Still more on Say’s Law and Austrian economics

The debate on the Coordination Problem website continues but see here, here and here for the prior discussion. Personally, but what do I know, those on the attack have ground to a halt, with these the latest posts:

Oh, my. Where to begin?

Kates says that Say’s Law emerged out of the general glut debate. A debate requires two sides. So there were economists who advocated “Keynesian-type solutions.” Sismondi, to name just one.

Kates fails to distinguish between long-run (equilibrium) and short-run (dynamic) propositions in classical political economy. JS Mill and many other classicals had a dynamic theory of economic crises. Barkley’s characterization is on the mark.

Then there is the problem of fifty years of missing economic history. Economists on the eve of the Keynesian Revolution were not classical economists, but neoclassicals. They were Austrians, Walrasians, Marsahllians, etc. so, Haberler was an Austrian, not a classical economist.

By the time of the GT, Keynes had an embarrassingly large number of precursors for Stimulative fiscal policy. Indeed, Keynes was a latecomer. The Chicago School was a hotbed of such policies. Friedman explains that Chicago was inoculated to Keynesian economics because of that.

In The New Economics and the Old Economists, J. Ronnie Davis details the pre-Keynesian origins of what we call Keynesian policy. Rothbard details how many economists supported pump-priming under Hoover and later under FDR. All before the General Theory. Ditto Steve Horwitz’s work on Hoover.

Fisher represented another strand of thought. His debt deflation theory of the cycle is one in which a fall in nominal values has real effects. The obvious solution is reflation. The issue is not whether Fisher was correct, but that there were many, many demand-driven policies to cure recessions before Keynes.

Kates seems to just leave out any ideas that do not fit his thesis. Other ideas are simply fitted onto his Procustean bed.

Posted by: Jerry O’Driscoll | July 19, 2015 at 09:51 PM

First let me thank Jerry O’Driscoll for dealing with some matters I would have otherwise. I agree in full with his remarks.

On Steve’s post before that, two things. One is that he is like Keynes in way overstating the importance of Say’s Law. It was never the “foundation of economic theory,” although maybe J.S. Mill thought it was.

The second is that Steve embarrassingly botches his discussion of Smith’s view. I think one can indeed find a variation of Say’s Law in WoN, but this is a joke. Productive versus unproductive labor has nothing to do with the idea of value added, beyong the trivial point that if something does not add value it does not add value, duh. In fact, Smith’s focus on material production was later carried over by Marx, and one could find this distinction between productive and unproductive labor in Soviet income and product accounts, although it might be useful in regard to rent seeking. As it is, one can easily imagine a “menial servant” providing valuable input even into a material production process. This whole thing is silly and has Kates making Smith look silly. Yikes!

On the later post, sorry, Steve, you do not remember your history. We debated this matter on the internet before your first book was out, and I told you then about Say’s views. But, this is just trivial and boring.

You continue to avoid the main arguments by both Mill and Keynes about the sources of macro fluctuations, which focused on financial crises and collapses of capital investment, not shortfalls of consumption. While Keynes ridiculed what he called Say’s Law and defended the possibility of general gluts, that was not really the focus of his theory, which had more to do with the collapse of animal spirits of business people.

Your efforts to dismiss Say simply look ridiculous. In fact, his examples against the law were already in his first edition. You have trouble reading, don’t you, for such a great scholar of Say. But we already know how worthless Say was and can ignore him, especially given that he actually supported government spending on public works projects during the downturn after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Again, I am not going to bother arguing with you about the many cases where most economists would say that there was an increase in aggregate demand that pulled the economy out of a slump as we have already seen what you will say, which is simply to declare everything that happened that had any effect to be supply side.

I am glad, I guess, to see that you thought maybe something might be done by government to help get out of the Great Recession, although it would appear that you wish to get all worked up again about public spending that involves “value added” versus that which is not. Yeah, sure, pretty much everybody would prefer to see productive public spending on useful infrastructure or whatever rather than the old joke Keynes digging holes in the ground and filling them up again, although I suspect you have either forgotten or did not know what that famously repeated-out-of-context quote was really about.

And as for your big final question, why should anybody care and of what importance is it? Sorry, none, although I am not going to argue with your claim that it was Fred Taylor who first coined it, woo woo woo.

Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 20, 2015 at 02:14 AM

BTW, I shall agree with Steve Kates that Ricardo’s discussion in the general glut debate does look somewhat Austrian in his emphasis on misdirected production that needs to be reallocated, and I have said that in a forthcoming paper on “History of Economic Dyhamics” to appear in the Handbook of the History of Economic Analysis and currently available on my website.

