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By George P. Brockway, originally published September/October 2000

2000-9-10 New Use for a Bad Idea - title.jpg

IN ECONOMICS no bad idea goes unused. This is perhaps to be expected in a discipline that prides itself on being the science of the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Ideas are hard to come by in the best of times. With many hundreds of doctoral candidates looking for original dissertation subjects, and many thousands of tenure-track assistant professors looking for profound article topics, nothing that looks like an idea can be allowed to waste its fragrance on the desert air. In addition, there are the diurnal needs of business-page journalists and bond salesmen. Not to mention the problems of NEW LEADER columnists.

A subject that has met all the above needs for at least the past quarter century is the productivity index. It is with mixed feelings that I report on a quite new use that has been thought up for this fallacious procedure. Since, as we shall see, the new use is in the very highest reaches of national policymaking, it is in an especially bad place for a bad idea.

The February 8, 1982, column in this space was titled “Productivity: The New Shell Game.” On May 28, 1984, “The Productivity Scam” appeared. The third antiproductivity- index piece had to wait until  May 19, 1993, and the fourth is here and now. Productivity being a protean idea, each column is concerned with a different use of the index.

True to its metaphor of a shell game, the earliest column said that in the new game each of the three shells had a “pea” under it. The first pea, “which always turns up on metropolitan bars and suburban bridge tables,” was that “it just seems people aren’t willing to work the way we did when we were young.”

Next was the “America has gone soft pea.” We let them beat us in Vietnam; investigative journalism got out of hand over Watergate; and now a court has said that creationism isn’t science. It’s hard to tell what the country stands for anymore. It’s no wonder that productivity is down and we have to have this recession to get us back on the track.

Under the third shell was the “archaic industry pea.” Our productivity is down because we don’t invest enough, because we don’t save enough, because we tax business-too much.

In other words, the productivity “peas” were Reaganomic explanations of the recession then stagnating. Regardless of the shell we chose, we got a pea; and regardless of the pea we got, we lost.

By May 1984, the productivity focus had narrowed, with this conclusion: “The uproar about labor productivity is a scam to distract attention from a massive shift in the distribution of the goods of the economy. The share of nonmanagerial labor is being reduced; the share of managerial labor is being increased; and the share of those who do no labor, who merely have money, is being increased most of all. This is what Reaganomics (or, if you will, Volckerism) is all about, and the Atari Democrats have been gulled into going along with it.”

(Those whom the late Robert Lekachman, a wise and witty contributor to this journal, dubbed Atari Democrats called themselves New Democrats. Atari was at one time the leading producer of electronic games, and was early seduced abroad by the promise of cheap labor. What became of it, deponent knoweth not.)

Nine years later (May 19, 1993), the focus had narrowed again. The talk was all about downsizing, a nasty and disgraceful business practice that continues to this day.

The productivity index is thus one of the most powerful ideas of our time. It has malignly affected the lives of millions of men and women, the fortunes of thousands of enterprises, and the economies of nations.  It is a tragedy of almost universal scope.

The basic idea of the index is sound enough. Output is divided by input to determine how many units of input achieve a unit of output. The result is an index number that can be compared with other numbers similarly derived. A single index number, of course, is almost useless; but much can be learned from comparisons, and they are of great and daily use in business management. The current performance of a company’s sales (or any other) department can be compared with. its performance in prior years, or with the performance of corresponding departments of the particular industry as a whole. Banks routinely analyze their customers’ profit and loss statements in this way, and trade associations frequently do the same for their members.

It must be confessed that executives sometimes make unreasonable use of the comparisons. A sales department may be faulted for a falling sales index, while the sales force argues that the quality of the product has declined, or that the advertising has been inadequate, or that the sales representative suffer from stress caused by driving poorly equipped automobiles.

Rumbles from the executive floor suggest that the sales reps are too well paid, or that there are too many of them, or that some territories are not worth covering.  This is the way that downsizing begins.  Every job in every department is ultimately at risk.

Years ago a chapter in a tome on book publishing started this way: “There are two simple principles by which the business thinking of a publishing house should be guided.  They are (1) Reducing costs by $1,000 has roughly the same effect on the profit and loss statement as increasing sales by $25,000.  (2) You have to spend a dollar to make a dollar.

Downsizing tends to forget the second principle, and also the greater principle that the human beings who are so easily hired and fired are not a means to an end but are ends in themselves.  But the ethical objections to downsizing shouldn’t allow us to decide that there are not solid, hard-nosed, business-is-the-only-thing objections to the national productivity index.

THE INDEX numbers are simple fractions:  national output for a certain period in dollars (because we can’t add shoes and ships and sealing wax) divided by the hours worked by everyone engaged in production, whether paid or not.  Fractions, of course, are not unequivocal; you can increase their value either by increasing the nominator or by decreasing the denominator (2/3 and 1/2 are both greater than 1/3).  So you can increase a productivity index number either by increasing “dollars of output” or by decreasing “hours worked.”  As we shall see, the hours present a special problem.  Consider some examples of how the index works.

First, microeconomically:  Think of a journeyman plumber whose output is x, whose hours worked is y, and whose productivity is therefore x/y.  Suppose by taking on a plumber’s helper (a human being) he increases his output 20 per cent.  Being a rational person, you might conclude that such an increase in output would result in a substantial increase in productivity, but you would be sadly mistaken.  According to the formula, his productivity becomes 1.2x/2.0y, or .6x/y, and thus has fallen 40 percent.

We get similar results macroeconomically.  Take the 5.4 million or so people counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed. (There are about 10 million more who aren’t counted because they have a part-time job, or are too discouraged to continue looking for work, or are too turned off ever to have seriously entertained lawful employment).

Let’s accept (for argument only) that the conservative press is correct in saying the 4 percent of our civilian workforce officially designated unemployed are so careless, stupid, uneducated, arrogant, sickly or pregnant that they’re unlikely, if employed, to produce on the average more than a third as much as an equal number of those who are currently employed.  Even at that level, if we could find the wit and will to employ these people on this basis, we could increase our gross domestic product by 1.2 percent, or about $130 billion a year.

Being still a rational person, you might think such a tidy sum would increase our productivity, but again you would be sadly mistaken.  Productivity is still output divided by hours worked or x/y.  After finding jobs for the 4 percent of our civilian workforce that is now unemployed, our productivity becomes 1.012x/1.04y, a fall of 2.7 percent.

So if we really believe in the conventional theory of productivity, we must deny help to our plumber and jobs to the unemployed.  Unfortunately, a large majority of the members of the American Economic Association do believe in the theory.

A couple of other examples may clinch the case.

A young slugger lived up to his promise by hitting a grand slam home run his first time at bat in the majors.  His next time up, there were only two men on base.  His manager yanked him because (aside from drawing a walk or being hit by a pitch, neither of which would count as a time at bat) his productivity could only go down.

Then there was the unsung predecessor of Tiger Woods who hit a hole in one on the first hole of a club tournament, but retired when his drive on the second hole stopped rolling two feet short of the cup. “My productivity could only go down,” he lamented as he gave his clubs to his caddy and took up water polo to sublimate his aggressions[1].

THE THING about “hours worked” is that Gertrude Stein couldn’t have said “hour is an hour is an hour” because they aren’t. I was a lousy salesman, though I worked doggedly at it for almost five unproductive and depressing years. Many years later I became a moderately successful CEO of a small company and worked doggedly at that. I put in approximately the same number of hours a day as a salesman as I did as a CEO. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. But the value of my work as CEO really and truly was vastly greater than the value of my salesmanship, and you may believe I was paid more for it, too. Adding those different hours together in the denominator is less sensible than adding apples and oranges.

Karl Marx[2] faced a similar problem when he was wrestling with his theory of surplus value. He finally declared victory and wrote: “We therefore save ourselves a superfluous operation, and simplify our analysis, by the assumption, that the labor of the workman employed by the capitalist is unskilled average labor.” If this was a valid assumption in his day (and it probably wasn’t), it certainly is not in ours.

John Maynard Keynes also felt a need to devise a homogeneous unit of labor. He wrote: “Insofar as different grades and kinds of labor and salaried assistance enjoy a more or less fixed relative remuneration, the quantity of employment can be sufficiently defined for our purpose by taking an hour’s employment of ordinary labor as our unit and weighting an hour’s employment of special labor in proportion to its remuneration, i.e., an hour of special labor remunerated at double ordinary rates will count as two units.”

The minimum wage (currently $5.15 an hour) may be taken as a homogeneous unit of labor. But why bother? It is merely a multiple of a homogeneous unit we already had ($1.00) and tells us nothing new.

Unless you naturally think like an economist, you may wonder why the denominator of the productivity fraction is “hours worked” rather than “dollars paid for labor.” The deep secret is that economists, like well-bred  characters in an early 19th-century English novel, are with a few exceptions embarrassed by talk about money. General equilibrium analysis, the most fashionable economic theory at the bulk of elite American universities, can find no place for money in its doctrine. Even monetarism, despite its name, is scornful of the stuff we pay our bills with, which it speaks of as “nominal” money, and insists that what it calls “real” money is what matters, although no such thing exists. (If you’ve read much medieval philosophy, you may find such talk familiar.)

There is another problem with the denominator. We learned in school that the factors of production are land, labor and capital. Some add technology, and Adam Smith wrote of a propensity to barter. In any case, labor is merely one of the factors of production; yet the productivity index treats it as the only one.

To be sure, labor may be the largest factor. A quasi-constant of the economy is that the cost of labor currently runs about 60 per cent of GDP. But the cost of capital-the money spent for interest by nonfinancial, nonagricultural businesses -has increased roughly five and a half times in the past 40 years, partly because the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates, and partly because today American business relies much more on borrowed money than it used to. Common laborers, not Protestant financiers, are now the austere actors on our economic stage[3].

This shift in roles may be good or bad or indifferent, but the productivity index, no matter how constructed, will at best only call our attention to the fact that a shift has occurred. It will neither judge the desirability of the shift nor tell us what to do about it. Econometrics-c-playing with statistics-is the beginning, not the end, of economics.

ALL THAT said, we come to the new use of the productivity index mentioned at the start. I’m sorry, but I can’t say who invented the new use. It was a stroke of genius, even though the Federal Reserve Board had already pioneered the implausible idea of using high productivity (according to the index) as an excuse for trying to reduce production. I’m sorry again, but I can’t say, at least with a straight face, why we should reduce production.

