A retrospective of this year’s postings would highlight some of the flaws in accepted economic theory. Many have been flagged up elsewhere: economic theory is not, and never has been, without its severe and knowledgeable critics. However, there are a couple of errors which are fundamental to the study of economics which are not often mentioned elsewhere.
In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky suggested the lack of any alternative big theme gave the free marketeers a head start in shaping and continuing to dominate the United States economy. The free market big theme may have been planted by Adam Smith, but it developed on the open prairies of North America where land was the free resource – confirmed by the Homestead Acts – which drove the early development of the US economy. So the big theme was not just markets freed from government interference and control, but personal freedom to claim a bit of America and the right to defend it with guns to fight off its previous occupants, the native Americans. That tradition gave primacy to ownership. When Friedman declared that corporate officials had no social responsibility other than to make as much money as possible for shareholders, it was hardly a shot out of the blue, but the confirmation of a long tradition.
The idea of economic man, sometimes given a Latin nomenclature to increase its gravitas, is the real cause of economics’ more recent failures. Forty years ago it was referred to as a nineteenth century idea, as though the study of economics had moved on since that primitive Victorian era. But with Friedman’s shareholder primacy in the ascendancy with its supporting “theories” of agency, transaction costs and the market in corporate management, economic man resurged and is still dominant today, and wreaking its massive destruction.
The idea that companies, if not all economic activity, exists to maximise the wealth of shareholders or owners, dominates the world of corporate governance and much else. Bankers and traders believe it. Industrial managers have been led to accept it. Universities and business schools preach it. It is part of the free market ideology, often identified by its origins, as the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American approach. And its many adherents claim it is the only system that really works. Shareholder value is, for them, the acid test, all that matters. All this is despite clear evidence to the contrary from Germany, Japan, China, India and many other jurisdictions.
Much of the literature on corporate governance argues that these other approaches are in fact converging on the Anglo-American model and even assesses the level of their maturity in terms of how closely they comply with the Anglo-American line. It’s all nonsense.
Before the British coalition government’s proposed cuts were announced they were greeted by 39 top business people writing to the Daily Telegraph confirming that they would create the necessary jobs so as to make the public sector cuts work. That way tax rises might be avoided and long-term cuts in public sector activity achieved. For them, any reduction in tax and spend would be a Good Thing. Well, business people would say that, wouldn’t they! But were they expressing a seriously thought through strategy, or merely expressing the currently dominant free market fad?
The Economist, an increasingly dogmatic apologist for the free market ideology, invited for its current issue, six academic economists to identify how they thought the financial crisis had changed the subject of economics. The answer is not a lot. So far as methods of teaching and research are concerned, nothing has changed, or is likely to change any time soon.
Since Adam Smith’s example of the pin factory, economists have never been able to produce a satisfactory theory of the industrial firm. They’ve thought of it as a black box, expressed it as a production function involving such illuminating variables as price and quantity, and they’ve reduced it to the agency relationship falsely claiming managers to be the agents of shareholders (see other postings on this site). This inadequacy may be part of the reason why, despite Adam Smith, mainstream economists give markets pride of place over the firm.
Belief in the extreme power of market forces, so long as they were free from regulation or any other form of interference, led to the curious belief that the market could produce any item at some cost: the costs of transactions in the market. Only if a firm could produce cheaper than the cost of market transactions, would the firm be justified in production. This fertile thread of economic theory, originated in an article by Coase in 1937, but was developed in the 1960s by a group led by Williamson – last year’s joint Nobel laureate. It challenged the legitimacy of managerial decision makers, arguing the power of market forces to decide.