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Progressives and the Origins of the Economic “Consensus” | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on June 11, 2020

The London School of Economics (LSE) played a crucial role in the shaping of modern academia. A little-known fact about the LSE is that the institution was largely built and supported by the Fabian Society, a socialist institute founded in 1884. In fact, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, two of the founders of the Fabian Society, were also the founders of the LSE.

In other words, the American Economic Association would sooner elect a Soviet sympathizer president than an Austrian economist.

Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.

There was a time when free market economists were some of the most highly praised intellectuals in the modern world. In the early twentieth century, Austrian economics was understood for what it truly is: a social science based on praxeology and human action. But from the mid-1900s through the 2000s, society replaced their appreciation for the Viennese method with a false claim that Austrian economics was an ideological, archaic pseudoscience used to justify libertarian and conservative ideas. And although the mainstream throws Chicagoan and even Austrian economists a bone from time to time, most academics have drifted toward the modern monetary theory (MMT) or some form of Keynesianism. But in order to understand why the mainstream is the way it is, we must first understand how the economic consensus came to be.

Origins of the Economic “Consensus”

The London School of Economics (LSE) played a crucial role in the shaping of modern academia. A little-known fact about the LSE is that the institution was largely built and supported by the Fabian Society, a socialist institute founded in 1884. In fact, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, two of the founders of the Fabian Society, were also the founders of the LSE.

In the Fabian Society’s infancy, it often constituted a small, tight-knit group of intellectuals who met to discuss Marxist ideas. But as the Fabian Society expanded to include the London School of Economics and the New Statesman magazine, its influence on economics underwent a sort of metamorphosis. The LSE’s reputation began to grow and few ever questioned its stances. To this day, the rapid spread of Keynesianism is largely a product of the London School of Economics and its ideologically similar neighbor, the University of Cambridge. John Maynard Keynes, after all, was an alumni of Cambridge and made notable contributions to institutions near and far, such as the LSE and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Bretton Woods system. The circulation of socialist and Keynesian philosophies between neighboring British institutions created a pseudo-intellectual echo chamber, in which the same ideas were debated over and over again among the same academics.

However, there was a major problem with Keynesianism. Many believed that the theories of demand-side economics sounded just and noble, but they were rarely backed by empirical evidence. Therefore, most schools of economics decided to abandon Keynes’s specific prescription of demand-side economics for a broader form of policy interventionism.

Paving the Way for Modern Macroeconomics

Thus, we turn from John Maynard Keynes and the Fabian Society to other significant influencers who paved the way for modern macroeconomics. The American Economic Association (AEA), one of the leading publishers of economic literature, was founded by politically progressive intellectuals such as Richard T. Ely, an activist and professor who advocated for greater government oversight and the implementation of desirable social policies. Based on his work, Ely’s views can best be summarized as moderately redistributive and highly interventionist. One of his books contains a chapter entitled “Taxation of Incomes,” in which he states the following:

It has already been stated…that all men of means should contribute to the support of government in proportion to their ability….It is universally, or almost universally, admitted that no [other] tax [than the income tax] is so just….[T]he income tax, unlike license charges, does not make it more difficult for a poor man to begin business or to continue business. Its social effects, on the contrary, are beneficial, because it places a heavy load only on strong shoulders.

Richard T. Ely was not the only interventionist who helped establish the AEA. Katharine Coman, a progressive activist who was highly critical of capitalism, also played a major role in forming the organization. Additionally, in appointing Alvin Hanson, one of the most influential Keynesians, to its presidency in 1922, the AEA is partly responsible for the rise of Keynesianism in America. To the American Economic Association’s credit, they have given similar positions to free market economists such as Herbert Joseph Davenport and Frank Fetter. But the bigger picture here is the AEA’s clear intent to draw an equivalency between Austrian intellectuals and progressive ideologues—as if the two were morally and intellectually comparable.

In later years, the American Economic Association would attempt to distance itself from the Austrian school altogether. The last time an Austrian economist was elected president was in 1966, with the appointment of Fritz Machlup. To put this into perspective, Jacob Marschak, an economist who worked with the Menshevist International Caucus, was scheduled to be appointed to the presidency in 1978. In other words, the American Economic Association would sooner elect a Soviet sympathizer president than an Austrian economist.

All in all, the impact of the anti-Austrian and, to some extent, the anti-Chicagoan biases of mainstream academia can be traced back to various instances of famous institutions either backing progressive thought leaders or dismissing certain kinds of economic methodology that fail to fit the interventionist narrative.

