Free Trade Free for All: Market Romanticism Versus Reality


The drama surrounding President Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminum has roiled the Republican Party and wide swathes of the corporate elite. The tariff decision comes on the heels of political bluster about the US being treated “unfairly” by other countries. This accusation of “unfairness” when it comes to US trade deficits is well worn. In a previous era, Japan was the alleged culprit of “unfair” trade practices because of its persistent trade surpluses with the U.S.Read More »

What is missing in the ‘33 Theses for an Economics Reformation’

Andrew Simms (New Weather Institute), Sally Svenlen (RE student), Larry Elliott (Guardian), Steve Keen (Debunking Economics) and Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) symbolically nail the “33 Theses” to the door of the London School of Economics in December 2017.

By Erik Reinert (Talinn University of Technology) and Andrea Saltelli (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, 33 Theses for an Economics Reformation were formulated by Rethinking Economics and the New Weather Institute. The document was symbolically nailed to the door of the London School of Economics In December 2017 and endorsed in The Guardian, and was supported by an impressive list of over 60 leading academics and policy experts. The initiative offers a rare and most welcome refreshing message from the House of Economics.

Several elements in the theses are long overdue – for example, the existence of planetary limits, the superiority of political deliberation over economic logic, the appreciation of the role of uncertainty in economic predictions, the non-independence of facts and values when economic thoughts are formulated, the warning against over-reliance on modelling, econometrics and formal methods. Also important is the indication that both growth and innovation need to be conceived with a desirable end in sight, one which can be associated with material and spiritual progress – rather than with misery, inequity and inequality. It is finally all important that in the teaching of economics itself the history and philosophy of economics should be taught, together with all economic theories: not just the family tree of mainstream economics.

Three omissions

While the “33 Theses” are a much needed initiative, three absences are nevertheless noticeable:

While the problems of financialisation are discussed, by going back to Martin Luther himself, in his 1524 book On Trade and Usury, we find an older tradition that more clearly separates unproductive hoarding from productive finance. In his 1355 De Moneta, Nicolas Oresme contrasts the negative effects of hoarding with the positive effect of investments in the real economy:

“It was this consideration that led Theodoric, King of Italy (493-526), to order the gold and silver deposited according to pagan custom in the tombs to be removed and used for coining for the public profit, saying: ‘It was a crime to leave hidden among the dead, and useless, what would keep the living alive’.”

The religious term for unproductive money is mammon. If we combine Oresme’s insight with Schumpeter’s understanding of financial crises as an occasion to clean out failed investments from the global portfolio, we find that in the name of “saving” investments we have made the mistake of saving bad projects and poor nations that should have been allowed to go bankrupt. We have helped accumulating mammon at the expense of real investments and consumption that would have “served the purpose of life” as Luther would have put it. Seeing the present world through the eyes of King Theodoric, we have printed mammon – unproductive capital – which is useless to keep the living alive, but which promotes speculative bubbles. By doing this we have made the perfect conditions for vulture funds, but failed the poor.

The second is the absence from the list of theories to be taught of Erfahrungswissenschaft, economics as a science of experience. This is in essence what most economics has been about until fairly recently. How influential this experience-based historical school was can be seen in a working paper, “80 Economic Bestsellers before 1850: A Fresh Look at the History of Economic Thought”. On the list is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, chronologically No. 53 of 80 bestsellers before 1850, reflecting the fact that capitalism and industrialization were already long in existence when Smith wrote what today’s students are misled to think was the beginning of economics.

The third missing element is the word trade. Neoclassical trade theory – based on the theories of David Ricardo (1817) – presents trade as a harmony-producing mechanism. Ricardo achieved this by basing his model of international trade on the barter of qualitatively identical labour hours.

How Ricardo saw it

Ricardo’s trick of making every labour hour qualitatively identical is at the core of the problems of globalisation. At the intuitive level, economists understand this: no economist would ever advise his or her children to specialize in an apparent comparative advantage in washing dishes in restaurants. Intuitively, we all understand that there is a hierarchy of skills out there, and from that follows that it is entirely possible for a nation to specialise in a comparative advantage in being poor.

During the decades after Ricardo published his theory, US economists specifically referred to skill differences using a quote from the Bible that describes the cursed tribe that cuts wood and carries water for other tribes (Joshua 9:23). The United States did not want to specialize at the bottom of the skills ladder, and only wanted free trade when it had become an industrial power. Now, when the United States is no longer the world leader, US politicians from Trump to Sanders intuitively wish to go back to their own country’s long-forgotten theories.