The new scheme goes like this: (1) Production is produced by workers exercising their productivity. (2) The population of workers increases about 1 per cent a year. (3) The productivity index, fallacies and errors and all, increases about 1.5 per cent a year. (4) Put them together, and you get 2.5 per cent a year as the rate at which a well-mannered economy should expand. (5) The economy has been expanding at better than that rate in every year except one in the last eight. (The low one was 2.4 per cent in 1993.) Conclusion: Look out! It must be overheating!

Well, I ask you!

I regret to have to add that the Democratic Party Platform Committee listened solemnly to this kind of stuff. I doubt that the Republicans bothered their heads about it. All they need to know on earth is that a tax cut is beauty, and beauty is a tax cut, especially a tax cut for millionaires. I regret further to have to admit that the economics profession is careless about such nonsense. The other day I read a paper by a friend of mine that was decorated by several equations in which a symbol for productivity occurred. I objected that the symbol stood for a fallacy, and that his equations were therefore fallacious.

He laughed. “Everybody does it,” he said. “You’re expected to do it. It doesn’t matter.”

Well, I’ve already asked you.

The New Leader

[1] Ed:  As a similar tale goes, a golfer played at Pine Valley, arguably the best golf course on earth, and in the first four holes had two birdies and two eagles. One eagle was a hole-in-one.  He was 6 under par.  The fourth green is back at the club house.  The golfer walked off the course and into the bar and would not come out as he’d only screw up the round.

[2] Ed:  Though likely not as a salesman….

[3] Ed: emphasis mine

By George P. Brockway, originally published March 3, 1999

3-8-99-the-love-song-of-homo-economicius-title

T.S. ELIOT sang of “Songs[1] that follow like a tedious argument! Of insidious intent! To lead you to an overwhelming question …. ” Economics

sometimes seems like that-tedious as well as dismal. Economics is also very like the next line of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?”’

For the characteristic economics essay or book lays out-“Like a patient etherized upon a table”-an account of the economy, or some part of it, demonstrating how it works, or doesn’t work. Often the putative truths contained therein are unpleasant, like the iron law of wages in the 19th century or the natural rate of unemployment in the 20th. Nonprofessionals are frequently prompted to ask, not “What is it?” but the truly overwhelming question, “What should we do about it?” Professional economists have tended to brush that question aside. They are, they say, scientists, not humanists; and science concerns what is, not what ought to be.

But there is another reason for the posture of most economists, and that is the problem posed by the first sentence of the last chapter of John Maynard KeynesGeneral Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and income.” One would have to be extraordinarily deficient in empathy for one’s fellow human beings not to recognize the justice and urgency of Keynes’ dictum. One would also have to be exceptionally ignorant of the ways of the world to imagine that the problem will simply solve itself. Indeed, anyone with empathy and knowledge must find it acutely uncomfortable to deny that confronting those “faults” is the special responsibility of economists.

Yet starting with Adam Smith in 1776, the history of modem economics has instead been the story of a search for an automatic polity, a mechanism that, whether it makes all well or not, at least makes everything inexorable. With Smith, of course, it was the invisible hand. With Jeremy Bentham it was the felicific calculus, supposed to operate like Newton’s laws of motion. With Jean-Baptiste Say it was production creating its own demand. With John Stuart Mill it was supply and demand. With Karl Marx it was dialectical materialism. With William S. Jevons, Leon Walras and Carl Menger it was marginal utility. Among our contemporaries, equilibrium is the chosen control-metaphorical with John Hicks, mathematical with Gerard Debreu and Paul Samuelson, quasi-psychological with Frank Hahn and Edmund S. Phelps.

All those I have named are honorable men, as I believe almost every economist to be. I am sure none would dispute the truth of Keynes’ pronouncement. Faced with the enormity of the problem, though, all, with the possible exception of Marx, have found in pseudoscience an excuse for denying the need or ability to do anything substantial, and hence for refusing their responsibility.

The first thing to note about the problem is that originally it was a double pronged affair, but by now the prongs have joined together. In the ancient world, the feudal world and the mercantilist world, you could have full employment along with unconscionable disparities of wealth and income. Perhaps even in Keynes’ day, over half a century ago, it was possible to consider the two great failures of the economy separately. Today, however, we shall not be able to solve unemployment without at the same time solving maldistribution.

An explanation for the intertwining of the two problems was suggested by Joseph A. Schumpeter in an observation of the sort he made so casually and so tellingly. “The capitalist achievement,” he wrote, “does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.” The modem economy, unfortunately, may not be quite so good to factory girls as Schumpeter suggests.

The reason lies with the opportunities the wealthy have to dispose of their income. In most cases, their money derives from mass production, but they do not spend much of it on the products of the assembly line. This is not merely a matter of taste. It would be flatly impossible to do so. You can buy a top-of-the-line Mercedes, the archetypal expensive, mass-produced commodity, for about $145,000. If you were a senior officer of a Fortune 500 corporation, or a partner in a major financial house, you could pay cash for a brand-new Mercedes the first of every month, junk it at the end of the month, and still have more money than you and your family could conveniently spend.

Traditionally the wealthy have invested their surplus, a practice generally considered to return it to the producing economy it came from. And, like Prufrock’s Yankee contemporary, Miniver Cheevy, they think they “have reasons” to believe they are doing something good. Theoretically, for example, their investment would make more silk stockings available at lower prices by increasing productivity. But in common with the romantic notions Cheevy holds so dear, the idea is largely spurious.

This is because, regardless of what distinguished economists say, the producing economy is, in general, overcapitalized. As things stand, it could very easily, without investment in another machine or machine tool, increase its output by 15 or 20 per cent. It has that capacity right now. More investment will not lead to greater productivity.

Increased demand would. But Chairman Greenspan still hopes to restrain the “exuberance” of the stock market-in which case its upper middle class “wealth effect” will disappear. And far from trying to stimulate consumption, credit card companies can’t wait to put fear of a new bankruptcy law into their lower-middleclass clients.

These actions reduce the nonwealthy to relying on what they earn by working, and what they earn necessarily falls short of being able to buy what industry produces: Schumpeter’s silk stockings (or their millennial equivalent) become less affordable. The shortfall is equal to the earnings and other withdrawals of the wealthy. Its correction must also come from that source.

LEFT TO THEIR own devices, how do the wealthy spend their money? After buying several Andy Warhols and subscribing to tables at a couple of dozen charity balls, it is all too easy to become frustrated by the attempt to consume one’s income and turn to speculation. So the money the wealthy take out of mass production industry stays out, and the money devoted to speculation becomes a flood.

A “moderate” session of the New York Stock Exchange today sees half again as many shares traded as were thrown on the market in the frenzy of the crash of October 1987. And still there is not enough to meet the demand. Besides the NASDAQ and the Amex and the mercantile exchanges and exchanges abroad (including way stations all over the new global village), there are $85 trillion worth of derivative “products” invented by clever bankers and brokers to facilitate betting on almost anything you can think of. In comparison, numbers running is child’s play.

Also in comparison, trying to make money by operating an enterprise that turns out actual goods and services is a mug’s game. As fortunes are made in speculation, the opportunity cost of productive enterprise rises. To keep those who have invested in industry from selling out, they have to be promised increased profits; and the fashionable way of doing that is for lean and mean companies to become leaner and meaner, thereby narrowing the already narrow market. Where once there was a spreading wage-price spiral, heading upward, the economy has slipped into a constricting lean-mean spiral, heading downward.

3-8-99-the-love-song-of-homo-economicius-ts-elliotThe wealthy are not the only ones contributing to this trend. The middle class is the beneficial owner, through what are called “institutions” (especially mutual funds and pension funds and insurance policies), of between one-third and one half of all the shares on the current exchanges. By being funded rather than treated as current expenses, these institutions soak up purchasing power and weaken aggregate demand. The funds’ speculating deprives the producing economy of efficient financing. The resulting shrinkage of the producing economy raises the rate of unemployment, accelerating the erosion of the middle class the institutions were created to protect, and exacerbating the polarization of society.

That is how we are approaching the turn of another century: The nonwealthy are unable to buy the products their industry can produce; industry consequently has fewer opportunities for expansion; the wealthy consequently have fewer opportunities for productive investment; the nonwealthy consequently have fewer job opportunities and more of them become unemployed (“naturally”).

It is easy to convince yourself that looking to the government to fix the situation is hopeless. President Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t get a cap on stay-at home incomes even in the midst of World War II, when millions of young men and women (and middle-aged ones, too) were risking their lives for their country. President Richard M. Nixon, despite being re-elected by the second largest percentage of the popular vote yet recorded, couldn’t enlist a Congressional majority for a negative income tax. The current tax law, whose top rate is less than half the top rate of 25 years ago, does not assess even the present top rate against capital gains. And who can imagine the Federal Reserve Board maintaining an interest rate that is either low or steady, let alone both?

Some (if not all) of these things should be done to mitigate the polarization of our society. If they can’t be done in the current political climate, what can economists be expected to do about it? Well, if economists can’t suggest answers, the least they can do is get out of the way. Certainly no solution will succeed if no one has the will to work for it, and certainly those most responsible are the people claiming professional status.

In the meantime, the outstanding “faults” of our economic society, albeit forged into one, are substantially identical with those of Keynes’ day. But the degradation, despair, and (in the words of the late Erik Erikson) negative identity are worse. Will human voices wake us before we drown?

 

The New Leader

[1] Ed. Well, I’ll be damned.  The author, uncharacteristically, has the quote wrong.  Eliot wrote of “streets”, not “songs” that follow like a tedious argument ….

By George P. Brockway, originally published November 2, 1998

1998-11-2 Learning From Russia title

THIS IS OUR learning year. At least it is a year of learning opportunities. Whether we’re capable of actually learning remains to be seen.

In January the debacle of Southeast Asia taught us, as I pointed out at the time in this space, that “In the special branch of ethics that is economics, any system built on the backs of the downtrodden will be forever unstable.” A couple of months ago I observed that Japan “is as successful a supply-side economy as the modern world has seen, and as such its difficulties should be a warning to the United States.” Today the object lesson is Russia, and what it teaches is that a sound government is the sine qua non of a sound economy.

Please note that sound government comes before sound economy. To the extent that the Soviet Union was Marxist, things were the other way around before Communism’s collapse seven years ago. They are still the wrong way around in Russia’s brave new world of privatization, plunging rubles and other economic shock treatments.

In a footnote in Capital, Karl Marx wrote, “The middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part.”

