Say’s Law goes to the movies

A while back I posted Say’s Law as Literature about a book of the name Waffle Street written by James Adams. The book is now being turned into a movie, and the story is now out in the open as they have now signed Danny Glover to play the lead role of Edward Collins. This is from the press release:

Legendary actor Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon 1-4, The Color Purple, Dreamgirls) has signed on to star in the upcoming feature film, Waffle Street. The drama-comedy tells the story of James Adams, a VP of a $30 billion hedge fund who lost his job in the recent market crash and wound up working as a waiter in a waffle shop. Amid the greasy madness of the 24-hour diner, Adams befriends ex-con grill master Edward Collins (played by Glover), who serves up hard lessons about finance, life, and grits.

Waffle Streets riches-to-rags tale is an adaptation of James Adams 2010 memoir of the same name (published by Sourced Media Books), which chronicles the financiers foray into the food industry. After being laid off at the hedge fund where he worked, and further jaded by his culpability in the crisis, Adams chose to work at a popular 24-hour diner where he claims most of his financial knowledge has been gleaned. Offering a fresh take on the fallout of corporate greed, Adams is a tale of the redemption and unlikely friendship found under the tutelage of Glover’s character Edward, the best short-order cook in town.

The story is a story of redemption for both the author, James Adams and for Edward Collins, who has found himself in productive work. How this relates to Say’s Law is through the “lessons about finance, life and grits” which includes experiencing the core understanding of economic life that the law of markets provides. This is from the review of the book by the President of the Mises Institute, Doug French:

But Adams does scrap with John Maynard Keynes in the pages of Waffle Street, lamenting, “How far we’ve fallen” in the area of economics education. Pointing out that Say’s Treatise was once the top economics textbook in America, he explains that now, “Instead of learning sound doctrine, today’s undergraduates are inundated with principles that will not bear the scrutiny of common sense and experience.”

I am still waiting to hear who will play Jimmy and then his wife. An amazing story. I’ve never been to a Hollywood premier before, but this is one I do not intend to miss. Meanwhile, you should read the book.

Getting Say’s Law exactly right

It is so rare for anyone to get Say’s Law exactly right that you must forgive me if I quote at length, specially since he quotes me. This is from an article by Steve H. Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and titled, “GO: J.M. Keynes versus J.-B. Say”. It is found in the publication, Global Asia:

The French economist J.-B. Say (1767-1832) was a highly regarded member of the Classical School. To this day, he is best known for Say’s Law of markets. In the popular lexicon – courtesy of John Maynard Keynes – this law simply states that “supply creates its own demand.” But, according to Steven Kates, one of the world’s leading experts on Say, Keynes’ rendition of Say’s Law distorts its true meaning and leaves its main message on the cutting room floor.

Say’s message was clear: a demand failure could not cause an economic slump. This message was accepted by virtually every major economist, prior to the publication of Keynes’ General Theory in 1936. So, before the General Theory, even though most economists thought business cycles were in the cards, demand failure was not listed as one of the causes of an economic downturn.

All this was overturned by Keynes. Kates argues convincingly that Keynes had to set Say up as a sort of straw man so that he could remove Say’s ideas from the economists’ discourse and the public’s thinking. Keynes had to do this because his entire theory was based on the analysis of demand failure, and his prescription for putting life back into aggregate demand – namely, a fiscal stimulus (read: lower taxes and/or higher government spending).

The rest of the article deals with the new statistic that has just been released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the United States which has largely been undertaken because at the instigation of the great Austrian economist, Mark Skousen. The notion that consumption drives an economy is so nonsensical since consumer demand is the end of all forms of production, from mining coal to generating electricity and so to focus on consumer demand is focusing on nothing at all other than the end of the production process. But if we are looking at value added, as we ought to be, only about 5% of economic activity is directed at selling directly to consumers. The new supply side statistic that has been developed, which at long last gets this balance right, will make a great difference in how the economy is perceived, which should also make a difference in how it is managed, or at least it is to be hoped. Let me finish with one further quote from Professor Hanke:

Even though the always clever Keynes temporarily buried J.-B. Say, the great Say is back. With that, the relative importance of consumption and government expenditures withers away. And, yes, the alleged importance of fiscal policy withers away, too.

Contrary to what the standard textbooks have taught us and what that pundits repeat ad nauseam, consumption is not the big elephant in the room. The elephant is business expenditures.

If you really want to stimulate the economy, it is business at every stage of production you have to go through and not the consumer. How different that kind of economic policy would need to be, but at least it will have the merit of actually producing positive results.

