Friday, August 8, 2014

Making Sense of Brad DeLong's "Making Say's Law True in Practice"

Mark Thoma at Economist's View links to Brad DeLong's post Making Sense of Friedrich A. von Hayek in which DeLong once again reiterates his bizarre notion about "making Say's Law true in practice although it is false in theory." "Say's Law" (which is neither Say's nor a law!) is not even false in theory -- it is self-contradictory nonsense -- a "liar's paradox."

Making Say's Law "true in practice" is not consistent with Keynes's critique of the vulgar classical notion that "supply creates its own demand." As Keynes pointed out in chapter 23 of the General Theory, "Notes on Mercantilism...," the rejection of the wages-fund doctrine undermined one of the foundations of Say's Law: "Mill's successors rejected his wages-fund theory but overlooked the fact that Mill's refutation of Malthus depended on it." Dudley Dillard called Say's Law a corollary of the wages-fund doctrine.

But it gets weirder. As the Sandwichman has explained ad nauseum, the so-called lump-of-labor fallacy is a version of the wages-fund doctrine attributed to unions by their critics. Moreover, a standard refutation of the fallacy invokes the claim that "supply creates its own demand." The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence is false. Liar's paradox.

Brad DeLong knows that the lump-of-labor and the wages-fund doctrine are homologous. He knows that the wages-fund doctrine is a "standard move in the rhetoric of reaction." We discussed it 15 years ago.

This discussion, retrieved from PEN-L archives from January 1999, began with a discussion of a Louis Uchitelle column from the New York Times about Robert Heilbroner and his dissatisfaction with the narrow focus of modern economics. I challenged Mankiw's claim that economists do positive economics without normative judgments, arguing that economists simply disguise their value judgments as "descriptive statements" that they've cherry-picked from the data.  DeLong asked me for an examples. After giving my example. the following exchange ensued:

But, Brad, while we're asking for examples, can you give me an example of any economist who has challenged the sources of Samuelson & Nordhaus's perennial lump-of-labor fallacy? If anthropologists were as accommodating as economists, Piltdown man would still be in our evolutionary family tree.
Brad deLong:
Samuelson and Nordhaus's "lump of labor" fallacy is the Classical doctrine that fiscal and monetary policy cannot affect the total amount of employment--that the number of hours worked is fixed, unchangeable, unresponsive to government policies. And that the best we can do (when confronted with a situation like Europe's 10% unemployment today, or America's 25% unemployment in the Great Depression) is to spread the (limited) amount of work around fairly. 
But what Samuelson and Nordhaus want to argue--I think correctly--is that we know very well how to get to a better outcome in which unemployment is low not because a lot of us are working part-time (when we would rather be working full-time), but because demand for labor is high...
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Wouldn't that Classical doctrine be what is known as the wages-fund doctrine, Brad?
Brad deLong (ellipsis in original):
Yep. But it remains alive, a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction to use against demands that the government do something to make the economy behave better... 
You bet the wages-fund doctrine remains alive as a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction. One need only peel back the textbook onion one layer from Samuelson and Nordhaus to the Raymond Bye and William Hewett textbooks of the previous generation (1930s, 1940s, 1950s). There you find the same hoary lump-of-labor fallacy forthrightly likened to the "general overprodution fallacy". Here is Bye's explanation of why the lump-of-labor fallacy is a fallacy:
"Every laborer creates a product which is offered in exchange for the products of other laborers. The demand for labor thereby grows as fast as its supply; the one cannot be greater or less than the other, for they are the same thing." 
According to this explanation, then, any monetary or fiscal action of the government for the purpose of "creating jobs" is futile because all it can do is divert the means for employing labour from its natural course (determined by the identity of supply and demand), "at the expense of the other laborers who would have been employed, and at the expense of society, which has less wealth than might have been." 
I have another question, Brad, at what point in the history of political economy did the workers, trade unions, and social democratic politicians suddenly and inexplicably embrace the reactionary doctrine of the wages-fund? I'm puzzled because all I can ever find is attribution of this theory of the lump of labor to the workers, trade unions etc. On the other hand, I can find quite a bit of repudiation and denunciation of the wages-fund doctrine from socialists, trade unionists etc. Not the least from a certain K. Marx. 
Brad deLong (ellipsis in original):
that I do not know. Let me hunt around and see if I can find anything... 
I'd be much obliged. 
Brad must not have found anything. He never got back to me on that question. A year and a half later (August 2000), though, the question of the lump of labor arose again in Brad's admiration of some passages in Paul Krugman's book The Accidental Theorist.