That bothered his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. “Without making oneself ridiculous,” he wrote to Joseph Bloch, “it would be a difficult thing to explain in terms of economics the existence of every small state in Germany, past and present, or the origin of the High German consonant shifts.” Nevertheless, Engels did not doubt that the “economic situation is the basis” of everything even though “the various elements of the superstructure … also exercise their influence ….”

The form of government Lenin instituted, said to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” was certainly some kind of dictatorship. lts civil law concerned orders and commands, but not customs and contracts. So Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin found no legal system in place to regulate the revolution to a market economy.

It should be noticed that the high-powered “reform” economic advisers from Harvard and MIT and the International Monetary Fund were not dismayed by the lack of a free-market legal system. They were all convinced that the vice of the Western world is excessive regulation, and that the former Soviet Union and its former Warsaw Pact allies would benefit from the shock treatment of being thrust to sink or swim in the turbulent waters of the new global economy. Although this might cause some suffering and even some inefficiency (which in standard economics is evidently more blameworthy than suffering), they contended that it would be better to get rid of the bad old ways at one fell swoop than to creep along incrementally. Once the market was freed and assets were privatized, the reformers promised, everything would efficiently fall into place.

Of course, that is not what happened. In some respects Russia may be the American West all over again, but there are significant differences. Our “privatization” was better managed as a result of long experience with land settlement, and blatant corruption was at least reined in by posses of settlers eager and able to take the law in their own hands. Furthermore, our pioneers could maintain themselves by subsistence farming and small-scale mining; in Russia there is little to fall back on when large-scale privatization misfires. Most important, our banking and taxation systems grew with the country, whereas in Russia they are struggling to be transmogrified from Soviet systems utterly unsuited for their present purposes.

Suppose for a moment that you live in Minsk and have gotten your hands on a factory that produces something used in Pinsk. Ten years ago a commissar periodically instructed you to send x amount of the stuff to Pinsk and gave good grades for fulfilling the quotas. The people in Pinsk accepted whatever they received.

Since the orders were large enough to keep the factory busy-that’s one reason you went after the shares when it was privatized-you pursue them. “Sure,” the Pinsk people say. “What do we have to do now that we’re free?” You explain that you will have a lawyer draw up a contract. It takes some time, because the lawyer never did such a document before and has trouble literally digging up a water soaked 1912 textbook. Finally, you send the contract to the Pinsk peopIe, who naturally have to get a lawyer to read it. Meanwhile, they say: “By the way, we went to some lectures on free enterprise, where we heard there are factories in Omsk and Tomsk, not to mention some in Krakow, Kinshasa, Kyoto, and Kalamazoo, that can make what we want. We were told you should be competing with them for our business.”

Well, you can see this is going to be a drawn-out affair and you may get nothing for your trouble. Moreover, you find that your bank and the Pinsk bank have no satisfactory clearinghouse arrangements (they’re working on them). Assuming you get the order, your payment will be slow and uncertain.

In the meantime, it turns out that you already have staggering taxes to pay. A trip to the tax office enlightens you: The local bureaucrats have not been paid for months. But you are confidentially told the taxes can be taken care of with a few dollars or marks (and cautious winks tell you where to get hold of some) in the proper hands, plus several samples of what you manufacture. You resist with all your patriotic heart. Then you learn that the local big-time operators (known as “moguls”), whose Mercedes and dachas you have envied, have embraced this system (and it is, after all, not unlike what you were taught to expect of capitalism). You go along.

The Harvard and IMF economists are possessed of the notion that the ruble keeps falling in value because neither the national budget nor the foreign trade account is balanced. (The same was true of the United States for decades, and our dollar remained embarrassingly strong, but let that pass.) The economists’ models convinced them that Russia required an austere tightening of the public belt that could be accomplished by downsizing the government, including the tax offices. As might have been expected, tax collections shrank further, just as they did in Nigeria and other emerging markets of the global village.

The problem with the ruble is that only suckers now have much need of them. Almost everyone else takes care of taxes under the table-or simply disregards them altogether.

Money is a funny thing. If no one has to pay taxes, it‘s not of much use for other purposes. There is no gold or anything else “behind” it, and it can hardly serve any practical purpose, even as wall decoration. The Federal Reserve bills I have in my pocket say on their face in small capitals, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” That means I can settle all debts I now owe by offering Federal Reserve notes to my creditors, including the government. It does not mean that anyone has to sell me something I want because I offer to pay in dollars.

Storekeepers could demand cigarettes or Confederate currency or a bag of barley seeds (the money of account in some prehistoric societies), or they might just say no. It’s a free country. But if they have bills and taxes to pay-why else would anyone maintain a store? -they will need dollars.

For my part, I need a good many dollars to settle things with the various tax collectors (Federal, state and local). And I don’t have much trouble getting rid of whatever dollars I have left, since the country is full of people willing to sell me things because they need dollars to pay taxes, and there are plenty of bureaucrats ready to see that they do. We’re all happy to work to earn dollars. We know that we will be able to use them to buy what we want as long as-but only as long as taxes are as certain as death.

Russia recently announced that it would print rubles to help meet the government’s payroll and bills. Commentators in the American media have expressed horror at this use of the printing press. But the question is not how rubles are manufactured, it is whether enough taxes are levied and collected to ensure that there is a great demand for rubles by both individuals and businesses. As I’ve remarked before, the notes issued during our Revolution were “not worth a Continental” because the Continental Congress had no power to collect taxes.

THE LESSON of our story is as promised at the beginning: A sound government is the sine qua non of a sound economy. Russia’s troubles are not primarily economic. Seven years ago its economic “fundamentals” were strong enough to scare us silly, as some of us are scared silly by China today. Its population was large and better educated than China’s. Its natural resources were greater. Its infrastructure was more highly developed. Russia had gone about as far as it could go peacefully, but it has a long way to go before its legal system can support a free economy.

As we review our own political campaigns of the past couple of decades, we must doubt whether we have learned the lesson. Recent slogans have included “Balance the budget by 2002,” “It’s the economy, stupid,” “Read my lips. No new taxes,” “It’s your money,” “Abolish the IRS.”

Our new slogan, greeted with cheers on both sides of the Congressional aisle, is “The era of big government is over.” Marx would have been delighted with it. The state, you will remember, was supposed to wither away.

We have recently shown our allegiance to this slogan in at least four major ways. First, we led the way for NAFTA and GATT, both of which subordinate national sovereignty, human rights, and labor and environmental protection to commerce. Second, we extended most favored nation status to China on the fanciful ground that association with our business representatives would teach the Chinese not to torture or execute an untold number of political prisoners every year. Third, we are preparing to use our long-sought budget surplus, not to repair our torn social fabric, but to cut taxes, mainly for the well to-do. Fourth, it is not improbable that majorities in both houses of Congress could be whipped up in favor of abolishing or privatizing the Internal Revenue Service.

Big government has a special and indispensable role in a free market economy. As the late Hyman Minsky pointed out, although we had three full-fledged depressions in the first third of this century (1907, 1921 and 1929), we have had none in the last two thirds, mainly because of two institutions bequeathed to

us by the New Deal and World War II: (1) The New Deal gave us bank regulations and deposit insurance that have forestalled bank runs, and (2) World War II gave us our “big government”-24 per cent of GDP as opposed to the prewar 3 per cent-that provides a solid foundation of demand on which the supply side of the private economy can build with confidence, regardless of what happens in the rest of the world.

Will we ever learn?

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 29, 1996

1996-1-29 The Assumed Employment Virus Title

I SEE BY THE PAPERS that big corporations are downsizing their economics departments. IBM and GE have eliminated theirs altogether. Others are keeping a few people on for special projects, but still are outsourcing from one think tank or another when they want to know about the economy.

There is poetic justice in this, for economists have not been bashful about claiming credit (if that is the right word) for developing the theory of productivity. That allows the sensitive readers of the Wall Street Journal to call their brokers and take a position in the stock of any company announcing its intention to fire 10,000 or more employees, particularly those with 20 years of service or better.

I do not mean to gloat. Some of my best friends are economists; moreover, intellectual life in America is thin enough without sending more PhDs down to swell the ranks of telemarketers anxious to interact with me during my happy hour about a new exercise machine or a new insurance policy. No, I don’t mean to gloat, but I do intend to seize the day to fret a bit about the state of the profession.

I became concerned about the profession when I sent my brother a copy of my first book. He thanked me in due course, and congratulated me, but he didn’t pretend he had read it, nor did he promise to read it. “After all,” he wrote, “I doubt that I’ve ever in my life read an economics book straight through. You can hardly expect me to break that record now, even for my kid brother.” So far as I know, he never did.

My brother was not a dope. He was far from adopting what James Truslow Adams a half century ago called “the mucker pose.” He held both the baccalaureate and a doctorate from Harvard. He traveled widely and read widely. All his life he was involved in community affairs. But he couldn’t be bothered with economics. When I pressed him for an explanation, he said, “You people claim to be scientists, but you disagree with each other about everything. No two of you speak the same language. Some of you seem not speak any language.”

Although my brother was not a dope, I’m inclined to think that in this case he was almost precisely wrong. Economics is not a science, and the discipline’s practitioners tend to agree too much. Especially about the wrong questions.

One of the puzzles of contemporary economics is the number and variety of theories – including those most prominent in the universities today – that trace their origin to sensationally different journal articles, yet all end up advocating laissez-faire or something remarkably close to it. The puzzle is of course the greater because, not so long ago, the Great Depression and World War II seemed to have laid laissez-faire permanently to rest.

General Equilibrium Analysis, Monetarism, the Neoclassical Synthesis, and Rational Expectations are among the schools affected. In computer jargon, one might say that a virus has attacked them all, disrupting programs, infiltrating compositions, corrupting data bases.

We didn’t use to think of mathematics or logic in such highly charged terms. We were well aware that an error at any point in an exercise would render all that followed suspect; but our exercises used to be more insulated from each other, so that our assumptions were more frequently considered.

Be that as it may, I believe it can be demonstrated that something like a virus has indeed infected most contemporary models of the economy. We may give the virus a name: the Assumed Employment Virus.  For it is an assumption or presumption that the economy is operating either actually or effectively under conditions of full employment.

The Assumed Employment Virus appeared almost contemporaneously with The Wealth of Nations in 1776, but no one noticed for a century and a half. It was not until the Great Depression that providing employment was recognized as an economic problem. Adam Smith, for example, devotes a few pages to the comparative wages of different “employments” and to the “price of labor” generally. Yet the only unemployment he takes notice of is the seasonal one of bricklayers and masons. He pays some attention to the “Poor Laws” (which for 400 years were a staple of British fretfulness, the way “welfare as we know it” continues to occupy us), but seems not to have considered the possibility of, and need for, regular employment for the poor.

