The bang-your-head-against-a-wall theory of economic policy

I’m in the middle of writing a paper on Classical Economic Theory which has as its central theme how near impossible for someone educated within one school of economic thought to understand another. My own belief is that one can only understand an economic theory if one actually has at some stage thought it was valid.

But on the larger question whether economic theory can help us understand what to do, it is an unambiguous yes, if it’s classical economic theory, and for the most part if it’s Austrian. Otherwise, forget it. Modern economics is basically a bang-your-head-against-a-wall-theory because it feels so good when you stop.

This book has just come to my attention. I have highlighted two bits from the ad which make me very suspicious that she might really be able to help out any of us with much of anything at all.

Questions:

(1) What do the ideas of Karl Marx tell us about the likely future for the Chinese economy?

(2) With globalization in trouble, what can we learn about handling Brexit and Trumpism?

Answers:

(1) The more they pay attention to Marx, the worse their economic outcomes will be.

(2) If you are wondering how to “handle” Brexit and the economics of Donald Trump, you are already demonstrably incapable of understanding their natures or how and why they will improve things.

Anyway, here is the ad for the book. History of Economics is always worth a look, and you have to start somewhere, although if you want my advice, where to start is with this one. Meanwhile, there is this:

Front Cover

Since the days of Adam Smith, economists have grappled with a series of familiar problems – but often their ideas are hard to digest, even before we try to apply them to today’s issues. Linda Yueh is renowned for her combination of erudition, as an accomplished economist herself, and accessibility, as a leading writer and broadcaster in this field. In The Great Economists she explains the key thoughts of history’s greatest economists, how our lives have been influenced by their ideas and how they could help us with the policy challenges that we face today.

In the light of current economic problems, and in particular growth, Yueh explores the thoughts of economists from Adam Smith and David Ricardo to recent academics Douglass North and Robert Solow. She asks, for example, what do the ideas of Karl Marx tell us about the likely future for the Chinese economy? How do the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who argued for government spending to create full employment, help us think about state intervention? And with globalization in trouble, what can we learn about handling Brexit and Trumpism?

The economic role of saving

There are two ways to understand the word “saving”. It is either:

(1) deferring the use of one’s purchasing power to a later date

OR

(2) that part of the capital, labour and other existing resources of a community that are used to maintain and extend the productive apparatus of an economy.

If you confuse (1) with (2) you will never understand how an economy works. (1) is of course modern and Keynesian, while (2) is classical and Austrian.

But these things are very very difficult to keep straight in the midst of analysis unless you really have the distinction absolutely clear.

Let me therefore take you to a sad example of how these issues became muddled in the midst of an interview with an Austrian economist who was trying to explain (2) to someone who thinks only in terms of (1). This is the title, Our Obsession with Consumption — while Ignoring Saving and Investment — Is a Big Problem. I have adopted his explanation from his Austrian treatment and translated into how things would be looked at from a classical perspective.

In economics today very little attention is given to the role of savings. This is a very curious situation.

There can be no production without prior saving.

Nature on its own provides us with only very few consumer goods eg apples on a tree.

For anything more, we must first produce the goods that we then afterwards can consume.

But to produce these goods we must first devise and construct tools, instruments or machines.

But to devise and construct tools, instruments or machines we already need a stock of already existing tools, instruments or machines. This stock is what is meant by “saving”.

Without prior savings no increase of future consumption is possible.

But then the interviewer asks this question, which transfers the issue from (2) to (1).

Do the current saving systems for retirement in the West work? If not, with what should they be replaced?

Suddenly the issue is about the future real potential purchasing power that lies behind money saving in the present. And from there the conversation never gets back to the need to widen and deepen our productive capabilities. They do go on to discuss who should make the decisions on what capital to build but by then it is too late.

The real problem for me is that even the interviewer, who was trying to provide soft questions so that the issues could be explained clearly, was too muddled himself and never allowed the interview to go where it needed to go, so another opportunity to make things clear disappeared.

