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history of economic thought

This post is a continuation of ET1%: Blindfolds Created by Economic Theory, We show how the Invisible Hand theory appears to be neutral but actually favors the top 1%.

As quoted and refuted in my earlier post on “Failures of the Invisible Hand“, Mankiw writes that: “The reason for excellent functioning of decentralized market economies is that all participants are motivated by self-interest. This self-interest works better than love and kindness in terms of promoting social welfare.”  

What a monstrous statement! How can any human being think such thoughts? This is what comes from cutting off human experience as a source of knowledge, removing hearts from bodies, and leaving only brains floating in vats as a the sole source of knowledge.

Our hearts — in their pure states –would revolt at the oxymoron of a society based on selfishness. However, contamination by the poisons of economic theory and positivism leads to the blindness to sources of human welfare displayed in the Mankiw quote. In earlier times, A Christmas Carol of Dickens was sufficient as a reminder the wealth is not a measure of welfare. However, modern times reflect modern mindsets, which convert greed and wealth to desirable virtues, as reflected in the Disney version of Uncle Scrooge. So, sadly, it becomes necessary to argue on logical grounds, appealing to brains in vats, instead of appealing to the heart.

First, let us note that “excellent functioning” just means maximization of wealth, and “social welfare” is also measured by the amount of wealth owned by society. At the individual level, the end-of-life psychiatric disorders of Howard Hughes have been the subject of numerous books and articles. Would anyone consider that the billions he made pursuing profits in a market economy created greater social welfare for him than love and kindness would have? What is true at an individual level is also true at a social level — The Easterlin Paradox shows that massive gains in wealth in societies have not caused corresponding increases in happiness. This is true both in time series for single countries, and for cross sectional studies across countries. As detailed and careful studies show — there is no long run relationship between happiness and increases in GNP per capita. Because this finding threatens the foundations of economic theory, economists have challenged it on many different grounds. In a review of these critiques which re-affirms their original findings, Easterlin et. al. have shown that, they do not differentiate between short and long run. The Easterlin Paradox is more accurately stated as – money does buy happiness in the short run, but not in the long run. This is exactly in accordance with my post on “The Coca-Cola Theory of Happiness” — Coca-Cola does buy happiness in the short run, but is not the formula for long run happiness.

Evolutionary biology has now discredited that idea that the survival of the fittest requires selfishness and competition; see Cooperation and Generosity leads to Evolutionary Success. It is almost obvious that groups would be strengthened by coooperation and generosity. There is no question that we would all prefer to live in a society based on love and kindness, instead of living in jungle ruled by survival of the fittest.  If “social welfare” is understand properly, instead of being reduced to a quantity of money in the bank, it is clear that love and kindness would work much better at promoting social welfare.

Why then have economists in the twentieth century insisted on attributing a mis-interpretation of the invisible hand to Adam Smith (see “Adam Smith & the Invisible Hand“) and have made this the central pillar of modern economic theory? The answer lies in ET1%: the necessity for the top 1%  in democratic societies, to invent theories which appeal to the bottom 90%, while actually favoring the rich and powerful. The Invisible Hand asks us to let everyone do whatever they want, since it will all work out to the best for the entire society. Even if the rich and wealthy appear to be exploiting others, the invisible hand will make sure that their greed is harnessed for the welfare of the society. The only way to make sense of this nonsensical message is to understand it as a clever piece of propaganda which supports the interests of the rich and the powerful, by identifying these interests with those of the society as a whole. This is very similar to the “trickle-down” theory, according to which enriching the wealthy will (eventually) bring benefit to the entire society. Even though it is easy to demonstrate “The Failures of the Invisible Hand” both empirically and theoretically, this theory dominates the pages of the modern economics textbooks. This demonstrates the main theme of my post on ET1%: Blindfolds created by Economic Theory;  modern economic theory is meant to blindfold students to the tremendous advantages the capitalist system confers on the tiny minority of the rich and wealthy, the 1%. It systematically distorts our vision and mindset to cause the tremendous inequities of the system disappear. See my paper on “The Invisible Hand: Death of a Metaphor“, for further explanation for how, with repeated use, a metaphorical usage becomes conflated with reality in the public mind. This is extremely beneficial for the 1% as it allows them to create myths which protect their interests, and have them accepted as truths in the form of modern economics. This illustrates the Power/Knowledge thesis of Foucault.

