“Critics of John Maynard Keynes were so determined his economics were wrong that they allowed Keynes to dictate the terms of the debate,” says Victor Claar, professor of economics at Henderson State University, in his Acton University lecture. He continues to describe Keynes flawed anthropology with respect to classical economists and the Great Depression. Key observations of human nature include the principles of work, property, exchange, and division of labor. We can survive and prosper, take ownership of our work, support and rely on each other through exchange, and specialize in exchange at an opportunity cost. Furthermore, these observations are linked to moral imperatives.
Christian churches in the West have been focused on redistribution of income rather than the creation of wealth, says Brian Griffiths in this week’s Acton Commentary.
Through much of the post-war period in the West, the formation of economic policy was dominated by Keynesian activism on the part of governments seeking an increasing role in providing public services, reducing material poverty, and reshaping income redistribution.
In the United States, President John F. Kennedy launched the New Frontier program and his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, soon after embarked on what came to be called the Great Society. In both cases, emphasis was placed on increasing the role of the state in order to solve problems of poverty and destitution. In intellectual terms, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith made the case for trade unions and government becoming “countervailing powers” in capitalist economies in order to check the power of large corporations. In Britain, Harold Wilson nationalized various industries, developed a national plan, a comprehensive prices and incomes policy, and extended the scope of the welfare state. Across the Channel and Rhine, the Social Democrat Willy Brandt was a major influence in extending the role of government in social policy throughout West Germany.
John Horvat II, author of Return to Order, recently interviewed Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, about a variety of topics, including: Gregg’s interest in economics, Becoming Europe, Thomas Piketty and his controversial Capital in the Twenty-First Century, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the greatest threat to the American economy.
John Horvat: I have had the great pleasure of reading several of your books on economics. I suppose my first question is: how did you end up in the middle of the “dismal science?”
Dr. Gregg: I did some economic history as an undergraduate and for my graduate study, but it was really through studying natural law philosophy when doing my doctorate that I came to enter into some of the deeper background questions about the strengths and weaknesses of economics and economies. I was also very interested in the relationship between economics and culture – the latter being understood as the choices, beliefs, actions, values, and institutions that shape a society, including its economic arrangements. (more…)
My older son’s college psychology class was recently assigned the film A Beautiful Mind, about the Nobel Prize winning economist and schizophrenia sufferer John Nash. The assignment was to watch the film, dig into Nash’s biography, and report on how the film altered Nash’s story of mental breakdown and recovery.
We watched the film together as a family (my second viewing), checked out the biography by Sylvia Nasar from a local library, and generally geeked out on Nash and game theory at the family dinner table over the next few days.
An additional motivation for the interest was that my mom’s engineer brother, my Uncle Milton, was a classmate of Nash’s at Carnegie Tech in the 1940s, with the two reconnecting at their 50th college reunion. In our digging into the Nash’s biography, we learned something of particular relevance to Acton Institute friends and followers, something I probably should have known already but didn’t: Nash’s decisive contribution to game theory likely has Austrian economics in its blood line. (more…)
In yesterday’s edition of The Transom, which I highly recommend, Ben Domenech included a discussion that places the debates over raising the minimum wage within the broader context of the effects of inflation more generally.
Here’s a section:
There shouldn’t be any debate about the reality of the problem that the costs of basic staples, health care, and higher education are chewing up ever-increasing portions of the median family budget which is, in inflation-adjusted terms, smaller than it’s been since 1995. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the past five years, the average prices for all goods are 7.7% higher; the average price of bread is 10.4% higher; and the average price of meat/poultry/fish/eggs is 16.2% higher. In the past decade, the average worker has paid 89 percent more toward their health care benefits, while their wages grew 31 percent. The rising costs of the government-fueled higher education bubble makes American parents concerned they can no longer afford to send their kids to college. On top of it all, Americans no longer feel confident about their ability to find a new job which can pay them enough to make up for the costs of these goods and services.
The problem is not that the cost of unskilled labor is too low. The problem is the costs of what workers can buy with the fruits of that labor are too high. And the reason for that is largely due to government and systems which socialize risk and insulate producers from reality, not the realities of a competitive marketplace. http://vlt.tc/16×9 Those who favor a free market response to these inequality-related concerns ought to view the minimum wage push as an opportunity to put forward an agenda that speaks to these real concerns with a gas & groceries agenda. This is not going to be solved by more government requirements which raise the cost of labor and will absolutely lead to more low-skilled unemployment: it is with an agenda that would smash the insulated systems which have led to these higher costs.
Ben goes on to outline in some detail what an agenda might look like, which includes “ending the government’s management Soviet-style programs of dairy and raisins.” Horror of horrors, the Daily Beast and dairy producers would have us believe that the result would be $8/gallon milk. I can’t be the only one who wonders what the market price of commodities from milk to oil and sugar might be without various protectionist measures and subsidy schemes.
Ben ends the section with a key question: “Some Republicans have taken up more populist anti-corporatist and anti-cronyist arguments in recent months, because they can read the same polls we do. But will they stand up to cronyism, or are they just interested in demagoguery on the issue until they hold the reins of power again?”
Tyler Cowen has an interesting column in last Sunday’s New York Times, arguing that despite run-of-the-mill objections to “cold” and “heartless” economic analysis, economics is, as a science, “egalitarian at its core”:
Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.
James Poulos offers an healthy response, reminding us that “no matter how solid the economic foundation for moral egalitarianism, there’s a thing or two of great moral significance that’s missing.”
Indeed, in attempting to avoid the cliché of cold-heartedness, Cowen risks perpetuating a different one: that economists ignore the mystery and spiritual significance of humanity and human behavior. The instilling of egalitarian sensibilities when it comes to seeing people as people is one thing, but part of this reorientation needs to include a recognition of the features that make each us different. Leveling things is helpful when the earth is rocky, but the bigger problem for the modern economist seems to be his propensity to create craters in the pretty green grass. (more…)
Over at AEIdeas, James Pethokoukis challenges our attitudes about work and leisure by drawing a helpful contrast between economists John Maynard Keynes and Deirdre McCloskey.
First, he points to “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which Keynes frames our economic pursuits as a means to a leisurely end:
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
Then, he draws the contrast, relying on Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. In the book, McCloskey quotes Studs Terkel, who eloquently describes a job “as a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” (more…)