Marginal analysis as it ought to be done

This is my own version of the marginal revenue and marginal cost diagram with the traditional version a complete waste of time. The traditional version has a series of lines many of which can never be drawn (such as the demand curve) with the ultimate point to show the price-quantity configuration for the sale of a single product. The conclusion is that if a firm wishes to maximise profitability on the sale of some good or service, it will price the product just exactly where a lower or higher price would lead to a lower return over cost. Fatuous and useless, with various bits of the real world left out, such as the actual ability to work out the effect on revenue of changing a price. Modern micro truly is as useless as modern macro.

The above diagram – discussed fully in my Free Market Economics – brings in a number of crucial factors:

  • it is about whether some decision should be made rather than deciding on what price to charge
  • it is about trying to make a decision in the face of a future that can never be foretold but is filled with endless uncertainties
  • it recognises that there are costs that almost invariably must be borne before there is a return [Area A]
  • costs continue even after revenues commence and only eventually, in a profitable venture, will revenues exceed costs [when B = A]
  • the point of origin is the present moment when some decision must be made – all of the lines drawn are the expectations of the decision maker
  • reality may turn out to be much different, with losses instead of a net positive return
  • only when total revenue and total costs are equal – that is, when the expected addition to revenues is equal to the expected addition to costs (when MR=MC at the moment the decision is made) does the decision become profitable

This is the way a business, or anyone else for that matter, makes a decision: in the present with only one’s own conjectures as a guide.

I will lastly mention a very nice note I received the other day:

Steve

Just finished reading your book Free Market Economics and wanted to congratulate you.

I have read plenty of economic texts, but yours is the best by far and helped crystalize a number of things that have been swirling around in my mind.

Great work.

It was truly appreciated. You can get a copy for yourself here. I didn’t make any of it up myself. It is just a distillation of classical theory, the economics of John Stuart Mill and his contemporaries.

If you want to understand how an economy works you need to understand classical economic theory

So long as Keynesian economics remains the mainstream, there is no possibility of taking down the crony capitalist system of economic management. Because Keynesian theory is the mainstream which everyone learns, economists are taught from their very first days in class, that routinely syphoning our wealth into the hands of governments and their friends will create a net increase in the number of jobs while making everyone better off. It isn’t true, and ought to be seen as obviously untrue, but since the pretence makes governments and their crony capitalist friends immensely rich, it just goes on. So more fool you for accepting Keynesian theory.

The argument that an economy is driven by the level of demand, irrespective of what is being demanded, works very well for those receiving handouts from governments, but harms everyone else. All production uses up resources while only a small proportion adds anything back in. It is now invisible in the way economics is currently taught why all of that matters. In writing as I do I am doing nothing more than repeating what was obvious to every great economist before The Keynesian Revolution but is utterly unknown other than to a handful of economists who have actually studied the classics.

At the link may be found a pre-print of an article of mine that will appear in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought: Making Sense of Classical Theory. This is the description of its contents.

The fundamental problem discussed is the shifts in the conceptual base of economic theory that followed the publication of The General Theory, along with various technical terms being given different meanings, which have made it almost impossible for modern economists to comprehend classical theory. Yet it is in the classical theory of the cycle where the most profound understanding of the nature of recession and cyclical unemployment is found.

The paper’s not long but it takes you into the heart of the differences between modern economics and the classical theory that had existed prior to the publication of The General Theory in 1936. This is now the sixth paper in a series that began with the publication of my article on Mill’s Fourth Proposition on Capital in 2015. That earlier paper was criticised by an economist in the UK by name of Roy Grieve, whose criticism of my paper attracted a series of comments by an American economist, James Ahiakpor.

I can only hope that the core point found in the attached paper, explaining why classical theory works and Keynesian economics does not, will be clear. But as this brief paper points out, there have been so many changes in the terminology and presuppositions within economic theory since classical times that it remains almost impossible for a modern economist to follow what the great economists of the past had said. But not only can it be done, but you will only understand how an economy works if you do.

