Tag Archives: free trade

An Important Note By The United Nations On The IMF And The World Order

I recently came across a phrase, social silence, which Gillian Tett of FT describes:

As Pierre Bourdieu, the French anthropologist and intellectual, observed in his seminal work Outline of a theory of practice, the way that an elite typically stays in power in almost any society is not simply by controlling the means of production (i.e. wealth), but by shaping the discourse (or the cognitive map that a society uses to describe the world around it.) And what matters most in relation to that map is not just what is discussed in public, but what is not discussed because those topics are considered boring, irrelevant, taboo or just unthinkable. Or as Bourdieu wrote: “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, but ask no more than a complicitous silence.”

Very few talk of the world order and how it operates. The current world order can be described as a neoliberal. It is a system of free trade (or more generally globalization), tight fiscal policy, deregulation and privatization.

The IMF is one institutional which has been responsible for maintaining this world order. Since governments need exceptional financing, they are arm-twisted by the IMF.

A recent United Nations General Assemby notePromotion Of A Democratic And Equitable International Order, has recognized this and criticizes the IMF strongly. Many economists and pundits deny there’s something called neoliberalism but the note is open about the ideology and the word.

In fact, IMF advocacy of structural adjustment has privileged powerful corporate interests and created a vicious cycle of dependence for borrower countries. As noted by Peter Dolack:

Ideology plays a critical role here. International lending organizations … consistently impose austerity. The IMF’s loans, earmarked … to pay debts or stabilize currencies, always come with the same requirements to privatize public assets (which can be sold far below market value to multi-national corporations waiting to pounce); cut social safety nets; drastically reduce the scope of government services; eliminate regulations; and open economies wide to multi-national capital, even if that means the destruction of local industry and agriculture. This results in more debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and the IMF, which enforces those corporate interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labour laws.

and also:

IMF still appears more committed to the obsolete neoliberal economic
model.

The report is 18 pages long and critical of the IMF from the start to the end. Please read. You won’t find any discussion of the report in the mainstream media.

Anthony Thirlwall On How He Became A Kaldorian

There was a conference last year in honour of Nicholas Kaldor organized by Corvinus University of Budapest.

The papers by the speakers has now been published by Acta Oeconomica in their September issue.

Anthony Thirlwall’s paper Nicholas Kaldor’s Life And Insights Into The Applied Economics Of Growth (Or Why I Became A Kaldorian) is notable. You can access it here if you can’t access the journal.

photo via Alberto Bagnai

Excerpt:

The second paper which struck an intellectual chord was Kaldor’s address to the Scottish Economic Society in 1970 entitled ‘The Case for Regional Policies’ (Kaldor, 1970). Here, at the regional level, he switches focus from the structure of production in a closed economy to the role of exports in an open regional context in which the growth of exports is considered the major component of autonomous demand (to which other components of demand adapt) which sets up a virtuous circle of growth working through the Verdoorn effect – similar in character to Gunnar Myrdal’s theory of circular and cumulative causation in which success breeds success and failure breeds failure (Myrdal, 1957). This is one of his challenges to equilibrium theory that free trade and the free mobility of factors of production will necessarily equalise economic performance across regions or countries.

 

A New Way To Learn Economics?

John Cassidy has a nice article titled A New Way To Learn Economics for The New Yorker on a new online introductory economics curriculum. produced by a lot of collaborators.

I went to the website which has the full book. Although there seems to be some progress, I have a strong reservation against it.

The chapter titled “Banks, money and the credit market” has a much better description on it than textbooks widely used, such as the ones by Paul Samuelson, Gregory Mankiw or Paul Krugman. On a cursory look, I didn’t find anything about the “money multiplier” model. Instead, the book says that central banks set short term interest rates and this has an effect on aggregate demand. If I missed something and if you find something orthodox, please let me know.

The chapter on fiscal policy looks like being written by fiscal hawks. There is a description of the government expenditure multiplier, which is not much different from other textbooks. There’s no mention of the more complicated nature of this process because of interactions between stocks and flows. For example, in stock-flow coherent (SFC) models, this one-step multiplier has a limited role.