I should also say that while Jerry identifies Haberler as an Austrian, he is sort of as Schumpeter was. His great book is very eclectic and even handed in its accounting of many views, many of which have been forgotten even though quite interesting and worthy of reconsideration.
Posted by: Barkley Rosser | July 20, 2015 at 02:20 AM

It is hard to gauge where I stand since no neutral has bought in to indicate what they think themselves. Anyway, here is my reply to Barkely. I will reply to Jerry after.

Essentially, Barkley, what you have done is call the classical theory of the cycle “Keynesian” and declared victory. If I really do have to demonstrate that Keynes was trying to show that demand deficiency was the cause of recession, we are at such a primitive level of debate that it is almost impossible for me to work out where we can find some kind of solid ground on which we can agree so that we can work out between us where our differences lie.

This making it up as you go along version of Keynes is quite astonishing. Do you really believe that “while Keynes ridiculed what he called Say’s Law and defended the possibility of general gluts, that was not really the focus of his theory, which had more to do with the collapse of animal spirits of business people”? Here is what Keynes actually argued and right at the start of the book as he is trying to give an overview of what is to come:

“The idea that we can safely neglect the aggregate demand function is fundamental to the Ricardian economics, which underlie what we have been taught for more than a century. Malthus, indeed, had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s doctrine that it was impossible for effective demand to be deficient; but vainly. For, since Malthus was unable to explain clearly (apart from an appeal to the facts of common observation) how and why effective demand could be deficient or excessive, he failed to furnish an alternative construction; and Ricardo conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain. Not only was his theory accepted by the city, by statesmen and by the academic world. But controversy ceased; the other point of view completely disappeared; it ceased to be discussed. The great puzzle of Effective Demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature. You will not find it mentioned even once in the whole works of Marshall, Edgeworth and Professor Pigou, from whose hands the classical theory has received its most mature embodiment. It could only live on furtively, below the surface, in the underworlds of Karl Marx, Silvio Gesell or Major Douglas.” (GT: 32)

I think Keynes in this instance is absolutely right about the nature of economic theory right up to his own time. The General Theory is about deficient aggregate demand and designed to refute Say’s Law. For you not to know this you must somehow have avoided the Keynesian-cross diagram, leakages and injections, IS-LM, AS-AD along with Y=C+I+G, versions of which may be found in every single Samuelson clone and which are still taught to just about everyone. If what you call “Keynesian” is some package of inferences from the later chapters of The General Theory that ignore what you can find at the front, well feel free to go on with your private understanding of what Keynes really meant, but it is not the Keynesian theory that now disfigures virtually every first-year macro text in the world, nor the one that informs policy.

And as for ignoring what Keynes thought was the cause of the recession of his own time, he is perfectly clear about it in the GT:

“The post-war experiences of Great Britain and the United States are, indeed, actual examples of how an accumulation of wealth, so large that its marginal efficiency has fallen more rapidly than the rate of interest can fall in the face of the prevailing institutional and psychological factors, can interfere, in conditions mainly of laissez-faire, with a reasonable level of employment and with the standard of life which the technical conditions of production are capable of furnishing.

“It follows that of two equal communities, having the same technique but different stocks of capital, the community with the smaller stock of capital may be able for the time being to enjoy a higher standard of life than the community with the larger stock; though when the poorer community has caught up the rich — as, presumably, it eventually will — then both alike will suffer the fate of Midas.” (GT: 219)

I know this is dead set stupid, and not at all like the sophisticated arguments of Mill, but if you are going to defend Keynes, this is what you must defend. “The fate of Midas” is, of course, a situation where everyone is so wealthy that they stop buying and save instead. This is why Keynes thought the world had gone into depression, because he sure wasn’t discussing the 1920s, or at least not the “roaring ‘20s” of the United States.

That you disdain the need for spending to be value adding is quite clarifying so far as this exchange of views is concerned. You do represent a modern view of what Keynesian policy makers believe. You do not think that such expenditure has to be value adding to lead to faster growth and employment. Economists have, indeed, been taught that spending on anything at all will add to growth and employment. And you say this even with the labour market in the US as moribund as it is, where the only reason for the fall in the unemployment rate is the even faster fall in the participation rate.

The economics of John Stuart Mill is so superior to this unbelievable nonsense that you make every effort you can to associate your views with Mill’s while disassociating yourself from what Keynes really wrote. And it is no wonder why, because what Keynes wrote is such nonsense. But it is this Keynesian theory that has informed the Keynesian policies that were tried 2009-2011, which are now being abandoned. There is a need for policy guidance that will explain to policy makers what needs to be done, since they certainly cannot find any such thing in our modern Keynesian-saturated texts. But they could find it in Mill, if they only knew enough to look.