Classical economic theory and the American recovery

UPDATE ABOVE: Birthday pressies from the family who seem to know me quite well.

Modern economics explains to governments how they and their crony capitalist mates can steal from you while pretending they are doing you good. And before we go any farther, here is something you should know before you listen to another word from anyone in government: Government spending never creates a net increase in employment. Government spending only creates jobs in one place at the expense of jobs somewhere else, and does it by giving money to the government’s best friends to run projects no firm, based on profit and loss, would ever undertake. And if the project is loss making, which government projects almost invariably are, it has taken the economy backwards – that is, people in general invariably become less well off than they otherwise would have been had these projects not gone ahead – even if those to whom the government has paid money are better off, which they almost invariably are. Government spending, unless there is a genuine and calculated return above the cost, is a ripoff, and it is you who are being ripped off. They pick your pockets and pretend they are doing you good.

Let us look at the alternative. The turnaround in the American economy over the past year is astonishing and almost unprecedented; you might have to go back to Harding in 1921 to find a parallel. No modern macroeconomist can explain it. The supply-side of the economy is not only invisible to almost every economist miseducated today, but so far as their demented demand-side models go, is irrelevant to raising growth and employment. Here is what I wrote in November 2016, with the only bit I got wrong being how quickly things have turned around.

Getting a recovery from here, from within the mess that Obama has left behind, will be a task of such Herculean difficulty that only because Trump is president do I think it is even possible. And one of the most important virtues he may have is not listening to economists such as this one discussed in the article at the link: The brilliant economist who designed the failed 2009 stimulus plan tells us that Donald Trump’s economic plans are going to fail. Here we are dealing with Harvard economist, i.e. Keynesian economist, Lawrence Summers, about whom the article states:

At this point, we have to note that the esteemed Dr Summers was the architect of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an $831 billion boondoggle which was promised to hold unemployment to a maximum of 8%; it reached 10.0% in October of 2009, and stood at 9.2% in June of 2011, when it was projected to be below 7%. There are many economists who still justify the stimulus bill by saying that while the effects of the recession were worse than estimated, they’d have been worse yet without the ARRA. That, of course, is unprovable, but when the designer of such a huge, failed program tells me that someone else’s economic plans won’t work, I have to look at his statements with a jaundiced eye.

Trump has spending plans of his own that aside from The Wall, which if it significantly reduces the size of the American welfare bill may pay for itself many times over, will also add to the burdens on the economy. But he also intends to cut energy costs, improve decaying infrastructure, free up the regulatory framework that suppresses industry, renegotiate trade deals that are intended to work for American industry, and lower government outlays generally. He will also remove Obamacare, which has raised the cost of full-time employees, while lowering the cost of health insurance. Interest rates will also start to rise which should assist in the shifting of resources into more productive areas of the economy, and will also add to the willingness of many to save.

I definitely do not say it’s easy, and no one can guarantee things will turn round rapidly enough to show results soon enough to work politically, specially in the midst of the hostile media circus Trump will have to deal with. But at least I feel that for the most part the changes that will be introduced will generally shift things in the right direction. Here is the alternative Summers has in mind:

I have long been a strong advocate of debt-financed public investment in the context of low interest rates and a decaying U.S. infrastructure, so I was glad to see Trump emphasize it. Unfortunately, the plan presented by his advisers, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross, suggests an approach based on tax credits for equity investment and total private-sector participation that will not cover the most important projects, not reach many of the most important investors and involve substantial mis-targeting of public resources.

There is no learning from history other than that economists never learn from history. You also know that Congress will fight like cats to maintain expenditure since that is almost entirely what they have to maintain their support. Whether there is a constituency for re-building the private sector is still to be discovered, but at least with Trump you know he will want to try.

You really do have to wonder whether economists will learn a thing from what they’ve just seen. Given the experience of the past, there is not the most remote chance in the world that they will. But what you’ve seen has been the result of following classical economic policy – the economics of John Stuart Mill – in just the way it would have been done before Keynes published his General Theory, a book that has destroyed the coherence of economic theory for three generations of economists and counting.