Now, fiscal policy has strong effects and the book hardly does justice to any of this. It reads more like a defense of the establishment wisdom.

But it is in the area of international trade and globalization under the current rules of the game that the book is the most disappointing. The authors do tell students that it can produce “losers” but the problem of such an approach is that it doesn’t appreciate the fact that it leads to polarisation and divergences in fortunes of nations, instead of individuals. The assumption and conclusion (the same thing in most of economics!) is that if losers are compensated, fortunes of nations can converge.

This by Nicholas Kaldor, written in 1980, is change.

Not the new book, The Economy. 

As Morris Copeland emphasised, the root problem of economics is the total confusion of anyone and everyone on what money is. And his approach shows us that it’s not complicated. One just needs to study flow-of-funds or social accounting. There is hardly any emphasis of this in the book. Till then, students will remain confused and ignorant about the way the world works.

John Maynard Keynes On Surplus Nations’ Obligations

Recently, The Economist‘s cover story declared that the government of Germany ought to expand domestic demand and its refusal to do so is a threat to the world economy. It also said, “Germany’s surpluses are themselves a threat to free trade’s legitimacy.”

Post-Keynesians have long recognized this problem with the world economy. Keynes himself said in 1941:

It is characteristic of a freely convertible international standard that it throws the main burden of adjustment on the country which is in the debtor position on the international balance of payments. … The contribution in terms of the resulting social strains which the debtor country has to make to the restoration of equilibrium by changing its prices and wages is altogether out of proportion to the contribution asked of its creditors. Nor is this all. … The social strain of an adjustment downwards is much greater than that of an adjustment upwards. … The process of adjustment is compulsory for the debtor and voluntary for the creditor. If the creditor does not choose to make, or allow, his share of the adjustment, he suffers no inconvenience. For whilst a country’s reserve cannotfall below zero, there is no ceiling which sets an upper limit. The same is true if international loans are to be the means of adjustment. The debtor must borrow; the creditor is under no such compulsion

– in Collected Works, Vol. XXV, pages 27-28.

Few things:

Keynes is building a narrative to argue that creditor nations have responsibilities, although at that time (and also at present), they have no obligation. This was the motivation for his plan for Bretton-Woods, where he proposed to impose fines on creditor/surplus nations and set out some responsibilities for them.

Also, although the above was written keeping in mind a new world order (at 1941), it’s still valid for the post-Bretton-Woods era. This is because, although floating exchange rates help making adjustments, their power is completely exaggerated.

It’s also important to keep in mind, that the world is more complicated now. Creditor/suprlus nations have achieved their status by making adjustments, i.e., by keeping wages and domestic demand low. So it’s not exactly or literally like what Keynes presented. It’s not the best of worlds in Germany or China.

Still, what Keynes said was highly insightful.

It’s also interesting that for The Economist, Germany’s behaviour is a “threat to free trade’s legitimacy.” Nicholas Kaldor also said the same in 1980:

In the absence of … measures all countries may suffer a slower rate of growth and a lower level of output and employment, and not only the group of countries whose economic activity is ‘balance-of-payments constrained’. This is because the ‘surplus’ countries’ own exports will be lower with the shrinkage of world trade, and they may not offset this (or not adequately) by domestic reflationary measures so that their imports will also be lower.

– in Foundations And Implications Of Free Trade Theory

For The Economist, Germany’s behaviour is a threat to free trade. For Post-Keynesians, Germany’s behaviour is expected (and ought to be different) and is a good reason to reject free trade.

But it’s not a bad thing that The Economist recognizes Keynes’ insights.

Noam Chomsky On Neoliberalism: It’s Market For You But State Power For Me

Radio Open Source has a nice intervew of Noam Chomsky by Christopher Lydon where they discuss neoliberalism among other things.  Audio, transcript.

What is neoliberalism?

This question is asked frequently, especially by those who deny that such a thing exists (not the interviewer of course!). In my experience, those who deny it the most are the most neoliberal. At any rate—although I’ll try to describe what it is—it’s not important to get the definition right. Isn’t the creation of the Euro Area without a central government neoliberalism?

