Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sandwichman's Lump-of-Labor Odyssey, Part II

Back in July, I posted Sandwichman's Lump-of-Labor Odyssey with the intention of posting a second installment. The next day, I left for a week in California and part two fell by the wayside. Larry Summers's recent comments on the so-called Luddite fallacy have caused me to resurrect my earlier plan.

This is not the first time Summers has sung this refrain. Back in February, he told the same story to a Brookings policy forum on "The Future of Work in the Machine Age." The earlier renunciation of the fallacy claim concluded with this prudent qualification:
And I would want to leave you with that concern as there whether you think it's due to technology or whether you think it's due to globalization, or whether you think it's due to the maldistribution of political power, something very serious is happening in our society.
That is to say, regardless of what caused it, the lower demand for workers is a reality that must be faced. In his post on Summers's latest recantation, Peterson Institute president Adam S. Posen observed that the implications are scary "[u]nless we can somehow transform that sustained lower demand for workers into the widespread leisure of the sort imagined by Keynes and some science fiction writers, with the income redistribution to support it,"

Ironically, it was precisely the obstinate hostility toward transforming lower demand for workers into leisure that propelled the bogus fallacy claim in the first place. Understanding this inversion of motive and rationale is crucial. It was not because they thought there would always be plenty of jobs to reabsorb displaced workers that employers' organizations and newspaper editorialists opposed shorter hours; it is because they opposed shorter hours that they insisted there would always be plenty of jobs.

In other words, macroeeconomic thinking is not, in the words of Action from West Side Story, "depraved on account I'm deprived." It has been deprived -- of the insight of its own theoretical tradition -- because it is depraved! 

Sneering at the so-called Luddite fallacy under the conviction that productivity would inevitably create more jobs than it destroyed used to be known as the "economic law" that "supply creates its own demand" -- a faith that was once said, by John Kenneth Galbraith, to have "sank without trace" in the wake of John Maynard Keynes's refutation of it.
Until Keynes, Say's Law had ruled in economics for more than a century. And the rule was no casual thing; to a remarkable degree acceptance of Say was the test by which reputable economists were distinguished from the crackpots. Until late in the '30s no candidate for a Ph.D. at a major American university who spoke seriously of a shortage of purchasing power as a cause of depression could be passed. He was a man who saw only the surface of things, was unworthy of the company of scholars. Say's Law stands as the most distinguished example of the stability of economic ideas, including when they are wrong. 
The old nostrum didn't "sink without trace" at all. It simply slipped into a disguise. In that disguise, it performed EXACTLY the same function as had previously been performed by the vulgar version of Say's Law -- separating the "crackpots" and "stupid people" who worried about technological unemployment from the "smart people" who duly memorized and recited the mantra,
"Well the technology will remove the jobs. If there’s more productivity than people are going to have more money and if people have more money, they’re going to spend it and then everybody’s going to be employed."
Was that even "macroeconomic thinking"? Of course not. It is precisely the same old, same old classical political economy orthodoxy in an even more archaic, anti-mercantilist bottle.

Although he generously credits the teachings of Bob Solow, Summers must know that it was his own Uncle Paul Samuelson, who promulgated the lump-of-labor fallacy ruse year after year in his universally prescribed introductory textbook. As I mentioned in part one of the Odyssey, when I wrote to Samuelson in the late 1990s, asking about the source of the fallacy claim his reply was gracious but uninformative. He informed me that the fallacy "was widespread during the Great Depression 1929-1935 and is still encountered in today's France."

"A standard move in the rhetoric of reaction"

My inquiry to Samuelson followed up a listserv discussion I had earlier in 1999 with Summers acolyte Brad DeLong, in which he referred to the wages-fund doctrine of classical political economy as "a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction." DeLong correctly associated the lump-of-labor fallacy with the wages-fund doctrine. What DeLong didn't grasp at the time was that fallacy claim reinstated the old doctrine by purporting to refute a mirror image of itself. Here is the transcript of that exchange, which I previously posted to EconoSpeak in August of 2014.

But, Brad, while we're asking for examples, can you give me an example of any economist who has challenged the sources of Samuelson and Nordhaus's perennial lump-of-labor fallacy? If anthropologists were as accommodating as economists, Piltdown man would still be in our evolutionary family tree.
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?
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. 
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. 
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.

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.
Sandwichman's Lump-of-Labor Odyssey Part III


Thornton Hall said...

This discussion strikes me as identical in form and validity as this discussion:

Which is to say, isn't there a meta-critique that gets us out of this mess?

Sandwichman said...

May I presume, then, that you read them both all the way through? There is the difference that one of them is about something thousands of fans obsess compulsively over and the other is about something no one gives a shit about.

You want "a meta-critique that gets us out of this mess"? Have you collected enough box-tops to send away for the secret decoder ring yet? Everybody wants something for nothing. There is no way out of this mess. The "mess" is a system with positive feedback loops insuring that all ways out lead back in.

Here's a question for you, Thornton: how many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Thornton Hall said...

I make my point obliquely because I find that when I make it directly, cognitive dissonance prevents understanding and some false escape is offered which is invariably technical and impossible to refute without a deeper education in a subject which I am attempting to demonstrate is not worth studying.

Sandwichman said...

"...cognitive dissonance prevents understanding..."

What you need to understand is that no one is immune to cognitive dissonance, even when they are thinking about cognitive dissonance. You think your point was "oblique"? Nothing is oblique that is without subtlety.

Thornton Hall said...

You are extraordinarily kind to indulge me. And Brad DeLong is kind, and wise, to have indulged you. And that is why he is so damn frustrating.

It does not make sense that Brad DeLong should remain so wrong. The man was a leader in exposing his thinking on the Internet and inviting criticism. He is smart in a real sense:

“Smart” is a multifaceted cognitive feature composed of excellent analytical skills, possession of an extensive knowledge base that is easily and frequently augmented, possession of a good memory, and being readily curious about the world and willing, even eager, to reject previously accepted notions in the face of new data. Being smart includes having the ability to analyze new data for validity and, thinking creatively, draw new insights from existing common knowledge.

So how does he stay so wrong?

I think the only hypothesis that makes any sense is that for all his willingness to question his own beliefs, there remains something very basic that he never calls into question.

What could that be?

The evidence suggests that it is nothing that any other economist has pointed out. Why? Because he's so rigorous in seeking out the critiques of other economists.

It has to be something very simple, very basic, and yet something no economist would ever point out.

Something like: "You know, Star Wars is not real. You know that, right?"

Sandwichman said...

"It has to be something very simple, very basic, and yet something no economist would ever point out."

It is simple and basic. Many economists and non-economists have pointed it out and keep pointing it out ad nauseum. What do YOU think it is?

run75441 said...

You can lead a horse to water; but, they still may not drink. The people you talk to are not Labor.