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This is the second lecture on Understanding the Rise and Fall of the Gold Standard — shortlink: bit.do/azifa2 — we start with a  Summary of First Lecture 

The first lecture discusses the Keynesian theory that the exact level of money in an economy is critically important – too little leads to recessions, while too much leads to inflations. Furthermore, domestic business cycles, and international financial crises are caused by pro-cyclical behavior of current artificial systems of money creation and international trade. Standard macro theories make it impossible to understand the economy because they assert that money is neutral, and does not affect the real economy – exactly the opposite of the Keynesian idea that the quantity of money is all important. Standard macro model currently in use throughout the world have no explicit role of money, banks, and credit, even though these factors are of central importance in understanding the world. Once we understand the vital role and function of money within an economy, it becomes possible to understand historical events of the twentieth century – whereas this is impossible using conventional macro theories. The first lecture summarizes how the colonial system came into being, and the monetary arrangement for a hard currency at the core and soft currencies in the periphery. This system of fiat currencies works fine within one system of colonies, where the value of money is decreed by sovereign fiat. For trading between different countries, the gold backed currencies were used. As European countries prospered by exploiting resources throughout the globe within their colonies, inter-European trade increased. The optimal quantity of money required for the domestic economy is not the same as that required for stable international exchange rates. The pro-cyclical money creation which is characteristic of the system creates cycles, and large cycles lead to crises on a routine basis. World War I was partly caused by the breakdown of the colonial trading system due to the end of expansion possibilities after the completion of the conquest of the globe. Efforts to restore the gold standard after World War I failed. The second part of the lecture discusses the post World War I history, with reference to the international financial architecture that emerged in the post-Gold era after World War I.

3100 Word Summary of Second Lecture on Global Financial Architecture

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In previous parts of this article (Understanding Macro I & Understanding Macro II), we have described how strict financial regulation and Keynesian prescriptions for full employment brought prosperity for the masses, but reduced corporate profits. This last part describes the successful counter-attack by corporations which reversed this state of affairs, causing a massive rise in the income shares of the wealthy 1% and a decline in the fortunes of the bottom 90%.

In the mid 70’s, when I was studying for my Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford, Keynesian economics ruled the roost; pre-Keynesian free market economics was confined to the Chicago School, and not considered intellectually respectable. This situation was reversed in the 90’s, when the Chicago School became dominant, while Keynesian economics was no longer considered respectable. The multi-dimensional strategy used to create this revolution on the academic front is described by Alkire and Ritchie inWinning Ideas”, while the global strategy to transform socialistic economies into capitalistic free markets is described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. A common thread between the two is the patient preparation of detailed plans, while waiting for a crisis, which provides an opportunity to implement these plans.

The intellectual crisis that Chicago had been waiting for occurred in the early 70’s when the Arab Oil embargo, in retaliation for US support of Israel, led to stagflation in the USA. The simultaneous occurrence of high inflation and high unemployment was said to be in conflict with Keynesian theories, while the Chicago School theory of Milton Friedman was said to provide an explanation for the unexpected phenomena. This became widely accepted, and led to a substantial rise in the prestige of the Chicago School, and a blow to the Keynesians. The 1% capitalized on this by providing funds to Sveriges Riksbank, the Central Bank of Sweden, to create a simulated Nobel Prize for Economics, named the Sveriges Riksbank prize in honor of Alfred Nobel. The Nobel family protests against this appropriation of the prestige of the Nobel Prize were ignored, and the public was fooled into accepting this just like the genuine Nobels. In quick succession, roughly half of all the Nobel prizes were awarded to Chicago economists, interspersed with 50% going to randomly chosen others to create a semblance of neutrality. This led to a rapid rise in the academic prestige of the Chicago school.

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[bit.do/azifa] Lecture 1 on Rise and Fall of the Gold Standard, on Friday 4th May 2018 in AR Kemal Rm at PIDE, by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE. 1hr 20m Video Lecture. Shortlink for Lecture 2: bit.do/azifa3

3100 word summary of lecture:

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My article about the Battle of Methodologies, published in March 2018 issue of NewsLine Magazine:

Because of the universal spread and impact of Western educational systems, necessary for survival in the modern world, we have all learned to view the world through glasses manufactured in Europe. Just as a fish is unaware of the waters in which it swims, so we are unaware of the currents of history which have shaped European thought. Yet to understand the world we live in, and how our perceptions have been shaped by the dominance of West, it is essential to acquire an understanding of how the Western worldview has been radically transformed over the past few centuries. In this brief essay, we will discuss the “Methodenstreit”, the battle of methodologies, which took place in the late nineteenth century. While this is only one piece of the complex and multi-dimensional historical experiences of Europeans, the methodenstreit had a decisive impact on modern social science, which shapes our current understanding of human beings and their social, political and economic lives. The title of the book “How Economics Forgot History” about the methodenstreit by Geoffrey Hodgson accurately describes the impact of this battle on the discipline of Economics. In this battle, the German Historical School, championed by Schmoller and his colleagues, lost to the Austrian School of Menger, who favored a scientific and quantitative approach to economics.