The “classics,” or most economists from Smith to the middle of the 20th century (except Karl Marx), presumed that all laborers could get jobs, no matter how bad the times, if they merely lowered their wage demands to what entrepreneurs offered. It was not suggested that in bad times (or at any time) entrepreneurs should pay a living wage at the expense of the going rate of profits. Bob Cratchit was a fortunate man, even though he couldn’t afford adequate medical attention for Tiny Tim. In modern jargon, entrepreneurs were forced by market discipline to cut wages. Laborers were free to accept jobs that would allow them to starve to death. As Phil Gramm and Dick Armey taught undergraduates only the other day in Texas, those who lacked jobs were unemployed because they didn’t want to work. There was no such thing as involuntary unemployment.

It remained for John Maynard Keynes to demonstrate why involuntary unemployment is a fact of laissez-faire life. He observed “that men are disposed … to increase their consumption as their income increases, but not by as much as the increase in their income.” If the resulting weakness in demand is not countered by investment (sooner or later by government investment), production will be decreased, and workers will become unemployed – involuntarily.

Laissez-faire theorists have tried to refute Keynes’ demonstration by presenting arguments that unemployment cannot be reduced to zero. The Monetarist Milton Friedman came up with the first of these -the Natural Rate of Unemployment (whatever is natural is ipso facto involuntary), now usually referred to as the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment, or NAIRU. It has also been called the Normal Rate, the Warranted Rate, and (in a triumphal oxymoron) the Full Employment Rate.

There is a sort of reason behind even that last name. All of the involuntary unemployment arguments maintain either that unemployment cannot be reduced below the mentioned rate, or that if it is temporarily reduced (and it can only be reduced temporarily), it will be followed by some unacceptable consequence, usually inflation without limit. If at some point policy forbids, for whatever reason, further reductions in unemployment, why not call that point Full Employment?

The Rational Expectationists, whose leader was recently crowned with a Nobel Memorial Prize, make the problem easy for themselves. It is, they say, rational to expect the economy to behave as the classics would have it; so involuntary unemployment doesn’t exist, and laissez-faire does.

In effect, then, for most contemporary economists both voluntary and involuntary unemployment amount to full employment. Distinguishing among the three terms would saddle scholars with two extra variables that could enormously complicate their equations. The obvious course is to simplify by using one term for three. It is with this simplification that the Assumed Employment Virus enters today’s models.

ONCE THE VIRUS is in the models, two things happen. First, since full employment is now an unequivocal term in an equation, the equation can be solved for it. Full employment is no longer a mere possibility or desideratum or dream but an eventuality, if not a determinate actuality – just as in General Equilibrium Analysis the “proof” of the possibility of an equilibrium quickly entails proof that an equilibrium exists, and that it is optimal. Second, since full employment is at last one of the prime objectives of any modern economic policy, any model containing the virus has apparently proved the achievability of the objective, and it can therefore be assumed. Whatever still remains for the economy to do can be done with comparative ease. In other words, take it easy: laissez-faire.

As might be expected, the Assumed Employment Virus, having successfully infected models of the economy as a whole, has had equal success in confusing more restricted models. Thus the proofs of Keynes and Michal Kalecki that saving equals investment have been used, and are still used, to justify the constant cries for decreased consumption and increased saving. (The proofs merely mean that whatever is invested has been saved; they do not mean that whatever is saved is invested.)

More to our present point, in the absence of truly full employment, too much saving can actually be, as Keynes was at pains to emphasize, a bar to investment as well as to consumption. Because what is saved cannot be consumed, saving reduces demand; and when demand is reduced, prudent entrepreneurs are not emboldened to invest in new production to satisfy it. Consequently, the recurrent schemes to encourage saving are generally either unproductive or counterproductive. In the 1993-94 debates over NAFTA and GATT,   Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage was similarly cited regularly without acknowledgment or recognition of its dependence on the assumption of full employment.

It is obvious enough that a nation is neither enriched nor strengthened if substantial numbers of its citizens lose their jobs and are kept unemployed while the nation imports some product these citizens once made or could now make. This manifest truth is, however, rendered irrelevant by the Assumed Employment Virus.

Those who have been downsized into joblessness (including the economists we mentioned at the start) are likewise victims of the Virus. The standard productivity index is derived by dividing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for a period by the number of hours worked during that period. The index is a common fraction, so it will naturally rise if the denominator (“hours worked”) is reduced; hence the rush to downsize everything from the Federal government to the local supermarket.

“Productivity” may thereby be improved, but production (which is not an index number but actual goods and services produced for actual people to use and enjoy) falters. The victims of downsizing, being now unemployed, necessarily reduce their consumption, that is, the demands they make upon the economy. Entrepreneurs, faced by this reduction in demand, reduce production, which of course leads to a reduction of the GDP.

It would be different if full employment were the actuality rather than a deluded assumption caused by a “virus” in economists’ models. As long as there are unemployed workers, though, the first mission of macroeconomic policy should be to increase “hours worked”-that is, employment. This is not to say that we need a return of the Luddites. It is to say that we need economists dedicated to devising policies that will make full employment a hard reality instead of an easy assumption.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published August 10, 1992

1992-8-10 Are You Naturally Unemployed title

AT THE END Of my piece on “The Last Chapter in Keynes” (NL, June 29), I referred to the currently received doctrine of the natural rate of unemployment. The implications of the doctrine are such that they don’t, as the saying goes, bear thinking about. Nevertheless, I propose to try to think about them here and now.

The expression “the natural rate of unemployment” was apparently coined by Milton Friedman in his presidential address to the American Economic Association on December 29, 1967. Friedman was clear that what he called the natural rate was not a natural law (like, say, S= 1/2[gt^2]). “On the contrary,” he said, “many of the market characteristics that determine its level [such as minimum wage laws] are man-made and policy-made.” Yet he saw and, I believe, still sees something inexorable in the idea.

Friedman said he used the word “natural” because the idea was comparable to “the natural rate of interest,” a notion advanced by the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell in 1898. Wicksell is worth reading (though perhaps not on this issue), but for the moment we need note only that he is thought by many to have anticipated Keynes in some ways. And as to Keynes, we need remember particularly that his initial quarrel with the classic economists was that they believed involuntary unemployment was impossible. Since whatever is “natural” is ipso facto involuntary, Friedman, too, broke with the classics on this point. I hasten to insist that Friedman is not now and never has been a Keynesian or a neo-Keynesian, and certainly not a Post Keynesian (which, if you must know, is more or less what I am).

The natural rate of unemployment is thus an idea that resonated unexpectedly in many corners of modern economic thought. In its pure form it goes like this: Given the civil laws, customs and institutions of the economy (though Friedman is not now and never has been an institutionalist follower of Thorstein Veblen or John R. Commons), beyond a certain point any increase in the rate of unemployment will result in deflation and a recession that will continue until wages fall to a level to encourage entrepreneurs to start hiring again; on the other hand, any decrease in unemployment will result in inflation and a recession that will continue until employment returns to its natural rate.

The idea was not immediately embraced by the profession. Very likely thin-skinned economists were timid about saying that joblessness could be your patriotic duty. This difficulty was overcome when somebody (I’m sorry I don’t know who[1]) came up with a name that obscures the implications of the idea and has, moreover, an acronym that soothingly sounds like the name of a languorous South Sea isle. The new name is Non Accelerating Inflationary Rate of Unemployment, or NAIRU. The modifier “nonaccelerating” is a modifier of Friedman’s original notion and recognizes the fact that, as we know from our experience of the past half century, it is not too difficult to live with inflation if the rate is fairly low and steady.

The NAIRU was 3 or 4 per cent at the end of World War II. It reached 5 or 6 per cent in 1975, after the Federal Reserve Board raised interest rates in its quixotic response to the first OPEC embargo. And it appears to be around 5 or 6 per cent today (the current 7.7 per cent rate of unemployment is dismal from any point of view).

Let us be sure we understand what a NAIRU of 5 or 6 per cent means. It means that, given our present labor force of some 127 million men and women, about 7 million of them must be unemployed through no fault of their own. Forgive me for raising my voice, but we must see clearly that NAIRU won’t work if unemployment is the result of stupidity, poor training, laziness, lawlessness, or unreasonably high wage demands – if unemployment is, as the classical economists said, voluntary. The NAIRU people are not the people of Reaganesque anecdotes (if such people there ever were) who flit from job to unemployment insurance to job as spirit moves them. Stupid, incompetent, lazy, lawless, or grasping people do not compete for existing jobs; it is the function of NAIRU people to make holders of existing jobs fear for their positions and so acquiesce in low pay, unsafe or Quayle-approved working conditions, frayed fringe benefits, and nonunion shops.

Perhaps you will now sense another resonance of the natural rate of unemployment. It is the stern, impassioned tread of Karl Marx’ industrial reserve army. “The industrial reserve army,” Marx wrote, “during periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labor-army; during periods of overproduction and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check.” Friedman might have put it somewhat more gracefully, but he couldn’t agree with it more.

How did the soldiers of the industrial reserve army get recruited? They weren’t rounded up by press gangs like those that helped Britannia rule the waves, but their fate has not been dissimilar. They did not volunteer, and they were not drafted; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many of them were simply born wrong, just as Rockefellers and such happened to be born right. They are victims of crashingly bad luck.

From time to time, demographers publish studies averring that only a percentage (say 10 per cent or 5 per cent or perhaps 1 per cent) are what we used to call lifers and spend their entire lives in the industrial reserve army, or that only some other percentage (say 12 per cent) serves more than 27 weeks at a time, while Horatio Alger and his like are discharged in a matter of days. We may accept these studies, or most of them, at their face value and still observe that those in the industrial reserve army serve as a consequence of crashingly bad luck, and that they serve in our interest and indeed in our stead. This being the case, it cannot be denied that our economic system – a system said to depend on the natural rate of unemployment – would self-destruct if it were not fundamentally unjust. It is clever to say that life is unfair; it is corrupt to raise unfairness to a principle of control.

