Here is a website that has PDFs of Gerard Dumenil & Dominique Levy’s prolific work from 1983-2009.
“In a masterpiece entitled Science and Method, Henri Poincaré had warned back in 1914: ‘Probability is the opposite of certainty; it is thus what we are ignorant of, and consequently it would seem to be what we cannot calculate. . . . Among the phenomena whose causes we are ignorant of, we must distinguish between fortuitous phenomena, about which the calculation of probabilities will give us provisional information, and those that are not fortuitous, about which we can say nothing, so long as we have not determined the laws that govern them.’ In short, no one can possibly claim to know the chances of a financial crash while ignorant of its underlying causes.
How then did the economists convince the world, and the Nobel committee, that they could estimate the probabilities of events that their models assumed away not just as improbable but, in fact, as untheorizable? The answer lies more in the realm of rhetoric and psychology than in economics itself: they relabeled ignorance and marketed it successfully as a form of provisional knowledge. For instance, when unemployment seemed stuck at, say, 5%, and economists had no plausible explanation to offer, they called it “the natural rate of unemployment.” No need to explain it — it was “natural”! Or when they could not explain the deviations of human behavior from their predictions (e.g. in laboratory experiments), they (a) labeled such behavior “out-of-equilibrium strategies” and then (b) assumed that such behavior is random and “explainable” in the manner physicists describe white noise.
This thinly veiled form of intellectual fraud (i.e. the whole of what passes today as modern economic analysis) provided the “scientific” fig leaf behind which Wall Street tried to hide the truth about its “financial innovations.” The basic truth that Poincaré had exposed being willfully ignored, the three decades that led us to the Crash of 2008 coincided with the rise of a Holy Trinity that permeated all economic wisdom: the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), the Rational Expectations Hypothesis (REH), and the so-called Real Business Cycle Theory (RBCT): impressively marketed theories whose mathematical complexity succeeded for too long in hiding their feebleness. Let’s take a glancing look at each one:
EMH: Financial markets contrive to ensure that current prices reveal all the privately known information that there is. In effect, no one can systematically make money by second-guessing the market. Some market players overreact to new information, others underreact. Thus, even when everyone errs, the market gets it “right.”
REH: No one should expect a theory of human action to predict well in the long run if it presupposes that humans systematically misunderstand that very theory. Sounds good, doesn’t it? A bullet between the eyes of patronizing social theorists who believe that they are closer to the truth about your behavior and mine than we are. Ay, there is the rub, for behind the façade of an anti-patronizing hypothesis lies a seriously insidious assumption: when people predict some economic variable (e.g. inflation, wheat prices, the price of some share), their errors are random — untheorizable, unpatterned, uncorrelated.
It only takes a moment’s reflection to see that anyone espousing EMH and REH cannot possibly expect recessions, let alone crises. Why? Because recessions are systematic events. However surprising when they hit, they unfold in a patterned manner, each of its phases being highly correlated with what preceded it. So, how does a believer in EMH-REH respond when her eyes and ears scream to her brain: Recession, Crash, Meltdown? The answer is: by turning to RBCT for a comforting explanation. So, here it is:
RBCT: Taking EMH and REH as its starting point, the theory portrays capitalism like a well-functioning Gaia. Left alone it will remain harmonious and never go into a spasm (like that of 2008). However, it may well be “attacked” by some “exogenous” shock (coming from a meddling government, a wayward Fed, heinous trades unions, Arab oil producers, aliens, etc.) to which it must respond and adapt. Like a benevolent Gaia responding to a large meteor crashing into it, capitalism reacts efficiently to exogenous shocks. It may take a while for the shockwaves to be absorbed, there may be many victims on the way but, nonetheless, the best way of handling the crisis is letting capitalism get on with it, without being subjected to new shocks administered by self-interested government officials and their fellow travelers who pretend to be standing up for the common good.
In a sense, each of the three hypotheses is a different incarnation of a touching faith that markets know best, both at times of tranquility and in periods of crisis. You and I may think that this is just madness, but it is a lot more than that. At the political level it is the rationale behind powerful forces ranging from the Tea Party to the Bundesbank, from the UK coalition government’s self-imposed austerity to the austerity imposed upon the Greek government by the IMF-Eurozone-ECB troika. This dangerous self-delusion is founded on a hidden analytical bond: each tentacle of the EMH-REH-RBCT nexus presupposes that for the price of every different type of financial asset there exists (what statisticians refer to as) a unique sufficient statistic. One that the market converges toward, albeit in a noisy manner. But, as Poincaré knew, it is pure folly to presume that such unique statistics exist without first having established the laws that govern the determination of prices. And since in capitalist societies these laws are radically indeterminate, the very foundation of the EMH-REH-RBCT nexus is rotten to the core.
