Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Dangerous Currents: The State of Economics, by Lester Thurow

New York: Random House, 1983, pp. 247.

The title of Lester Thurow's Dangerous Currents refers to the intellectual situation of the economics profession as he saw it at the time of writing in the 1980s. By that point, the Keynesian consensus that had emerged in the United States and Britain in the 1930s and 1940s was in a state of collapse, done in by the increasing doubt about the ability of policymakers to manage the economy in the late 1960s, and the experience of stagflation in the 1970s. However, no new consensus had replaced it, or seemed likely to replace it.

Thurow spends much of the book explaining why this is the case, devoting several chapters to the failings of Keynesianism's would-be successors--monetarism, supply-side economics, and rational expectations theory--debunking them on common sense and theoretical grounds.

Monetarism, which is generally opposed to government intervention in the marketplace, views government's principal function as exercising control over the money supply to keep inflation in check. Thurow argues that the theory's disregard of interest rates is a significant liability, and that the factors the theory does treat, it treats inadequately. He notes the economics profession's weak understanding of the velocity of money (as rendered in attempts to model it); that the mechanism through which the tightening of the money supply is supposed to reduce inflation is "black-boxed"; and that the theory is unclear on the length and severity of the application required to achieve its object--that is to say, how much and for how long the money supply would have to be tightened (and the side effects of this process, like economic recession, suffered) to bring inflation rates down.

Supply-side theory, like monetarism, favors minimal government (specifically emphasizing cuts in taxes, spending and regulation) and a tight monetary policy. Where it really differs is its comparative lack of theoretical rigor--its assumption that simply "getting government out of the way" will make an economy work as well as it possibly can. The result is that where monetarism might arguably be judged underdeveloped, supply-side theory looks like little more than an ideological statement (and was indeed a creation of right-wing political operatives like Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski, rather than conservative economists).

Rational expectations theory holds that economic actors' collective expectations, through their determination of those actors' behavior, do not merely create market outcomes, but accurately predict them. In the process they negate the effects of government intervention (actors' anticipation of this making them act in offsetting ways--for instance, altering their portfolios to avoid paying more in taxes in response to announced changes in the tax code), so that where monetarism and supply-side theories tend to see government action as pernicious, rational expectations holds it to simply be irrelevant. However, as Thurow notes, this reasoning assumes an accurate and unfailing rationality on the part of economic actors, taking no account of the role of habit in human behavior, or the tendency toward systematic mistake as human behavior adapts.

The intellectual limitations of these various theories aside, Thurow notes, the application of monetarism and supply-side theory in Britain and the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s signally failed to achieve the promised results. Meanwhile, "rational expectations" flies in the face of the reality that governments can and do affect their economies--as the monetarist policies of the '80s cited above demonstrated by leading to recession, just as other economic theories predict.

Ultimately, however, Thurow contends that the problem is bigger than any one (or three) theories, pointing to the prevailing bias against macroeconomics, and complacency about the received microeconomics. He specifically holds that the problems of macroeconomics are actually an outgrowth of the flaws in our microeconomics--particularly the overly simplistic nature of the "equilibrium price-auction" view of human beings and society; and a disregard for anything not demonstrable through econometrics (which has fallen far short of the hopes once held for it).

This leads Thurow to a wide-ranging examination of the methodological failings of contemporary economics. These problems range from its vagueness about many of its most basic terms (like "equilibrium"), to its silences on key issues (like what periods of disequilibrium in which markets adjust entail), to its disinterest in the findings of other social sciences (psychology, sociology) and the applicability of its models to the real world (like whether markets such as orthodox economics describes really exist, or actually clear in the manner it assumes), while the evidence economists generate tend to be "fuzzy" in nature, letting anyone "prove" anything.1 Moreover, he notes, the methodological problems have resulted in practical failure in the form of theories that fly in the face of the facts, as in their presumption of a "world of fixed tastes and static technology where the basic economic problem is one of exchange" (22), and their denial of the existence of genuine "involuntary" unemployment.

Thurow also goes some way to demonstrating an alternative approach, presenting elements of an alternative theory of the labor market in Chapter Seven, rooted in a recognition of the ways in which labor is not simply another "factor" of production. Unlike machinery, for instance, labor's performance is not "technically determined" (preference and motivation matters in a way it does not with a machine), and is not separable from its owner. As a practical matter this means that employers are highly reliant on the voluntary cooperation of employees (and therefore, their preferences and motivation), while human capital assets are illiquid and "risky" in a way that other assets are not. Moreover, the reality of on-the-job training means that potential employers do not bid on an independent supply of skills, but create those skills within their firm to an important degree (while job applicants are pursuing training opportunities as much as they are work); and the highly organized reality of modern economic life places the accent on team rather than individual productivity, and therefore the motivation of the team (among which interdependent preferences operate). All of this creates a labor market emphasizing team rather than individual output, and greatly reducing that wage flexibility that the equilibrium price-auction vision of the labor market so takes for granted.

Taken together all of this comprises an impressive round-up of the field's weaknesses, arguably validated in the years since by the failure of the economics profession to develop a new consensus--and indeed, the increasing divorce of the conservative economic policies that have continued to prevail from anything like a solid intellectual basis (as James K. Galbraith and Jonathan Chait have contended). Additionally, while Thurow's book falls short of presenting an alternative "school" of economic thought that would fill Keynesianism's old place (never a stated goal of his book, nor essential to validating his argument), he does demonstrate that there are other ways of approaching the field's questions with rigor--while, not incidentally, offering some intriguing arguments regarding the economics of the labor market.

However, Thurow's critique does have its limitations, the biggest of them its failure to satisfactorily address the issue of why Keynesianism's proponents failed to adapt their theory to the challenges of the '70s, and for that matter, why the ideas in the ascendant at this time all came from the political right.2 From the standpoint of three decades later, it offers little clue as to why these ideas have retained their influence through the economic doldrums of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and even the crisis of 2008, which has seen laissez-faire remain the default mode of thinking in America, and right-wing prescriptions become even more aggressive in much of the world. For serious attempts at an explanation one has to turn elsewhere, to those economists most willing to venture beyond the narrow boundaries the orthodoxy imposes on the field, like John Galbraith and Robert Heilbroner, and writers from outside the world of economics, like Kevin Phillips, Thomas Frank and Chris Hedges.

1. Does the term "equilibrium" mean a situation in which one can make abnormal profits, or the existence of a situation in which a "non-equilibrium flow of factors . . . will alter the course of the economy" (14)?
2. Thurow notes that just as the U.S. went right politically, France went left with the election of Francois Mitterand, but does not develop this intriguing comparison.

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon