealing value judgments are built into the foundations of objective-seeming economic theories. See, for example, “The Normative Foundations of Scarcity,” Real-World Economics Review, issue no. 61, 26 September 2012, pp. 22-39, to see how three major value judgments are involved in making scarcity the fundamental concern of economists. This post shows how the objective and subject are inextricably entangled, which means that economists must take human agency into account, instead of treating them as robots subject to mathematical laws of behavior.   For a link to more materials, and a 90m video lecture on this topic, see: Advanced Micro Lecture 13: Entanglement of History and Economic Theories

An earlier (unsuccessful) attempt at organizing material on Polanyi: (to be updated later)

Currently, I am teaching a course in Advanced Microeconomics where I have started with the premise that conventional economic theory, both Micro and Macro are fundamentally wrong. The number of ways in which they are wrong cannot even be counted. Instead of enumerating errors, the course is devoted to providing a constructive alternative. A lot of the early lectures deal with the basic concepts of optimization and equilibrium, the fundamental building blocks of conventional courses, and explain how these are wrong. I also explain how economists are using a wrong methodology, and how they misunderstand the concept of a theoretical model, and the relations between models and reality. The video-taped lectures, PPT slides, and some supporting materials, are available from my website: https://sites.google.com/site/az4math/

Originally, I had not planned to teach Karl Polanyi because his theories are significantly more complex than those of Karl Marx and Adam Smith. However, because the class has been very receptive, and has understood the what I have been teaching, I have decided to explain his ideas. We have already started discussing his ideas starting from Lecture 13, and have finished Part I of the Great Transformation in Lecture 16. In order to prepare for the complexities of Part II, I have distributed the following handout to the class, to explain the complex general methodological framework which underlies Polanyi’s analysis.

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Before proceeding with Re-Reading Keynes, I would like to clarify the issue of exogeneity and endogeneity, which he understands, but most of his followers failed to understand.  This is to clarify a segment of a phrase he uses in describing the four ways in which level of employment can increase within the framework of the classical theory of economics. The fourth factor listed by Keynes appears somewhat mysterious in the original text:
(d) an increase in the price of non-wage-goods compared with the price of wage-goods, associated with a shift in the expenditure of non-wage-earners from wage-goods to non-wage-goods.
== in the previous post (P9: Theory of Employment) I re-stated this as an exogenous increase in real wage, to clarify what Keynes wanted to say. However, (d) above is what Keynes actually wrote, and I want to explain why Keynes wrote in this way. This involves an excursion into the supply and demand model, and the concepts of exogeneity and endogeneity.
What Keynes is saying here is that if there is an increase in demand for luxury goods consumed by aristocrats, and an associate decrease in demand for necessities purchased by laborors, then the real wage will rise and that will increase employment. Keynes is very careful to create a scenario in which the real wage rises due to EXOGENOUS factors shift in demand by non-wage earners — the aristocrats.  What Keynes understood is something basic which is not understood by modern economists like Varian when they discuss the supply and demand model — ONE CANNOT CONTEMPLATE VARIATIONS IN AN ENDOGNEOUS VARIABLE (because endogenous variables are not free to move; they can only change if some of the exogenous variables which affect them change). This means that asking what consumers will demand if the price changes is a WRONG question — prices are endogenous and they cannot change by themselves. An increase in price cause by shortfall in supply would lead different consequencs from an increase in price caused by an upward shift in the demand. If a consumer is asked what he will do when the price changes, he should ask WHY did the price change, because his response to the price change DEPENDS on cause of the price change. He cannot provide a response to the question without learning about the cause, and whether or not this is a temporary or permanent change.

 

Comments on Varian: Intermediate Microeconomics. Chapter 1, which sets up a simple supply and demand model.

Brief Summary of Post:

These comments are about the first few pages of the chapter. Quotes from Varian are in italics. Criticisms are made in this post about the concepts of models, optimization, equilibrium, and the concept of exogeneity, as dealt with by Varian. Models are used without explicit discussion of the relationships between model and reality, which is essential to understanding how models work. For an extended discussion see my lecture on Models Versus Reality. The post explains why optimization, taken is tautological by Varian, is false as a description of consumer behavior. For an extended discussion of the conflict between axiomatic theory of consumer behavior and actual human behavior, see my one hour video: Behavioral Economics Versus Neoclassical Economic Theory.  Similarly, the decision to study only equilibrium behavior handicaps economists, making them blind to disequilibrium events like the Global Financial Crisis.

Detailed Discussion

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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.

subprimecrisisThis is my book review on Amazon — I thought it would be of interest to WEA readers.

In a complex world, discovering causality is very difficult. Many things happen simultaneously, and post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is a common fallacy that is hard to detect and critique. Here is how I understand Meltzer’s arguments. Meltzer defines Capitalism as private ownership of means of production, and free enterprise with minimal government regulations. In practice, ALL economies have government regulation of free enterprise, and a mix of private and public ownership. This gives Meltzer a free hand in proving that Capitalism works. Wherever he sees growth, he attributes it to the “capitalist” portion of the mixed economy. Wherever he sees failure, he attributes it to the “communist” portion – government regulations and control of production.

For example in a 90% capitalistic economy in the USA, a small injection of regulations (say 5%) leads to disaster and catastrophe. However in China, an economy which remains largely communist (government owns more than half of means of production), growth is attributed to the small injection of capitalist methods. Whereas the gradual liberalization of Chinese is praised, the Russian experience is not mentioned at all. At insistence of free market ideologues like Meltzer, Russia was forced to adopt a radical free market strategy (Shock Therapy of Jeffrey Sachs) which led to disaster.

