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Samuelson's bastard Keynesianism

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  Economism is reduction of all social facts to economic dimensions. The term is often used to criticize economics as an ideology, in which supply and demand are the only important factors in decisions, and outstrip or permit ignoring all other factors.

It is believed to be a side effect of neoclassical economics and blind faith in an "invisible hand" or "laissez-faire" means of making decisions, extended far beyond controlled and regulated markets, and used to make political and military decisions.

Conventional ethics would play no role in decisions under pure economism, except insofar as supply would be withheld, demand curtailed, by moral choices of individuals. Thus, critics of economism insist on political and other cultural dimensions in society.

Economism - Wikipedia

RGC  January 07, 2017 at 11:45 AM

By Asad Zaman
January 7, 2017

P8 Keynesian Complexity
"But no one appears to have understood the fundamental insights of Keynesian complexity: the system as whole does not act as a simple aggregate of the actions of the individual agents within the system. Pre-Keynesian macroeconomics was based centrally on the misunderstanding that the macroeconomy can be understood by scaling up the microeconomic behaviors of individual agents. While Keynes forcefully rejected this thesis, and created a complex system view of the macroeconomy, simple-minded followers failed to understand complexity, and went back to the pre-Keynesian views."

Saturday, January 07, 2017 at 09:48 AM

RGC  ->  RGC...

Paul Samuelson on Keynes (same link):

Ironically, failure to understand Keynes led to dismissal and contempt “Paul Samuelson felt he could say that “it is remarkable that so active a brain would have failed to make any contribution to economic theory . ..” (cited in John Foster 2006).

Because Samuelson could not understand the complexity of Keynesian theory, he wrote that: “[The General Theory] is a badly written book, poorly organized; any layman who, beguiled by the author’s previous reputation, bought the book was cheated of his 5 shillings. It is not well suited for classroom use. It is arrogant, bad-tempered, polemical, and not overly generous in its acknowledgements. It abounds with mares’ nests and confusions: involuntary unemployment, wage units, the equality of savings and investment, the timing of the multiplier, interactions of marginal efficiency upon the rate of interest, forced savings, own rates of interest, and many others. In it the Keynesian system stands out indistinctly, as if the author were hardly aware of its existence or cognizant of its properties; and certainly he is at his worst when expounding its relations to its predecessors.”

Samuelson’s arrogance in believing that he understood the Keynesian system better than Keynes created the biggest barrier to understanding Keynes for 20th Century economists. Because of his stature, he became the authorized interpreter of Keynes, and very few went back to original writings to try to understand them. Those who did also failed to come to grips with complexity, and as a result, it is impossible to count the variety of interpretations of Keynes — see for example, Backhouse and Bateman. The Keynesian elephant has a huge number of parts, it seems.

In the FT, Roger Farmer argues that the "New Keynesians" aren't very good Keynesians, either:
For 30 years, macroeconomists have been of two stripes: new-classical and new-Keynesian. Neither has anything interesting to say about the current crisis.

In new-classical and new-Keynesian economics, all unemployment is temporary and unemployed workers will quickly find jobs. According to the Keynes of The General Theory, very high unemployment can persist forever. Nobody has taken this Keynesian idea seriously in respectable academic circles since the 1950s. But given the current jobless recovery, it’s an idea that makes sense and needs to be reconsidered.

Keynesian economics as we know it today is a watered down version of The General Theory given to us by American Keynesians like Paul Samuelson. Samuelson turned Keynesian economics into a digestible series of bite-sized pieces that the Cambridge economist and contemporary of Keynes, Joan Robinson, has referred to as “bastard Keynesianism”. Samuelson’s interpretation of Keynes evolved into a modern incarnation - new-Keynesian economics.

According to new-Keynesians, recessions occur because some firms are stubbornly unwilling to lower their prices in the face of a fall in demand. Workers quit their jobs and choose to take a prolonged vacation. This is not the main theme of The General Theory. But the idea that some firms are slow to change prices is central to new-Keynesian economics. To explain why firms don’t change prices, the new-Keynesians assume that a firm must wait until it’s randomly chosen to be given the privilege to change its price. This option is facetiously referred to as a ‘visit from the Calvo fairy’ after a paper by economist Guillermo Calvo who first introduced the idea into macroeconomics. I don’t believe in fairies.