Say’s Law and François Hollande

Following the discussion on L’offre crée même la demande, which are the words the French President used last week to indicate that economic policy will now follow more classical directions, and in particular adopt Say’s Law as the guide to policy, I have pulled this posting out of storage which was put up in December 2012. Having just watched the video again, I am even more astonished than I was then how accurate this is as a representation of the underlying ideas. But central to understanding Say’s Law is to understand that it is a macro concept related to how an economy works, rather than being a micro concept about individuals. In spite of everything you might have learned in a conventional economics course, Say’s Law was the foundation for understanding the classical theory of the cycle. If you want to know what causes recessions and then how to deal with them, you must understand Say’s Law.

My book, Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution, has been turned into a movie! John Papola, the genius behind the Keynes-Hayek Rap, has now done a movie on Say’s Law, the fundamental principle of the pre-Keynesian theory of the business cycle. Before Keynes, they knew you could have recessions but they also knew that the one thing that could never be the cause of recessions was a deficiency of demand. Too little demand relative to potential supply was a symptom, not a cause. Today all macroeconomics proclaims demand deficiency as the problem itself that must be cured. Therefore we have had one stimulus after another followed by one economic catastrophe after another. In Australia there’s the mining industry and nothing else to drive the economy forward.

To help you understand the video, here are a few bits of background to catch the full flavour of just how beautifully done this is.

John Maynard Keynes introduced the notion of aggregate demand into economic theory. Before he published his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, demand deficiency as a cause of recession was literally and with no exaggeration seen as a fallacy. Today, of course, his macroeconomics is the mainstream and when recessions occur the first thought in everyone’s mind is to restore demand.

Keynes took the idea of demand deficiency from Thomas Robert Malthus, a nineteenth economist who published his Principles of Political Economy in 1821. Keynes was reading Malthus’s letters to Ricardo in October 1932 which was the specific reason that he would eventually write a book on demand deficiency as the cause of recession. The entire economics fraternity refuses to accept this obvious bit of inspiration since it would make Keynes’s claims to originality not quite as honest as the great man would have liked us all to believe. But since there is general consensus that Keynes formed the idea of demand deficiency in late 1932 and there is no question whatsoever that Keynes was reading Malthus in late 1932, there is equally no doubt that the standard story as peddled by Keynes is utterly untrue.

Say’s Law, which does not get mentioned by name in the video, was called the Law of Markets during classical times. The principle was given the name Say’s Law in the 1920s but it was Jean-Baptiste Say in France and James Mill in England who together are responsible for the initial crafting of this bedrock proposition. But as a very good first approximation to its meaning, there is only a rolling momentary credit to the best short statement which was given by David Ricardo in a letter to Malthus in 1821. There he wrote:

Men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand.

Ricardo was trying to explain to Malthus that the recessions that followed the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 were not due to there being too much saving and therefore too little spending. It was not even spending that mattered. What had gone wrong, the same thing that is the cause of all recessions, is that the goods and services produced did not match the specific demands that people with incomes had. There were therefore unsold goods and services, but not because there was too little spending and too much saving, but because businesses had produced one set of goods (housing in the US to take the most recent example of recession) that could not be sold at prices which covered their costs. The structure of production was wrong which would inevitably, as it always does, affect credit markets as defaults became legion.

The notion that recessions were caused by not enough spending, either in 1821 or in 2012, is ridiculous. There is never a deficiency of demand, only a deficiency of purchasing power. And this is the last element you need to understand the plot of the video. What gives someone purchasing power – what makes individuals within an economy able to buy more – is more production. Producing saleable products – rising productivity – is the only means by which economies can grow and therefore, beneath it all, as Friedrich Hayek explains, there must be more investment in capital (actual productive assets not money) and more innovation which improves the technology embodied in the capital. An economy is driven by supply, never demand.

That is the message of the video. It is a piece of genius that so much can be so cleverly condensed into just over four minutes. But if you wish to understand the point, these are the things you need to know. And if you wish to know even more, there is my book as well.

This has now been posted at Quadrant Online.

I’m not a Niallist

I read Niall Ferguson’s three posts on Paul Krugman which are generally summarised in this critique of Krugman and titled, “Much Bigger Than The Shutdown: Niall Ferguson’s Public Flogging Of Paul Krugman“. And you may be sure that nothing would be of greater interest to me than a proper take down of Krugman and the Keynesian theory that lies behind it. But while this critique may work in the world of non-economists it doesn’t work for me. There is nothing in it I feel I can refer to as an actual dissection of Krugman’s views. It certainly won’t affect any of Krugman’s own beliefs nor that of any modern economist.

Krugman’s position might really be brought down to three propositions:

1) To get out of our current recession it was, and is, necessary to have a full blown Keynesian stimulus.

2) Obama’s actual stimulus was too small. It was large enough to appear large enough but it was too small to actually achieve its ends and so will only discredit Keynesian theory and policy rather than demonstrate its effectiveness.