In the above interview, Chomksy is faced with this question:

CL: You famously said about neoliberalism that it’s not new, and it’s not liberal. Do you want to define it for people who just landed from Mars?

NC: Well, it’s a kind of a mixture. The rhetoric is free market, individual choice and so on. That’s the rhetoric. The reality is rather different. It’s individualism and market for you but state power for me. So take a look, say, at the actual institutions like the World Trade Organization or NAFTA, what are called the “free trade agreements.” The media calls them “free trade agreements.” They’re not free trade agreements. They’re investor rights agreements. They’re highly protectionist. They provide unprecedented protection backed by state power for major conglomerates like the pharmaceutical industry, media conglomerates, others.

That’s quite accurate, although Chomsky didn’t take the effort to define it but just described it as it is.

A lot of people try to distinguish neoliberalism and the New Consensus of economics. It’s certainly true that you can find examples of economists who believe in neoclassical economics or the new consensus or whatever you call it but don’t exactly advocate policies of neoliberalism. But, I’ll just categorize them as being deceived by economists. Orthodox economics is neoliberalism, except for minor differences. The former is an academic subject built to defend the latter, which is a political ideology. New Consesus Economics exists in academia because neoliberals and conservatives in political positions award them. Neoliberals then quote their research to defend policies.

Neoliberalism is based on three extremely damaging ideas of neoclassical economics: free trade, tight fiscal policy and the production function.

After the economic and financial crisis, it’s true that economists have conceded that fiscal policy has strong positive effects. Yet, it’s situational in most occasions. When a neoliberal party is in power, they might advocate fiscal expansion, at least make it look like they’re doing it. Also, although they sound as if they are unorthodox about it, they’ll rarely concede that they had a different position before the crisis. They’ll make it look like they have always believed their current positions since their undergraduate days. They’ll also pander to people who might want to hear otherwise. So they have different public and private positions. In other words, doublespeak about fiscal policy is the hallmark of a neoliberal.

But although economists have shifted their positions on fiscal policy—at least when it suits them—their voice about free trade has grown stronger. It is here that Chomsky’s point about “market for you but state power for me” appears the most illuminating. Rich nations are rich due to their success in international trade and they try to impose it on poor nations by hook or crook. This requires the cooperation of governments because agreements are negotiated by governments. Poor nations generally are sceptical about economists’ narratives but are arm-twisted by governments of rich nations and there is an establishment around the government which pushes such things both directly and indirectly by controlling the narrative (or control of opinion and manufacturing consent, as Chomsky might say).

Another aspect about neoliberalism is the politics around wages. As Thomas Palley says,

With regard to income distribution, neoliberalism asserts that factors of production—labor and capital—get paid what they are worth. This is accomplished through the supply and demand process, whereby payment depends on a factor’s relative scarcity (supply) and its productivity (which affects demand).

The theoretical basis for this is the narrative build in neoclassical economics using the notion of a production function and marginalism. Reality check: In the late 70s and early 80s, orthodox economists promoted government policies of high interest rates and this created unemployment and led to drastic weakening of labour unions. They were also weakened by laws. Again, markets for you but state power for me.

To quote Chomsky again from the interview,

[neoliberalism’s] crucial principle is undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy.

Two Hundred Years Of Ricardian Trade Theory

Ingrid Kvangraven has a nice article200 Years of Ricardian Trade Theory: How Is This Still A Thing? on the blog, Developing Economics. In that, she asks how “the observation of persistent imbalances (and recurring debt crises in the deficit countries) appears to have little impact on the popularity of Ricardo’s theory.”

It’s a nice article going into details about the assumptions of the trade theory, but let me just add another perspective. New Consensus Economics is based on the assumption about the magic of prices and market forces acting to resolve imbalances. Government “intervention” (a loaded word), supposedly spoils this magic and economists are trained to think that this is the reason for crisis. So a New Consensus economist doesn’t find this to be contradictory. “Hey government, why did you interfere with the workings of the market”, an economist is likely to say.