But what is wrong with taking a scientific approach to the formulation and solution of economic problems, the reader might ask. This essay provides an answer to this question. The idea that economics is a “science” is firmly embedded in the foundations of modern economics. This means that economics provides us with a set of laws which have universal applicability across time and space, independent of social, political, geographic, and historic context. In fact, there are no such economic laws. How we organize our economic affairs differs in different societies, and also varies across time. The attempt to create a “scientific” economics resulted in forcing mathematical laws upon human behavior. Over the past few decades, psychologists who study actual human behavior have established that humans do not behave according to these laws. This has resulted in the creation of field of “Behavioral Economics,” and many researchers working in this area have been awarded Nobel Prizes (most recently, Richard Thaler) for discoveries which contradict the laws of behavior still being taught across the globe to students of economic theory. Despite discoveries that human beings are temperamental, driven by diverse and conflicting emotions, and free to make sudden changes in behavior, the scientific methodology of modern economics currently being taught to students across the globe continues to describe human beings as predictable robots subject to mathematical laws. The insights from behavioral economics are so radically in conflict with economic theory, that economists have not been able to assimilate them into the mainstream curriculum.

Similarly, the scientific method leads economists to ignore specific historical events in their vain quest for universal laws which describe economic systems. Essential insights about economics are lost due to this disregard of history.  For example, the two world wars, The Great Depression, The Bretton-Woods agreement, and Nixon’s revocation of gold backing for the dollar are events of central importance for understanding the economics of the twentieth century. However, economists do not study these events since they are particular and specific historical events, which cannot be described using universal scientific laws. On a larger scale, the birth of modern market society can be traced to the industrial revolution, which created possibilities of massive overproduction of goods in 18th century England. This overproduction concentrated a massive amount of wealth and power in the hands of a small group of people, who were able to use favorable historical circumstances to increase their wealth and power by expanding the role and influence of markets to the point that they came to dominate and destroy traditional societies all over the world. The deep insights which emerge upon connecting the historical context with economic theory have been brought out by Karl Polanyi in his magnum opus: “The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times.” One of the central themes of Polanyi is the dramatic contrast and opposition between values of traditional societies and the emerging modern market society. Traditional societies organize their economies on principles of redistribution and reciprocity, cooperatively taking care of all members. Furthermore, traditional societies value many characteristics like heroism, generosity, knowledge, spirituality, literature, arts, sports, etc. over and above the possession of wealth. In contrast, wealth becomes the primary marker of status in market societies, and becomes the main object of personal and collective endeavor. Studying the evolution of economic system and the co-evolution of economic theories adapted to the study of these systems in historical context yield deep insights not available using the currently dominant ‘scientific’ methodology.

An important consequence of the opposition between market values and social values is that traditional societies do not and cannot evolve into becoming market societies – this change is always brought about by a revolution, which destroys traditional values and replaces them by anti-thetical values of a market society. This revolution occurs on both the physical and material dimension, and, more importantly for our present essay, it also occurs on the ideological dimension. As Marx realized, capitalism produces laborers conditioned by education, tradition, and habits into thinking of the economy as subject to natural laws, and accepting their own exploitation as a necessary, fair, and just part of the system. Similarly, even though the market society provides enormous amounts of wealth and power for a few select members, expansion of the market into all human affairs requires this minority to create and popularize market ideologies. At the core of market ideologies is the idea that markets are governed by natural laws which provide equitable outcomes to all participants and create maximum wealth for all. This ideology runs counter to traditional ideas about social responsibility for the poor and disadvantaged, and suggests that interfering with market mechanisms will cause harm to everyone.