The Calvo fairy is not the only unrealistic feature of new-Keynesian economics. Perhaps more damning is the fact that there is no unemployment in the benchmark new-Keynesian model. Instead, all variations in the employment rate occur as rational maximizing households choose to vary their hours in response to changes in the real wage. It is hard to take this model seriously as an explanation for the Great Depression or the current financial crisis. But it continues to dominate the discussion at academic conferences because - until now -there has been no good theoretical alternative.


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[Mar 18, 2017] The Role of Experts in Public Debate

Mar 18, 2017 |

By Sandwichman. Originally published at Angry Bear

Jonathan Portes asks, " What's the role of experts in the public debate? " He assumes it is his prerogative, as an expert, to define that role:

I think we have three really important functions.

First, to explain our basic concepts and most important insights in plain English. Famously, Paul Samuelson, the founder of modern macroeconomics, was asked whether economics told us anything that was true but not obvious. It took him a couple of years, but eventually he gave an excellent and topical example – simply the theory of comparative advantage.

Similarly, I often say that the most useful thing I did in my 6 years as Chief Economist at DWP was to explain the lump of labour fallacy – that there isn't a fixed number of jobs in the economy, and increased immigration or more women working adds to both labour demand and labour supply – to six successive Secretaries of State. So that's the first.

Second is to call bullshit.

O.K. I call bullshit. What Portes explained "to six successive Secretaries of State" was a figment of the imagination of a late 18th century Lancashire magistrate, a self-styled " friend to the poor " who couldn't understand why poor people got so upset about having their wages cut or losing their jobs - to the extent they would go around throwing rocks through windows, breaking machines and burning down factories - when it was obvious to him that it was all for the best and in the long run we would all be better off… or else dead.

I call bullshit because what Portes explained to six successive Secretaries of State was simply the return of the repressed - the obverse of "Say's Law" (which was neither Say's nor a Law) that "supply creates its own demand," which John Maynard Keynes demolished in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and that John Kenneth Galbraith subsequently declared " sank without trace " in the wake of Keynes's demolition of it.

I call bullshit because when Paul Samuelson resurrected the defunct fallacy claim that Portes explained to six successive Secretaries of State, he did so on the condition that governments pursued the sorts of "Keynesian" job-creating policies that the discredited principle of "supply creates its own demand" insisted were both unnecessary and counter-productive.

But the lump of labor argument implies that there is only so much useful remunerative work to be done in any economic system, and that is indeed a fallacy . If proper and sound monetary, fiscal, and pricing policies are being vigorously promulgated , we need not resign ourselves to mass unemployment. And although technological unemployment is not to be shrugged off lightly, its optimal solution lies in offsetting policies that create adequate job opportunities and new skills.

[Incidentally, as Robert Schiller has noted, the promised prevention of mass unemployment by vigorous policy intervention did not imply the preservation of wage levels. Schiller cited the following passage from the Samuelson textbook, "…a decrease in the demand for a particular kind of labor because of technological shifts in an industry can he adapted to - lower relative wages and migration of labor and capital will eventually provide new jobs for the displaced workers."]

I call bullshit because what Portes explained to six successive Secretaries of State was not even Paul Samuelson's policy-animated zombie lump-of-labour fallacy but a supply-side, anti-inflationary retrofit cobbled together by Richard Layard and associates and touted by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder as the Third Way " new supply-side agenda for the left. " Central to that agenda were tax cuts to promote economic growth and "active labour market policies" to foster non-inflationary expansion of employment by making conditions more "flexible" and lower-waged:

Part-time work and low-paid work are better than no work because they ease the transition from unemployment to jobs. …

Encourage employers to offer 'entry' jobs to the labour market by lowering the burden of tax and social security contributions on low-paid jobs. …

Adjustment will be the easier, the more labour and product markets are working properly. Barriers to employment in relatively low productivity sectors need to be lowered if employees displaced by the productivity gains that are an inherent feature of structural change are to find jobs elsewhere. The labour market needs a low-wage sector in order to make low-skill jobs available.