At this stage, all I can hope is that some of those who pay attention can see the point, or at least that there is a point. It is beyond me how anyone can continue to defend modern textbook theory when it never delivers what it promises. But in this instance, the notion that Keynes was really arguing some dynamic theory of adjustment, that is, arguing what Mill had been arguing, and not trying to overturn Say’s Law is just ludicrous. But since no one knows any history any more, what someone might end up believing is anyone’s guess.

The best test of a sound economist

A friend and colleague has written a fascinating paper on the various interactions amongst later classical economists from the late middle of the nineteenth century through to the end. Part of his paper dealt with Mill’s Fourth Proposition on Capital – “demand for commodities is not demand for labour” – on which I have just published a paper explaining its meaning which no one else has been able to do since Leslie Stephen at the end of that century. Most intriguingly for everyone since, in 1876 he described it as “the best test of a sound economist” which no one, until me this year, has been able to make sense of. Here is my reply to his note to me. I also have put this up since I think it is a perfect example of why the study of the history of economic thought makes someone a better economist. Where is the standard issue economist who would even begin to know what any of this is about?

As always, it was a fascinating paper from which I learned a great deal, even some things I didn’t want to know, such as Cairnes form of rheumatism which sounds like a kind of torture you would wish on no one. But being almost entirely like Leslie Stephen in the issues you discuss, I can stand in as a proxy to see things from his point of view.

On your three points:

(1) It is perfectly clear to everyone that Mill’s Fourth Proposition (MFP) is a restatement of Say’s Law. The problem is that they don’t understand Say’s Law which I have translated thus: demand deficiency does not cause recessions and a demand stimulus will lead neither to recovery nor higher employment. That is the point, and the words support my view. Economists since 1936 have been trapped in the belief that classical economists always assumed full employment, on the assumption, I guess, that they were idiots. Once you see that they never thought any such thing, you are able to take the first steps in understanding Mill and MFP.

(2) You say that the issue came up again in the 1870s because of a rekindling of interest in the wages fund doctrine. This may well be, but whatever may have rekindled the issue, the arguments in support of the Fourth Proposition have nothing to do with the wages fund doctrine. I don’t teach the wages fund, but I do teach all four propositions. But you have to understand Mill, which no one, absolutely no one in my view, does.

(3) You say that Stephen’s statement that it was the best test of a sound economist was not an offhand comment as I do. I thought of it as offhand given the nature of the book he was writing. It was far from being a book on economic theory and while it is in context, it is not essential to the point he was making over all.

On your paper, let me make a few points related to these matters.

(i) You quote the proposition incorrectly, but it is this error that is part of the problem. The proposition is “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. You wrote, “a demand for commodities is not a demand for labour” (p 9 and 13). This is fundamental and was the same problem that Simon Newcomb had. It is not micro. It is classical macro. Mill is looking across the entire economy and pointing out that lifting the level of aggregate demand does not lower the unemployment rate. I can see that, but no one else can see that. Aside from myself, no one, so far as I know, opposed the stimulus because it would not create jobs. To me, because I understand Mill, and therefore believe because of that that I understand how an economy operates, the failure of the stimulus was an absolute certainty. I listen to Krugman-style blather about how the stimulus was not large enough or that we are beset by secular stagnation and it is all ridiculous. Mill makes it clear, but to understand Mill you must absolutely give up on modern macro (and on Real Business Cycle theory as well). Stephen says it precisely right as you quote him (14-15) where he points out that expenditure by the rich will not lower unemployment. Substitute the government for the rich and you will see what he is getting at. I say the same and have more than enough evidence given the past six years. What evidence does a Keynesian have that they know the first thing about any of it?

(ii) The notion that MFP has been “exploded” is news to me. Marshall and Hayek tried to show that it was true, if you just made these wee adjustments. Of course, they made it completely incomprehensible and leached out of it any reason to see it as a “fundamental” proposition. They just couldn’t understand it for reasons I explain in my paper. That is why, I also think it is the “best test of a sound economist” which is why I think there are so few sound economists left. No Keynesian is a sound economist since each and every one would fail this test.

(iii) You seem to think that Stephen and Ruskin couldn’t agree on economic issues because of their different philosophies, and that Ruskin was shoveled out because he was not amongst the professional economic elite. I went back to read Ruskin’s Munera Pulveris after watching Mr Turner and even with the best will in the world, which I then had, could not bear it. Ruskin is a rotten economist. He asks the wrong questions and comes up with stupid answers. Mill, and I presume Stephen, were concerned about the poor and wished to raise living standards and see them employed (as I wish to do myself). It’s not even that I disagree with him but that Ruskin had literally nothing to contribute to any serious debate about how economies work. It wasn’t that they disagreed but that Ruskin’s views were irrelevant since he wasn’t looking at serious questions.

