Classical economics explained by someone who thinks classical economic theory was the most accurate economic theory ever devised

I have finally submitted the manuscript for my Summary and Translation of Classical Economic Theory into a format that can be read by a modern economist. This is part of the note that went with the submission.

I think and hope I have now completed everything I need to do to submit my manuscript. I have adjusted the title, but am still looking for something that really says in compact form what I mean, which is that if you want to understand how an economy works, you will have to return to the economic theories of the classical economists. That is what the book is about, plus also being about how to understand a classical text since one must first work through how economic terminology has changed since classical times. If you read the word “saving” as a Keynesian does, you will not only not understand a classical text, you will also not be able to make sense of how an economy works.

The embedded notion that is almost explicit in the text is that only by understanding classical economic theory can one understand how an economy works, which also says, and the text discusses, that you cannot understand the operation of an economy using mainstream theory, any version of socialist economic theory, New Classical economics, Austrian economics or, for that matter, the economic theories of the early classical economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

It is only with the publication of John Stuart Mill’s Principles in 1848, and then from within his last edition published during his lifetime in 1871, can one discover the actual operation of an economy. What that theory is no one any longer knows, other than a few specialists who number fewer than 100 across the world. And then, amongst those, there is oddly only a single one who believes that Mill’s text is the lost ideal of economic theory. I perfectly well understand how ridiculous it is to believe any such thing, but I do. The classicals laid it all out before the arrival of the Marginal Revolution which turned economics from the supply side to the demand side. But what has completely collapsed economic theory as a sound means to make sense of an economy was the advent of the Keynesian Revolution in the decade after the publication of The General Theory in 1936, where not only was everything overturned, but a new set of technical terms was introduced whose use makes a classical text all but incomprehensible to a modern economist. You will need my text to understand classical economic theory. You cannot do it on your own since you won’t know either the meaning of the terms or the presuppositions that underpinned the theory.

Our economies have managed, but only just, to maintain the role of the entrepreneur in directing our private sector firms, but the pretence found in modern macro that public spending – G – is as productive or as value-adding as private investment – I – is tearing our economies down, with no understanding of what is happening, least of all among our economists. That capitalists have been transformed into crony capitalists, who are now among the major welfare recipients taken from the massive tax revenues collected by governments, is a large part of the problem. What to do is hard to say, but first the problem needs to be recognised. That is what this book attempts to do.

Hayek v. Mises

Sinclair’s post and the John Papola video on Mises v Marx was a really interesting but I doubt will have the same penetration as did his early video on Keynes v Hayek. This continues to provide some kind of ground for understanding the economic policies of our time, and the disasters of a demand-side approach to managing an economy. Central banks are now the major carriers of the disease.

As it happens I am in the last stages of completing my manuscript on Classical Economics and what is needed for a modern economist to follow the classics, which studying modern theory makes virtually impossible. This is the draft opening to the chapter on Austrian economic theory for your interest. Comments welcome.

Although Carl Menger initiated the Marginal Revolution with the intent to find a unified theory of value, the names now most closely associated with the Austrian School are Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. And while both are seen from a distance as almost one and the same, up close they were quite different from each other. There are many ways to highlight their differences, but here their approaches will be compared through their attitudes to John Stuart Mill, since both specifically identified themselves with the classical liberal tradition.

Where it matters is in the social aims an economist might hold. The essence of Mill’s approach to economic theory was to attempt to answer the question, what ought to be done to create the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people? Uppermost in his mind was the question of what can be done to raise the living standards and economic wellbeing of the individual members of the community. Yet while he called himself a “socialist”, it was the kind of socialism that by today’s standards would have had him grouped among the most market-oriented political theorists of the present day. In particular, he would find modern macroeconomic theory, and the policy matrix that accompanies its Keynesian basis, completely false. While he saw a definite role for government involvement in the economy, the basic framework was that everything that can be left to the market should be, while also understanding that not everything can be left to the market. He saw a clear but limited role for government regulation.

Hayek’s approach is similar to Mill’s (and I would say my own). Hayek discusses the economics prior to the publication of Menger’s Principles of Economics in 1871, noting that this was only “a mere twenty-three years since the great restatement of classical economics by John Stuart Mill (Hayek 1992: 96-97). He continues:

“It is important for proper appreciation of Menger, that we do not underestimate what had been achieved before. It is misleading to think of the preceding period, 1820-1870, as simply dominated by Ricardian orthodoxy. At least in the first generation after Ricardo there had been plenty of new ideas. Both within the body of classical economics as finally expounded by John Stuart Mill and even more outside it there had been accumulated an array of tools of analysis from which later generations were able to build an elaborate and coherent structure of theory after the concept of marginal utility provided the basis of the unification. If ever there was a time in which a quasi-Ricardian orthodoxy was dominant, it was after John Stuart Mill had so persuasively restated it. Yet even his Principles contain very important developments which go far beyond Ricardo. (ibid.: 97)

The point was that Mill had provided much of the raw material that the marginalists had been able to consolidate into a more unified whole. Hayek stops to state that

“It is indeed quite difficult to understand how a scholar of the penetration and transparent intellectual honesty of John Stuart Mill could have singled out what was so soon felt to be the weakest part of his system for the confident assertion that ‘there is nothing in the laws of value which remain for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete.” (ibid.: 98)

That Mill, the greatest utilitarian scholar of his generation, had no interest in making utility the core of his own theory of value may have been a conundrum to Hayek, although it might also have suggested that utility had been considered by Mill but then rejected. Yet the core point here is that there is no question that Hayek had a profound and extremely high regard for the economics of Mill, self-proclaimed “socialist” though he may have been. This is opposite to the attitude taken by Mises.