I call bullshit because in defending the outcomes of supply-side labour policies, Portes soft-pedaled the stated low-wage objectives of the Third Way agenda. In a London Review of Books review, Portes admitted that "it may drive down wages for the low-skilled, but the effect is small compared to that of other factors (technological change, the national minimum wage and so on)." In the Third Way supply-side agenda, however, a low-wage sector was promoted as a desirable feature - making more low-skill jobs available - not a trivial bug to be brushed aside. In other words, in "driving down wages for the low skilled" the policy was achieving exactly what it was intended to but Portes was "too discreet" to admit that was the stated objectives of the policy.

dk , March 18, 2017 at 4:47 am

I found this helpful in better understanding the economics discussed:

Economist James K. Galbraith disputes these claims of the benefit of comparative advantage. He states that "free trade has attained the status of a god" and that ". . . none of the world's most successful trading regions, including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and now mainland China, reached their current status by adopting neoliberal trading rules." He argues that ". . . comparative advantage is based upon the concept of constant returns: the idea that you can double or triple the output of any good simply by doubling or tripling the inputs. But this is not generally the case. For manufactured products, increasing returns, learning, and technical change are the rule, not the exception; the cost of production falls with experience. With increasing returns, the lowest cost will be incurred by the country that starts earliest and moves fastest on any particular line. Potential competitors have to protect their own industries if they wish them to survive long enough to achieve competitive scale."[42]

Galbraith also contends that "For most other commodities, where land or ecology places limits on the expansion of capacity, the opposite condition – diminishing returns – is the rule. In this situation, there can be no guarantee that an advantage of relative cost will persist once specialization and the resultant expansion of production take place. A classic and tragic example, studied by Erik Reinert, is transitional Mongolia, a vast grassland with a tiny population and no industry that could compete on world markets. To the World Bank, Mongolia seemed a classic case of comparative advantage in animal husbandry, which in Mongolia consisted of vast herds of cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Opening of industrial markets collapsed domestic industry, while privatization of the herds prompted the herders to increase their size. This led, within just a few years in the early 1990s, to overgrazing and permanent desertification of the subarctic steppe and, with a slightly colder than normal winter, a massive famine in the herds."

PlutoniumKun , March 18, 2017 at 5:45 am

Galbraith, as always, is very succinct and readable. I well remember sitting in an economics lecture in the 1980's when the Professor mentioned Galbraith and described him as with distain someone 'who's ideas were more popular with the public than with economists'. The snigger of agreement that ran around the students in the hall made me realise just how ingrained the ideology of economics was as I'm pretty sure I was the only one of the students who'd actually read any Galbraith.

I'd also recommend Ha-Joon Chang as someone who is very readable on the topic of the many weaknesses of conventional ideas on comparative advantage.

/L , March 18, 2017 at 6:39 am

James K Galbraith is the son of the famous New Deal economist John K Galbraith.

John K G:
"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

"In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language."

/L , March 18, 2017 at 7:10 am

John K G on The Art of Good Writing
"I was an editor of Fortune under Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc., who was one of the most ruthless editors that I have ever known, that anyone has ever known. Henry could look over a sheet of copy and say, "This can go, and this can go, and this can go," and you would be left with eight to ten lines which said everything that you had said in twenty lines before.
And I can still, to this day, not write a page without the feeling that Henry Luce is looking over my shoulder and saying, "That can go."

That illuminate one "problem" in our age of internet, unlimited space to be verbose and no editors that de-obscure the writers "thoughts".