The role of the government in this model is mainly about law and order and is supposed to balance its books. Whenever a crisis arises, economists tend to blame “fiscal profligacy” and recommend contraction of fiscal policy and “economic reforms”.

Of course, since the financial crisis started about ten years back, economists have conceded that they have been wrong about several things. Fiscal policy is one major area where this is so. But the “learned intuition” is so deeply ingrained and ramified into every corner of their minds—borrowing words from Keynes—that it is difficult for them to escape old ideas.

It’s unfortunate that Keynes didn’t stress much about this problem, which is huge. In his GT, he did have a chapter on mercantilism and discussed how the mercantilists behaved the way they behaved because of their distrust in the role of market forces in resolving imbalances. Keynes also had a plan called the Keynes Plan, before the Bretton Woods established. Keynes proposes a fine on creditor nations as well (page 23-24):

from page 23 of IMF’s document on Keynes’ Plan

Usually one only hears of this in Post-Keynesian literature but this was not all. He also proposed other responsibilities for creditors:

from page 24 of IMF’s document on Keynes’ Plan

Of course, the idea of a Bancor sounds crazy because of its similarity to the Euro. The trouble with the Euro is that there is no central government with large fiscal powers, such as in a federation like the United States. Bancor would need a world government. Nonetheless, we can still embrace Keynes’ genius that creditors should take responsibility in the rules of the game and reject Bancor. So apart from the principle of effective demand, this is one of Keynes’ biggest contribution to the history of humankind—that creditor nations have a responsibility.

Unfortunately, the world is still stuck with Ricardo’s ideas!

Robots, Globalization, Unemployment, Etc

Worker: I am losing my job because of globalization.

Economist: No, you are losing it because of automation.

[Plus calling them ‘losers’, such as by saying, “losers of globalization should be compensated”]

This is not just unhelpful but wrong too! Actually, saying it is wrong is underplaying it. It’s okay to be wrong sometimes—everyone is wrong sometimes—but how bad can getting it precisely the opposite every time? Anyone throwing darts at the dartboard can hit the bulls eye by fluke but what is it like throwing darts in the opposite direction?

Economists should be more modest and remind themselves of what Keynes said about workers in The General Theory:

… workers, though unconsciously, are instinctively more reasonable economists than the classical school

There is some irony to all this. Economists have played down the notion of technological unemployment. If production is constant and productivity rises, there’s a fall in employment because less labour is required to produce the same output. So output has to rise to keep employment from falling because of “automation”. In Post-Keynesian economics, the principle of effective demand matters both in the short run and the long run. So technological unemployment is a real possibility. New Consensus economists concede that John Maynard Keynes rules in the short run but assume that Jean-Baptiste Say rules in the long run. The irony hence is that New Consensus economists seem to show worry about automation these days.

In my opinion, this is because the sacred tenet of free trade must be defended by economists at all costs. So they make a concession about loss of employment to robots. Unfortunately that’s not right either. Globalization—both because of competition by international producers and offshoring of jobs via global supply chains—has led to the loss of livelihood for many in the Western world.

Political parties with fascistic tendencies have noticed this huge error at the heart of the New Consensus economics and the liberal political parties to whom these economists advise. They have understood that by pointing out that globalization—under the current rules of the game—can destroy jobs. They have seen support from people. It’s true that the political movement is not likely to deliver much but at the same time, liberal leaning political parties should try to understand this to regain lost ground.

Instead, we see writing such as The Productivity Paradox by Ryan Avent of The Economist. It’s only a paradox if you view it using the lens of the New Consensus Economics. He himself seems to appreciate others’ claims that:

the robot threat is totally overblown: the fantasy, perhaps, of a bubble-mad Silicon Valley — or an effort to distract from workers’ real problems, trade and excessive corporate power.

Not sure why the Silicon Valley gets the blame, and not economists themselves, but anyway, that is some conceding.

Remember the concept of technological unemployment is a race condition.

If productivity rises a lot and demand not much, we have unemployment. If the latter rises fast, we have more employment.

