Understanding development in a Global Value Chain World: Comparative Advantage or Monopoly Capital Theory?

By Benjamin Selwyn and Dara Leyden

The recent period of globalisation – following the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the integration of China into the world economy – is in essence the period of global value chains (GVCs). From low to high-tech, basic consumer goods to heavy capital equipment, food to services, goods are now produced across many countries, integrated through GVCs.

The big question in development studies is whether this globalised reconfiguration of production is contributing to, or detracting from, real human development? Is it establishing a more equal, less exploitative, less poverty-ridden world? To understand these complex dynamics, scholars rely on economic theories. These theories must be relevant to the GVC-world and equipped to tackle these pertinent questions.

In 2020 the World Bank published its World Development Report Trading for Development in the Age of Global Value Chains (WDR2020, or ‘the Report’) to address these questions. It confidently proclaimed that ‘GVCs boost incomes, create better jobs and reduce poverty’ (WDR2020: 3). Given the World Bank’s promotion of neoliberal globalisation, this conclusion is unsurprising.

However, before accepting the Report’s claims at face value, we should reflect on the findings of Robert Wade (2002: 220). These annual World Bank reports serve as “both a research-based document and a political document…. the Bank’s flagship message must reflect back the ideological preference of key constituencies and not offend them too much, but the message must also be backed by empirical evidence and made to look technical”.

When globalisation is booming it may be possible for the report’s liberal bias to appear to complement its data. However, the GVC world has generated such inequalities that the dissonance between the report’s liberal bias and its own data is stretched to breaking point.

Drawing on our recently published article, this blog post uses the Report’s own data to undermine its core claims. It shows that the GVC world enhances the dominance of transnational corporations (TNCs), concentrates wealth, represses the incomes of supplier firms in developing countries, and creates many bad jobs – with deleterious outcomes for workers.

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Pluralism in economics – its critiques and their lessons

By Claudius Gräbner and Birte Strunk

In a recent paper we engaged with common critiques of the concept and the movement for more pluralism in economics. We found that while the majority of the critiques are either unfounded, easy to dismiss or address strawmen, others do highlight challenges the pluralist movement should address.

In 2017, we were spending a week at the Summer Academy for Pluralist Economics, when the German economist Johannes Becker published a blog article on Makronom entitled “The Movement for Pluralist Economics risks its success” (translated from German). He argues that the movement for pluralist economics faces a decision: it could continue to be a movement of fundamental opposition against the ‘economic mainstream’, or it could start striving for ‘real change’. Economics professors, at least in Germany, Becker argued, were highly perceptive and open-minded towards alternative perspectives in economics. If the movement would focus more on constructive engagement with economics faculties rather than on fundamental critique, then there would be a greater amount of pluralist seminars and lectures.

Being surrounded by around 100 fellow pluralists who dedicated a week of their summer to study different approaches to economics, the accusation of simply being a movement of unconstructive opposition seemed alienating to us. So we drafted a response, arguing that pluralist economics is about both critique and the construction of alternative practices. Based on this response, we wrote an article evaluating the critiques posed toward pluralist economics, drawing from philosophy of science, philosophy of economics, and philosophy of interdisciplinarity. When writing the paper, which has recently been published in the Journal of Economic Methodology, we indeed found many critiques of pluralism to be unconvincing, yet we also discovered that some critiques of pluralism are not easily dismissed. They should be taken seriously by pluralists because an honest engagement with these critiques rather than the neglect of their relevance could, we believe, make the movement for pluralism in economics more convincing and successful.

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Ecological breakdown: What are externalities external to?

The 2018 Bank of Sweden Prize (falsely known as the Economics Nobel Prize) winner William Nordhaus opens the revised version of his Prize lecture as follows: “I begin with the fundamental problem posed by climate change – that is a public good or externality. Such activities are ones whose costs or benefits will spill outside the market and are not captured in market prices.”

The concept of externalities is a catch-all term, or, an empty box to capture the so-called spillover effects. Under the presumption that the market mechanism brings about the efficient allocation of resources, mainstream economic theory as well as many of its heterodox critiques argue for internalizing these spillovers by determining their costs (or benefits) and including it in the price of the commodity. In other words, the spillover effect itself must be turned into a commodity so that the market can efficiently handle it through the price mechanism.

Insofar as human-induced global warming has not been priced, so the story goes, it is an externality. In fact, it is today “the most significant of all environmental externalities” even in Nordhaus’ wisdom. Make no mistake – Nordhaus fiercely advocated inaction for over three decades, and portrayed projected levels of global warming, which are defined as devastating, or even catastrophic by scientists, as optimal.