But these differences aside, your paper was very stimulating reading. Could you send me in the direction of this additional debate over MFP that followed from the debate over the wages fund. There may be something there that I should follow up on.

I am very pleased to find myself cited by you in this excellent paper.

Kind regards

Classical economics rediscovered

I have come across a summary of David Simpson’s The Rediscovery of Classical Economics written by David Simpson himself and published by the Royal Economic Society. Before I quote more extensively, I will note where he wrote:

I refer to an intellectual tradition that began with Adam Smith, was continued by Marx, Menger and Marshall, Schumpeter and Hayek and in the present day is represented by theorists of complexity.

It never surprises me to see the name of John Stuart Mill missing from such lists since Mill is the most difficult of all of the classical economists to access for any one schooled in modern theory. Yet it was Mill who set the standard for the second half of the nineteenth century and was explicitly followed by Marshall and even Hayek even as they turned economics into the more familiar form we find today. I might also mention that what makes Marx interesting even now is found in Mill only with much more common sense as well as a far deeper economic understanding. Mill is the high point of classical thought, and in many ways the high point of economic thought. But who amongst any of you would be able to contradict me, you followers of Keynes and marginal analysis, who barely know Mill’s name never mind have any idea of what he wrote? This is Simpson’s description of the economics that has all but disappeared.

The hallmarks of this classical tradition are principally three. The first is the belief that the growth of the economy, rather than relative prices, should be the principal object of analysis. Coupled with that belief is an understanding of the market economy as a collection of processes of continuing change
rather than as a structure, and that the nature of this change is self-organising and evolutionary. Finally there is a conviction that economic activity is rooted in human nature and the interaction of individual human beings.

The differences between classical theory and equilibrium theory can be summarised in the following terms. Classical theory focuses on change and growth within open, dynamic nonlinear systems that are normally far from equilibrium. Equilibrium theory, on the other hand, analyses the theory of value within closed, static linear systems that are always in equilibrium. As to the essential nature of economic activity, classical economics makes no distinction between micro- and macroeconomics. Patterns of activity at the macro level emerge from interactions at the micro level. Evolutionary processes provide the economy with novelty, and are responsible for its growth in complexity. In equilibrium theory micro-and macroeconomics remain separate disciplines, and there is no endogenous mechanism for the creation of novelty or growth.

The behaviour of human beings in classical theory is analysed individually. People typically have incomplete information that is subject to errors and biases, and they use inductive rules of thumb to make decisions and to adapt over time. Their interactions also change over time as they learn from experience. In equilibrium theory, individual behaviour is assumed to be homogeneous and can be modelled collectively. It is assumed that humans are able to make decisions using difficult deductive calculations, that they have complete information about the present and the future, that they make no mistakes and have no biases, and therefore have no need for adaptation or learning.

Simpson finishes by discussing where economics now needs to go under the heading, “The Implications for Economic Theory”. I think this is both very limited in what is sought but also almost impossible to imagine being taken up within the profession. I’m not so sure about the need for non-linear algebra, but at least with this we have the commencement of a program for change:

First of all, courses in economic history and in the history of economic thought should be a required part of the curriculum for every student of economics. The study of economic history, like the study of complex systems, reveals the importance of context in understanding economic behaviour. The study of the development of economic thought helps us to appreciate the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a theory. Macroeconomics should be downgraded, and give way to the study of business cycles.

Secondly, more space should be found for the analysis of dynamic processes at the expense of static theory. The study of the processes of economic growth should be restored to centre stage. This probably means a greater emphasis on nonlinear algebra.

At the same time, the limitations inherent in applying mathematics to economics need to be acknowledged. The importance of the human factor and of human institutions in economic activity means that more attention needs to be given to non-quantitative methods of analysis.

With the scale of disaster that has befallen us since the GFC, there is something radical that needs to be done. And if you are interested in seeing a twenty-first century update on Mill and classical theory, you can always try this.

The great discontinuity in Keynes’s economic thought

This is an extract from a note I have written to an economist in the United States whose work I have only just come upon. I am beginning to become aware of the various attempts by a number of economic schools to abandon modern neo-classical theory which, in my view anyway, mostly means trying to rediscover what the classical economists already knew. Perhaps there is more to it but so far I cannot see what. The interest in this letter, however, is in the nature of the Keynesian Revolution. I have no in-depth knowledge of Keynes’s Treatise on Money although am reasonably familiar with it. But it was published in 1930 while my interest begins in 1932 with Keynes’s discovery of demand deficiency as the explanation of recession and involuntary unemployment.