JEHR , March 18, 2017 at 8:24 am

/L–This site is just wonderful! Anything you want to know about knowing seems to be here. Thanks for the great link.

sgt_doom , March 18, 2017 at 2:21 pm


Wealth, Power and the Crisis of Laissez-Faire Capitalism , by Donald Gibson

Norb , March 18, 2017 at 8:54 am

I wonder if this phenomenon – the desirability succinct communication- was a holdover of earlier times, when accurate communication made the difference between life and death. Settling and developing a continent would place a high value on such purposeful human exchanges.

Today, we are awash in branding and marketing intended to maintain the current order. The language is used to obfuscate, not clarify experience or goals.

An expert in any field that has the ability to communicate in a general , popular mode, is of great value to society. Truth and understanding is its main function. Knowledge, or insight that cannot be shared is more often than not just an excuse to hide methods of control and exploitation.

If citizens can't get the generalities right, the specifics will be impossible to comprehend.

craazyman , March 18, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Almost everything can go.

I remember seeing a video of the photographer William Klein saying a master photographer is remembered for just a handfull of images. Maybe 10 or 15, tops. Out of probably at least 100,000 serius photos.

Of course what goes is necessary fertilizer for what doesn't go. You can't avoid it. Hahahah. But you have to let it go anyway. Or your editor has to be williing to cut.

I've noticed lots and lots of posts here could be a lot better if the post author had said the same thing in half as many words. Most wouldn't lose any persuasion, if they had any to begin with. And they'd gain reader attention for the pruning.

I've noticed many experts are especially bad at verbosity. Maybe they think somehow that quantity of words is a form of potency. Maybe that's it. Also individuals with a grievance who write posts about their grievance. I know when I have a grievance it's hard to shut up. I'm just being honest. I'll keep rambling and rambling, repeating myelf and fulminating. Thankfully I know better than to write like that.

Having saidd all that, Say was rite. If the supply of labor increases, that createes its own demand for jobs! How is that not completely obvious.

PlutoniumKun , March 18, 2017 at 9:18 am

Ah yeah, sorry, getting my JK's mixed up. Both are good.

fresno dan , March 18, 2017 at 7:03 am

March 18, 2017 at 5:45 am

Huffington Post review has a synopsis of the Ha-Joon Change book.
My favorite:
Thing 13: Making rich people richer doesn't make the rest of us richer. Trickle down economics doesn't work because wealth doesn't trickle down. It trickles up, which is why the rich are the rich in the first place

shinola , March 18, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Thanks for the tip PK & thank you fd for the link to the review. I'm going to check this fellow out; sounds like he has some interesting things to say. One of the "things" that may apply to the above article:

Thing 23: Good economic policy does not require good economists. Most of the really important economic issues, the ones that decide whether nations sink or swim, are within the intellectual reach of intelligent non-economists. Academic Economics with a capital "E" has remarkably little to say about the things that really matter. Concerned citizens need to stop being intimidated by the experts here.

sgt_doom , March 18, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Although Ha Joon Chang is an excellent economist, I would also strongly recommend Michael Hudson, Michael Perelman, Steve Keen and E. Ray Canterbery - they are really great, along with Samir Amin of Senegal.

Anonymous2 , March 18, 2017 at 8:10 am

A word of warning from the UK. Denigrate experts too much and you end up like us with government by people who really are inexpert. That is not an improvement.

Mael Colium , March 18, 2017 at 8:39 am

Ha! I think an anti brexiter just rolled the white eye.

Strange that the awful things that the experts told us all would happen haven't and don't look like happening since the people called bullshit on the EU mess. Britain with or without those blokes in dresses up north will do just fine as they steer themselves out of the EU quagmire. I'll take the people anytime anonymous – they have more common sense than the experts. Didn't you read the article?

Anonymous2 , March 18, 2017 at 9:51 am

If you are referring to economic forecasters, they, by definition, are not experts.

sgt_doom , March 18, 2017 at 2:16 pm

Thank you!!!

I remember back in the 1980s, when so-called "experts" were prattling about such nonsense as . . .

"Computers don't make mistakes, humans make mistakes !"