Ricardo’s illusion is a main mechanism of today’s centripetal economic forces. This illusion has collapsed several times before, most notably in 1848, when the Ricardian economic paradigm was brought down through attacks from Marx and Engels on the left and the “great liberalist” John Stuart Mill on the right. Mill recognized that poor countries needed “infant industry protection” before they could graduate into free trade.

Historically, every rich country – starting with England from 1485 to the US and South Korea – for a time has protected manufacturing industries. At present, manufacturing, due both to its high productivity increases and to demand factors, tends to shrink as a percentage of GDP. However, the poor countries in the world periphery still have a huge potential national market for wealth-creating manufacturing.

We still see the destructive forces of the prevailing paradigm keeping poor countries poor, while leading to poverty and mass emigration from many former Soviet Republics. Cascading migration moves Polish construction workers to the UK and Scandinavia, Eastern Ukrainians to Poland to replace construction workers there, and Moldovans to the Ukraine to replace those who left for Poland, in the end creating lower wages in the West and a periphery without jobs and manpower. The backlash against the market utopia foreseen by Karl Polanyi is happening.

Back to the future

The 1947 Marshall Plan and the 1948 Havana Charter represent the last time Ricardo’s illusion collapsed. The Havana Charter wisely describes under what conditions a country could protect its industries, as well as suggesting an international tax on trade surpluses. While it was blocked by the United States at the time, were such a rule in force today it would have been possible for the US to protect itself against deficits with China, and the Southern European countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (often referred to by the acronym PIGS) against similar deficits with Germany, while allowing the poor unindustrialised periphery of the world to use the same mechanisms that produced the 30 glorious years of development of the West after World War II.

Erik Reinert is Professor of Technology Governance and Development Strategies, Tallinn University of Technology 

Andrea Saltelli is adjunct professor at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) – University of Bergen (UIB), and visiting fellow at Open Evidence Research, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, in Barcelona.

This post was originally published on The Conversation.



Market Forecasting: A Sensitive Practice at the Heart of Neoliberal Capitalism


This article was originally posted on The Economic Sociology and Political Economy community blog.

Since the emergence of modern financial markets, financial analysts have played a critical role in producing visions of “the economy” and its future development. As experts, they analyze market developments and predict future scenarios that enable other financial market participants to speculate on the rise or fall of stock prices, the success or failure of particular investment products, and the growth or decline of entire national economies. The substance of the analysts’ valuation and forecasting practices is, however, heavily disputed among economists. In neoclassical economic theory, the assumption that markets are informationally efficient has challenged the legitimacy of the work of financial analysts since the establishment of the efficient market hypothesis as a central paradigm in the mid 1960s. Alternative schools of thoughts – such as new institutional or behavioral economics – have criticized this paradigm. However, they have also argued that the degree of uncertainty, which is inherent to financial markets, makes prediction impossible.Read More »

Advancing a Research Agenda of Scarcity, Abundance, and Sufficiency

Sidor från Daoud, thesis  with cover.jpgThe marginalist revolution in the late nineteenth century marked the beginning of the end of classical political economy and the birth of what came to be known as neoclassical economics (Sandelin et al. 2002). All three pioneers of marginal utility theory—Carl Menger (1871), William Jevons (1888), Léon Walras (1954) —referred to scarcity as the starting point for economic analysis. Through the work of these pioneers, especially Menger’s, the centrality of scarcity became a core premise for the advancement of contemporary neoclassical economics (see Hayek 2004:19; Robbins 1998:277). As a result, virtually every neoclassical economic textbook refers to scarcity—even though the field of economics is becoming increasingly differentiated.

I have argued in my research that scarcity problems are, and will remain, an important sub-set of problems, but we need to include sufficiency and abundance problems as well (Daoud 2007, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2015, 2017). Under scarcity, economics will give us insights about how people optimize their behavior to get as much as possible out of their limited resources. Neoclassical economics is mainly interested in what we can call allocation problems under a scarcity assumption. If actor A has a set of resources R, that is scarce in relation to fulfilling a set of wants W. Neoclassical economics tells us that a rational actor will optimize his or her resources in such a way that person can derive as much utility U as possible given the circumstances. These types of problems are central to many social science issues—they face governments allocating a limited budget to a myriad of popular demands, they face the individual in deciding if he or she should go to university or take a job. As social scientist, we need to keep analyzing these situations.Read More »