The paper I am commenting on treats Keynes’s ideas as if there had not been the great disruption at the end of 1932 when Keynes came upon Malthus’s 1820 letters to Ricardo. It was these that instantly converted him into a Keynesian theorist which he had not previously been, even though he had always sought to increase public spending to reduce unemployment during recessions. That virtually all of his contemporaries understood how thin Keynes’s arguments are is now just of historical interest and of interest to hardly anyone at all. Only by going back to those moments of transition, and by understanding what economic theory was like before 1936, is there any hope for again turning economic theory into something useful for analysing economic events. This then is what I wrote:

I would have written back straight away but Tuesdays is my heavy duty teaching day and I also didn’t want to clutter your inbox until I had read your brilliant article on Keynes. You cannot imagine how similarly we see the world and what a treat it is for me to read something like what you wrote. I will, of course, include this paper in my Anti-Keynesian Reader, but I must also beg your indulgence if I explain to you the 1932-1933 shift in Keynes’s thinking which is my speciality. I have also ordered your macroeconomics text which I am looking forward to since it came after your paper and must therefore incorporate the same ideas.

You have also made me even more aware than I was before that I have not been keeping up with the literature as well as I should. I found the scholarship of your article exhilarating and finished it at one go. I just sat down and read it and was only sorry that after thirty pages it turned out to be so short. My own excuse for not being aware of the most recent literature is that I spent the years from 1980-2004 as the Economist for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I therefore think that my economic interests were driven by an eclectic interest in arguments that could be used to explain economic issues from the perspective on an entrepreneur. It is why the classical economists so appealed to me since that was their aim. From the marginal revolution on, I find almost nothing of much value in framing issues, specially since post the marginal revolution economics went micro and into equilibrium analysis, both of which are utterly contrary to what I could see right before my eyes being the need to make sense of an economy in which every business decision is fraught with the uncertainty of spending tonnes of money before the outcome of each of those decisions could be known. And while I may have been feeding on the classics, nothing I ever wrote looked archaic to those to whom our submissions went. Classical economics makes perfect sense and is much more logical and insightful than the kinds of economic theory we find today.

But what started me on the trajectory I travelled was a minor issue in the National Wage Case of 1980. I was brought on to write the economic submission to our industrial relations court on behalf of employers. It was explained to me that every argument in a court of law must be controverted so I had to go through the union submission, identify each argument they had made and then explain why it was wrong. Believe me, this was the easiest task I have ever been given, but one of them was easiest of all. This was the argument that wages had to be raised as a means to stimulate demand. So I just pointed out that you could not stimulate an economy by making employers pay an extra $100 a week so that employees could then spend that extra $100 in their shops. And then, in 1982, I was reading John Stuart Mill’s Principles, for no other reason than because I was interested in what he might have to say, and came across his Four Propositions on Capital which literally, on the spot, ended my days as a Keynesian. (And now, 32 years later, I am about to finally have an article published on these four propositions.) From there, I continued reading more of Mill and found a passage in which he pointed out how ridiculous it was that people thought an economy could be driven forward by demand. And the example he gave of how ridiculous this argument is was of someone who might steal from the till of the business they are working in, go out the back door and come back in the front and spend the money, and that the more this was done, the faster the business would grow. This was so exactly my own argument that it completely dumbfounded me. And yet, it was probably not until another couple of years later that I worked out that the notions that Mill was discussing are the actual meaning of “Say’s Law”. It has been coming to terms with Say’s Law and what it meant and all of its implications that has been the pole star for all of my economic writing ever since. And so, my Free Market Economics, which is me trying to do in my own fashion right now what Mill had done in 1848.

I have tried to explain over and again that Say’s Law is the Rosetta Stone for understanding The General Theory, and is also the foundational principle for understanding how an economy works. For the second, you can read my text when it gets to you. But the first is what you have written your article about which has been in so many ways a revelation to me. My speciality is the Keynesian Revolution and know less than perhaps I ought to about The Treatise and Keynes’s original monetary theories. You have perfectly situated Keynes’s arguments for me and his original conception which fits into everything I already know and understand. It is a tour de force, and I have tried to read everything I can on the critics of Keynes. But this is what I can add to what you have written. I have, of course, published things on this but to say that it has been ignored is something of an understatement. It so badly fits the narrative others wish to promote, and truly undermines Keynes as an original thinker and an honest purveyor of ideas, that it just cannot be allowed into the canon. Perhaps, however, you will see my point.

Keynes was doing exactly what you write all the way up to the end of 1932. He was going to write a book about the Monetary Theory of Production, almost certainly along the lines you set out. Unfortunately, it was just then that he came across Malthus’s long-lost letters to Ricardo which had just been discovered by his best friend, Piero Sraffa. In updating his “Essay on Malthus” for inclusion in his Essays in Biography, he read through those letters and discovered demand deficiency, the issue of the general glut debate of the 1820s. He therefore stopped writing about the monetary theory of production and began to write about Say’s Law. And rather than requiring a form of disequilibrium analysis, he is forced by what he wishes to argue, to adopt the most rigid form of equilibrium analysis. This may seem a conundrum to others who work forward from Keynes’s previous writings, but working backwards from The General Theory as I do, it seems perfectly clear to me what he had done.