Brad deLong (bracketed interpolations in original):
But my most favorite pieces of the book of all are three passages that go to the heart of Krugman's commitments--both moral and intellectual. The first is a biting denunciation of William Greider for being an "accidental" theorist: someone who does not think issues through, but who just looks at surfaces without peering into depths or thinking coherently and whose thought is thus shaped by implicit, unexamined theories of which he is not conscious:
" ...reducing the number of workers it takes to make [manufactures] reduces the number of jobs in the [manufactures] sector but creates an equal number in the [services] sector, and vice versa. Of course, you would never learn that from talking to [manufacturing] producers, no matter how many countries you visit; you might not even learn it from talking to [services] manufacturers. It is an insight that you can gain only... by engaging in [economic] thought experiments."
Ironically (and ironic is too mild a term for it), the position from which Krugman criticizes Greider is itself based on an implicit, unexamined theory of which he is not conscious. That accidental theory holds that increasing the volume of trade is the only and certain way to expand employment (and, by implication, raise wages).  
BUT WAIT! Krugman's own "accidental theory" has a name. And I'm sure he's heard of it. I know Brad has. It is the wages-fund theory of classical political economy [correction 2014: I should have said "Say's Law, which depends on the wages-fund doctrine"] -- sometimes referred to as the discredited wages-fund doctrine. So Krugman beats Greider over the head with a defunct doctrine and Brad applauds. 
This indeed reminds one of Keynes. To be exact, it reminds one of Brad's "most favorite" Keynes quotes:
 "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any  intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct  economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are  distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few  years back..."
Brad and I had a brief exchange about the wages-fund theory a while back and I quote his characterization of it: "Yep. But it remains alive, a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction to use against demands that the government do something to make the economy behave better..." Putting two and two together, then, one of Brad's most favorite pieces of Krugman is when he employs a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction. Hmmmm.  
But just to carp on this theme a few moments longer, I shudder to mention that Krugman's allegation against Greider (and it is only an allegation -- a speculation really about how his thought has been "shaped") is that he, Greider, is making a static assumption, ultimately based on what was once called (Wilson, 1871), a "Unionist reading of the wages-fund theory."
I asked Brad some time ago just when it was that workers, trade unions and social democratic politicians (not to mention populist  muckrakers) enthusiastically but implicitly embraced the reactionary doctrine of the wages-fund theory. He replied: "that I do not know. Let me hunt around and see if I can find anything. . ."  
Brad didn't get back to me on that.
Brad never got back to the Sandwichman on that question. So the Sandwichman had to hunt around and see if he could find anything...


Bruce Webb said...

Excellent exchange on this over at Economist's View. Congrats Tom, it seems that at long last your Lump of Labor/Say's Law message is breaking through. At least on our side. And in the process forcing Brad DeL to reveal his true colors.

Now I am not an 'economist' but I might be in the older sense a 'political economist'. And just as there are multiple battles for the soul of the Republican Party there are such for the Democratic Party. One in which my wing has been somewhat repressed between Neo-Libs on the Right and the New Leftie style Progressives on the Left. Man it hasn't been easy for us New Dealers in recent decades. And part of the answer is the defense of Old Liberalism against Neo Liberalism without flipping all the way to Vulgar Marxism (cough, cough 'Firebaggerism' cough).

Keep up the rational and historically based work against the fantacists on both sides.

Sandwichman said...

Thanks, Bruce! You will probably also find very much of interest Strange Defeat at Slack Wire by J. W. Mason and Arjun Jayadev.

"Our purpose in this paper is to more deeply explore the battle of ideas and the extent to which the 'macroeconomic consensus', shared by mainstream economists across the political spectrum, must take a large part of the blame. Many liberal 'New Keynesian' economists have done yeoman work in making the political case for stimulus and against austerity. But they have not yet come to terms with the role their own theoretical and policy frameworks played in the turn to austerity – and continue to impede realistic discussion of the crisis and effective responses to it."