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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Responses to Paul Krugman re Michael Hudson and Paul Samuelson

Two responses to Paul Krugman's critique of Michael Hudson's 1970 piece published yesterday. Krugman has a much more positive view.
Krugman Gets it Wrong
By L. Randall Wray
Saturday, December 19, 2009

In his column in yesterday's NYT, Professor Paul Krugman rose to the defense of Paul Samuelson. He argued that Michael Hudson's piece, originally published in 1970, not only misunderstood Samuelson's theories but also wrongly asserted that he was not deserving of a Nobel. Krugman's main argument was that Samuelson's version of "Keynesian" economics offered a solution to depressions that pre-existing "institutionalist" theory did not have:
"Actually, there was a time when many people thought that institutional economics, which was very much focused on historical context, the complexity of human behavior, and all that, would be the wave of the future. So why didn’t that happen?

Why did the model-builders, led by Samuelson, take over instead?

The answer, in a word, was the Great Depression."Faced with the Depression, institutional economics turned out to have very little to offer, except to say that it was a complex phenomenon with deep historical roots, and surely there was no easy answer. Meanwhile, model-oriented economists turned quickly to Keynes — who was very much a builder of little models. And what they said was, "This is a failure of effective demand. You can cure it by pushing this button." The fiscal expansion of World War II, although not intended as a Keynesian policy, proved them right. So Samuelson-type economics didn't win because of its power to cloud men's minds. It won because in the greatest economic crisis in history, it had something useful to say".

This claim is bizarre, to say the least. First, Roosevelt's New Deal was in place before Keynes published his General Theory, and it was mostly formulated by the American institutional economists that Krugman claims to have been clueless. (There certainly were clueless economists—those following the neoclassical approach, traced to English "political economy".)

Second, it was Alvin Hansen, not Paul Samuelson, who brought Keynesian ideas to America. And Hansen retained the more radical ideas (such as the tendency to stagnation) that Samuelson dropped. Further, Hansen was—surprise, surprise—working within the institutionalist tradition (as documented by in a book by Perry Mehrling).

Third, many other institutionalists also adopted Keynesian ideas in their work—before Samuelson's simplistic mathematization swamped the discipline. For example, Dudley Dillard—a well-known institutionalist—wrote the first accessible interpretation of Keynes in 1948; Kenneth Boulding's 1950 Reconstruction of Economics served as the basis for four editions of his Principles book—on which a generation of American economists was trained (again, before Samuelson's text took over). It is in almost every respect superior to Samuelson's text. I encourage Professor Krugman to take a look.

Fourth, Hyman Minsky (who first trained with institutionalists at the University of Chicago—before it became a bastion of monetarist thought) took Samuelson's overly simplistic multiplier-accelerator approach and extended it with institutional ceilings and floors. He quickly grew tired of the constraints placed on theory by Samuelsonian mathematics and moved on to develop his Financial Instability Hypothesis (which Krugman has admitted he finds interesting, even if he does not fully comprehend it). I ask you, how many analysts have turned to Samuelson's work to try to understand the current crisis—versus the number of times Minsky's work has been invoked?

And fifth, Samuelson's "button" approach to dealing with the business cycle has been thoroughly discredited since the late 1960s—when he announced that we would never have another recession. In truth, as Minsky argued, it is not possible to "fine-tune" the economy because "stability is destabilizing". The simplistic "Keynesian" approach propagated by the likes of Samuelson leaves out the behavioral and institutional analysis that is necessary to deal with instability and crisis.

Sixth, as has been long recognized, Samuelson purposely threw Keynes out of his analysis as he developed the "Neoclassical Synthesis". The name dropping was intentional—Keynes was too radical for the cold warrior Samuelson. At best, what Samuelson presented was a highly bastardized version of Keynes—as Joan Robinson termed it, a Bastard Keynesian approach (we know the mother was neoclassical economics but we do not know who the father was).

Finally, and most telling of all, whose work is universally acknowledged as the most insightful analysis of the Great Depression? Might it be John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash? I have never heard anyone refer to any work of Samuelson in that context.