Macro Follies returns

The only movie that has ever been made from a book I wrote. The movie was put together by that genius, John Papola, producer of the greatest economic video ever, The Keynes-Hayek Rap. And as noted in the credits for Macro Follies, there I am found in truly stellar company:

Special Thanks to Russ Roberts, Steven Kates, Larry White, Steve Horwitz, James Adams and Steve Fritzinger

As for the book, if you are looking for a Christmas present, let me recommend my Free Market Economics which is the book from which the movie was made. It is the only economics book written in approximately the last 150 years that is built on classical economic principles. As it says at the Book Depository website

“In this thoroughly updated third edition of Free Market Economics, Steven Kates assesses economic principles based on classical economic theory. Rejecting mainstream Keynesian and neoclassical approaches even though they are thoroughly covered in the text, Kates instead looks at economics from the perspective of an entrepreneur making decisions in a world where the future is unknown, innovation is a continuous process and the future is being created before it can be understood. Key Features include: * analysis derived from the theories of pre-Keynesian classical economists, as this is the only source available today that explains the classical pre-Keynesian theory of the business cycle * a focus on the entrepreneur as the driving force in economic activity rather than on anonymous `forces’ as found in most economic theory today * introduces a powerful though simplified model to explain the difference between modern theory of recession and classical theory of the business cycle * great emphasis is placed on the consequences of decision making under uncertainty * offers an introductory understanding, accessible to the non-specialist reader. The aim of this book is to redirect the attention of economists and policy makers towards the economic theories that prevailed in earlier times. Their problems were little different from ours but their way of understanding the operation of an economy and dealing with those problems was completely different. Free Market Economics, Third Edition will help students and general readers understand classical economic theory, written by someone who believes that this now-discarded approach to economic thought was superior to what is found in most of our textbooks today.”

You can order a copy here. For anyone who wants to get a sense of how an economy works, and also why government intervention beyond a minimum creates harm, this is the place to go. Of course, you might instead decide to save your money and have an even better Christmas next year, but you might also instead just think of it as helping to build your own human capital, as well as helping you to contain your rage watching Malcolm and Co butcher economic policy before Bill and Co are allowed to take over who will do even worse.

RMIT is the George Mason of the South

It was certainly never intended that way but the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT has become one of the great free market universities of the world. This has been posted at Instapundit just today following the post you see below on The Blockchain Economy:

INTERNET 4.0: Chris Berg (Australia’s free speech champion), Sinclair Davidson (of Catallaxy Files fame), and Jason Potts have put together The Blockchain Economy: A beginner’s guide to institutional cryptoeconomics. If they’re right, regulators and taxmen have a lot to fear.

And allow me to add myself into this equation. I presented my paper on Tuesday on “Classical Economic Theory Explained” which discussed the many many many things wrong with Keynesian macro – that is, all of modern macro – that the classics got right. And while the number of people who get this is quite small at the moment it is not quite zero and the numbers are growing. Therefore, let me refer you to this paper by Per Bylund More Spending Does Not Drive More Employment in which the following passage may be found:

Economists prior to the Keynesian avalanche, which contemporary Say’s Law scholar Steve Kates argues was all about dismissing the organic view of the market economy, had the same understanding of the economy as Mises. What drives the economy is not demand or spending, but entrepreneurship and production.

Indeed, JS Mill famously notes that “Demand for commodities is not demand for labour” in his fourth fundamental proposition on capital. While this statement is subject to much debate and most modern economists cannot make sense of it, it is in effect very straight-forward if one recognizes the role of entrepreneurs.

And if you want to want to read about Mill’s Fourth Proposition, you can go here. This was its first defence in more than a century but as said by Leslie Stephen in 1876, “it is the best test of a sound economist”.

