Rethinking economics in the backwater

Posted: September 18, 2014 by Admin in capitalist crisis, Capitalist ideology, Cover ups, Economics, World economy

by Michael Roberts


Almost 1000 people attended the three-day Rethinking Economics meeting in New York, the follow-up to the recent RE meeting in London (see my post here). Rethinking Economics is an organisation set up by mainly postgraduate economics students concerned at the failure of mainstream economics to grasp the reasons behind the global financial collapse and its failure to open up the curriculum in university economics departments to economic thinking beyond mainstream neoclassical or ‘orthodox’ Keynesian ideas.

There seems to a huge interest among young economics students and academic economists to break with the ‘closed shop’ of mainstream thinking. And the New York chapter of Rethinking Economics was able to get some ‘big hitters’ from mainstream and heterodox economics to make presentations or join discussion panels. The whole thing was live-streamed across the globe.

Watching online, we were greeted with a panel composed of leading Keynesian guru and Nobel prize winner, Paul Krugman; Willem Buiter, now chief economist at Citibank and former professor at the LSE; and James Galbraith, son of the legendary JK Galbraith and one of the few heterodox professors of economics in a university post.

Failure of mainstream economic theory

The eminent three were asked why mainstream economic theory failed to forecast the global crisis and why it had struggled to explain it. Krugman said he held to the view that mainstream economic theory with its models of markets, representative economic agents and equilibrium analysis was still useful, but was inadequate without recognising that economic reality was lot ‘messier’.

Willem Buiter seemed to go further when he reckoned that what was wrong with mainstream economics was that it assumed equilibrium from the start and then added in ‘frictions’, ‘instability’ or ‘imperfection’. It ought to start by assuming ‘chaos’ and then build in content and form to develop useful theory. This seemed so vague as to be useless. But to be fair, this was panel discussion without the chance to develop arguments in detail.

In a recent post on his New York Times blog, Krugman explained his position on models and theory better ( The famous Keynesian model of the macro economy is the IS-LM model (investment=savings on one side and liquidity preference and money supply on the other). The IS–LM model attempts to explain the relationship between interest rates and real output. The intersection of the IS and LM curves is the ‘general equilibrium’ where there is simultaneous equilibrium in both money and ‘real’ markets. In this model, the equilibrium is not met (and crises occur) if savings exceed investment causing a lack of effective demand and/or liquidity preference exceeds money supply and causes a rise in the price of money (interest rates) that makes equilibrium growth unviable.

Keynesianism and post-Keynesianism

Many heterodox or post-Keynesian economists deny this was Keynes’ view of a monetary economy and that he was much more concerned with instability, irrational expectations and uncertainty as the explanation of financial crises. Krugman argues that Keynes may have been interested in uncertainty as a cause of financial instability but his real contribution was to show that a capitalist economy can establish an equilibrium where underemployment is permanently established and to restore full employment requires intervention to lower interest rates and/or boost investment. That is the value of the IS-LM curve model. All else is too vague.

Krugman’s position at Rethinking Economics has come in for some strong criticism by ‘post-Keynesians’ like Philip Pilkington and Lars Syll ( and

It has become an interminable debate between orthodox Keynesians and neoclassical economics on whether there has to be some ‘exogenous’ intervention to get going a capitalist economy that has slipped into permanent stagnation or lack of effective demand; or whether the market can right itself through changes in wages and prices of assets.

Divisions in mainstream economics

As James Galbraith put it in his contribution, mainstream economics is divided between ‘freshwater economists’ (those based in Chicago like Lucas, Fama – see my paper The causes of the Great Recession – etc who reckon that a ‘free market’ can solve all) and ‘saltwater economists’ (those based in the East Coast universities like Yale, MIT, Harvard and Columbia who follow Keynes in reckoning the capitalist economy needs the help of fiscal and monetary authorities to put a modern economy in depression back on an ‘even keel’).

