Paul Samuelson and Karl Marx

Fifty years ago May, MIT’s Paul Samuelson, the grand patriarch of neo-Keynesian economics, published a piece celebrating the centennial of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, “Marxian Economics as Economics” (AER 57:2). The piece itself is unremarkable except for one fact. Economists in the 1960s and 1970s took Marx seriously. They read him, if for no other reason than simply that half the developed world took Marx seriously and therefore he was worth reading and worth understanding — though, in fact, few did.

Karl Marx was not an economist. He poured over the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century economists (mostly British) in painstaking detail. Samuelson himself noted:

Marx did, in his posthumous Volume II, innovate two-sector models of reproduction and growth. These are useful anticipations of work done in our day by Harrod, Domar, Leontief, Solow, Robinson, Uzawa, Pasinetti, Kaldor, Findlay, and many others. I do not honestly think that mod-ern developments were much influenced, directly or indirectly, by Marxian writings; instead they grew naturally out of a marriage of the Clark-Bickerdike accelerator and the Keynes multiplier, and out of earlier works by Von Neumann and Frank Ramsey that show no Marxian influence. But still we all might well have benefited earlier from study of the Marx tableaux (617).

Contrary to the rants of many a Marxist, Marx’s economic thinking was not only fairly standard, but, in neoclassical terms, even prefigured many of the conceptual tools credited to more mainline figures such as WS Jevons, L Walras, and A Marshall. Which is to say, Marx understood the value, but had not mastered the techniques of rigorous mathematical modeling. Were he an economist, which he wasn’t, he might be ranked among the first neoclassicals.

This week I begin a four week special series covering the writings of my mentor and dissertation advisor, University of Chicago Historian Moishe Postone. By accident, my Labor Economics course was way oversubscribed, which meant that I could not accommodate all of the students’ presentations in the “16”-week semester; forcing me to cobble five more presentations and five more lectures — required for the 25 additional presenters, extra credit for the students who choose to attend. Postone is also not an economist. Nor, in fact, am I; though I have been teaching theory and history in the Economics Department at UC Berkeley for six years.

Nevertheless, Postone’s work invites critical reflection from economists because he seats economic theory — Marx’s theory in particular — not, as many historians are inclined, in intellectual history, but, rather, in the social formations where social actors in fact are shaped and shape one another and there worlds through economic exchange. For Postone capitalism is not an illusion or “form of appearance,” which, once penetrated, reveals a deeper truth beneath the surface. Postone invites us, instead, to entertain the adequacy of concept and social form; because, as Marx himself put it: “The categories of bourgeois economics . . . are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relationships of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production” (Capital I.1.4). Just as there is no secret Marxist handshake, code word, or sign, so there is no secret Marxist economics. Marx’s methodological sympathies lay with classical — perhaps even a neoclassical — economics. Where he objected was in their tendency to universalize or idealize their own social formation and the categories adequate to that formation.

Over the next four weeks I will be guiding focused discussions around M Postone’s best-known work. If you wish to join us in these discussions, please let me know: email me at and place MARX ECON 151 in the subject line. It should be an interesting discussion.

The Conceit of Innovation and Innovators

Or why economists fail at history.

By and large, I have enjoyed Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016), which is well worth its 700 plus pages. Which is part of the reason why it is so disheartening to find passages such as the following that display profound ignorance over the sources of innovation:

This leaves education and reallocation as the remaining sources of growth beyond innovation itself. However, both of these also depend on innovation to provide the rewards necessary to make the investment to stay in school or to move from farm to city. This is why there was so little economic growth between the Roman era and 1750, as peasant life remained largely unchanged. Peasants did not have an incentive to become educated, because before the wave of innovations that began around 1750, there was no reward to the acquisition of knowledge beyond how to move a plow and harvest a field. Similarly, without innovation before 1750, the reallocation of labor from farm to city did not happen. It required the innovations that began in the late eighteenth century and that created the great urban industries to provide the incentive of higher wages to induce millions of farm workers to lay down their plows and move to the cities.

Gordon, Robert J. (2016-01-12). The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (p. 569). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The near universal acceptance of Gordon’s argument does not excuse its incoherence. The variable missing from the argument is the immaterial character of the incentive structure to which eighteenth century innovators were responding. A simple example can suffice: I know when I have enough shoes; one more pair cannot possibly fit in my closet. But how do I know when I have enough zeros? Immaterial value generates innovation because, as WS Jevons pointed out over one and a half centuries ago, the value of any specific good is calibrated to the aggregate value of all goods. Since the efficiency of capital and labor is subject to continuous innovation, any producer that stands still falls behind. So, the question we need to ask is: from where the incentive of abstract value?

Along with nearly every other economist I can think of, including Trump cheerleader Peter Thiel — not an economist, but whose endorsement is placed prominently on the dust jacket of Godon’s Rise and Fall — innovation is ascribed to economic rewards for individual brilliance, suggesting that all we need to do to unleash innovation is to adequately reward innovators; that would be Peter Thiel, Steve Jobs, etc.

Material wealth is insufficient to drive innovation, because, while it can grow very large, it cannot grow infinitely large. The variable missing from Gordon’s account is the shift already in the fourteenth century (1324 to be exact) from variable time and politically negotiated labor to abstract time and abstract labor. The general diffusion of the mechanical clock as the preferred instrument for measuring value in the textile producing regions of western Europe was already complete by 1600. From there it spread to other mass manufactures — glass, clay, and silver ware, and eventually to factors in construction: bricks, nails, lumber. The clock made it clear that value adhered not in the specific substances out of which things were composed, but in the opportunity sacrificed in devoting time and labor to one good or another within a comprehensive market where the value of any goods has come to be calibrated to the same abstract measure of all goods.