Classical theory explained

I’ll be in Canberra for the first three days of next week for the meeting of the History of Economic Society of Australia where I will be giving a presentation on the actual meaning and significance of “classical” economic theory. I am therefore putting up a post from way back in history that I did in 2011, so ancient that Maurice Newman was the Chairman of the ABC and I was still being published at The Drum. The rest of this post is what I said then. But before I get to that, I will put up this quote from a brief article on me [my name even comes first in the article’s title!] which you may find in the latest edition of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought:

“Steven Kates is probably the best-known present-day proponent of the old ‘classical’ macroeconomics of Jean-Baptiste Say, James Mill, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill.”

But as I say in the heading in the slide, I am probably the “best-known” because I am probably the only one in existence. It was also, let me assure you, not intended as a compliment. Anyway, here is what I wrote back then.

__________

I have an article up at The ABC’s Drum website where I again look at the statement by the ABC’s Chairman, Maurice Newman, on the value of classical economic theory in comparison with the modern. Here was the full quote from his speech:

We may think we are all Keynesians now, but perhaps contemporary teachings of Keynes are not faithful to the original doctrine, or, maybe, Keynes is now a defunct economist. Perhaps post modernist economics has so captivated our journalists that they have suspended the spirit of enquiry, open-mindedness and scrutiny that an informed democracy so desperately needs.

Under relentless pressure, classical economics has become all but a relic of a bygone era. Yet the work of classical economists most likely holds the solution to today’s economic ills.

The point that Maurice Newman was making was that journalist really ought to take a look at the economic ideas of the classical economists, which using the modern Keynesian definition incorporate every economist before Keynes himself, with the exception of Malthus, Hobson, Major Douglas and Gesell (who these last three are you might very well ask, but this is Keynes’s very own and very short list). As for the rest, they were consigned by Keynes to the dustbin of history, whose theories are only kept alive by a very small band of economists scattered across the world.

In the article, I quote Alfred Marshall, arguably the greatest economist to emerge from the nineteenth century. As I wrote on The Drum, Marshall “was very specific about not mistaking an economic recession for a failure to spend and he very much thought of himself as following in the tradition of the classical economists. This is what he wrote in his Principles of Economics:

[This is] the attitude which most of those, who follow in the traditions of the classical economists, hold as to the relations between consumption and production. It is true that in times of depression the disorganization of consumption is a contributory cause to the continuance of the disorganization of credit and of production. But a remedy is not to be got by a study of consumption, as has been alleged by some hasty writers … The main study needed is that of the organization of production and of credit.

Demand deficiency was not an idea discovered by Keynes. It was an idea about as old as economics itself and had been thoroughly debated and rejected for a hundred years before Keynes came along. And the fact of the matter is, there is not an economist in a hundred who could tell you in a convincing way why demand deficiency had been seen by classical economists as the province of cranks. They would also be unable to tell you what the classical theory of recession actually was. All they have is what they were told by Keynes, the very last man in the world from whom anyone should try to learn what classical economists had said.

Newman’s point is exactly right. Why don’t our journalists (and economists) show enough curiousity to find out what those classical economists said and wrote. We might still reject classical theory when we have examined their theories and ideas. But then again there is the possibility, a possibility that grows stronger by the day as we move towards another downturn, that classical economists actually did know more about the causes of recessions and their cures than we are currently led to believe.

What does a modern economist think a classical economist believed?

I am writing a paper in which I begin by setting down what a modern economist would believe about “classical” economics. In reality, of course, virtually no economist today would have the slightest clue how an economist prior to 1936 would have looked at the operation of an economy or dealt with the problems it might have. I have pulled together my own summary and am putting up it here so that others can tell me what they think. I would merely emphasise that what I have below is such a misbegotten caricature that economists ought to be thoroughly disgusted with their own discipline if they really think their ancestors believed anything like this caricature. Because if this really were what economists once believed, even Keynesian economics would have been an improvement.

The more one knows about the economics prior to the publication of The General Theory, the less dogmatic one can be about the teachings of “classical” theory, especially since in the Keynesian version it covers the entire period from 1776 to 1933. Nevertheless, here is a summary statement that more or less captures the modern version of the essential beliefs of economists prior to 1936.