200 Years of Ricardian Trade Theory: How Is This Still A Thing?

maxresdefault.jpegOn Saturday, April 19th 1817, David Ricardo published The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, where he laid out the idea of comparative advantage, which since has become the foundation of neoclassical, ‘mainstream’ international trade theory. 200 years – and lots of theoretical and empirical criticism later – it’s appropriate to ask, how is this still a thing?[1]

This week we saw lots of praise of Ricardo, by the likes of The Economist, CNN, Forbes and Vox. Mainstream economists today tend to see the rejection of free trade implicit in Trump and Brexit as populist nonsense by people who don’t understand the complicated theory of comparative advantage (“Ricardo’s Difficult Idea”, as Paul Krugman once called it in his explanation of why non-economists seem to not understand comparative advantage). However, there are fundamental problems with the assumptions embedded in Ricardo’s theory and there’s little evidence, if any, to back up the Ricardian claim that free trade leads to balanced trade. On this bicentenary, I therefore think it’s timely to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions behind Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, that should have led us to consider alternative trade theories a long time ago. Read More »

What Can We Learn from Alternative Theories of Economic Development?


As people across the world are struggling to understand the rise of Trumpism, anti-establishment and anti-free trade movements, Erik Reinert (Tallinn University of Technology), Jayati Ghosh (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and Rainer Kattel (Tallinn University of Technology) have put together an impressive Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development that can help make sense of what’s going on. As the field of Economics has become increasingly narrow since the 1970s, many important scholars and theories have been excluded from the field, and since forgotten. This Handbook presents rich historical accounts and ideas that can help explain economic and social development, and is a much needed attempt to correct for the existing biases in the field of Economics.Read More »

Beyond the Third Moment in Law and Development: New Insights from Legal Political Economy

This blog post provides insights from what I have come to call the legal political economy perspective to critique the World Bank and neoclassical economics more generally. At the heart of what has been called the World Bank’s Third Moment in Law and Development is the claim that government involvement is necessary to eliminate “market failures” and promote both business development and social justice.

In contrast to the mainstream Law and Economics (L & E) approach, which informs the Third Moment, my position, derived from the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) tradition (and its historical ancestor, Legal Realism), is:

  • Property is fundamentally a bundle of rights and thus property ownership at its core entails coercive power struggles between rivals and between owners and non-owners; coercion at its core.
  • The interrelatedness of law and power relations (“If the program of Realists was to lift the veil of legal Form to reveal living essences of power and need, the program of the Critics is to lift the veil of power and need to expose the legal elements in their composition” (Gordon 1984, 109)). These power struggles over economic outcomes occur within the context of background laws that determine property, contracts, and torts.
  • The notion of an economic seesaw in Hale’s framework with potential for instability in property and contractual relations.
  • If the goal is to understand how legal structures shape power struggles then the question becomes how are the laws themselves to be determined? Following the CLS perspective, I would emphasize the role of ideational factors determining the intellectual underpinnings of neoliberal policies—factors that have consciously been created by the financiers of the L & E tradition.

Read More »

Rethinking the Law and Economics Paradigm


As a step toward that ideal it seems to me that every lawyer ought to seek an understanding of economics. The present divorce between the schools of political economy and law seems to me an evidence of how much progress in philosophical study still remains to be made. In the present state of political economy indeed, we come again upon history on a larger scale, but there we are called on to consider and weight the ends of legislation, the means of attaining them, and the cost.’ (Oliver Wendell Holmes; 1897) [1]

The World Bank’s policy focus shifted in the 1990s from a market-oriented paradigm to other issues such as social justice, poverty reduction and “market failures”, where institutions had to play a greater role [2]. Known as the Post-Washington Consensus or the Third Moment in Law and Development, this new paradigm emphasizes the importance of “good governance”, the implementation of property rights for economic growth, and makes the following proposition: well-defined and formalized property rights lead to market efficiency, economic growth and development. Hence, since then the establishment of the “rule of law” has become the new goal to reach for developing countries.

However, this Law and Economics paradigm relies on a narrow set of theoretical assumptions and is heavily influenced by neoclassical views of the state, the market and overall competition. But this framework raises some questions: (a) are these assumptions empirically valid, namely is the implementation of property rights a necessary condition for economic growth and development? And (b) are “perfect competition” and “market failures” reliable concepts one should start from to cope with development – if by such term we mean a social and economic process that will ultimately increase human well being?Read More »