Galbraith said he was in neither camp. He was part of ‘backwater economics’, those economists of the heterodox tradition that saw modern capitalism as full of inherent flaws that required institutional change and radical surgery to deal with recurrent crises and rising inequality, for example. It was backwater economics, because it was ignored or excluded by the mainstream camps. There were hardly any heterodox economists in university posts anywhere and yet it was some of these economists who were the only ones to predict the financial crash and ensuing Great Recession. Galbraith referred and pointed to Steve Keen in the audience who had predicted the crisis (see my post, subsequently lost his job in Western Australia and only just been appointed head of economics at the radical heterodox University of Kingston, London.

Galbraith wanted economics to return to a study of economic history and institutions and not get bogged down in economic models and maths without any political economy. That brings me to Marxian economics. Marx’s economics is ‘political economy’, or to be more exact, Marx made a critique of political economy, or the ‘mainstream economics’ of the early 19th century. Marx was not afraid of, or opposed to, using models or maths to explain the laws of motion of capitalism. But the main task of Capital and Marx’s other economic writings was to expose the flaws in the economic theory of the great ‘classical’ economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo who had tried to analyse the nature of the capitalist mode of production objectively, if from the point of view of the rising capitalist class. Marx also aimed at exposing the apologetic ‘vulgar’ economists like Malthus and others who just wanted to propagandise for the supposedly necessary role of the capitalist class and the market economy.


This was part of the theme Professor Richard Wolff ( presented in the only presentation on Marxian economics in three days at Rethinking Economics – as in London, the New York conference was dominated by either orthodox Keynesians or ‘post-Keynesian’ speakers. Marxist economics remains the real backwater.

In an excellent account, Wolff explained that Marx made a critique of the ideas of Smith and Ricardo, developing their labour theory of value into a theory of exploitation that explained why capitalism, in overthrowing feudalism and supposedly establishing ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ (to use the slogan of the French revolution), did no such thing. One class system of exploitation had been replaced by another, only the mode of production and social exploitation had changed.

For Wolff, this was the decisive insight of Marxian economics that had to be denied by mainstream economics. From the 1870s onwards, an honest objective critique of capitalist flaws was replaced by apologia. And a counterrevolution in economics began, with the labour theory of value and exploitation dismissed and ridiculed (and relegated to the backwater), to be replaced by ‘utility’ theory, marginal productivity and equilibrium markets. Austrian economist Bohm Bawerk did the demolition job on Marxist theory and Jevons, Walras and others developed the ‘neoclassical’ propositions and theory that still define the mainstream (including Keynesianism). For an excellent account of the major differences between Marxian economics and classical and neoclassical economics, see Alan Freeman’s paper (Freeman on Marx’s theory). And also read the Wolff and Resnick account in their book on comparative economic theories (

Academic economics presumes capitalist mode of production permanent

As Wolff said, there is no real alternative to economics in universities that does not assume the capitalist mode of production is here to stay. The split in mainstream economics in the 1930s was product of the Great Depression and the rise of a labour movement demanding change. Thus Keynesian economics reared its theoretical head in recognising that capitalism had serious flaws (at a macro level) that must be addressed by intervention (even extreme interference in markets on occasion) in order to save capitalism from itself. Such an approach has never been fully adopted by the majority of mainstream economics and after the 1970s , Keynesian ‘intervention economics’ was dropped in place of a return to free markets, particularly in labour, with globalisation and financial deregulation.

There was a certain naivety in the work of Rethinking Economics that things can change. Marxian economics, let alone heterodox economics, will remain a ‘backwater’ in academic institutions because these things are not decided by the strength of ideas (contrary to Keynes’ view) but the economic and social power of the ruling class.

Paul Krugman has commented that “hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis. . . but more damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.”

But it was not just the failings of mainstream theory; there was a deliberate ideological need to defend capitalism and the status quo: “Clearly, economics as a discipline went badly astray. . .  But the failings of economics were greatly aggravated by the sins of economists, who far too often let partisanship or personal self-aggrandizement trump their professionalism.  Last but not least, economic policy makers systematically chose to hear only what they wanted to hear.  And it is this multilevel failure — not the inadequacy of economics alone — that accounts for the terrible performance of Western economies since 2008.”

As one tweeter on the meeting commented, “arguing with economists about ‘rethinking economics’ is like arguing for abortion with the Pope in front of the College of Cardinals”.


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