The economics of Mises is astonishingly detailed and profound. But what makes his approach so austere is its narrow focus on economic issues almost entirely outside the social and political arena. Hayek, like Mill, was continuously thinking through how economic conditions could be improved using as many arms as policy as possible, while always understanding the limits that are placed on the various possibilities available by the laws of gravity of economic theory which forbid various approaches to be adopted. Mises, on the other hand, thought that only an absolutely rigid adoption of market-based economic theory was acceptable. And unlike Mill, who even in 1848 could see how economic policies would be constrained by popular pressures to alleviate economic pressures and to use governments to temper economic outcomes, Mises accepts no compromise with the hard-edge views of how a market economy must operate. Here he discusses his views of John Stuart Mill in his Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (Mises 1985).

“John Stuart Mill is an epigone of classical liberalism and, especially in his later years, under the influence of his wife, full of feeble compromises. He slips slowly into socialism and is the originator of the thoughtless confounding of liberal and socialist ideas that led to the decline of English liberalism and to the undermining of the living standards of the English people. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of this – one must become acquainted with Mill’s principal writings:

Principles of Political Economy ˆ(1848)
On Liberty (1859)
Utilitarianism (1862)

“Without a thorough study of Mill it is impossible to understand the events of the last two generations. For Mill is the great advocate of socialism. All the arguments that could be advanced in favor of socialism are elaborated by him with loving care. In comparison with Mill all other socialist writers – even Marx, Engles and Lassalle – are scarcely of any importance.” (Mises 1985: 195)

An indication of how adamantine Mises’s political judgements are may be recognised in the following comment from the preface he wrote for Liberalism in 1962.

“In England the term ‘liberal’ is mostly used to signify a program that only in details differs from the totalitarianism of the socialists.” (ibid.: xvi)

At any rate, no actual socialists have ever cited Mill as the source of their views on how an economy ought to be managed. Yet Mises’s concerns over the drift of economic theory and government policy remain a vivid warning of how dangerous economic theory has become, both economically and politically.

A classic case of economic ignorance

I am in the midst of finishing off a book on classical economic theory from which, and only from which, you can discover just how fatal to economic health modern economic theory is. The Australian economy is not far from disaster, real growth is falling as are real wages. But this we find at the top of the front page of The Oz.

PUBLIC SPENDING KEEPS NATION AFLOAT

Here are the opening paras.

Surging federal and state government spending has insulated the economy from a dramatic plunge in growth, as business investment and household spending shrank, raising questions about the health of the economy.

The latest national accounts show annual economic growth fell to 1.4 per cent — the slowest since 2009 — as rapid increases in public spending and global demand for the nation’s coal, LNG and iron ore papered over weak or falling household spending and business investment.

That it is the public spending that is taking the economy to death’s door occurs to no one. Let me therefore take you to a bit from the introduction to my forthcoming book.

The chapter goes to some length in discussing the advent of Keynesian theory, which was summarised by Paul Krugman in his introduction to The General Theory which was published in 2006, seventy years after Keynes’s original publication in 1936.

“Stripped down, the conclusions of The General Theory might be expressed as four bullet points:

1. Economies can and often do suffer from an overall lack of demand, which leads to involuntary unemployment
2. The economy’s automatic tendency to correct shortfalls in demand, if it exists at all, operates slowly and painfully
3. Government policies to increase demand, by contrast, can reduce unemployment quickly
4. Sometimes increasing the money supply won’t be enough to persuade the private sector to spend more, and government spending must step into the breach.

“To a modern practitioner of economic policy, none of this – except, possibly, the last point – sounds startling or even especially controversial. But these ideas weren’t just radical when Keynes proposed them; they were very nearly unthinkable. And the great achievement of The General Theory was precisely to make them thinkable.”

There is no question that Keynes did indeed make each of these more than just thinkable. He was able to turn these propositions into the mainstream where they have been accepted by virtually every economist ever since. It is classical economic theory that has now become unthinkable. The result of the Keynesian Revolution has left things so that the classical alternative is not just no longer contemplated by anyone within the mainstream of economic theory, but that no one within the mainstream even knows what that alternative is.

I stumbled onto classical theory by accident but it has been so accurate in allowing me to understand what’s going on that I can never understand why others don’t sicken of this Keynesian trash. It has never ever in a single instance brought an economy from recession into recovery. It’s all set out in my Free Market Economics. How we ended up in this dismal place we are now in is what my next book will go into chapter and verse.