As we noted here a short while ago (“Where Schumpeter Went [Astray],” NL, April 6[2]), Joseph Schumpeter celebrated capitalism as “the civilization of inequality and the family fortune.” I cannot do that. I cannot understand doing that. I cannot settle for NAIRU in any of its forms. I can accept the military draft and have in fact been drafted. It is possible in time of war to show citizens, chosen by lot, their duty to risk their lives in defense of the nation that nurtured them. It is not possible to show anyone a duty to lead a life of squalor in order that others may be free to choose among moderately priced commodities.

If there really is a natural rate of unemployment for our system, the system is immoral. If it is immoral, we should change it. Some will say that even with NAIRU, ours is the best system seen so far, and others will say that NAIRU applies to all systems. Despite these answers, improvements are possible.

To share the burden of NAIRU fairly, we might take Marx’ metaphor literally and institute a draft for the industrial reserve army[3]. It is unlikely that there would be volunteers, and there should be no exemptions of any kind (except for the unemployable). Membership in the army probably would be by nuclear families, unless children were put out for adoption while their parents served. There would no doubt be problems with the definition of a family, but I’m sure that, given good will, solutions could be found.

Every able-bodied family in the nation would pull at least one hitch in the army. Service would consist of living without personal assets or income (including imputed income, as for example, decent food, clothing, and shelter) for a period. I imagine two or three years would suffice at the present natural rate of unemployment. For ease of administration, it might be convenient in some cases for families to exchange homes. Certainly the houses of wealthy draftees could not be left vacant without inflating the general cost of housing.

Private charity also would have to be rigorously controlled to prevent favoritism and corruption. Food Stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, and the like (including Workfare if finally enacted) would be available. Of course, for the army to serve its purpose, recruits must be able to work, but their availability would have to be in accordance with length of service. It wouldn’t be fair for me to be enlisted one day and hired by a friend the next.

Perhaps all that strikes you as preposterous. I hope so. It certainly seems preposterous to me. But the whole idea of placidly accepting a natural rate of unemployment strikes me as far more preposterous.

Now, looking back at the theory of NAIRU, we note that the general price level is to be controlled by holding down only one of the factors of production (labor). Why shouldn’t we also hold down the rate of interest? Since inflation of the costs of production is the issue, why shouldn’t we have NAIRI as well as NAIRU?

“But,” cry the governors of the Federal Reserve Board, “we already control inflation by raising the interest rate.” They know not what they do. In the 40 years since 1951, when the Reserve freed itself from its wartime agreement with the Treasury to hold rates down, the percentage of GNP that goes to pay interest on debt of the nonfinancial sector has gone from 4.59 per cent to 20.51 per cent. Let me put it another way: In 1951 the interest bill of American corporations was about one-twelfth of their wage bill, whereas today it is more than a third. If the 1951 ratio still applied, today’s costs would be roughly $845 billion less than they actually are, and the price level would be lower by a considerably greater amount.

By raising the interest rate (even now it is more than double what it was in 1951), the Federal Reserve Board has contributed to (if not mainly caused) inflation. It has then restrained the inflation it caused by bringing on recession, which keeps the industrial reserve army in being.

So NAIRU not only serves reactionary interests in keeping wages in check; it is a convenient reactionary ploy in other situations. Public works cannot be used to reinvigorate the economy because the increase in employment would violate NAIRU. Likewise, although doctrinaire free traders may admit that selective protection might protect or restore as many as 2 million jobs, NAIRU forbids it. And so on.

In short, the nasty theory of a natural rate of unemployment is counterproductive as well as immoral.

The New Leader

[1] Ed:  According to Wikipedia It was first introduced as NIRU (non-inflationary rate of unemployment) in Modigliani – Papademos (1975) – Wikipedia offers three references:  [3][4][5]

[2] Ed:  The actual title is “Where Schumpeter Went Astray” but when this article was written it was cited, with a lack of the author’s normal poetry, as “Where Schumpeter Went Wrong.”

[3] Ed:  In case you’re not paying attention, the next 3 paragraphs are at once both analytically correct but intended to demonstrate to the reader how insufferably wrong-headed NAIRU is… These paragraphs are, in current parlance, “snarky”

By George P. Brockway, originally published November 2, 1992

1992-11-2 The Illogic of Leanness and Meanness Title

1992-11-2 JK Galbraith                EDITORIALWRITERS and speech makers are fond of the expression “lean and mean” (or, sometimes, “mean and lean”). I suspect it is the rhyme that appeals to them. They can’t possibly be allowing themselves to think about what happens to people who work (or used to work) for lean and mean corporations. They can’t possibly give a satisfactory answer to the question John Kenneth Galbraith asks in Affluent Society: “Why should life be intolerable to make things of little urgency?”

Nor can they possibly be wondering whether lean and mean corporations make this a better world to live in, even for their customers and their stockholders. St. Augustine wrote: “Every disorder of the soul is its own punishment,” and meanness is certainly a disorder of the soul.

Yes, I know: We are told we will have to be lean and mean to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. Some commentators say that the global economy and the competition are already here.  President Bush inclines to this view; President-elect Clinton inclines to this view; and I suspect that Citizen Perot had something similar in mind. At any rate, he had a lean and hungry look.

Fifty years ago another self-made man, Wendell L. Willkie, had a vision of One World in which we would all help each other. Willkie was a lawyer and CEO of a giant utility holding company before he became the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate (Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior, called him the “barefoot boy from Wall Street”); he was no starry starry-eyed innocent. Yet his touchstone was cooperation, not competition. The world seems to be different now, and not as nice. What happened?

It is, I think, a case of Samuel Johnson being right again: “Hell is paved with good intentions.” The economic situation we find ourselves in is mean enough to have at least some of the attributes of hell, and it is paved in part with free trade, a theory whose intentions were the best in the world. I say “were” because I’m not so sure they’re all so good today.

Practically every economist is in favor of free trade, and the fraternity has been joined by a broad range of right-thinking, public-service citizens groups, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the League of Women Voters. The argument for free trade is simple and strong: All of us are consumers, and therefore benefit from cheap consumption goods. Tariffs, subsidies and the like increase the costs of consumption goods, and therefore are bad. A less materialistic reason for open international trade is that it is said to make for peace, although perhaps not in the Middle East.

The foregoing arguments, including Willkie’s, may be classified as general or ideological. There are also technical arguments in support of free trade – for example, the theory that cheap imports are both anti-inflationary in themselves and anti-inflationary in their competitive pressure on domestic prices. This notion was a favorite of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker. The most famous technical argument is David Ricardo‘s so-called law of comparative advantage. Unhappily, there isn’t sufficient space here to discuss this “law,” except to say that it consists mostly of exceptions[1].

For the moment I merely want to register the point that each of the arguments, the ideological and the technical, depends – as does standard economics generally – on three assumptions: that full employment actually obtains here and now, that chronological time does not matter, and that all public questions are, au fond, economic questions (or, as Marx had it, that the state will wither away and need not be taken seriously).

Free trade as an ideal has had a long run on the American political stage, starting at least as early as the Boston Tea Party. What has happened recently is not inconsequential. Even as late as 1950, imports were less than 5 per cent of our GNP (exservices): currently they are running at about 16 per cent. Until 1977, American exports generally exceeded imports; I don’t have to tell you that the situation is different now. Nor do I have to read you a list of American industries that have been decimated by foreign competition. Those who say that the global economy is upon us are not far wrong. I am persuaded, however, that what they propose to do about it is indeed far wrong.

Essentially, they make two proposals. The first is the lean and mean thing, to which I will return. The second involves empanelling a committee of government officials, bankers, businessmen, economists, engineers, scientists, and the obligatory representatives of the general public (but not including Ralph Nader) to recommend research and development projects to the government, and then to pass judgment on the results of the research and propose ways of implementing the development of approved ideas. The government’s role would be crucial, because of the antitrust laws and because the research is thought likely to cost more than any corporation, regardless of its size, could afford. In addition, it is observed that the largest corporations tend to devote less and less money to research.

The scheme has both practical and theoretical flaws. The chief practical flaw is that whatever good ideas the committee might come up with would be immediately available worldwide. Just as the American television set industry quickly slipped into the Pacific sunset, so would the new wonder industries.

It is inconceivable, for instance, that giant American corporations would be excluded from the marvelous new industries thought up by the committee. Our giant corporations, however, are not really American; they are multinational. They are motivated by the self-interest of the stockholders (in the conventional theory) or of the managers (in Galbraith’s view); in either case, their devotion is neither to the nation nor to the nation’s workers.

Consequently, upon learning of the miraculous new product along with everybody else, if it is truly miraculous, the responsibility of these corporations to their stockholders or to themselves would require them to start producing it in the least expensive way. And where would they do that? Wherever in the world they found the most stimulating subsidies, the most alluring tax rates and the cheapest labor.

Wherever in the world that might be, it would not be in the United States of America, for the inescapable reason that, at least so far, the American standard of living is higher than that of any other first-rank country. The cheapest labor will not be found here unless we destroy ourselves. On the MacNeill Lehrer Newshour a few months ago, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills seemed to believe the Mexican poverty rate was only about 11 per cent (ours was 13.5 per cent two years ago and has undoubtedly risen since). She must have been thinking of some Mexico other than the one I’ve visited.

A MINOR practical flaw in the committee scheme is inherent in the very idea of creating such a group. Schumpeter counted the mature corporation’s addiction to committee decisions a prime reason for decline, and we all know the absurdity that would result if a committee tried to design an animal. Perhaps more important, we know from experience that a committee is quickly co-opted by those with the liveliest immediate interest in the outcome of its deliberations.

In the proposed body the industry and banking representatives may not be the smartest or the best informed, but they surely will have their minds concentrated on the fate of their sector of the economy, and they will certainly wield the direct and indirect power that comes with enormous wealth. In Japan, captains of industry respect the authority of even minor bureaucrats; in the United States, money talks.

Beyond this, the committee approach has a serious theoretical flaw in that it contradicts the very reasons for its formulation. These, it should be kept in mind, are (1) the decline of American industry because of foreign competition, and (2) the presumed impossibility or unacceptability of self-protection in any form.

The conventional charge against self protection is that it interferes with and distorts the natural course of trade, thus making for inefficient if not altogether wasteful use of resources. Publicists reinforce the charge with the cliché that a man knows better what to do with his money than does some bureaucrat in Washington. Yet if the charge and the cliché were valid, there would be nothing to be done about the decline of American industry. It would be natural and inexorable. Further, it would assure the “efficient” use of resources and be a necessary contribution to the wealth and happiness of mankind. Some people would no doubt be hurt by it, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

On the premises, there is no more place for a reindustrializing committee than there is for self-protection. If the committee wouldn’t interfere with the natural marketplace, what would it do? Its whole purpose is to interfere in a large and comprehensive way. The logic of the scheme is absurd. Major premise: American industry is being ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: A committee should be empaneled to interfere with the free market. What kind of logic is that?