In fact productivity rises in the Western world has been quite low recently and we should embrace robots. This is because measured productivity is likely to rise if output rises. Productivity rise (as per the Kaldor-Verdoon Law) is due to two things: an exogenous component and an endogenous component which depends on the rise in output. Also, remember Keynes talked of autonomous and induced expenditures as component of effective demand, which drives output. So if governments around the world design policy in which demand rises fast, then “automation” can not just be welcomed, it will be a cause of it, i.e., higher production leading to more automation because of learning-by-doing. But economists will continue to get it backward!

Noah Smith On Free Trade

In an article The Man Who Made Us See That Trade Isn’t Always Free for Bloomberg View, Noah Smith says this about David Autor:

So, I asked, how should trade policy be changed? Autor’s answers again surprised me. He suggested that the process of admitting China to the World Trade Organization back in 2000 should have been slowed down significantly. That would have given American workers and industries time to prepare for, and adjust to, China’s competitive onslaught.

He told me that the U.S. government should focus attention on manufacturing industries, and even use industrial policy to bolster the sector.

Traditionally, economists have looked down their noses at “manufacturing fetishism,” but Autor says he thinks the sector is underrated.

Of course, heterodox economists have known this for long. As Nicholas Kaldor said in his 1980 articleFoundations And Implications Of Free Trade Theory, written in Unemployment In Western Countries (probably my most favourite quote in this blog):

Owing to increasing returns in processing activities (in manufactures) success breeds further success and failure begets more failure. Another Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal called this’the principle of circular and cumulative causation’.

It is as a result of this that free trade in the field of manfactured goods led to the concentration of manufacturing production in certain areas – to a ‘polarization process’ which inhibits the growth of such activities in some areas and concentrates them on others.

Of course Smith saying all this isn’t exactly heresy as economists are known to make mea culpa all the time and then backtrack. Nonetheless, this article is still revealing. Smith also talks of the importance of empirical work. In heterodox literature, there is of course the work of Anthony Thirlwall, John McCombie and others. See Models Of Balance of Payments Constrained Growth: History, Theory And Empirical EvidenceSoukiazis, E., Cerqueira, P. (Eds.).

There’s also evidence from Ricardo Hausmann and César A. Hidalgo of Harvard University. See this Nature article.

John McCombie in the above quoted book, Models of Balance Of Payments Constrained Growth, in his chapter, Criticisms and Defences Of The Balance Of Payments Constrained Growth Model: Some Old, Some New, recognizes the work of Hausmann, Hidalogo, et al. :

Hausmann et al., (2007) have also stressed the importance of the sophistication of a country’s exports for its rate of output growth. They measure the sophistication of a particular export in terms of an index of the weighted per capita income of the countries that export that good, where the weights correspond to the revealed comparative advantage of the countries producing that good (PRODY). Then the average productivity of a country’s export basket is measured using this productivity index together with the relative shares of exports of the country concerned (EXPY). They found that EXPY was a statistically significant explanatory variable of per capita GDP growth in a regression which also included control variables.

These theoretical and empirical works go so much against the economist case for free trade, the most sacred tenet in economics.

Dean Baker On Automation

In his farewell address, Barack Obama toed the New Consensus’ line (around 12:50 in the video in the link):

… But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

In other words, Obama says that international trade and globalizing production aren’t responsible for weak employment and labour markets, but it’s automation.

Dean Baker has been writing a series of good articles puncturing these arguments. In his latest, titled Badly Confused Economics: The Debate on Automation, he writes that productivity hasn’t been rising much and that if tightness of the labour market is cited as one of the reasons for hikes in interest rates by the Federal Reserve, that’s contradictory. Baker says:

… The other reason why the concern over automation seems misplaced is that it is directly at odds with how we talk about other areas of economy policy. To take an example that has recently been in the news, the Federal Reserve Board raised interest rates in the United States last month. It is widely expected to raise interest rates several more times in 2017.

The reason for raising interest rates is that the Fed is concerned that the economy is creating too many jobs. This will increase workers’ bargaining power, putting upward pressure on wages. A more rapid rate of wage increases will lead to more rapid inflation. To prevent this outcome, the Fed wants the economy to have fewer jobs.