In addition to wrong attribution of causality, I disagree with Meltzer on some factual claims. He considers the Reagan-Thatcher era of de-regulation to be a general success on economic fronts. Here is my capsule summary of banking regulation history, which is drastically different from Meltzer’s portrayal of the same history. Wild speculation by banks led to collapse of banks in 1929, wiping out life savings of millions, and creating massive misery which lasted for decades in the USA. In wake of this failure, a regulatory structure which included the Glass Steagall act, was put into place which PREVENTED competition and speculation by banks. This worked very well for fifty years, with only minor and inconsequential bank failures until the 1980’s. Then, with much fanfare, Reagan deregulated the S&L industry via the Garn-St. Germain Act, announcing a new era. Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loans by Pizzo, Fricker & Muolo documents how the deregulation led to systematic looting and the S&L crisis. As a result of the crisis, Taleb estimates (see page 43 of The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”) “large American banks lost close to all their past earnings (cumulatively),about everything they ever made in the history of American banking – everything.” Similarly, repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, which prevented banks from speculating, eventually led to the global financial crisis of 2008, in which free enterprise by banks led to the loss of trillions of dollars. An antidote for the belief that the private sector is more efficient and less corrupt than the government is a series of articles by Matt Taibbi, for instance “The Bank of America: Too Crooked to Fail” [ see […] ]

To summarize, unregulated free markets led to the Great Depression. Regulations and Keynesian economics (which allows Governments to help the unemployed) led to stability and prosperity until the 1970’s. De-regulation and liberalization in the Reagan-Thatcher era led to a massive increase in concentration of wealth at the top, and repeated financial crises, including the S&L crisis of the 80’s and the global financial crisis of 2008. HOWEVER, free market ideologues like Meltzer have an ENTIRELY different interpretation of this same history. According to them, the Great Depression was caused by mis-management of the monetary policy by the US Government. The same mistake caused the S&L crisis in 1980’s, and again, government (mis-)regulations are to blame for the global financial crisis.

One point on which Meltzer and I agree is that the Dodd Frank act is not worth the paper it is written. However, to Meltzer, this is evidence that regulations don’t work. Many others, including myself, see it as evidence of regulatory capture. The 37 page Glass-Steagall act clearly and strictly prevented banks from speculative investments, and worked very well for half a century. The strength of the financial sector prevented the passing of the necessary regulations, and created the 900+ page monstrosity of Dodd-Frank, full of loopholes one could drive a truck through. Effective and necessary regulation could not be passed because the strong private sector prevented it from happening.

How can we decide who is right? From the birds eye perspective taken by Meltzer, I believe that it is impossible to be sure. However, when one gets down to the nitty gritty details of history – who did what to whom, a pretty clear picture of the causal chains emerges. In this respect, Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is fantastic. I can honestly say that I learnt more about real world 20th century economic history and theory from this one book than I did from my Ph.D. in Economics at Stanford. The reader is invited to read both books and decide on the answer to Whether Capitalism works? for herself or himself.

Concerns with social inclusion extend well beyond the purely economic account of justice, since economic inequality affects social cohesion and political stability. Moreover, economic inequality can have negative implications for economic growth and democratic institutions. As a welcome contribution to the literature on the subject, Eric Hobsbawm´s book,  Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, fosters further reflection and discussion on the complexity of the interactions among individuals, society and nation states in the context of globalisation.

Hobsbawm analyses three intertwined themes: the challenges to the continuity of American imperialism, the role of the territorial states and the future of citizenship. Throughout the book, the author provides a detailed comparison between the US empire and the British one. The worldwide historian believes, in truth, that the British Empire could only teach one lesson: the rejection of the attempt to maintain an eroding global position by relying on politico-military force. Deeply critical of the current American project of lasting global imperial hegemony, unprecedented in history, Hobsbawm expresses his hostility to imperialism and particularly to the recent record of armed interventions aimed to give support to the continuity of the American empire in an era of growing global violence and disorder.

As a matter of fact, it is not possible to establish a clear distinction between the times of “war” and “peace” at the start of the new century. Looking back to the 20th century, there has been no global authority able to control or settle armed disputes since the end of the Cold War. Although the territorial states remain the only effective authority, they have lost their traditional monopoly of armed force. Although resisting to express opinions on the future, Hobsbawm affirms

“A tentative forecast: war in the twenty- first century is not likely to be as murderous as it was in the twentieth. But armed violence, creating disproportionate suffering and loss, will remain omnipresent and endemic – occasionally epidemic- in a large part of the world. The prospect of a century of peace is remote.”

In the context of a multifaceted analysis of globalization, Hobsbawm explores the contemporary threatens related to individual freedom, control on individuals and insecurity in social interrelations. According to him, the transformations of political violence and the “war against terror”, since September 2001, are expressions of the recent overall changes in society. At the beginning of the 21st century, public security requires special efforts since current political institutions do not cope with the main task to maintain  public order.

The challenges to overcome the contemporary scenario of instability and inequalities reveal that the world increasingly seems to require supranational solutions to supranational or transnational problems. Nevertheless, there is no global authority to assume these political decisions. Recalling Hobsbawm, “The only effective actors are states”.

Indeed, all these questions reflect issues of current power, politics and economics in a social context where democratic institutions are being threatened. The actuality of the debate is undeniable.

 

References

Eric Hobsbawm. Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism. London,  Abacus, 2007

Book Review, Eric Hobsbawm. Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, wirtten by Gonçalves, J. R. B.  an Madi, M. A. C , published in the International Journal of Green Economics.