The lean-and-mean logic is similar. Major premise: The American standard of living will be ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: We should make corporations lean by firing people, make them mean by working the surviving employees harder for less pay, and thereby make ourselves miserable without help from anyone else.

I find it odd that standard economics, based as it is on self-interest, should find self-protection invariably reprehensible.

The New Leader

[1] This link includes references to the Law of Comparative Advantage in other Dismal Science articles

By George P. Brockway, originally published July 9, 1990

1990-7-9 The Evils of Economic Man Title

NINETEEN NINETY bids fair to go in the books as the year of ironies. Everywhere economists are being asked the way out of the present Slough of Despond – and everywhere economists are sure only of the way in.

The Soviet Union and its former satellites are in trouble. Both industry and agriculture are failing. Crime and corruption are rampant. Store shelves are empty. Prices are soaring. Unemployment is rising. The solution (so everyone says) is to become like us.

But we are in trouble, too. Six million Americans are unemployed, another million are too discouraged to seek work, and 23 million are working only part time. We’re just beginning to find out how many of us are homeless. More than 31 million have no health protection. There are 15 nations whose citizens have a longer life expectancy than we do in this country.

Among the industrialized nations of the world, the U.S. ranks low in literacy and lower in comprehension of mathematics and science. We have finally acknowledged that the Head Start program enormously improves the effectiveness of our schools, but we provide it for merely a small number of our children.

Our banking system is in disarray. The part of it that was created to encourage home ownership and personal saving has been destroyed by doctrinaire “deregulation,” and it is now estimated that it will cost over $500 billion to clean up the mess and payoff the depositors. Commercial banks are choking on nonperforming real estate and foreign loans. Investment banks are being bankrupted by their own greed.

Our atomic plants are in disrepair; some must be closed down as dangerous. Repairing them will cost upwards of $200 billion. Our highway system, most of it more than 30 years old, is also crumbling and will cost hundreds of billions to restore. Meanwhile, we seem to be unable to find a few billion to try to pay for the damage that we caused directly in Panama and indirectly in Nicaragua.

Our troubles (so everyone says) are caused by our deficits, which (so everyone says) are caused by our lack of saving. The solution (so everyone says) is to become like Japan.

But Japan is in trouble, too. Perhaps a trillion dollars has been lost in its stock market so far this year. Despite the best efforts of the Bank of Japan, the yen is erratic against the dollar. The inflation rate is only a fraction of ours, but it is rising. Speculation in real estate has made home ownership impossible for all except the very rich.

The Japanese standard of living has never equaled ours and is only coming closer as ours falters. The secure and happy life of the Japanese worker has always been a fable propagated by the American business press. (See How Our Sun May Rise Again,” NL, July 12-26, 1982.) The position of Japanese women is at a level we reached a century ago. Japanese invest in American real estate, like Radio City, because it is so much more profitable than Tokyo real estate; and in general Japanese investors are finding fewer and fewer opportunities at home. The solution (so everyone says) is to cut down on regulation and become more like us.

Then there are the two Germanys, whose situation is nicely described in Cynthia Propper Seton‘s A Fine Romance ( one of my favorite novels, which I’m rereading for the fifth time}:”Proust discovered that all our desires are fulfilled on condition that they do not bring the happiness we expected from them.” The West Germans will get all that eastern land (except for Sudetenland and the Prussian part of Poland) on condition they clean it up and modernize it and re-educate its citizens. The East Germans will again become important people in the world on condition they realize they’re less equal than their Western cousins.

Now that the Cold War is melting away, it is possible to see that these ironies have a similar, if not a common, source. We can for convenience call it the idea of Economic Man, who is selfishness incarnate and perhaps the one creature, real or imaginary, who can safely be referred to as “he.” No self respecting woman would want to be mistaken for him, but it is on the basis of his absolutely greedy behavior that economists deduce the laws they solemnly tell us about.

He is an essential organizing idea of contemporary economics, just as mass and energy are organizing ideas of physics. Adam Smith thought Economic Man’s selfishness would be automatically curbed by competing selfishness, while Karl Marx thought it would be inexorably curbed by dialectical materialism (not his phrase), which is another way of saying class selfishness.

Contemporary economics holds that any curbing of Economic Man is inefficient. Even Keynes, after painting an unappealing portrait of him, wrote, “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into the daylight.”

Sixty of Keynes’ hundred years have gone by, but he imposed two conditions we have not met: no important wars (we have fought three: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam) and no important increase in population (ours has doubled, and the world’s has multiplied two and a half times). So Keynes would be justified in putting the end of the tunnel at least another hundred years down the road.

Although it will be none of my business, I expect it will be a lot farther away than that. If “avarice and usury and precaution” are to be desanctified, we must create gods to put before them. Economic Man will not be easy to displace.

Until we learn how to displace him, we face a long, slow, erratic decline. By “we” I mean not only the countries mentioned above but also the rest of the world – all of us.

REGARDLESS of what a society considers good, there is, at least in theory, some point above which an individual’s income can provide more of that good than a person has civilized use for. Conversely, there is some point below which an individual’s income provides little or none of the good.

Economic polarization has malign consequences across the distribution scale. The poor are unable to buy the products that industry could produce; industry consequently has fewer opportunities for further expansion; the rich consequently have fewer opportunities for investment; workers consequently have fewer job opportunities. If the rich are frustrated in their attempts to consume their incomes, they turn to speculation. The amount of money that flows into speculative markets – preeminently the securities markets – is increased; so prices in these markets escalate.

Escalating security prices force corporations of the producing economy to increase their “normal” or planned profit in order to attract the capital necessary simply to continue in business. Planned profit is in conflict with wages; so wages must be further restrained or employment reduced or “rationalized,” thus increasing polarization and narrowing the market for industry’s products – a phenomenon Professor Robert Averitt calls “The Paradox of Cost Reduction.” Such a situation cannot correct itself. On the contrary, the amplitude of the difference between the rich and the poor tends to increase, and the numbers of the rich and the poor tend to increase, too.

Until we make fundamental reforms, especially in income distribution, we can expect a series of crises and minicrises. The next one may come about as a result of Third World debt, or consumer debt, or trouble in the insurance business, or another market crash, or junk bonds, or (ironically) the end of the arms race, or something quite unforeseen. Whatever, with each crisis unemployment and inflation will inch upward.  Not that long ago it was widely believed that if either unemployment or inflation stayed long above 5 per cent, there would be condign punishment of the politicians in power. Now 5 per cent for either rate is a cause for unabashed self congratulation.

The slow deterioration of a society can go on for a very longtime. The Pharaonic World, the Roman World, the Medieval World, the Mandarin World, all stagnated for centuries. The modem world (it will be our successors who name it) can do the same. And it will do the same as long as we continue to worship Economic Man.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 30, 1989

1989-10-30 Polution - Going Once, Going Twice.... Title

WE ARE SUPPOSED to cheer the Bush Administration’s clean air bill, which is intended to cut sulfur dioxide emissions  in half by the year 2000 and to do various other things. Well, I do cheer. Anything at all is better than what we’ve had for the past decade.

But there is a catch here-as there seems to be to every kinder, gentler proposal. Pollution control is going to be turned over to the economists, led by Michael J. Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors; and the economists are going to push for as silly an idea as any the profession has spawned in this century. Unfortunately, this idea of theirs is not simply silly; it is, in a word, uncivilized. They should be ashamed.

The scheme is to establish a market for licenses to pollute-or, as I have sometimes heard it delicately put, for effluent rights.

This scam has been around for several years (you might even have read about it in this space as early as December 28, 1981). The major premise is that enforcing antipollution laws is expensive. The minor premise is that the free market can do everything. The conclusion is that rights to pollute should be auctioned off to the highest bidder (an auction being erroneously viewed as the ideal market), then the government could use the money to clean up the messes the polluters bought the rights to make. Not  only that, but the rights could be transferable- sort of like taxi medallions and the hope is that they would be traded on one of the exchanges, even that a futures market could be developed. And not only that, but environmental groups could bid for the rights and thus render them more expensive for polluters. If it weren’t a restraint on trade, environmental groups might go ahead and buy some of the rights and keep them off the market, thereby actually stopping the corresponding pollution. The mind boggles.

Anyone who has had the slightest connection with government can foresee dozens of practical difficulties with the scheme, especially if local governments are involved. I’ll take up a couple of them later. For the moment, let’s look warily at the theory.

The first thing about the free market is not just that it can’t do everything; it can’t, by itself, do anything. It can’t even set itself up and maintain itself. As Leon Walras, patron saint of General Equilibrium Analysis (a.k.a. the theory that The Market Knows) wrote when his followers weren’t looking, “[Production in free competition, after being engaged in a great number of small enterprises, tends to distribute itself among a number less great of medium enterprises, then among a small number of great enterprises, to end finally, first in a monopoly at cost price, then in a monopoly at the price of maximum gain.(Walras’ emphases.)

Yet antitrust laws are so difficult to write and so expensive to enforce that Milton Friedman, our contemporary conservative guru, throws the whole thing over. We act as if we had perfect competition, he says; therefore we do. On the same reasoning, we act as if pollution weren’t worth taking much trouble about; therefore it isn’t.

Once you start thinking this way, there is not much left for government to do; and if the voters get excited about pollution or whatever, you can pacify them by holding an auction. It would seem, for example, that the current fuss over the best way to approach the drug crisis is misdirected. It would be more economical to auction off the right to sell crack on the streets, possibly restricting the bidding for certain prestigious posts (like Official Lafayette Park Purveyor of Props for Presidential TV Shows) to pushers who promise to shave and wear a jacket and tie, even in summer.

Closer to pollution rights would be adulteration rights. The Pure Food and Drug Laws are expensive and difficult to enforce, too, and require lots of enterprise- stultifying paperwork. Why not auction off adulteration rights? We might have separate auctions for the right to mix sawdust with flour, for the right to let a processing plant get a teeny bit filthy, and for the right to use handy carcinogens without telling anybody, and without being sued if found out. This last auction would have to be carefully handled to avoid adverse publicity for the winners, which might have a depressing effect on their sales, and hence on the GNP.