So Professor Krugman has got it wrong.

And here from Michael Hudson

Michael Hudson Responds to Paul Krugman
Michael Hudson, Distinguished Visiting Professor, UMKC
December 19, 2009

I have recently republished my lecture notes on the history of theories of Trade Development and Foreign Debt. (Available from Amazon) In this book, I provide the basis for refuting Samuelson's factor-price equalization theorem, IMF-World Bank austerity programs, and the purchasing-parity theory of exchange rates.

These ideas were lapses back from earlier analysis, whose pedigree I trace. In view of their regressive character, I think that the question that needs to be asked is how the discipline was untracked and trivialized from its classical flowering? How did it become marginalized and trivialized, taking for granted the social structures and dynamics that should be the substance and focal point of its analysis? As John Williams quipped already in 1929 about the practical usefulness of international trade theory, "I have often felt like the man who stammered and finally learned to say 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers' but found it hard to work into conversation." But now that such prattling has become the essence of conversation among economists, the important question is how universities, students and the rest of the world have come to accept it and even award prizes in it!

To answer this question, my book describes the "intellectual engineering" that has turned the economics discipline into a public relations exercise for the rentier classes criticized by the classical economists: landlords, bankers and monopolists. It was largely to counter criticisms of their unearned income and wealth, after all, that the post-classical reaction aimed to limit the conceptual "toolbox" of economists to become so unrealistic, narrow-minded and self-serving to the status quo. It has ended up as an intellectual ploy to distract attention away from the financial and property dynamics that are polarizing our world between debtors and creditors, property owners and renters, while steering politics from democracy to oligarchy.

Bad economic content starts with bad methodology. Ever since John Stuart Mill in the 1840s, economics has been described as a deductive discipline of axiomatic assumptions. Nobel Prizewinners from Paul Samuelson to Bill Vickery have described the criterion for economic excellence to be the consistency of its assumptions, not their realism.[2] Typical of this approach is Nobel Prizewinner Paul Samuelson's conclusion in his famous 1939 article on "The Gains from International Trade":

"In pointing out the consequences of a set of abstract assumptions, one need not be committed unduly as to the relation between reality and these assumptions."[3]

This attitude did not deter him from drawing policy conclusions affecting the material world in which real people live. These conclusions are diametrically opposed to the empirically successful protectionism by which Britain, the United States and Germany rose to industrial supremacy.

Typical of this now widespread attitude is the textbook Microeconomics by William Vickery, winner of the 1997 Nobel Economics Prize:

"Economic theory proper, indeed, is nothing more than a system of logical relations between certain sets of assumptions and the conclusions derived from them... The validity of a theory proper does not depend on the correspondence or lack of it between the assumptions of the theory or its conclusions and observations in the real world. A theory as an internally consistent system is valid if the conclusions follow logically from its premises, and the fact that neither the premises nor theconclusions correspond to reality may show that the theory is not very useful, but does not invalidate it. In any pure theory, all propositions are essentially tautological, in the sense that the results are implicit in the assumptions made."[4]

Such disdain for empirical verification is not found in the physical sciences. Its popularity in the social sciences is sponsored by vested interests. There is always self-interest behind methodological madness. That is because success requires heavy subsidies from special interests, who benefit from an erroneous, misleading or deceptive economic logic. Why promote unrealistic abstractions, after all, if not to distract attention from reforms aimed at creating rules that oblige people actually to earn their income rather than simply extracting it from the rest of the economy?


[1] John H. Williams, Postwar Monetary Plans and Other Essays, 3rd ed. (New York: 1947), pp. 134f.

[2] I have surveyed the methodology in "The Use and Abuse of Mathematical Economics," Journal of Economic Studies 27 (2000):292-315. I earlier criticized its application to international economic theorizing in Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (1992; new ed. ISLET, 2009), especially chapter 11.

[3] Paul Samuelson "The Gains from International Trade," Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol.  5 (1939), p. 205.

[4] William Vickery, Microeconomics (New York: 1964), p. 5.

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