Anyone who brings a fresh pair of eyes to the EMH-REH-RBCT nexus should arrive very quickly at the firm conclusion that it is a childish theory upon which to found an analysis of capitalism. And yet it condemned a whole generation of economists to thinking of the most complex, disintegrated, precariously balanced period in the history of capitalism, the 1971-2008 period, as the era of an equilibrium-bound Gaia gallantly and successfully working out of its system all externally induced non-economic shocks.”
Varoufakis, Yanis. 2010. “The Econobubble Revisited.” MRZine, October 26.
Varoufakis continues on to describe how this piss-poor “science” was widely marketed because it supported the US’s post-1970 political-economic strategy of expanding budget and trade deficits, and paying for them with capital inflows from the rest of the world (see also Dumenil & Levy).
On Oct 23, 2010, Varoufakis gave a great radio interview with Doug Henwood on the current unfolding of the capitalist crisis.
On Oct 17, 2010, Varoufakis published (with a nod to Marx & more recently, Zizek) “First as History, Then as Farce: The Euro Crisis Revisited,” at MRZine.
This is David Harvey’s “Crisis of Capitalism,” animated on ZVideo.
To DeLong & JayC (who complained about low economic literacy and class anger in the blogosphere responses to Todd Henderson): I find these comments on DeLong’s blog, however, fairly interesting. Elsewhere, there’s a lot of unpolished working class anger (unpolished because there are insufficient labor institutions to cultivate them), because most people endure excessive top-down class warfare. As the social epidemiologists observe, we are not a species that can well tolerate (psychologically or physically) high inequality.
The Numbers Racket: Why The Economy Is Worse Than We Know
By Kevin Phillips
13 May 2008
If Washington’s harping on weapons of mass destruction was essential to buoy public support for the invasion of Iraq, the use of deceptive statistics has played its own vital role in convincing many Americans that the U.S. economy is stronger, fairer, more productive, more dominant, and richer with opportunity than it actually is.
The corruption has tainted the very measures that most shape public perception of the economy-the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI), which serves as the chief bellwether of inflation; the quarterly Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which tracks the U.S. economy’s overall growth; and the monthly unemployment figure, which for the general public is perhaps the most vivid indicator of economic health or infirmity. Not only do governments, businesses, and individuals use these yardsticks in their decision-making but minor revisions in the data can mean major changes in household circumstances-inflation measurements help determine interest rates, federal interest payments on the national debt, and cost-of-living increases for wages, pensions, and Social Security benefits. And, of course, our statistics have political consequences too. An administration is helped when it can mouth banalities about price levels being “anchored” as food and energy costs begin to soar.
The truth, though it would not exactly set Americans free, would at least open a window to wider economic and political understanding. Readers should ask themselves how much angrier the electorate might be if the media, over the past five years, had been citing 8 percent unemployment (instead of 5 percent), 5 percent inflation (instead of 2 percent), and average annual growth in the 1 percent range (instead of the 3-4 percent range). We might ponder as well who profits from a low-growth U.S. economy hidden under statistical camouflage. Might it be Washington politicos and affluent elites, anxious to mislead voters, coddle the financial markets, and tamp down expensive cost-of-living increases for wages and pensions?
Let me stipulate: the deception arose gradually, at no stage stemming from any concerted or cynical scheme. There was no grand conspiracy, just accumulating opportunisms. As we will see, the political blame for the slow, piecemeal distortion is bipartisan-both Democratic and Republican administrations had a hand in the abetting of political dishonesty, reckless debt, and a casino-like financial sector. To see how, we must revisit forty years of economic and statistical dissembling.
Two Views of Consumer Inflation
Sources: John Williams, ShadowStats.com
U.S. Bureau of Labor
A SHORT HISTORY OF “POLLYANNA CREEP”
The story starts after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, when high jobless numbers marred the image of Camelot-on-the-Potomac and the new administration appointed a committee to weigh changes. The result, implemented a few years later, was that out-of-work Americans who had stopped looking for jobs-even if this was because none could he found-were labeled “discouraged workers” and excluded from the ranks of the unemployed, where many, if not most, of them had been previously classified. Lyndon Johnson, for his part, was widely rumored to have personally scrutinized and sometimes tweaked Gross National Product numbers before their release; and by the 1969 fiscal year, Johnson had orchestrated a “unified budget” that combined Social Security with the rest of the federal outlays. This innovation allowed the surplus receipts in the former to mask the emerging deficit in the latter.