To understand the “origins of our times,” it is necessary to understand the parallel growth of market institutions which expand the scope and power of the marketplace, and the accompanying market ideologies which counter and negate traditional ideas about social norms. For example, exploiting the possibilities of massive overproduction created by the industrial revolution required the creation of consumers for these products. The globe was occupied by traditional societies which prized self-sufficiency as a virtue, and did not have markets for British goods. The productive capacities of the industrial society created the power to physically take over and colonize weaker societies all over the world. The destruction of local institutions for provision of social welfare, and the harnessing of all factors – labor, land, natural resources – to the global production of capitalist wealth was also accompanied by ideologies promoting the idea that this was the best path for all concerned. In particular, the economic theory of “comparative advantage” was invented to justify the absurd idea that it was in best interest of the colonies to remain engaged in the production of raw materials, leaving England to specialize in the production of industrial manufactures. Since it is easily refuted by empirical evidence, comparative advantage cannot be understood as a “scientific theory”. It can only be understood as a product of historical circumstances, as a part of a collection of theories required to justify the brutal processes of colonization and the accompanying destruction of local economies.

Since ‘comparative advantage’ was a manifestation of political power, effective counters also required political power. In Germany,  Friedrich List created the ‘infant industry argument” to support protectionist policies in Germany and Europe, which allowed European industries to catch up to England. Similarly, the American Revolution allowed the USA to implement protectionist policies which developed strong industries in North America. Colonies which did not have the political power to resist the ideology of comparative advantage remain agricultural economies providing raw materials to advanced economies to this day.  Like all major modern economic theories, comparative advantage can only be understood within its historical context, by seeing how the interests of the powerful imperialists were protected and advanced by the spread of this theory. The theory of free trade, which remains popular and widely believed by economists, is very similar. Wars by European powers against China and Japan were concluding by signing treaties which opened these countries to European goods, creating a market for industrialized European economies. Not only was free trade forced upon them by war, but the ‘theory of free trade’, which says that this was in their best interest, was forced upon them by the corresponding ideological war. It was the ability of China and Japan to resist this ideological war that has led to their economic success today. Similarly, it has been our failure to resist the invasion of ideologies and theories of the economic hit-men that has led to our poor economic performance for several decades.

The most important insight which emerges from studying history, politics, geography, and society in conjunction with economics is the deep inter-connections between all these spheres of human lives, and the impossibility of studying them in isolation. Like all of social science, modern economic theory derives directly from the analysis of economic systems of Western capitalist societies. The victory of the scientific and quantitative school over the German historical school in the battle of the methodologies created the misconception that this analysis is a “science” which is universally valid across time and space, for all societies. This has led to the current situation, where we teach and study capitalist economics relevant to modern European and USA economies but largely irrelevant to our economy, which is structured along different lines. At the same time, we do not study the success stories in patterns of the miraculous growth achieved by China and East Asian economies, which followed radically different policies. Discarding the blinders created by “scientific” pretensions of Western economics would create much-needed skepticism about the applicability of Western economic  theories to our radically different historical and cultural context, and also open our eyes to non-European models for prosperity which offer us substantially greater chances of success.

PostScript: For a more detailed discussion, see Origins of Western Social Sciences

Because of Western dominance, brilliant thinkers from the East get very little attention in global media. Even though brilliant economists from East Asia and China have created globally acknowledged economic miracles in their countries, none of them have received a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, Western economists whose theories were demonstrably in conflict with the events that took place in the global financial crisis — like Lucas, and Fama — have received Nobels. One of our greatest un-sung Eastern Heroes is Mahbubul Haq. My recently published article describes the revolution he created in economic thought:
HDI

Goethe starts his famous East-West Divan with a poem about the journey (Hegire), both physical and spiritual, from the West to the East. In this essay, we consider the analogous journey from Western to Eastern conceptions of development. This involves switching from viewing humans as producers of wealth, to viewing wealth as a producer of human development. To start with the Western conceptions, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx defined economic growth as the process of accumulation of wealth. The range of diversity of Western thought is bounded by the Left-Right spectrum. Ideas on which both extremes agree command widespread consensus in the West. Consequently, a core concept of modern economic theory is that wealth is the means and ends of the process of economic development. Unfortunately, due to the dominance and influence of Western paradigms, this concept has been widely accepted and adopted in the East today.

Mahbubul Haq was indoctrinated into the Western development paradigm which gives primacy to wealth at leading universities, Yale and Harvard. He got the chance to apply these economic models as the chief economist in Pakistan during the ’60s. However, because of his Eastern upbringing and heritage, he was able to see the murderous message at the heart of the cold mathematics of the Solow-Swan growth models. These models focus on savings, created by reducing present levels of consumption, as the only route to the accumulation of greater future wealth.