The Flaws of Mainstream Economics

Much of our understanding of mainstream economics is derived from econometrics—the use of mathematical modeling to predict economic outcomes. It is arguably true that econometrics is the reason why economics as a field is suffering from an identity crisis. On the one hand, economics deals with human behavior and is therefore a social science. On the other, econometrics and similar methods of study result in a field that resembles mathematics and cold calculation rather than behavioral science or the study of human action.

It should be no surprise that econometrics has become quite popular in the mainstream. After all, the aforementioned Jacob Marschak was one of the fathers of econometrics and made an undeniable impact on universities such as Yale and UCLA before catching the attention of the American Economic Association. Since its inception, econometrics has become a sort of “industry standard” for mainstream academics. However, the fatal flaw of econometrics lies in its failure to understand praxeology. In the words of Frank Shostak in his 2002 article entitled “What is Wrong with Econometrics?”:

There are no constant standards for measuring the minds, the values, and the ideas of men. Valuation is the means by which a conscious purposeful individual assesses the given facts of reality.

As for the Keynesian and post-Keynesian schools, far too much can be said about their flaws. Little empirical evidence exists that stimulus packages are particularly effective, and the idea that Say’s law ought to be completely discarded for a demand-driven approach to the economy is nonsensical. Henry Hazlitt’s The Failure of the “New Economics” provides a full perspective on the shortcomings of Keynesianism.

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The Great Criticism of Keynes That Every Economist Should Read

Posted by M. C. on December 21, 2019

Almost no one has ever read the book. There is good reason for this. Keynes’ book is unreadable. Its arguments are incoherent. This is why we rarely see direct quotes from the book.

By Gary North

In 1959, Henry Hazlitt’s book, The Failure of the “New Economics, was published by D. Van Nostrand Company, a reputable but midsized publishing company. The book was subtitled An Analysis of the Keynesian Fallacies.
This was Hazlitt’s magnum opus. That is to say, it was his great work. Yet it was narrowly focused. It was a monograph. In clear prose, he took apart John Maynard Keynes’s magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), the book that indirectly reshaped economic theory in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Book Almost Nobody Has Read

Almost no one has ever read the book. There is good reason for this. Keynes’ book is unreadable. Its arguments are incoherent. This is why we rarely see direct quotes from the book. Keynesianism did not become a major factor in the thinking of most economists until 1945. The Keynesian movement accelerated in 1948 because of the first edition of Paul Samuelson’s textbook Economics. I own a reprint of that original edition. Keynes is not quoted in the book. Samuelson mentioned him on pages 253 and 303. The book and its later editions have sold something in the range of four million copies. It was the most successful economics textbook of the twentieth century. It shaped the thinking, or rather the non-thinking, of millions of students for seventy years. Yet almost none of these students has ever read The General Theory cover to cover.
Samuelson in 1946 wrote a laudatory assessment of the impact of The General Theory. It was published in Econometrica, an academic journal not noted for its clarity.
In any case, it bears repeating that the General Theory is an obscure book, so that would be anti-Keynesians must assume their position largely on credit unless they are willing to put in a great deal of work and run the risk of seduction in the process. The General Theory seems the random notes over a period of years of a gifted man who in his youth gained the whip hand over his publishers by virtue of the acclaim and fortune resulting from the success of his Economic Consequences of the Peace.
A reprint of his article is here.
The General Theory was not well received at the time of this publication. Richard Ebeling, a Misesian economist, wrote in 2004,
Except for some of Keynes’s young protégés at Cambridge University, most of the reviewers of the book were highly critical of many of its theoretical “innovations,” as well as its inflationary prescriptions for unemployment. Even some economists who later became proponents of Keynes’s “new economics” were initially highly critical of his work. For example, Alvin Hansen, who was one of the leading advocates of Keynesian economics in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s, wrote in late 1936 that The General Theory “is not a landmark in the sense that it lays the foundation for a ‘new economics.’ … The book is more a symptom of economic trends than a foundation stone upon which a science can be built.”
Yet within a few years, and most certainly by the end of World War II, Keynes’s ideas had virtually pushed aside every other explanation of the causes and cures of economic depressions. Keynes’s book became the foundation stone for the new “macroeconomics.”
In contrast to Keynes’s book, Hazlitt’s book is readable, although not so readable as all of his other books. That is because he had to spend his time trying to make sense out of Keynes’s convoluted prose and shifting definitions. But the book is coherent, and his explanations are lucid, as long as he was not directly citing Keynes.
I read the book in the summer of 1963. I know this because I used to write the date on which I had bought a book on the front inside cover page. I did not read Economics in One Lesson until 1971, when I became a senior staff member at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). The first book spoiled me. It really is a tour de force. I realize that the second book was his bestseller and is a fine introductory book for people who know nothing about economic theory, but his book on Keynes outshines it. Unfortunately, almost nobody has read it. It remains an unread book that demolishes an equally unread book.
In 1960, Van Nostrand published a follow-up volume edited by Hazlitt, The Critics of Keynesian Economics. It is a compilation of scholarly articles written by critics of Keynes.
The Mises Institute has done yeoman service in making certain that both of these books remain in print, and both of them remain available in PDF format free of charge.