3) And for Austrian critics, where’s the inflation that is supposed to follow this wasteful expenditure since prices have been dead flat if not tending towards deflation? You may have pointed out that inflation that followed the spending of the 1970s but now there’s none so an Austrian analysis is completely wrong.

Ferguson made no headway on any of this. Instead, he stepped back and wrote:

I am not an economist. I am an economic historian. The economist seeks to simplify the world into mathematical models – in Krugman’s case models erected upon the intellectual foundations laid by John Maynard Keynes. But to the historian, who is trained to study the world ‘as it actually is’, the economist’s model, with its smooth curves on two axes, looks like an oversimplification. The historian’s world is a complex system, full of non-linear relationships, feedback loops and tipping points. There is more chaos than simple causation. There is more uncertainty than calculable risk.

Well great. This is not just Keynesian economics it is all economics that Ferguson takes aim at. By its nature, economics is about simplification, sometimes using smooth curves on two axes (e.g. supply and demand). And while I am a critic of economic theory along many dimensions, including the way in which the uncertain future is almost invariably swept away by many forms of modern analysis, this is so superficial and wrong headed that it leaves me absolutely cold. Krugman can ignore it because it in no way touches anything that matters in his economics and analysis. This is no answer at all.

But then to go on about how beastly Krugman is in how he attacks his opponents, and to praise Keynes as the contrast, is to show a fantastic ignorance of Keynes and the polemical nature of The General Theory. This is Ferguson attacking Krugman:

Finally – and most important – even if Krugman had been ‘right about everything,’ there would still be no justification for the numerous crude and often personal attacks he has made on those who disagree with him. Words like ‘cockroach,’ ‘delusional,’ ‘derp,’ ‘dope,’ ‘fool,’ ‘knave,’ ‘mendacious idiot,’ and ‘zombie’ have no place in civilized debate. I consider myself lucky that he has called me only a ‘poseur,’ a ‘whiner,’ ‘inane’ – and, last week, a ‘troll.’

Here Krugman is doing no less than Keynes did himself. Keynes famously initiated a slash and burn on the economics of his predecessors and attacked them not just intellectually but personally, most notably his own mentor at Cambridge, A.C. Pigou. Keynes said it was to ensure that attention was paid to his book since the issues were so important, but Pigou was clearly aggrieved and said so in the opening words of his review of the The General Theory:

WHEN, in 1919, he wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Mr. Keynes did a good day’s work for the world, in helping it back towards sanity. But he did a bad day’s work for himself as an economist. For he discovered then, and his sub-conscious mind has not been able to forget since, that the best way to win attention for one’s own ideas is to present them in a matrix of sarcastic comment upon other people. This method has long been a routine one among political pamphleteers. It is less appropriate, and fortunately less common, in scientific discussion. Einstein actually did for Physics what Mr. Keynes believes himself to have done for Economics. He developed a far-reaching generalisation, under which Newton’s results can be subsumed as a special case. But he did not, in announcing
his discovery, insinuate, through carefully barbed sentences, that Newton and those who had hitherto followed his lead were a gang of incompetent bunglers. The example is illustrious: but Mr. Keynes has not followed it. The general tone de haut en bas and the patronage extended to his old master Marshall are particularly to be regretted. It is not by this manner of writing that his desire to convince his fellow economists (p. vi) is best promoted.

Alas, it did turn out that this was indeed the best way to influence his fellow economists and it is a template that Keynesians have followed ever since. Krugman’s style and form of attack – stupid, ignorant, incompetent bungler that he is (two can play at this game, I suppose) – is patterned after Keynes who was as arrogant as anyone who has ever written on economic matters as well as being amongst the most incompetent. An actual economic ignoramus who did his undergraduate degree in philosophy and notoriously, on Joan Robinson’s say so, never understood basic micro – “Maynard never spent the half hour necessary to learn price theory” – which is a pretty large gap in any economist’s knowledge base. That in trying to refute Say’s Law he fell right into the oldest fallacy in economics but then took the entire profession along with him is just one of those very unfortunate events that history is filled with. Every economist of his generation with no exception thought The General Theory was end-to-end nonsense. But the economics they knew has now disappeared as have those economists and is now replaced with the poisonous nonsense peddled by Krugman.

This is what Niall Ferguson does not discuss because he doesn’t understand it himself. But you would need a combination of an actual historical understanding of the development of economic theory up to the publication of The General Theory along with a reasonably sound understanding of why it was superior to what we find today. Alas, it is a relatively rare combination but some at least do have it. But if you try to say this to Keynesians in public, they will shout you down and threaten to remove your license to practise economics. Yet it is the Keynesians of the modern text – the people who think Y=C+I+G actually makes economic sense – who are the barbarians ruining our economies right before our eyes.