But how can it make sense that, at a time when we are worried that automation is destroying a massive number of jobs, we also need the Federal Reserve Board to add to the job destruction by raising interest rates? If automation is leading to mass job destruction the Fed should not have to be worried about overly tight labor markets.

Dani Rodrik On Free Trade

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Dani Rodrik makes this claim:

Meanwhile, economists rightly point out that trade is only weakly implicated in the major economic problems of the day — deindustrialization and income inequality. They are correct that the distributional consequences of trade are better addressed with safety net programs and nontrade remedies. But they have systematically downplayed these consequences — especially when the requisite compensatory programs have remained on paper. And they seem unable to grasp the valid core of the public’s concern about social dumping.

It’s a bit disappointing that Dani Rodrik who presents himself as a dissenter is towing the line of the New Consensus. The new trade theory, which is a part of the new consensus says that free trade is fine as long as losers are compensated. In this article Rodrik states the same but just takes issue on the latter part, i.e., compensation.

This line of argument is deeply flawed. An individual country’s growth has a deflationary bias because free trade puts a rein on fiscal policy to achieve full employment. So who is there to compensate? Moreover, it’s not comparative advantage which governs economic dynamics but absolute advantage via Gunnar Myrdal’s principle of circular and cumulative advantage . As Nicholas Kaldor says, “success breeds further success and failure begets more failure.”

Moreover it’s the the whole world economy which has a deflationary bias because of free trade as pointed out by Nicholas Kaldor in his 1980 article Foundations And Implications Of Free Trade Theory

In a recent article on the ‘Causes of Growth and Recession in World Trade’,1 T. F. Cripps has demonstrated that a country is not ‘balance of payments constrained’ if its full employment imports, M*, are less that its import capacity M̅ (as determined by its earning from exports). Such a country is free to choose the level of domestic demand which it considers optimal for its own circumstances,2 whereas the other countries from whom M* > M̅, must, under conditions of free trade, reduce their output and employment below the full employment level, and import only what they can afford to finance. He then shows that the sum of imports of the ‘unconstrained’ countries determine the attainable level of production and employment of the ‘constrained’ countries, and the remedy for this situation requires measures that increase the level of ‘full-employment’ imports or else reduce the export share of the ‘unconstrained countries’. The ‘rules of the game’ which would be capable of securing growth and stability in international trade, and of restoring the production of the ‘constrained’ countries to full employment levels, may require discriminatory measure of import control, of the type envisaged in the famous ‘scarce currency clause’ of the Bretton Woods agreement.

In the absence of such measures all countries may suffer a slower rate of growth and a lower level of output and employment, and not only the group of countries whose economic activity is ‘balance-of-payments constrained’. This is because the ‘surplus’ countries’ own exports will be lower with the shrinkage of world trade, and they may not offset this (or not adequately) by domestic reflationary measures so that their imports will also be lower. Provided that the import regulations introduced relate to import propensities (i.e. to the relation of imports to domestic output) and not to the absolute level of imports as such, the very fact that such measures will raise the trade, production and employment of the ‘constrained’ countries will mean that the volume of exports and domestic income of the ‘unconstrained’ countries will also be greater, despite the downward change in their share of world exports.3

Footnotes:

1Cambridge Economic Policy Review (March 1978), pp, 37-43.

2Owing to the widespread view according to which a given increase in effective demand is more ‘inflationary’ in its consequences if brought about by budgetary measure than if it is the result of additional investment or exports (irrespective of any limitations of import capacity) the inequality or potential inequality in its payments balance may cause a surplus country to regard a lower level of domestic demand as ‘optimal’ in the first case than in the second case.

3In other words, if countries whose ‘full employment’ balance of payments shows a surplus because M* < α W (where M* is the level of full employment imports, α is the share of a particular country’s exports of in world trade W) after a reduction of α to α̂ (α̂ < α) through the imposition of discriminatory measures, the country will still be better off if α̂ W* > α W where W* is the volume of world trade generated under full employment conditions.

Of course, the solution is hard and in my opinion, international agreements to reach balanced trade is the correct way. Free trade is the most sacred tenet in all of macroeconomics and it’s not going to be easy to get rid of it.