Richard Nixon, besides continuing the unified budget, developed his own taste for statistical improvement. He proposed albeit unsuccessfully-that the Labor Department, which prepared both seasonally adjusted and non-adjusted unemployment numbers, should just publish whichever number was lower. In a more consequential move, he asked his second Federal Reserve chairman, Arthur Burns, to develop what became an ultimately famous division between “core” inflation and headline inflation. It the Consumer Price Index was calculated by tracking a bundle of prices, so-called core inflation would simply exclude, because of “volatility,” categories that happened to he troublesome: at that time, food and energy. Core inflation could he spotlighted when the headline number was embarrassing, as it was in 1973 and 1974. (The economic commentator Barry Ritholtz has joked that core inflation is better called “inflation ex-inflation“-i.e., inflation after the inflation has been excluded.)
I n 1983, under the Reagan Administration, inflation was further finagled when the Bureau of Labor Statistics decided that housing, too, was overstating the Consumer Price Index; the BLS substituted an entirely different “Owner Equivalent Rent” measurement, based on what a homeowner might get for renting his or her house. This methodology, controversial at the time but still in place today, simply sidestepped what was happening in the real world of homeowner costs. Because low inflation encourages low interest rates, which in turn make it much easier to borrow money, the BLS’s decision no doubt encouraged, during the late 1980s, the large and often speculative expansion in private debt-much of which involved real estate, and some of which went spectacularly bad between 1989 and 1992 in the savings-and-loan, real estate, and junk-bond scandals. Also, on the unemployment front, as Austan Goolsbee pointed out in his New York Times op-ed, the Reagan Administration further trimmed the number by reclassifying members of the military as “employed” instead of outside the labor force.
The distortional inclinations of the next president, George H.W. Bush, came into focus in 1990, when Michael Boskin, the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, proposed to reorient U.S. economic statistics principally to reduce the measured rate of inflation. His stated grand ambition was to move the calculus away from old industrial-era methodologies toward the emerging services economy and the expanding retail and financial sectors. Skeptics, however, countered that the underlying goal, driven by worry over federal budget deficits, was to reduce the inflation rate in order to reduce federal payments-from interest on the national debt to cost-of-living outlays for government employees, retirees, and Social Security recipients.
It was left to the Clinton Administration to implement these convoluted CPI measurements, which were reiterated in 1996 through a commission headed by Boskin and promoted by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The Clintonites also extended the Pollyanna Creep of the nation’s employment figures. Although expunged from the ranks of the unemployed, discouraged workers had nevertheless been counted in the larger workforce. But in 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics redefined the workforce to include only that small percentage of the discouraged who had been seeking work for less than a year. The longer-term discouraged-some 4 million U.S. adults-fell out of the main monthly tally. Some now call them the “hidden unemployed.” For its last four years, the Clinton Administration also thinned the monthly household economic sampling by one sixth, from 60,000 to 50,000, and a disproportionate number of the dropped households were in the inner cities; the reduced sample (and a new adjustment formula) is believed to have reduced black unemployment estimates and eased worsening poverty figures.
Despite the present Bush Administration’s overall penchant for manipulating data (e.g., Iraq, climate change), it has yet to match its predecessor in economic revisions. In 2002, the administration did, however, for two months fail to publish the Mass Layoff Statistics report, because of its embarrassing nature after the 2001 recession had supposedly ended; it introduced, that same year, an “experimental” new CPI calculation (the C-CPI-U), which shaved another 0.3 percent off the official CPI; and since 2006 it has stopped publishing the M-3 money supply numbers, which captured rising inflationary impetus from bank credit activity. In 2005, Bush proposed, but Congress shunned, a new, narrower historical wage basis for calculating future retiree Social Security benefits.
By late last year, the Gallup Poll reported that public faith in the federal government had sunk below even post-Watergate levels. Whether statistical deceit played any direct role is unclear, but it does seem that citizens have got the right general idea. After forty years of manipulation, more than a few measurements of the U.S. economy have been distorted beyond recognition.
What Does “Unemployment” Mean?