The Memory Hole

Hazlitt’s book was not the first full-length book to criticize Keynes or the longest. That honor belongs to Arthur Marget, who was the first economist to devote a book to critiquing a narrow aspect of Keynes’s General Theory. It is a two-volume behemoth of over fourteen hundred pages, The Theory of Prices. It also covered Keynes’s earlier book, Treatise on Money (1930). The first volume was published in 1938; the second volume was published in 1942. It was unknown when it was published, and it remained unknown after it was republished in 1966. It is not as incoherent as Keynes’s book, but it is turgid, prolic, and unread. Almost no economist has ever heard of Marget. That was true in his day, too. There is no Wikipedia entry on him. His book did not go down the memory hole. It was published at the bottom of the memory hole, and it remained there. John Egger wrote a detailed review of it in 1995, which gives you some indication of just how obscure it is. It took over half a century to get a detailed review. Egger concluded, “Labels aside, Marget’s work offers scholarship in the history of monetary doctrine that is unmatched, and an analysis of processes that is in some respects unmatched, in explicitly Austrian works. ‘Prolixity’ or not, it deserves to be recognized as an exciting and significant contribution to the tradition of the methodologically individualistic analysis of monetary processes.” The use of the adjective “exciting” to describe this book I regard as exaggerated. The Mises Institute has made a PDF available of each volume.
Hazlitt in 1959 was a well-known economist. He had a regular column in Newsweek from 1946 to 1966. The Mises Institute has reprinted those articles in a massive 800-page book, Business Tides. Yet despite his name identification, the economic guild successfully blacked out references to Hazlitt’s book on Keynes. I never recall seeing a footnote to the book in any academic economic article other than those published in Austrian school journals.
The economists’ academic guild never took Hazlitt seriously. After all, Hazlitt did not go to college. Keynes did go to college, but he did not major in economics. He majored in mathematics. That certainly did not in any way hamper his capture of the academic guild after 1945.

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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment » Republicans’ Responsibility for Socialism’s Comeback

Posted by M. C. on September 18, 2018

By Ron Paul

According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey, 70 percent of Americans, including about 50 percent of Republicans, support Medicare for all, the latest incarnation of single-payer health care. Republican support for a health plan labeled “Medicare for all” is not surprising considering that Republican
politicians support Medicare and that one of their attacks on Obamacare was that it would harm the program. Furthermore, the biggest expansion of Medicare since its creation — the Part D prescription drug program — occurred under a conservative president working with a conservative Congress.

Conservative Republicans do propose reforming Medicare to reduce its costs, but their proposals are always framed as “saving Medicare,” and most reform plans increase spending. Few conservative Republicans would dare advocate allowing young people to opt out of paying Medicare taxes in exchange for agreeing to forgo Medicare benefits.

Many conservative Republicans favor other government interventions into health care, including many features of Obamacare. In fact, Obamacare’s individual mandate originated as a conservative proposal and was once championed by many leading Republicans. Many other Republicans simply lack the courage to repeal Obamacare, so they say they only want to repeal the “unpopular” parts of the law. It would not be surprising if we soon heard conservatives and Republican politicians talk about defending Obamacare from supporters of socialized medicine. Read the rest of this entry »

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Peggy Noonan on Losing History

Posted by M. C. on January 8, 2018

I worry about a future where everyone gets their education from Hollywood and comedy news programs (which include CNN, Fox, et al).

There is a “based on a true story” movie “He Walked By Night” where Richard Basehart is a loner/no girlfriend LA criminal that escapes police via storm sewers. The finale is a big underground shootout and chase thru the sewers ala The Third Man. In reality his girlfriend turned him in and the cops woke him from a sound sleep and arrested him. Fake news from 1947.

The progressives have had a lot longer to muddle history.

Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it.When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.

It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.

Why should people who make movies and television start caring about all this at this late date? They never have before. Read the rest of this entry »

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