To be sure, carcinogens are life-threatening. But so are air and water pollution. And so, for a different sort of example, is jogging in New York’s Central Park at night. As I suggested here eight years ago, why not admit that taxes would have to go up if Central Park were made safe? The economical solution would be to auction off mugging rights. Wilding rights might go for a little less per participant because of economies of scale. Also, we’ll be better able to compete internationally if we teach these youngsters how the free-market system works-or anyway how economists think it works.

On the other hand, the knock-down price (no pun intended, of course) for the right to commit mayhem and murder might be a bit higher. One would not want to set the price too high, because there wouldn’t be any bidders, and there would be no money to pay for the homicide squads needed to catch cheaters who didn’t pay for the rights. Some of these costs, though, could be defrayed if cops wore little logos advertising their shoes and underwear, like tennis professionals.

The economists are too convinced of their own cleverness to notice, but at this point prospective polluters would see a fault in the scheme and might hesitate before putting in their bids. One of them, a veteran of the antiwar demonstrations of the’ 60s, might persuade the others as follows: “Suppose they held an auction for pollution rights and nobody came. Then there would be no money to enforce antipollution laws or to clean up the messes. There would not even be any laws, because the Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t have enough money to write the appropriate regulations. Without any laws or enforcement, who cares about pollution rights? They’re free. Only a sucker would pay for them.”

All kidding aside, it is clear that the economists’ scheme is self-contradictory. It promises to get rid of bureaucratic interference with the free-market system. Visions of balanced budgets dance before the professors’ eyes, and of the fantastic growth in “productivity” that would result from not wasting time and money on nonessentials (“externalities,” economists call them) like clean air or pure water. Yet these visions cannot be realized unless the Environmental Protection Agency, or some surrogate, stands ready to lower the boom on polluters who refuse to play by the new rules. No one is going to pay to avoid what does not exist.

Furthermore, without continued enforcement after the auctions you can bet that crafty polluters here or there would buy certain rights and then exceed them. The malefactors would have a leg up on their competitors and might well win awards for competing internationally. In short, the economists’ scheme would cost as much as ordinary control but would be far less effective. (I’ll admit it would give brokers another “product” or two to trade on the exchanges.)

AS I MENTIONED earlier, there are some practical difficulties, particularly if, instead of nationwide auctions, local options are recognized. (After all, who knows the environment better than those who live in it?) Suppose you have a steel mill on the shores of Lake Superior and you want to pollute the lake. Fine. We’ll have an auction. What are we offered? Since no one else needs the rights, how about a dollar?

I’m not forgetting the busybody (and probably elitist) environmental groups. They’re spread pretty thin, however (an awful lot of their budgets goes to sending me junk mail), and can’t all enter every auction. They take turns. The steel mill, meanwhile, provides most of the employment for our Lake Superior town, and the mill’s conglomerate owner threatens to shut it down. So the town enters the bidding, swamps the environmentalists, and wins, whereupon it gives the pollution rights to the steel mill for free. Everyone is happy, except for the environmentalists and the fish and the people who drink lake water instead of beer.

In most towns or regions there may be more than one polluter seeking the rights, and naturally they will compete vigorously for them. It’s the American way. Once upon a time I lived in New Jersey, where there are God knows how many separate municipalities, and almost all of them hire scavenger services. In each county there are several competing scavengers. At any rate, they all submit bids for every municipality’s business.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the same fellow is low man in the same towns year after year, while other players always win in their usual towns. (Economists think they know about this, too. The scavengers’ “experience” enables them to avoid the “Winner’s Curse,” which is the result of bidding too low.) Occasionally a feud breaks out, and a few truly surprised towns find themselves opening sealed envelopes containing very low bids. The feuds don’t last long.

It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize something similar with pollution rights, especially since the oil industry (one of the most stylish polluters) is familiar with a practice that looks to suspicious souls like collusive bidding. Offshore oil leases are expensive and risky, moreover, prompting oil companies to form syndicates to spread the risk. Syndicates would also appear to narrow the bidding.

What I’m afraid it all comes down to is that today’s economists don’t understand government. They don’t believe in government. Although they would quickly and nervously deny it, they are like Karl Marx in thinking that the state should wither away because all questions are economic questions. They get irritated when people object to cheap imports that take away their livelihood, or when unions strike to prevent wage cuts, or when attempts are made to use taxes to distribute income a little more equitably.

It further has to be said that economists do not take the general welfare seriously. They certainly don’t take the environment seriously. They don’t really believe in the greenhouse effect, or acid rain, or the consequences of PCBs in drinking water, or the possibility of another, closer Chernobyl. They can’t possibly understand these matters and make their fatuous proposals about auctioning off the right to pollute.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published August 7, 1989

1989-8-7 Exxon And Squatter Economics Title

DEAN ACHESON once remarked wearily that if anyone, at any time, found him agreeing with any Indian on any subject whatever, that person should have him certified immediately. His judgment was no doubt colored by his experiences with V.K. Krishna Menon, who wanted all North Korean POWs shipped home whether they wished to go or not.

My feelings about standard economics are similar, perhaps because one summer, in a youthful fit of self-improvement, I spent many hours reading Frank Taussig’s introductory textbook when I could have been sleeping in the sun. My recollection is that Taussig, who was a big man in his day, started off by talking about Robinson Crusoe. I have since come to doubt that Robinson had anything to do with economics at all. So far as I know or Professor Taussig said, he never bought or sold anything, or used money.

One by one the classic laws have lost their savor for me. David Ricardo‘s Law of Comparative Advantage was an early loser, and I wrote three columns[1] about it six or so years ago. The notion that producers are profit maximizers and consumers are utility maximizers attracted my attention last year, and the Law of Diminishing Returns a couple of months ago. I’ve even dropped a hint or two concerning the Law of Supply and Demand, and might supply a column about it, if I detected any demand.

I’m ashamed to say that in one of my early columns I made a slip and endorsed the proposition that free competition in a free market makes for the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. As Abraham Lincoln[2] replied when requested to apologize for saying that Simon Cameron would not steal a red-hot stove, I now take that back.

The issue is in the news because of the great Valdez oil spill. Some excitable people want to punish Exxon, but they have been patiently told it would be inefficient to do so. Encouraged by the sound of their own voices, the naysayers add that it would be inefficient to impose further restrictions on the exploitation of Alaskan oil, and also that an increase in the gasoline tax would distort the allocation of resources. They urge, too, a relaxation of the already relaxed standards of gasoline efficiency (that word again) for new automobiles. Red-blooded Americans, if given their druthers, would prefer very big cars that can go very fast; therefore they should be allowed to put their money where their preference is, and the speed laws should be lifted while we’re at it.

The more beguiling advocates of free market theory admit that sooner or later oil will run out. They are confident, however, that the spur of possible profits will drive some mad scientist to invent a way of using crab grass or zucchini for fuel (as some tried to use dandelions for rubber in World War II), thus rehabilitating suburban agriculture and saving the automobile. In the meantime, they argue, as oil gets scarcer and the price rises higher, those willing to give up coarser pleasures are entitled to enjoy the daintier pleasure of burning gasoline in fast cars, fast boats and fast snowmobiles. Their willingness shows that is the efficient thing to do.

Let’s examine the proposition, not from the point of view of ecology or even of national security (where it’s a clear loser), but from the point of view of logic. Is economics really about the allocation of resources at all? To answer that question, we have to be able to say what a resource is. How about this: A resource is something that is useful or necessary to make something else, a component of an economic commodity.

(At this point there is a side issue we ought to deal with. The Education President tells us that a trained labor force is an essential resource in our struggle with Japan and Germany for the hearts and moneys of the world. But a labor force is not a thing; it is human beings, and human beings are ends in themselves. Trade is for human beings; human beings are not for trade. They are not a resource or a means to anything else. To treat human beings as means is the ultimate sin. I know that George Bush is a kind and gentle man who does not always mean exactly what he says. But if we are to read his lips, he should watch his tongue.)

So resources are things, objects. Natural resources are things untouched by human hands, lying around ready to be picked up or dug up or fished up, and used. Economic resources are also scarce. There is no point in talking about them if they are not scarce. Taussig (if my memory serves after all these years) gave air as an example of a noneconomic resource, the reasons being that there was a lot of it, and that no one could figure out how to bottle it and sell it. We’ve made progress, however. If you’re in the hospital and they decide to pep you up with oxygen, you’ll find $100 a day added to your bill. And Los Angeles knows that breatheable air would be impossibly expensive.

But of course not all scarce natural objects, even those that could be readily packaged, such as bluebird nests, are natural resources. Leon Walras, the patron saint of marginal utility analysis, credits his father Auguste with the notion that an economic good has to be useful as well as scarce. This does not seem a remarkably difficult advance in thought. It does not really advance us very far, either.

Maybe you are not clever enough to think up uses for bluebird nests, and maybe no one is; that does not mean a use will never be discovered or invented. Think of petroleum. If you had asked Adam Smith about it, he would have shrugged his Scotch shoulders. It was a sticky, stinky substance where it appeared, as in the notorious fields near Cumae, rendering useless the land that harbored it. Or you might have asked Karl Marx about uranium. He would never have heard of it, for one thing. What kind of resource is something you never heard of.  On the other hand, ancient man mined and traded obsidian, which, apart from the art and tools the ancients made of it, is now of no interest to a Harvard Business School graduate.

From these random samples we can infer that the usefulness of objects is not something inherent in them. As it happens, there is no dispute on this point. W. Stanley Jevons, who shares with Walras the distinction of having invented marginal utility, put it this way: “The price of a commodity is the only test we have of the utility of the commodity to the purchaser.” A half century earlier Jean- Baptiste Say had characteristically introduced an intermediate and indeterminable abstraction: “Price is the measure of the value of things, and their value is the measure of their utility.”

In our day, Gerard Debreu, a Nobelist and probably the world’s foremost mathematical economist, is in agreement with Jevons and Say. “The fact that the price of a commodity is positive, null, or negative,” he writes, “is not an intrinsic property of that commodity; it depends on the technology, the tastes, the resources … of the economy.”

(Please forgive another side issue. Noting the word “resources” before Debreu’s ellipses, I confess myself puzzled, since in a subsequent passage he says, “The total resources of an economy are the a priori given quantities of commodities that are made available to (or by) its agents.” It would appear that the price of a commodity depends, at least in part, on resources, and that resources are commodities-a line of argument that looks suspiciously circular to me.)