Not quite the last and there are more every day

This was the original post from Thomas Humphrey:

I would like to nominate Professor James Ahiakpor for the position of “Last of the Classical Economists.” This honorific title recognizes James’s stalwart and unceasing insistence that all monetary theorizing since the classical era of Hume, Smith, Thornton, Ricardo, and others has been a snare and a delusion, a retrogression not an advance. It honors James for never saying die, for never admitting defeat, for always pressing on, and for keeping alive the flame of classical monetary theory in this age of heretics, doubters, and dissenters.

I know James and think of him as one of the very few on my classical side of the fence. We have disagreed on things as friends might often do. But we are on the same side. Nonetheless, he is not the only classical economist, so I put up a follow up post to say so:

I think there are more classical economists around than Thomas Humphrey might have taken into account. I always call myself a classical economist to differentiate my views from those who have come later. And given my partiality to John Stuart Mill and Say’s Law, I don’t think there should really be any doubt where my views might be placed.

But let me also say there are more of us classical economists around than you might think. Not a lot but definitely more than just one. Can I therefore recommend to you David Simpson’s extraordinary and excellent, The Rediscovery of Classical Economics: Adaptation, Complexity and Growth (Elgar 2013). This is exactly what the title discusses, the importance of thinking about economic issues with the concepts that had existed amongst the genuinely classical economists at a time before the emergence of marginal analysis and our modern focus on equilibrium. If you read it, you will find modern economic theory not only a pallid imitation of what a true economic theory ought to be but also understand why our textbook version of economics has become near useless in either comprehending or managing our economies.

Following which James himself added this:

Delighted to see Steve’s post regarding the “Last Classical Economist.” I wonder why Tom thinks he has seen the last of the classical economists? Sure, J.M. Keynes used that term almost as a slur. That is why several upholders of the classical tradition, including Dennis Robertson and Ralph Hawtrey, shied away from it. But I embrace that label with pride, just as Steve and some others do.

In fact, after I’ve introduced my students to the evolution of modern macroeconomics that includes the seven schools of thought that I identify, they often ask to know to which I belong. Some express surprise when I tell them, “None!” The schools are (1) Neoclassical Keynesianism, (2) Post Keynesians, (3) New Keynesians, (4) Monetarism, (5) New Classicals, (6) Real Business Cycle Theorists, and (7) Austrians. (I leave out the Marxists.) I also mention that all but the post Keynesians have Nobel Prize winners among them. Several students also tend to ask me why not many economists, including our textbook authors, appear to be aware of the classical macroeconomic principles, including definitions of such terms as saving, capital, investment, and money, that I explain to them and they can clearly understand. My response tends to vary from “I don’t know” to “I’m still trying to find out myself.” You should the surprise look on their faces.

So, I believe there are more classical economists yet to emerge on the debating scene, Tommy!

And now Thomas Humphrey has re-entered, who is himself in many ways one of us:


My sincerest apologies for the oversight. I agree that there exist today more than one, and perhaps a sizable number of, classical economists, you being prominent among them.

And it was not the classical theory of distribution and growth, which, as you say, still has much going for it, that I was referring to. On the contrary, I’m a fan of Smithian and Ricardian distribution and growth theory. Rather I was referring to classical monetary theory, some of whose doctrines (but certainly not all, quantity theory and price-specie-flow ideas especially) have, it seems to me, been rendered obsolete, marginalized, and superseded by Chester Phillips-James Mead demand-deposit expansion analysis as well as by Keynesian, New Keynesian, and Post Keynesian doctrines.

I realize that you, as a major critic of Keynes and Keynesianism, will dispute all this. And you may be right in doing so. I’m just enunciating one view, namely my own and others like mine. In the spirit of letting a thousand flowers bloom, I hope you will indulge us even as you disapprove. That’s the beauty of doctrinal-historical conversations. They are willing to tolerate different views.

I might well dispute what Thomas wrote but it is a major advance even to see “Smithian and Ricardian distribution and growth theory” mentioned in a positive light. And to find Wicksell discussed, whichever side one might be on, is a return to some of the important debates of the past that have major implications today. And I do think James is right that it has taken three generations for economists to become brave enough to identify with pre-Keynesian economics which up until recently has been a no-go area for anyone interested in a career in economics, specially an academic career. But things are changing and it is very pleasing to see these shoots beginning to come up.