The power of classical economic thought

Here is a story picked up just today which had a bit in it I found quite striking since it presents a real-world economic event straight out of classical economic theory. It’s from an article titled, New recession warning: The rich aren’t spending. There we find:

The savings of the rich has also exploded, more than doubling over the past two years, suggesting that the wealthy are hoarding cash. The middle earners, or those in the 40% to 89.9% of the income distribution, have largely picked up the spending slack from the rich….

The middle-class consumer, however, is being buoyed up by strong employment and a relatively stable housing market. A U.S. economy that for over a decade has been defined by the rich reaping the gains and fueling the spending, has now flipped. Now, it’s Main Street that is prospering, while the investor class is signaling a consumer recession.

Which made me think of this from Mill’s Principles:

The proposition for which I am contending is in reality equivalent to the following, which to some minds will appear a truism, though to others it is a paradox: that a person does good to labourers, not by what he consumes on himself, but solely by what he does not so consume.

Clear as a bell to anyone versed in classical thought but to anyone else, specially to a student of modern macro, a statement near impossible to comprehend.

Told ya so

Here’s the front page story in The Oz today: Aussies no better off since GFC: household incomes stagnant for past decade. From which:

“Over the eight-year period from 2009 to 2017, average household income grew by only $3156, or 3.5 per cent, while the median in 2017 was $542 lower than 2009,” the report, which has tracked the circumstances of more than 17,500 Australians since 2001, finds.

The share of households in relative poverty — living on less than half the median income — rose to 10.4 per cent, according to analysis released today by the Melbourne Institute that will add to the controversy about the adequacy­ of Newstart, the govern­ment’s jobless payment.

All as obvious as the morning sun, if you can do away with modern macroeconomic trash and return to pre-Keynesian theory. From my tenth anniversary warning on the stimulus published in Quadrant:

Just as the causes of this downturn cannot be charted through a Keynesian demand deficiency model, neither can the solution. The world’s economies are not suffering from a lack of demand and the right policy response is not a demand stimulus. Increased public sector spending will only add to the market confusions that already exist.

What is potentially catastrophic would be to try to spend our way to recovery. The recession that will follow will be deep, prolonged and potentially take years to overcome.

— Steven Kates, Quadrant, March 2009

Why have the IMF, the OECD, the ILO, the treasuries of every advanced economy, the Treasury in Australia, the business economists around the world, why have they got it so wrong and yet you in your ivory tower at RMIT have got it so right?

— Question to Steven Kates from Senator Doug Cameron,
Senate Economic References Committee, September 21, 2009

I caught on to classical economic theory in 1980 and have spent the years since watching in every circumstance how accurate the economics of John Stuart Mill actually is, from the failure of every single “stimulus” put in place to stimulate through to watching the recovery that followed the massive cuts to public spending brought on by Peter Costello’s budget in 1996 and the return, not just to balanced budgets but zero debt. Modern Keynesian economics is junk science and has never worked on a single occasion during the entire period since The General Theory was published in 1936.

Read my text if you are interested: Free Market Economics, now in its third edition. And here is the endorsement from Art Laffer, the genius behind the Reagan recovery and now also complicit in the recovery in the United States:

‘This book presents the very embodiment of supply-side economics. At its very core is the entrepreneur trying to work out what to do in a world of deep uncertainty in which the future cannot be known. Crucially, the book is entirely un-Keynesian, restoring Say’s Law to the centre of economic theory, with its focus on value-adding production as the source of demand. If you would like to understand how an economy actually works, this is one of the few places I know of where you can find out.’

Classical economic theory presents perennial truths that economists once knew but have completely forgotten

The perfect statement of classical economic theory, from David Uren in The Australian today: Get used to the new normal – booming rates of growth are gone.

Over the year to December, growth was only 2.3 per cent and, short of massive revisions by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Treasury’s forecast of 2.7 per cent growth this financial year looks unattainable

It is time Treasury let go of its vision of an extended burst of rapid growth around the corner.

After a decade in the slow lane, this may be as good as it gets.

It is not such a bad place to be — employment growth has been strong.

It was a staple within classical economic theory that economic growth is unrelated to employment. And there we see it before our eyes, low rates of economic growth and high levels of employment growth. All that is discussed in my Quadrant article this month: The Dangerous Persistence of Keynesian Economics. There at the very end of the article we find the then-Treasurer of the UK, Winston Churchill, discussing the futility of public spending to add to employment in the wake of their attempt in the 1920s to stimulate employment through high levels of public works:

“For the purposes of curing unemployment the results have certainly been disappointing. They are, in fact, so meagre as to lend considerable colour to the orthodox Treasury doctrine which has been steadfastly held that, whatever might be the political or social advantages, very little additional employment and no permanent additional employment can in fact and as a general rule be created by State borrowing and State expenditure.”

Ninety years later we demonstrate once again what once upon a time every economist knew which now no one knows. Read the Quadrant article if for no other reason than to get another perspective.

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.