The 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 »
The spread of the coronavirus epidemic around the world in the past few weeks has exposed not only differences in the lack of preparedness of various public health systems, but also differences in reactions to the crisis. Some governments imposed an early lockdown in their attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ while others have taken a more gradual approach, proceeding from travel restrictions through limits on non-essential businesses to shelter-in-place regimes.
As the epicenter of the pandemic shifts from Asia to Europe and the U.S, however, some reactions stand out among the rest in their utter disregard for human life. Federal and state officials in the U.S. have first downplayed the threat two months before it arrived in the country, as well as refused offers for help from the World Health Organization. Now, as the curve in the U.S. is about to get steeper (see the surgeon general’s warning), top levels of government are considering scaling back the moderate measures that have been taken so far, with a view to return to normal activity within a few weeks. While blaming China for not controlling the virus early enough, some officials are contemplating consciously allowing their own citizens to experience a much worse spread of infection and death than China has seen.
One clear example of this misguided and dangerous ideology can be seen in the pressure put on the U.S. government by corporate lobbyists not to activate the Defense Production Act – which enables the executive branch to order corporations to manufacture the direly-needed medical supplies for testing and treating the virus. Large swaths of the political elite, instead, are relying on the private sector’s voluntary offers to produce such goods. Worse, these same politicians are aching to get the economy back to normal, so as to boost the stock market and their own ratings at the same time. The lieutenant-governor of Texas even went as far as suggesting that older citizens – the group most prone to dying from the virus – would gladly ‘sacrifice’ themselves in the interest of getting the economy moving again.Read More »
How should one assess a book on economic policy that takes a dim view of the state and redistribution in a country that is home to multiple and intersecting inequalities? Economic inequality and the role of the state in tackling inequality emerged as a major talking point in the last decade and it is likely that it will continue to animate academic and policy debates in the following decade too. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to evaluate any book on economic policy based on the seriousness with which it engages with inequality and how it imagines state intervention in the economy. This review seeks to do precisely that by unpacking the conventional wisdom about the nature and role of the state presented in the book In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.Read More »
Economic imagery pervades societal discourse. Part of this imagery projects markets as existing everywhere; the common societal parlance sees talk of the car market, the grocery market, the computer market, or, simply, the market. Yet, excepting traditional marketplaces or medinas, these markets have no physical manifestation. Unlike with other major social institutions there is no where to visit; there is no headquarters. Instead, markets are said to exist when there are competitors in the provision of services or goods and where each competitor has a fair and equal chance of succeeding. The market, then, exists in a metaphorical, rather than physical, sense – it implies that the capitalist system operates diffusely like a marketplace, rather than there being an actual marketplace in which economic transactions take place.
The further extension of economic imagery has seen the market metaphor applied to the provision of political and economic ideas, with the notion being that there exists a level-playing field on which ideas are free to compete and that this competition will weed out weaker ideas. Hence, “no platforming” of racist or homophobic speakers should be staunchly opposed as it will impede the competitive destruction of abhorrent ideas. An important ancillary notion is that any idea that has come to be orthodox received wisdom has justly achieved this status through free and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas.
The problems with this account of the ideational development of society are legion, but I’ll limit myself to explaining just three, namely 1) product heterogeneity, 2) distribution of ideas, and 3) production of ideas.Read More »
Late developers are nowadays confronted with the problem of having to earn foreign currency to finance structural transformation under extremely unfavourable conditions. The dependency on forex is rooted in the international financial architecture and represents a major pitfall for countries trying to catch up. However, this structural impediment to transformation is not paid much attention to by the dominant development economics.Read More »
At the OECD’s origin, we find the 1947 Marshall Plan that re-industrialised a war-torn Europe. At the very core of the Marshall Plan was a profound understanding of the relationship between a nation’s economic structure and its carrying capacity in terms of population density. We argue that it is necessary to rediscover this theoretical understanding now, in the mutual interest of Africa and Europe.Read More »
Thepromise of more open societies following Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroikaannouncement set in motion powerful dynamics completely transforming the world.The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated bringing down the entire socialist institutional edifice. Newly independent nation-states emerged across Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Thisnew “wind” was that of hope, progressive stabilityand economic prosperity, or so it seemed at the time. And yet, “[f]or whom the wall fell?”asBranko Milanovic has recently inquired, is not as straightforward as might have been expected.
Despite the independence premium in national policy and in parallel withevidence suggesting recent strong economic growththe post-socialist economiesare yet to achieve the ideals announced at the outset of market reforms.Ironically, the most unfortunateeconomic planwasthe 1990s script of transitionfrom planned economy to free market in the EE and FSU.
On 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?
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 »