Say’s Law and the business cycle at SHOE

My likely final posting on this fascinating thread that began with my bring up Francois Hollande’s pointed comment on Say’s Law. The interesting thing for me to have seen in this instance is that others study the business cycle and find Say’s Law invisible. I began from examining Say’s Law and found its concepts an intrinsic part of the theory of the cycle.

Between Daniele Besomi and Barkley Rosser, I am beginning to get some idea why it is so hard for me to get my papers published.

But they are not the only ones who have published books on the classical theory of the cycle. I have my own as well, Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader (Elgar 2011). It’s an unusual title, perhaps, but I adopted it from Henry Clay’s Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader published in 1916, and after many reprints, with a second edition in 1942. My book is a cross between Clay, John Stuart Mill and a number of more modern features economic theory has picked up over the past century or so. I also teach Keynes, but those sections come with a skull and cross bones just so my students are warned about the dangers this kind of stuff can cause.

In this book I have a chapter on the classical theory of the cycle which is largely adopted from Haberler (1937) and then three more chapters explaining in more detail the nature of economic management using classical theory. But because I think of Say’s Law as the very core in understanding the cycle, what you see is the result of an enormous amount of additional reading on everything I could get my hands on about the pre-Keynesian theory of the cycle. In the days when I was starting my work on Say’s Law, I would tell people that I was working on classical business cycle theory because, as you know and can see from this thread, putting in a good word for Say’s Law is not apt to get you published or promoted. But I can do no other.

So let us suppose you were interested in the classical theory of the cycle, who do you think would get you closer? Someone who accepts Say’s Law, agrees with Mill on his fourth proposition on capital, thinks Keynes was right when he stated that he had introduced aggregate demand into mainstream economics where it had never been before, and uses classical reasoning to argue, at the very moment the stimulus packages were introduced, that they would lead to exactly the kind of economic stagnation we find today.

Would you trust that person, or would you trust someone who thinks you can boil most of what the classical economists had said down to deficient aggregate demand, even when Ricardo has explicitly stated that demand deficiency is not a valid explanation for recession, while Keynes had argued that what he was doing was overturning Ricardian economics and bringing demand deficiency into economic theory.

You can disagree with the classical theory of the cycle and why not, millions already do even though they have no idea what it is. But to argue that you have understood classical theory when you don’t agree with a word of it makes me have to ask why you are so sure you have it right? Some of the smartest people who ever lived were classical economists. Are you really going to set John Stuart Mill straight, or W.S. Jevons, or David Ricardo or Alfred Marshall? What will you add to their sum total of insight? That following a downturn business people become more tentative and hang onto their funds for a longer time before committing them to some project? That demand deficiency actually does cause recession? That wasteful public spending will increase employment and generate faster growth?

Does it really make any sense to believe that the Global Financial Crisis was caused by an almost overnight decision of people around the world to stop spending and start saving. What possible insight do you get by saying there was a shift to the left of an aggregate demand curve? Or that what we must now do is shift the AD curve to the right?

The GFC was a classical recession which is described almost down to its last gory details by Walter Bagehot in Lombard Street who had seen many just like it. Money and resources had been poured into the housing construction industry in the US and houses bought by people who could not make their payments. Events flowed on from there, including a financial crisis. Since demand is constituted by value adding supply, the fact that people could not afford what had been supplied, meant that resources had been misdirected. The recession was just a necessary correction with the prior lending practices the eventual disaster in waiting.

I will merely state that if you cannot incorporate the classical understanding of Say’s Law into what you write, you will have a problem understanding how classical economists analysed recessions. If you are going to reproduce the classical theory of recession, then you must begin with these words: “Recessions are, of course, never ever caused by too little demand and excessive levels of saving, but in spite of that recessions are a frequent occurrence because . . . .”

Let’s go to the policy level as well. Your explanation of recession must also help you to complete a sentence that begins with these words: “Even though the most evident signs of recession are warehouses filled with unsold goods and extremely high levels of unemployment, we cannot get out of recession by increasing public spending because . . . .”

Although we are mostly academics on this thread, this is not some academic exercise. There is an awful lot riding on this. The Japanese had their lost decade (times two) following their stimulus in the early 1990s. We are ourselves already half way into our own lost decade and there is nothing to suggest it might not go another half decade, or even stop then.

If you want to understand how I think about recessions and what needs to be done, you can read my text, or you can read Henry Clay. The one advantage you get from reading mine is that I have actually experienced Keynesian economic theory and have been taught this classical fallacy as the best economic theory we have today. I have seen the enemy, and it is us.

Say’s Law on the HES website continues

This is a continuation of my posting on the Societies for the History of Economics (SHOE) website. It follows from this and this. And note very carefully that Keynes might have read Ricardo’s letter to Malthus.

