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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.

 

I am planning a sequence of posts on re-reading Keynes, where I will try to go through the General Theory. This first post explains my motivations for re-reading Keynes. As always, my primary motive is self-education; this will force me to go through the book again — I first read it in my first year graduate course on Macroeconomics at Stanford in 1975, when our teacher Duncan Foley was having doubts about modern macro theories, and decided to go back to the original sources. At the time, I could not understand it at all, and resorted to secondary sources, mainly Leijonhufvud, to make sense of it. Secondarily, i hope to be able to summarize Keynes’ insights to make them relevant and useful to a contemporary audience. Thirdly, there are many experts, especially Paul Davidson, on this blog, who will be able to prevent me from making serious mistakes in interpretation.

Reasons for Studying Keynes

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Blaise Pascal

In line with the objectives of the WEA Pedagogy Blog, I am initiating a study group with the aim of [re-]reading Keynes’ classic The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. There are many reasons why I think this is a worthwhile enterprise. I hope to make weekly posts summarizing various aspects of the book, as we slog through the work, which can be difficult going in some parts. At the very least, this will force me to re-read Keynes, something I have been meaning to do for a long time. In this first post, I would like to explain my motivation in doing this exercise. Read More

I was deeply impressed by the magnificient sweep of Edward Said’s book, which show how an entire field of knowledge was intimately linked with the demands of imperialism, and had no relation to the ground realities of Eastern societies. The success of the book created within me the ambition to carry out the same analysis for the field of economics, to show that it reflects the demands of the powerful, and has no relation to the ground realities of existence. Of course this demands an entirely different analysis, one which I have working on for decades. I now have many major pieces of the picture in plorientalismace, but still need some more work to put it all together. Below, I provide a brief review and summary of Edward Said’s masterpiece.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2016:

Orientalism by Edward Said launched a revolution when it first came out in 1978. He succeeded in discrediting an entire field of study; so much so that scholars no longer call themselves “orientalists”. His book has been enormously influential, with ramifications in many established disciplines, including literary studies, history, anthropology, sociology, area studies, and comparative religion. The thesis of the book is complex and subtle, and we will only attempt to sketch a crude outline in this brief essay.   Read More

This post was meant to provide a framework for further elaboration of the idea of ET1% — the Economic Theory of the top 1% — as one ingredient of a Meta-Theory of Economics. However, covering necessary preliminary background already took up more than a thousand words, so this project has been deferred for a later post. The goal of this post is to explain why we need to focus on Meta-Theoretical aspects of social science, rather than whether or not economic theories are true or false. The perspective emerges from my understanding of the Methodology of Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation” [which was recently ranked as the 2nd most important book of the 20th Century in a Poll of RWER Blog Readers]

As the name indicates a Meta-Theory for Economics is a theory about economic theories. As we are all aware, economic theories evolve, change and mutate. Multiple rival conflicting and contradictory theories co-exist within the mainstream. Outside the mainstream, there are people (like myself) who claim that all of mainstream theories are fundamentally and deeply flawed.

A meta-theory studies the process by which new theories emerge. Some of the central questions for a meta-theory would be:

  • What are the circumstances which lead to the creation of new economic theories?
  • Who are the agents who create new economic theories?
  • Why are new economic theories created?
  • What leads some theories to become popular and widely accepted?
  • What leads other theories to be rejected, or neglected and ignored?

Those who refuse to think about meta-theories often commit themselves to an extremely simplistic meta-theory without realizing or explicitly acknowledging it. This simplest of meta-theories is based on the idea of “TRUTH”. According to this meta-theory, new theories are generated as part of a process of searching for the truth. A theory is adopted because it explains the observed phenomena well, and hence is likely to be true. Agents are motivated by the search for truth, and seek to improve the explanatory power of theories. New theories are created to bring wider range of phenomena within the scope of explanation. Theories which are able to explain a large range of observed phenomena become widely accepted and popular. Theories which conflict with observations are rejected and confined to the dustbin of history.

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After having examined a lot of relevant, useful and insightful material on the failure of orthodoxy, some of which that came up in the responses to my post, I have come to a conclusion that there is a viable project we could undertake together, which has the chance of creating a revolution. There are several points that need to be taken in consideration to shape the project.

Insight Number 1:

The first point comes from Edward Fullbrook’s remark that:

If Samuelson had any claim to genius it was that he understood better than anyone else that nothing in economics is nearly as important as Economics 101. Marshall, Samuelson’s target, understood it also.

Samuelson’s was the textbook which defined economics in the twentieth century. I propose that we work together on writing the textbook which will define economics in the twenty first century.

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