Brad Delong Wrong Yet Again and Again and Again: oh why can’t we have smarter reform liberals

Scandalum Magnatum, takes Brad Delong to task for botching  Kelecki in a recent post.

Brad DeLong damns Kalecki with praise:


Productivity increased 9.5 percent in the nonfarm business sector during the third quarter of 2009 as unit labor costs fell 5.2 percent (seasonally adjusted annual rates). In manufacturing, productivity increased 13.6 percent while unit labor costs fell 7.1 percent…

Back in the 1930s there was a Polish Marxist economist, Michel Kalecki, who argued that recessions were functional for the ruling class and for capitalism because they created excess supply of labor, forced workers to work harder to keep their jobs, and so produced a rise in the rate of relative surplus-value.

For thirty years, ever since I got into this business, I have been mocking Michel Kalecki. I have been pointing out that recessions see a much sharper fall in profits than in wages. I have been saying that the pace of work slows in recessions–that employers are more concerned with keeping valuable employees in their value chains than using a temporary high level of unemployment to squeeze greater work effort out of their workers.

I don’t think that I can mock Michel Kalecki any more, ever again.

To which Mike responds:

Well I don’t think DeLong knows much about Kalecki.

In Kalecki’s general model of the business cycle, gross profits fall in recessions just as the pre-3Q-2009 DeLong would have expected them to, because investment and hence total demand declines. The effect on profit and wage shares depends on how much total output and employment fluctuates alongside it, and in fact, on how much labour businesses keep (under)employed – exactly the reason DeLong gives for the worldview he maintained before 3rd-quarter 2009 data came along and shattered it.

In “Distribution of National Income” (1956) Kalecki writes that the wage share excluding salaries “does not seem to show marked cyclical fluctuations”. [p. 66 in his 1971 ‘Selected Essays’ book] But once salaries are included, “the ‘real’ wage and salary bill… can be expected to fluctuate less during the course of the cycle than the ‘real’ gross income of the private sector.” [pp. 75-76] Therefore, the wage+salary share increases in a recession. He gives theoretical reasons – mainly that salaried workers’ employment and pay does not vary so much with output – and runs a regression on US data 1929-41 to back it up. This is exactly the opposite of deLong’s representation.

Kalecki does not use the Marxian value terminology, so DeLong’s use of ‘relative surplus value’ is odd.

DeLong seems to be vaguely remembering and mashing into Kalecki’s business cycle theory his infamous 1943 essay “Political aspects of full employment”, although here too Kalecki clearly argues that less-than-full employment is bad for profits: “It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on average under laissez-faire; and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices…” [p. 141]

But full employment was likely to meet political opposition from ‘business leaders’ and ‘captains of industry’ (he also never says ‘capital’ or ‘the ruling class’) because of (i) ideological prejudice against Government deficit spending and (ii) any expansion of public investment “which may foreshadow the intrusion of the state into the new spheres of economic activity” [p. 142], and (iii) dislike of the social and political consequences of greater working class confidence that comes with full employment. ‘Rentiers’ would have an additional reason: the erosion of their wealth from more rapid inflation. Kalecki thus predicted a political alliance between rentiers and the intellectual representatives of big industry, “and they would probably find more than one economist to declare that the situation was manifestly unsound.” [p. 144]

DeLong’s account of Kalecki’s views is thus completely misleading. But there’s some wholesale inventories data out today that might just make him rethink everything he thought he knew about Joan Robinson.

To which I would add that when I read Delong’s post I was sure he was channelling Paul Mattick:

“Both Marx and Keynes, then, though for different reason, recognize the capitalist dilemma in a declining rate of capital accumulation. Keynes diagnoses its cause as a lack of incentive to invest. Marx, looking behind the lack of incentive, finds the reason for it in the social character of production as a production of capital. Keynes does not regard crisis and depression as necessary aspects of capital formation; they are such only under laissez-faire conditions, and then only in the sense that the economic equilibrium does not include full employment. For Marx, however, a continuous capital accumulation presupposes periods of crises and depression, for the crisis is the only “equilibrium mechanism” which operates in capitalism with regard to its development. It is in the depression period that the capital structure undergoes those necessary changes which restore lost profitability and enable further capital expansion.”

Paul Mattick (1955), “Marx and Keynes”

So here we have three very different views of recessions and depressions and the way forward:

Keynes insufficient investment which can be remedied by augmenting effective demand (in a liquidity crisis);

Kalecki in accord with Keynes but sees political limits to full employment policies as a solution to aggregate demand and investment;

In Marx interpreted by Mattick, crises  restore a particular balance between productivity growth, wages and profits–with the restoration of profits hinging on rapid productivity growth and declining wages. Over at Angry bear just this scenario seems to be playing itself out in the US.  Productivity was running 9.5% and wage share of output is declining at an increasing pace.  Someone here is being vindicated.

That said, maybe Brad is just rehashing his own understanding of Marx, and like Keynes confesses to have never read him. Hence, it is of little surprise that Brad should make a mash-up of, what are for him, random Marxists and pin his tail on the wrong donkey. Just using the word “Marxist” is akin to the most vulgar of profanities for Brad and thus a display of his necessarily macho character so he thinks.

Someday leading liberals in the US will have to confess that they, like their Republican counterparts, are no Angles when it comes to accurate representation.  Further they will have to admit that much of what passes itself off as economics is really political economy–a confession that I am fine with.


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