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics
AMERICA’S “OPACITY” CRISIS
Transparency is the hallmark of democracy, but we now find ourselves with economic statistics every bit as opaque-and as vulnerable to double-dealing-as a subprime CDO. Of the “big three” statistics, let us start with unemployment. Most of the people tired of looking for work, as mentioned above, are no longer counted in the workforce, though they do still show up in one of the auxiliary unemployment numbers. The BLS has six different regular jobless measurements-U-1, U-2, U-3 (the one routinely cited), U-4, U-5, and U-6. In January 2008, the U-4 to U-6 series produced unemployment numbers ranging from 5.2 percent to 9.0 percent, all above the “official” number. The series nearest to real-world conditions is, not surprisingly, the highest: U-6, which includes part-timers looking for full-time employment as well as other members of the “marginally attached,” a new catchall meaning those not looking for a job but who say they want one. Yet this does not even include the Americans who (as Austan Goolsbee puts it) have been “bought off the unemployment rolls” by government programs such as Social Security disability, whose recipients are classified as outside the labor force.
Second is the Gross Domestic Product, which in itself represents something of a fudge: federal economists used the Gross National Product until 1991, when rising U.S. international debt costs made the narrower GDP assessment more palatable. The GDP has been subject to many further fiddles, the most manipulatable of which are the adjustments made for the presumed starting up and ending of businesses (the “birth/death of businesses” equation) and the amounts that the Bureau of Economic Analysis “imputes” to nationwide personal income data (known as phantom income boosters, or imputations; for example, the imputed income from living in one’s own home, or the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the value of employer-paid health-and-life-insurance premiums). During 2007, believe it or not, imputed income accounted for some 15 percent of GDP. John Williams, the economic statistician, is briskly contemptuous of GDP numbers over the past quarter century. “Upward growth biases built into GDP modeling since the early 1980s have rendered this important series nearly worthless,” he wrote in 2004. “[T]he recessions of 1990/1991 and 2001 were much longer and deeper than currently reported [and] lesser downturns in 1986 and 1995 were missed completely.”
Nothing, however, can match the tortured evolution of the third key number, the somewhat misnamed Consumer Price Index. Government economists themselves admit that the revisions during the Clinton years worked to reduce the current inflation figures by more than a percentage point, but the overall distortion has been considerably more severe. Just the 1983 manipulation, which substituted “owner equivalent rent” for home-ownership costs, served to understate or reduce inflation during the recent housing boom by 3 to 4 percentage points. Moreover, since the 1990s, the CPI has been subjected to three other adjustments, all downward and all dubious: product substitution (if flank steak gets too expensive, people are assumed to shift to hamburger, but nobody is assumed to move up to filet mignon), geometric weighting (goods and services in which costs are rising most rapidly get a lower weighting for a presumed reduction in consumption), and, most bizarrely, hedonic adjustment, an unusual computation by which additional quality is attributed to a product or service.
The hedonic adjustment, in particular, is as hard to estimate as it is to take seriously. (That it was launched during the tenure of the Oval Office’s preeminent hedonist, William Jefferson Clinton, only adds to the absurdity.) No small part of the condemnation must lie in the timing. If quality improvements are to be counted, that count should have begun in the 1950s and 1960s, when such products and services as air-conditioning, air travel, and automatic transmissions-and these are just the A’s!-improved consumer satisfaction to a comparable or greater degree than have more recent innovations. That the change was made only in the late Nineties shrieks of politics and opportunism, not integrity of measurement. Most of the time, hedonic adjustment is used to reduce the effective cost of goods, which in turn reduces the stated rate of inflation. Reversing the theory, however, the declining quality of goods or services should adjust effective prices and thereby add to inflation, but that side of the equation generally goes missing. “All in all,” Williams points out, “if you were to peel back changes that were made in the CPI going back to the Carter years, you’d see that the CPI would now be 3.5 percent to 4 percent higher”-meaning that, because of lost CPI increases, Social Security checks would be 70 percent greater than they currently are.
Furthermore, when discussing price pressure, government officials invariably bring up “core” inflation, which excludes precisely the two categories-food and energy-now verging on another 1970s-style price surge. This year we have already seen major U.S. food and grocery companies, among them Kellogg and Kraft, report sharp declines in earnings caused by rising grain and dairy prices. Central banks from Europe to Japan worry that the biggest inflation jumps in ten to fifteen years could get in the way of reducing interest rates to cope with weakening economies. Even the U.S. Labor Department acknowledged that in January, the price of imported goods had increased 13.7 percent compared with a year earlier, the biggest surge since record-keeping began in 1982. From Maine to Australia, from Alaska to the Middle East, a hydra-headed inflation is on the loose, unleashed by the many years of rapid growth in the supply of money from the world’s central banks (not least the U.S. Federal Reserve), as well as by massive public and private debt creation.