ONE WAY or another, then, we come to the conclusion that it is not so easy to say what economic resources are. They are useful, yes, but neither petroleum nor uranium nor a bluebird nest is, in and of itself, useful. Indeed, if you don’t know how to use them petroleum is nasty and uranium is dangerous. But our economy does know how to use them, up to a point. So they are resources for us. They are resources for us because of the way our economy is organized.

The organization of our economy is, as the marginal analysts say, a price system. (Like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, we economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing.) Every price is dependent on every other price in a delicately beautiful equilibrium. It is this balanced price system that allocates resources. If tomorrow morning some bright fellow comes up with a use for bluebird nests, the supply of and demand for them (the story goes) will set the price for them. Not only that, but as the demand for bluebird nests develops, the demand for some other things must decline. But other resources (including, sad to say, human resources) are shifted into the bluebird nest industry, restoring the equilibrium. Everything is properly allocated again.

Bluebird nests are now a resource, not simply because they are rare and a use has been found for them, but because they fit into the price system. That is crucial. The market does not so much allocate resources as tell us what resources are.

What, then, becomes of efficiency? It disappears. It is not separately discoverable, for resources are resources because the market says so, and their allocation is efficient only because the market says so. The market is not a better way of allocating resources; it is the only way. This is what the theory says.

Having said this much, it has uttered nonsense. If you really want to learn about resources and their allocation, you should go, not to Wall Street, but to someplace like World Watch Institute, which publishes an annual report called State of the World that explains the consequences of what we are doing and tells how we could do better.

Nonsense is always dangerous. The horror story that “The Market Knows” damages the ecosystem.  It also destroys economics itself, reducing the whole exercise to a defense of the status quo. True believers in the market apparently do not understand this, for they are very liberal (if you know what I mean) with advice about the sorts of issues we mentioned earlier – finding a way to make Exxon pay, restricting further exploitation of Alaskan oil, and so on. Yet these matters, as they now stand, are part of the present system. Changes in favor of the oil industry are no less an interference with the market than are changes in favor of the world and them that dwell therein.

Once any sort of change is admissible, every sort can be argued up or down. In the 1850s, Stephen A. Douglas proposed squatter sovereignty (allowing the territories to vote on slavery), which appeared to be impartial but actually favored the South. In their renowned debates, Lincoln forced Douglas to admit that slavery could be voted down as well as up. That won Douglas the Senate seat, but cost him the Presidency two years later. It would be lovely if we could come to understand the vacuity of squatter economics.

The New Leader


[2] Readers should see the upcoming link about “stealing a red-hot stove.”  The author attributes the quote to Lincoln but it was, according to Wikipedia, Thaddeus Stevens talking TO Lincoln.

By George P. Brockway, originally published April 3, 1989

1989-4-3 Minimum Wage vs. Maximum Confusion Title

THE FIGHT in Congress over a minimum-wage bill was recognized by both sides to be largely symbolic. It was nevertheless worth making. The press and TV characteristically presented what little they reported of the debate as a clash of personalities. But fundamental issues were at stake, and one must hope the debate has gone at least a little way toward educating the public (and the Congress) on the way the economy actually works.

First, a bit of background: The minimum wage is now $3.35 an hour. It has not been changed for eight years, even though the Consumer Price Index has gone up 32.3 per cent in that time. If you work full time, $3.35 an hour comes to $134 a week or $6,968 a year, which is well below the poverty level. But of course the assumption of full-time work is what economists call a heroic assumption (meaning that it doesn’t hurt the economists who make it any more than heroic medical procedures hurt doctors).  In fact, 25.3 per cent of the people employed in America work part time roughly half of them because they can’t get better jobs and half because they prefer it that way. It’s a fair guess that almost all of the minimum-wage workers are in the part-time group.

At present about 4 million workers earn the minimum wage or less. (Economics is full of miracles: In mathematics there’s nothing less than the minimum, but in economics there’s a great nether region below the minimum because commerce that doesn’t cross state lines is not covered by Federal law.) There are in addition just over 6.5 million people officially classified unemployed, and just under 1 million more who do not count because they are too discouraged to look for work. That adds up to 11.5 million Americans who work or are willing to work yet still are a long way below the poverty level.

The bills recently passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate provide for the minimum to go to $3.85 in October of this year, then to $4.25 in 1990, and to $4.55 in 1991 (by which time inflation will have wiped out most, if not all, of the increase). In an attempt to attract Republican votes, the bills include a subminimum training wage: 85 per cent of the minimum for a first-time employee’s initial 60 days.  This provision would phase out in 1992. Though the bills have substantial support in both houses, particularly among Democrats, President George Bush has threatened to veto anything that goes beyond $4.25 an hour. Thirty-five Republican Senators have promised to sustain a veto. That should pretty much do it.

The threatened veto is, naturally, presented as a kinder, gentler act. The conservative argument is that companies pay the minimum wage (or less) because they cannot afford to pay more. Since they are at the limit of their resources, a pay increase would force them to fire those paid the present minimum and to turn away inexperienced teenagers, blacks and women looking for entry level jobs. The net result, conservatives say, would be an increase in unemployment.

Anyone who bothers to look at the record, however, will find that employment has risen in seven of the eight years when the minimum wage has been raised; and the one year employment fell (1975) was a time of severe recession when the drop was expected for other reasons. Moreover, the 11 states that now have a statewide minimum wage higher than the Federal standard also have the lowest unemployment.

You will have noticed that the argument shifts back and forth between the fate of the economy as a whole and that of individual workers and individual businesses – in other words, between macroeconomics and microeconomics. Several times over the years I have called attention to the fallacy of composition, which often pops up when such shifts are made, and I’ve suggested that economists must love it because they do so much dancing. In brief, the fallacy assumes that what is true of members of a logical class is thereby true of the class itself. Sometimes this leads to the laughable, as when Engine Charlie Wilson averred, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

In the present instance, conservatives argue that what may be bad for some workers must be bad for all. Liberals, on the other hand, argue that the possible microeconomic effect of some job loss will be more than offset by the macroeconomic effect of better jobs in the economy as a whole, resulting in increased spending that will stimulate business into hiring more workers.

Over a quarter of the low-income workers would have to be fired for the total wages to fall. It’s a judgment call, and the call pretty much separates the optimists from the pessimists, and the liberals from the conservatives. I’m such a liberal optimist, I doubt that as many as 10 per cent would be fired. In that case the macroeconomic stimulus would be considerable, making it likely the 10 per cent would be rehired almost at once, thus intensifying the stimulus and making inroads on those millions of unemployed.

If you too are an optimist, I ask you to consider a special implication of what we have been saying. The happier world we have projected depends on an act of Congress combined with a President’s willingness to sign his name. There is no economic law that will achieve our goal. Rather the contrary. Standard economics pits businesses in such implacable competition with each other that even good-hearted employers are unable to pay more than the minimum, while workers compete so fiercely for jobs that even the stout-hearted can’t hold out for more. (That, by the way, is the Iron Law of Wages, which prompted Thomas Carlyle to coin the name for this column.) Thus wages tend inexorably to zero, and profits do as well. So, to be sure, do prices; but since no one will have any money, I’ve never understood what difference that makes. Individual companies can’t stop this fall; it takes governmental action. Hence the minimum wage.

Shifting back to microeconomics, we are likely to find in boardrooms across the land another objection to raising the minimum wage. It cuts into profits, the gut feelings is, and cripples enterprise. This feeling is known as the wage-fund theory: it argues that the gross receipts of any enterprise form a fund from which wages, other costs and profits are paid. Therefore, as David Ricardo insisted, “There can be no rise in the value of labor without a fall of profits.” Karl Marx, an admirer of Ricardo, found the wage-fund theory handy in explaining the implacable opposition of labor and capital. Here, as in so many cases, we find the far Right in bed with the far Left.

But taking a peek at the real world, Joseph Schumpeter remarked the empirical fact that wages and profits tend to go up together. Really good times are at least pretty good times for everybody. Profits are high, wages are high, unemployment is low, and so, for that matter, is inflation. None of this could happen if the wage-fund theory were valid. It is not valid because wages are a cost of doing business, while profits are not.

Profit (or loss) is what is left over after all receivables have been collected and all bills paid. The costs of wages, interest, rent, and supplies can all be contracted for in advance; but profit is systematically residual. What’s to come is still unsure.

1989-4-3 Minimum Wage vs. Maximum Confusion boots

I’m talking about actual profit-the kind you pay taxes on. Business people talk also about “normal” profit – what they think an enterprise ought to earn to be worth the bother. There is obviously no such thing as normal loss. Normal profit is a planning concept. It is an estimate, even an expectation, but not an actuality. It is on the basis of this estimate that go/ no-go decisions are made, prices are set, and production runs are scheduled. Although in the real world some businesses are vastly more profitable than others, and more or less profitable from year to year, normal profits, making allowance for risk, are uniform, as are short-term interest rates. High-risk enterprises must promise high normal profits, yet in the real world the low-risk enterprises generally show the highest profits.

THERE IS clearly not much point in running an enterprise if it can’t earn the going interest rate and a bit more. You could lend your money to someone else and earn bank interest or better with no trouble at all. So the interest rate is what economists call an opportunity cost of normal profit: they are roughly equal. Consequently we have three related concepts: normal or hoped- for profit, the interest rate, and actual profit or loss. Since only the first two come out of the wage fund, only they are in conflict with wages.

A common error, from David Ricardo to Alan Greenspan, is to confuse interest and actual profits. Mathematical economists, too, have trouble with this phenomenon, because they are prone to work with normal profits rather than actual profits. Actual profits are earned in historical time, but mathematics knows only the present tense.

What Ricardo should have said was, “There can be no rise in the value of labor without a fall in the interest rate.” Wages and actual profits can and do go up and down together. They go up together when the interest rate is low, and they go down together when the interest rate is high.

As Henry Ford understood, it is in the rnicroeconornic interest of each business that all businesses pay good wages. For this macroeconomic phenomenon to happen reliably, it takes a law. It takes more than a minimum-wage law, but it takes at least that. It is not unlikely that pushing up the minimum wage would eventually push up the wages and salaries above it. That is why we have said (see “Reality and Welfare Reform,” NL, November 28, 1988) that doing something about the poor is inflationary unless a major effort is made to correct the massive maldistribution of income and wealth in this country.

That will not be easy, especially since we seem bemused by personalities, and since a previously wimpy personality will veto any attempt of personable Congressional leaders to move in the right direction. There is something more to the problem than David Rockefeller‘s objections to Michael Milken’s junky performance.

The New Leader

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