I certainly appreciate the replies to my previous postings by Daniele Besomi and Barkley Rosser.

Let me begin with a news item reporting on my testimony to the Australian Senate Economic References Committee. They were reviewing the effects of the stimulus and had invited me because of my views on Keynesian theory and policy. This is from the Sydney Morning Herald of 21 September 2009.

“Labor senator Doug Cameron said Prof Kates’ comments had certainly embedded in his mind that you should never let an ‘academic economist run the economy’.

“‘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?’”

I can now more clearly see Senator Cameron’s point about academic economists, but I draw you attention to the second of his statements.

Since J.-B. Say had put together what is in English called the law of markets, it does not surprise me that the phrase “Say’s Law” may have turned up on various stray occasions. But as someone who had been curious about the origins of this term, which is used by none of the major classical economists, it did finally dawn on me that it had come from Fred Taylor, not least because he specifically states that he is inventing the term. He used the phrase in his 1909 article on teaching economics; it is in his 1911 and six subsequent student editions of his for-students-only principles text distributed at the University of Michigan and buried in a chapter he titles, “Certain Fundamental Principles of Trade”. But by the time his text is released commercially in 1921, Say’s Law is a chapter on its own, titled “Say’s Law” in big letters, and in that chapter Taylor specifically says he is giving a name to what he describes as a yet unnamed principle. That someone used the term in 1920 is not a surprise but the phrase Say’s Law does not enter into economic discourse in a big way until after that. If it pleases you to think that Keynes took the name because of one of these stray mentions picked up by Daniele, be my guest as long as you accept that he took it from somewhere else. It just seems reasonable to me that Keynes used the term because it expressed exactly the point he was trying to make. Whether he was reading Taylor directly, or someone else who had read Taylor who had used the term, we cannot know. But that he was reading the mostly American literature on Say’s Law is as near certain as any such thing can be. And the only reason anyone resists this common sense, indeed obvious point, is that it is damaging to Keynes’s reputation since it suggests that his letter to Harrod, about how he had on his own by himself thought up one idea and then another, is not what actually happened at all.

And perhaps it is Daniel who has not understood my point. His point, he writes, is that “Say’s law was not ACCEPTED throughout the 19th century by writers trying to explain crises” (his emphasis). I don’t think that’s right. If you go the Haberler’s 1937 Prosperity and Depression, which is a compendium of all of the theories of recession that were then in existence, virtually all of the theories presented are about structural dislocations. In what was probably the most common theory of recession of the time, people had used their savings all right – hoarding was not the problem – but had produced non-saleable output leading to recession, with the reason for such dislocation often but by no means always related to financial mayhem of one sort or another. To the extent that classical economists had a view about saving as a cause of recession, it was that recessions might occur because the level of saving had been insufficient to complete all of the projects that had been commenced following the previous trough. There wasn’t too much saving, there was too little. Read Haberler discussing Hobson and under-consumption if you are looking for a dismissive view of oversaving as a theory of recession.

What Say’s Law said to economists was this: when trying to explain the causes of recession, “there is no deficiency of demand” (and that is a quote from Ricardo), so you should therefore look somewhere else. I will, for a change, let Keynes be my authority.

“Malthus, indeed, had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s doctrine that it was impossible for effective demand to be deficient; but vainly. . . . The great puzzle of Effective Demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from economic literature.” (GT: 32)

It may seem a negative conclusion but it is a crucial one. There is no such thing as a general glut. Overproduction never occurs. Demand deficiency does not cause recessions. And so far as policy is concerned, increases in non-value-adding public spending cannot lead to a recovery but will, instead, make them worse. That is what I was trying to say to our Senate. Five years later, who has the runs on the board? Is it the IMF, the OECD, the ILO, the treasuries of every advanced economy, the Treasury in Australia, the business economists around the world, or is it our classical predecessors? Is it Keynes or Mill?

So to come back to my original post. There may well be something to what classical economists had been saying, which is the point Francois Hollande has very bravely made. And it is brave since he will be opposed by his political enemies, by his political friends and by economists who refuse to think that just maybe perhaps Keynes was wrong.

Let me finish with a quote from another politician, the former Labour Prime Minister of the UK, James Callahagn, speaking to the Labour Party Conference in 1976 during the Great Inflation, which was also a period of persistently high unemployment:

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.”

It’s not as if our economies, as a result of these high levels of public spending in the period after the GFC, returned to rapid rates of economic growth and low rates of unemployment. We have seen the effects of the stimulus and they are dismal. Hollande, who is a first rate economist, went into government as a Keynesian but a Keynesian he no longer is. Why anyone else still is remains the central question in economic theory today.