The economy was seen as a world of more or less instantaneous adjustment due to the flexibility of prices and wages. Such rapid adjustments were expected to lead to an almost instantaneous economic reconfiguration in the face of new circumstances. Theory was almost entirely devoted to the long term with short-term fluctuations of little interest since downturns were so brief and government policy would anyway have been unable to alleviate any of the problems that might arise. The economy was, for all practical purposes, in equilibrium because of virtually instant adjustment made through changes both upwards or down in the price level. The key concept was Say’s Law, which stated that supply created its own demand, which in turn meant involuntary unemployment would never occur. Laissez-faire was the core policy setting. Market adjustment could not be improved on, with regulation of business and industry seen as almost never beneficial, but virtually certain to cause harm. Regulation was kept to a minimum as were welfare payments to the poor and unemployed.

A rare debate on Keynesian economics

You cannot imagine how rare a moment it was last night to be debating Stimulus versus Austerity. No one takes these things on, from the austerity side because hardly anyone actually understands what’s wrong with Keynesian economics as a theoretical issue, and from the Keynesian side because it is almost impossible to defend based on its theory. From the nature of the discussion, Keynesian theory is now defended only on sentiment and reflex. People want to do something, and raising government spending is in all the textbooks so we keep on doing it. Raising demand just seems obvious, which is why economics once explained why it was a terrible mistake. It is not obvious why public spending is bad for growth and jobs. And of course, infrastructure is a good thing so we should have more of it and therefore government spending is essential, whether you can afford it or not.

As for my own presentation, when in a public forum, you basically say what comes into your head, and you hope that what actually comes to mind is appropriate to the mood of the room and the case you wish to make. The one thing I told myself before I began is not to argue in the way it used to be done by John Stuart Mill, which was to point out how absolutely ridiculous the position held by other side was. He was particularly scathing on anyone who actually thought Keynesian economics had any merit at all – the carrier in his day being Malthus who had argued that demand deficiency (a general glut) was the cause of recessions, therefore requiring a stimulus to bring them to an end. But alas, in the midst of it, I found I was no better than JSM. The notion that we can wilfully waste our productive potential and that this will create jobs is so ridiculous that I just had to point it out just like that. What kind of a profession is economics if such obvious nonsense can sit at its very core?

But it’s not just theory we are dealing with. I have been on about this since the start of the stimulus packages in 2009, not one of which has brought recovery, and every one of which has had to be abandoned. They are economic poison, so why doesn’t our economic theory explain why they don’t work, rather than encouraging governments to try these experiments which inevitably fail? For me, I have no answer; you would have to go to a social psychologist to work it out.

But as I said at the start, it seems partly reflex, since this is all we have taught for 70 years, and partly sentiment, since we think we should do something. If it comes to that, I think we should do something too, but since lowering taxes on our businesses is so contrary to the anti-capitalist ethos that pervades more than just the left (but the left almost root and branch), the cure to many such people is worse than the disease. Better people should live in poverty, remain unemployed and individuals remain dependent on the government than that business profits should go up.

Anyway, a very interesting night demonstrating just how completely empty Keynesian economics is. Since the defence of the stimulus as presented was to show how the Greek economy had collapsed after international support had been removed, and that in Australia, although the data show that consumer demand ought to be rising by four percent but is only rising by two and a half percent – demonstrating apparently that we are being overly cautious and saving too much. It was also argued that capital spending is lower than expected given what it ought to be, and that real growth in incomes is flat! I can only say, that these seemed to be the kinds of things I wanted to get across. How that amounts to a defence of the stimulus I have still not been able to work out. What I do understand is that you need a heavy dose of classical economic theory to see why the economy remains flat. What will continue, I expect, is that we will teach what we teach in our economics classes, and governments will keep doing other kinds of things which are described as austerity. I just say again, that you won’t make sense of what is going on if you still think that Y=C+I+G gives you any insight at all into how an economy works.

My thanks to Joe Dimasi and the Economic Society for setting this up and to Alan Oster for his presentation of the other side.