Mahbubul Haq realised what is not mentioned in the economics textbooks: obsession with production of wealth requires us to use the sordid and cruel tactic of making workers produce wealth, and refusing to allow them to consume it, in order to buy machines and raw materials. He was clear-sighted enough to see the consequences of these policies: wealth did indeed accumulate, but it went into the pockets of the 22 families, without providing relief to the misery of the masses. Today the global application of capitalist growth strategies has led to a dramatic increase in inequalities both inside nations and across nations. Just one among many horrifying inequality statistics is that the top 13 individuals now have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion on the planet.

Dissatisfaction with state-of-the-art Western growth theories led Mahbubul Haq to a revolutionary insight, taken from the heart of the traditions of the East, and having no parallels in current Western economic theories. Instead of capital, Mahbubul Haq placed human beings at the centre of the process of economic growth, returning to the ancient wisdom that “human beings are the means and ends of development”. Even though he was called a heretic for going outside the boundaries of contemporary economic thought, the pragmatic genius of Mahbubul Haq sought to minimise differences and create bridges to conventional thinking in order to achieve acceptance for his radically different approach to development.

His Human Development Index (HDI) was a master stroke, combining two inherently incompatible conceptions of development in a compromise which ceded ground to wealth in order to create international visibility for poverty. His friend and classmate Amartya Sen was reluctant to accept the HDI because of certain inherent flaws in this marriage of fire and water, but eventually agreed to its practical necessity. The pragmatic approach of Mahbubul Haq paid off handsomely when the HDI measure achieved global recognition as rectifying major defects in the standard GDP per capita. Widespread acceptance and use of HDI has led to a radical change in the discourse on development, by adding poverty, health, education and other soft social goals to the pure and simple-minded pursuit of wealth. The revolutionary ideas of Mahbubul Haq have led to improvements in the lives of millions, as global consensus developed on the social goals embodied in the MDGs and SDGs.

The Human Development approach of Mahbubul Haq was carried further by Amartya Sen, who defined development as the freedom to develop human capabilities. This notion, closely aligned with Eastern thought, was so alien to orthodox economists that they rejected it. Consequently, a new human-centred field of development studies emerged, which combined many streams of dissent from orthodoxy. Unfortunately, leaders at the helm of policymaking in the poor countries of the world are trained in orthodox economic theories, and have not assimilated the radical lessons of Mahbubul Haq, acquired from bitter experience. The paths to genuine development lie open, but with their backs to the doors, they are unable to see them.

Conventional growth theories create the mindset that the game is all about wealth creation. We will worry about our poor population only after we acquire sufficient wealth to feed them. The poor are a burden on the development process because providing for them takes away from money desperately needed to finance development of infrastructure, purchase of machinery and raw material, and industrialisation. We cannot afford to feed the poor, if we want to grow rapidly. The human development paradigm stands in dramatic contrast to this currently common mindset among planners. Instead of utilising humans to produce wealth, we utilize wealth to develop human capabilities. Our human population, our poor, are our most precious resource. This point of view receives strong support in the empirical findings of a recent World Bank study entitled “Where is the Wealth of Nations?” The study finds that the wealthiest nations are rich because they spend money to develop their human resources, and not because of natural resources.

Thus, instead of being a burden, our poor are our most efficient means to development. If we use available wealth to improve their lives, to empower them, to educate them, and to provide them with the support they need, they can rapidly change the fate of the nation. Furthermore, they are also the end of the development process — that our goal is NOT to produce more and more wealth, a la Adam Smith and Karl Marx — but to ensure that our people lead rich and fulfilling lives. If we use our energies to achieve this goal, we have already arrived at the destination — we do not need to wait for a distant future where sufficient wealth will accumulate to enable us to take good care of our people.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2017.

[shortlink: bit.do/wpam03] This is an outline of the lecture 3 in Advanced Microeconomics — expands somewhat on the slides available from the link. This should be useful to heterodox economists looking for ways to teach an alternative course, radically different from conventional approaches. First two lectures consisted of some preliminary math, and can be skipped without lack of continuity.  Video of the lecture (90m) is available at the bottom of the post.

Supply & Demand is Central to Economics: This is the modern Theory of Value. The market price determines the value – this is in conflict with classical conceptions of value.

BUT, this theory is WRONG!  The central question in theory of Value is: HOW are prices determined? Why are water and tomatoes cheap, and why are diamonds expensive?

Current answer is the Supply and Demand theory of economics. Classical economists’ answers were  Labor Theory of Value.

Modern Answers are seriously deficient. Classical Schools had substantially more insight into these questions. We will be discussing classical thinking (Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Sraffa) later in the course. This lecture deals with: Failure of Supply & Demand in Labor Market. This failure was the Raison-d’etre of Keynesian Economics

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