Which was surely untrue as anyone with any real IT expertise back then would have explained that 97% or more of hardware crashes generate software problems (for obvious reasons).

visitor , March 18, 2017 at 9:16 am

A major issue is that those incapable politicians do rely upon experts, but they have consistently selected experts not on their track record (such as how good economists were at predicting the evolution of the economy, or how good political scientists were at predicting the evolution of communist or Arab societies), but on whether pronouncements of experts corresponded to their ideological preconceptions and justified their intended policies.

A bit like rejecting physicians' diagnoses when they do not suit you and preferring the cure of a quack.

voislav , March 18, 2017 at 8:28 am

This is not restricted to economists, it pervasive in science in general. I can't remember how many times I got a paper for peer review where I couldn't figure out what the person was trying to say because they layered the jargon ten levels deep. This is in chemistry, so things are typically straightforward, no need for convoluted explanations and massaging of the data. But people still do it because that's the culture that they've been educated in, a scientific paper has to be high-brow, using obscure words and complicated sentences.

Steve Ruis , March 18, 2017 at 8:55 am

I think it is as simple as: if you create something that justifies the behaviors of the rich and powerful, you have something to sell and willing buyers. If you create something that delegitimizes the behaviors of the rich and powerful, you not only have no willing patrons but you have made powerful enemies.

It is the law of supply and demand for pretentious bullshit.

Paul Hirschman , March 18, 2017 at 9:03 am

So in the end, we wind up with Say's Law anyway, since creating a "low wages" sector is exactly how Say's Law functions–supply creates its own demand because declining wages means investment spending can increase, which keeps aggregate demand where it needs to be for full employment.

This is the solution, we are told, to Keynes "sticky prices." Jim Grant makes this very argument in his book about the "short-lived" crisis of the early 1920s. Leave workers exposed to starvation long enough and they'll work for next- to-nothing. The solution to James O'Connor's Fiscal Crisis of the State is to clean house in a big way, a very big way. Put everyone out on the street and start all over again. (Everyone but the 1% of course.)

It's Andrew Mellon's advice for getting out of the Depression: "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people."

The Reserve Army of Labor saves the Capitalist Day, once again. (Except for the little problem that the 1% won't accept their own liquidation, so Goldman Sachs and the rest must be exempted from the purging–which means that the purging can't work.)

Back to managing stagnation.

Paul Hirschman , March 18, 2017 at 9:09 am

Managing stagnation is what we have "experts" for in the first place.

sgt_doom , March 18, 2017 at 2:12 pm

Not too long before he died, Paul Samuelson said: "Maybe I was wrong on the subject of jobs offshoring." (I.e., maybe offshoring all the jobs and dismantling the US economy wasn't so intelligent after all!)

Just finished a book called, The Death of Expertise , by a professor of national security (oh give me a frigging break!!!!), Tom Nichols.

Biggest pile of crapola I have ever read! The author was also yearning for the days when "experts" were blindly followed!

Sandwichman , March 18, 2017 at 2:38 pm

C. Wright Mills called them "crackpot realists."

marku52 , March 18, 2017 at 3:25 pm

It's all a part and parcel of the meritocracy. If you don't have a degree in Econ, your opinion doesn't matter about why your job moved to China. If you don't have a degree in Urban Planning, you don't get to comment on how the city wants to tear down the park and put up condos.

Altandmain , March 18, 2017 at 5:00 pm

The answer is that said "experts" have failed the general public miserably.

Their advice helped lead to this 2008 Financial Crisis. The promise of neoliberalism was faster growth. It did not happen. Quite the opposite. It gave the rich intellectual cover to loot society. That"s what this was always about.

Now people wonder, why they don't trust "experts"?

Then there's the matter of the Iraq War. Another example. Many foreign policy "experts", particularly affiliated with the neoconservative assured the American people that invading Iraq would be easy to do and lead to lots of long term benefits. Others insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction. Now look at where we are. No WMDs, long and cost war, with no long-term solutions. Many of said "experts" later endorsed Clinton.

We do not need pro-Establishment experts who sell themselves out to enrich themselves. We need experts who act in the public interest.

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