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COVID-19: how to transform the industrial policy toolkit in developing nations

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COVID-19 presents some leeway for countries to pursue industrial policy on their own terms. However, as crisis conditions dissipate, current economic theory is of little help. Current perspectives range from the almost theological to the overly positivistic. Mainstream economists who have tried to ‘mainstream’ industrial policy in recent times offer simple econometric-centred reasoning that seeks to find cross-country regularities instead of nuanced and real-world application based on a country’s economic history. They apply highly positivistic and proscriptive worldviews claiming industrial policy should reveal latent ‘comparative advantage’. On the other hand, and perhaps equally misguided, heterodox scholars who reclaim the structural roots of industrial policy have anchored it in increasingly irrelevant empirical foundations that would only be useful for countries with already existing manufacturing bases. The latter have opted for the more theological approach that presupposes classical growth as an end of any industrial policy as a positive development. I hope that we seize the chance to encourage a new paradigm for industrial policy beyond narrow prescriptions and dominant worldviews.Read More »

Corporate Planning in the Coronavirus Economy

woman-wearing-mask-in-supermarket-3962289The global pandemic and associated developing global recession are calling into question a whole range of economic truths and demanding novel solutions to various interlinked societal problems. In this blog post, I want to connect what we’re currently seeing in the retail sector during this pandemic to deep-seated narratives about the nature of economic exchange, in particular to the notion of “the market”. 

The market is one of the most dominant concepts for making sense of the social world, primarily because of the prestige of the economics discipline and the elevation of the market concept by the discipline (albeit in a highly abstract manner). At its most basic, it paints the economic sphere as akin to a marketplace, where there is a level playing field and rivals compete for custom primarily through having the keenest of prices. Other, more complex, ideas often get laid over this concept, such as the market pricing mechanism allowing supply and demand to equilibrate, price signals communicating complex information to market participants, and, as such, the market allowing for decentralised decision making led by consumer demands. (For a much (much) fuller account of the market concept, see here.)

However, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic increased demand for basic goods – such as toilet roll, hand sanitiser and flour – has put a strain on the distribution of these goods and has engendered a response quite dissimilar to the narrative of the economic system as a competitive, decentralised, profit-maximising market. What we have seen, instead, is retailers working as sites of governance in order to ensure a degree of equity in the distribution of resources. Read More »

Time for a Rethink on the Worth of Work

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Most economists are greatly underestimating the economic challenges posed by the Covid19 pandemic. Without a correct understanding of those challenges, the aggressive monetary and fiscal measures many government are now pursuing will fall well short of their goals. They will go down in history as economic Marginot Linesscaled up versions of tools designed to fight past crises.

The pandemic poses new and unique economic challenges. It compromises our ability to engage in productive and commercial activities requiring close contact between groups of peoplethat includes most of the things sustaining a modern economy. Epidemiologists tell us this is needed for several months. Responding in a way that minimises the loss of life and safeguards our long-term productive capacities requires two things: Temporarily shutting down large swaths of the economy, and focusing societys productive resources on the kinds of work needed to fight the pandemic.

Most economists have not yet understood this partly because the scale and scope of what is needed pushes beyond the boundaries conventional economic thinking, and beyond what they generally consider to be legitimate economic questions.

The pandemic requires an unprecedented mobilisation of what feminist economists call care labour: work to care for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Over the next few weeks or months most people need to be focused on a vital job: caring for our collective health and helping save thousands or even millions of lives by staying at home. Many families will have to do this while simultaneously caring for millions of children now out of school, for other loved ones who cannot fully care for themselves, and for those who fall ill but do not require hospitalisation.

We need to allocate resources to enable people to perform this work.Read More »

The risk of being misled by climate economy models

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This post deconstructs the following statement:

If reducing greenhouse emissions had economic benefits then we would do it anyway without new policy.

The statement above is used by economists to argue against the introduction of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that the costs would outweigh the benefits of reducing climate change. It is part of a wider narrative that regulatory policy can only lead to economic costs. However, the statement is perhaps one of the most perverse conclusions from neoclassical economics. It depends on a raft of assumptions that run contrary to real-world experience. Further, as discussed below, if just one assumption is taken out, the conclusion changes.

Sadly, economists and (in particular) economic modellers, have played a key role in turning this fallacy into accepted reality. They have done this by using simple optimisation-based approaches that make strong assumptions about human behaviour. Often the modellers do not critically question or even fully understand these assumptions. Read More »

Secular Stagnation: Short-term Fixes for Long-term Problems

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The concept of secular stagnation, first propounded by Alvin Hansen in the 1930s, has enjoyed an academic – and mainstream – resurrection thanks to Lawrence Summers (2014, 2016), who first advanced the theory as an explanation for the subdued recovery and anaemic growth prospects of advanced economies. A surprising criticism recently came from Joseph Stiglitz (August, 2018), who believes that the theory offers a convenient escape away from assuming responsibility for failed policy during the crisis.  An acrimonious debate between Summers and Stiglitz followed.  

On the face of it, Summers – and Gauti Eggertson – are right: the modern theory of secular stagnation does see a central and substantial role for fiscal policy. The problem, however, lies in the fact that a short-term fix for aggregate demand shortfalls – fiscal policy – is being advanced as a long-term solution of the problem of reduced growth prospects. The central question of what drives investment in a capitalist economy is not addressed.Read More »