In this sense invention is the mother of necessity — the invention of abstract time and value.

Lying is a Strategy, Not an Outcome

So here’s what the imposter President said to the Sheriffs he invited to the White House today:

Here’s what the actual figures are:

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So, why is this important? Let’s say I was eager to build a police state, deprive citizens of their constitutional rights and liberties, and reward my supporters with the blood of those they have learned to hate. Wouldn’t it help if I could convince them that normal policing policies and court procedures do not work?

Now, let us suppose that I was able to convince enough voters that the media is collaborating with universities and scholars to deceive the public. Don’t ask why; just go with me on this one. Would it matter at all what the truth is?

This imposter is a fascist dictator looking for a nation. He found one.

You just sold your children to a corporation

Here’s the good news. The good news is that none of the Republican Senators who just voted in favor of Betsy DeVos’ confirmation send their children to public schools. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you do.

I tried to warn you about Betsy and her designs on your children, but evidently you weren’t listening.

The anti-democratic and anti-republican wing of the Dutch Reformed Church just took over your child’s education and now wants to sell it to the highest bidder. That’s Betsy DeVos. Her Church is on record — on record! — opposed to the 1787 U.S. Constitution (except of course the three-fifths clause, which it endorses), because it opens the flood-gates of republican self-government.


Labor Economics and Fascism

The name the organizers of fascism in Germany gave to their movement is not accidental: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. The movement presented itself as nationally socialist, meaning that Germans form a unique community knit together by their nationality: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche, German national socialist. More importantly for our purposes, this movement held labor to be central to its mission: Arbeiterpartei. It was a worker’s party. Obviously this did not mean that the Nazis supported the established trade unions, much less the established socialist or communist organizations. To the contrary, in their view, insofar as these organizations had placed class above nationality, they had only served to divide the nation. The German national socialist worker’s party — the Nazis — placed nation above all else. “Germany first,” was their motto.


While it is important that we grasp the contours of the central models that govern labor economics — which we focus on in weeks 4 through 15 — it is also essential that we grasp how the world in which you will be practicing labor economics will be fundamentally different than the world in which economists have practiced labor economics since, let us say, 1945. This has not been an abrupt shift. From 1945 through 1971, most mainstream economists adopted various elaborations of the standard Keynesian or neo-Keynesian model. Yet, beginning with the currency devaluation in 1971 and then increasingly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, economic models and policy choices much closer to the models and choices familiar to us from the 1890s through 1920s came to dominate policy circles, specially in Great Britain and the United States.

It is not immaterial to be curious over what is cause and what is effect in this transition. Did the changing shape of economic relations give rise to a transformation in economic theory; or did a recovery of classical theoretical perspectives perhaps generate a new set of policy alternatives? And, yet, however important it may be to nail down causal links, on some level we already know that causation moved in both directions; that is was mutually reinforcing and mutually constitutive.

We must also be aware that the increasingly abstract, mathematical character of economic theory and practice removed economic policy several steps from the common-sense household “checkbook” economics of income and spending that makes sense to individuals not trained in academic economics. When, therefore, economists stepped forward in the 1970s and 1980s promoting economic policy grounded in household “checkbook” economics (as distinguished from mathematically rigorous neo-Keynesian economics) it makes sense that broad segments of the public would find this version of economics more palatable than the mathematically rigorous neo-Keynesian economics that informed policy decisions across the political spectrum from 1945 to 1971. (Never mind that households set no interest rates, issue no currencies, post no bonds, etc.)

What we do know with absolute certainty is that labor economics functions somewhat differently under despotic, totalitarian, and fascist regimes than it does under standard social democratic regimes. If therefore I were to instruct students on models that assume social democratic normality when, in fact, such conditions no longer hold true, I would be preparing students to practice economics in a world that no longer exists.

This is important because it may appear as though I am politicizing labor economics. (I am a graduate of the University of Chicago, so this is highly unlikely on its face.) The truth is that students of labor economics must be prepared for the world that actually exists; and reflecting critically on the events from 1914 through 1945 may prepare to be better economists in the traditional sense — attempting to accurately model the shape of economic decision-making — than simply a blind recitation of modeling that once held true but holds true no longer. We need to be creative, self-aware, historically present and ready to engage new theory to understand the emerging world.

In a week we will throw ourselves full bore into rigorous economic modeling; but it will be sadly rigorous economic modeling that applies to a world that no longer exists. The preface we have indulged in for the past four weeks, I am hoping, will prepare us to think creatively about how we might bend the standard models to fit new conditions, conditions that can be described, generally, as fascist, authoritarian, and despotic. This does not relieve us of the responsibility to practice economics. But it does introduce variables and coefficients that generally have not been present in standard neo-Keynesian economic theory.

The Business of America . . .

Listening to the BBC World yesterday (Jan 31), my attention was piqued by an interview with Dr. Jan Halper-Hayes. Who is Dr. Halper-Hayes? Well, she is an advisor to Mr Trump. Her words: “Were this any other type of company, [Yates] would already be gone.” And, of course, she is right.

But this only punctuates the fact that the new administration (and evidently its supporters) believe that the United States is simply a “company” — poorly managed, perhaps — but a company nonetheless. And this means that they have no idea what distinguishes a republic from a private enterprise.

Oh. And did I mention that Dr Halper-Hayes is a writer for Breitbart? And that Steve Bannon, right-wing white supremacist and Breitbart leader is now on the National Security Council, I suspect less to serve as an advisor than to weed out the dead wood.

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The term “statesman” here is better translated politician, “king” might be better translated oligarch, “household-manager” might be better translated business owner, and “master of slaves” despot. Aristotle’s point is that private entrepreneurs make terrible leaders in republics. They don’t get the rules.

How is it that 50% of the electorate does not know the difference between a private enterprise and a republic?