THE U.S. ECONOMY EX-DISTORTION
The real numbers, to most economically minded Americans, would be a face full of cold water. Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today’s U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession. If what we have been sold in recent years has been delusional “Pollyanna Creep,” what we really need today is a picture of our economy ex-distortion. For what it would reveal is a nation in deep difficulty not just domestically but globally.
Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, borrowing, and interest payments-all indexed or related to inflation-could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering.
Arguably, the unraveling has already begun. As Robert Hardaway, a professor at the University of Denver, pointed out last September, the subprime lending crisis “can be directly traced back to the  BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI. . .With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates.” Were mainstream interest rates to jump into the 7 to 9 percent range-which could happen if inflation were to spur new concern-both Washington and Wall Street would be walking in quicksand. The make-believe economy of the past two decades, with its asset bubbles, massive borrowing, and rampant data distortion, would be in serious jeopardy. The U.S. dollar, off more than 40 percent against the euro since 2002, could slip down an even rockier slope.
The credit markets are fearful, and the financial markets are nervous. If gloom continues, our humbugged nation may truly regret losing sight of history, risk, and common sense.
“Sweezy”, Bob Pollin writes, “was the most powerful Marxist exponent of underconsumptionism since Rosa Luxemburg. Keynes himself later embraced this as his analysis of the 1930s depression.
Underconsumption is the tendency in capitalist economies for the capitalists to produce more things than the people can afford to buy.
(This capitalist problem could be solved) through more income equality, and more social control over investment spending. But capitalists don’t like that solution.
Therefore, as Sweezy and Baran argued in Monopoly Capital, (capitalists) come up with alternative means of getting buyers for the things monopolist firms decide to produce: they get the military to spend, they induce spending through advertising, and they ride the wave of epoch-making innovations like the automobile (which brought public highway construction and government subsidized construction of the suburbs).”
–Alexander Cockburn, 2004. “Understanding the World with Paul Sweezy,” CounterPunch, March 6/7.
I hope to summarize Gerard Dumenil & Dominique Levy’s Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution, 2004.
But time being what it is, I’ll just start here with the upshot, from page 191-192.
Neoliberalism is the economic, political and social dominance (resurgence) of finance. (Per Marx: M-C-M’. A crisis tendency to financial apotheosis is characteristic of capitalism.) What has neoliberalism contributed? According to Dumenil and Levy (2004), “Finance can claim responsibility for at least three kinds of actions”:
1) Finance induces the vast society-wide engorgement of management. This happened in the current period, as at the turn of the 20th century, through mergers and because of the need to organize and finance (192), as well as to repress labor for the sake of profit-enhancing efficiency.
2) For a while (1990s), finance allocated capital toward new technologies. Dumenil and Levy demonstrate that the profit-rate decline that began in the late 1960s was caused by a decline in investment in technological development.
They also show that societies don’t need finance-dominated capitalism, which comes with large social and economic costs, to allocate capital to technological development. For example, states (with regulated and disciplined finance) have been excellent at inducing technological development, as in the early-to-mid 20th century. Their economic policy institutions (such as the Bretton Woods institutions) could have adjusted, rather than turning over the reins to financial capital.
When investment in technology slowed down in the late 1960s, and profits likewise declined, a path to retain the “dream of civilized capitalism” (206) was still available. “The crisis of the dollar should logically have led to reinforcing world institutions, governed by international bodies that were more independent from private interests” (192). “There was no need to abandon fixed exchange rates or limits on capital mobility, unless they were required to restore American preeminence” (192, my italics). The failure to pursue “civilized capitalism” alternatives was not the result of a lack of “intellectual capacity to conceive of such alternatives, but rather the (capitalist) social and political conditions…given the violence of the struggle by finance to reestablish its hegemony” (193).
In implementing some of financial capital’s policy demands, such as floating currency, economic nationalists in the Nixon administration enabled the US to maintain centrality via the dollar for at least 40 years. The costs to labor, states’ independence, investment in non-financial capital, and economic stability were huge and in some cases crippling. The inequality costs to people were savage. Many horrific environmental, social, war, political, etc. crises were launched by the resurgence of financial control facilitated by American economic nationalists (The dollar as the global reserve currency enables the US alone to go into debt and still maintain capital inflows and economic independence). Neoliberalism “is an aggressive and violent form of capitalism” (192).
3) Through its system of corporate governance, financial capital imposed society-wide constraints focused on achieving high profit rates. These high profit rates did not entail sufficient economic development, as the profits came at the expense of the working class (in ubiquitous, “efficient,” profit-maximizing management practices), and were distributed to managers and shareholders, who allocate wealth very poorly (hoarding, speculating, and squandering).