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Friday, March 06, 2009

"Capitalism Beyond the Crisis"

This is from a longer essay by Amartya Sen in the New York Review of Books:

Capitalism Beyond the Crisis, by Amartya Sen, NYRB: ...While Adam Smith has recently been much quoted, even if not much read, there has been a huge revival, even more recently, of John Maynard Keynes. Certainly, the cumulative downturn that we are observing right now, which is edging us closer to a depression, has clear Keynesian features...

However, Keynes can be our savior only to a very partial extent, and there is a need to look beyond him in understanding the present crisis. One economist whose current relevance has been far less recognized is Keynes's rival Arthur Cecil Pigou... Pigou was much more concerned than Keynes with economic psychology and the ways it could influence business cycles and sharpen and harden an economic recession that could take us toward a depression (as indeed we are seeing now). Pigou attributed economic fluctuations partly to "psychological causes"...

It is hard to ignore the fact that today, in addition to the Keynesian effects of mutually reinforced decline, we are strongly in the presence of "errors of...undue pessimism." Pigou focused particularly on the need to unfreeze the credit market when the economy is in the grip of excessive pessimism... One of the problems that the Obama administration has to deal with is that the real crisis ... has become many times magnified by a psychological collapse. ...

The contrast between Pigou and Keynes is relevant for another reason as well. While Keynes was very involved with the question of how to increase aggregate income, he was relatively less engaged in analyzing problems of unequal distribution of wealth and of social welfare. In contrast, Pigou not only wrote the classic study of welfare economics, but he also pioneered the measurement of economic inequality as a major indicator for economic assessment and policy.[7] ...

A third way in which Keynes needs to be supplemented concerns his relative neglect of social services—indeed even Otto von Bismarck had more to say on this subject than Keynes. That the market economy can be particularly bad in delivering public goods (such as education and health care) has been discussed by some of the leading economists of our time... This is, of course, a long-term issue, but it is worth noting in addition that the bite of a downturn can be much fiercer when health care in particular is not guaranteed for all.

For example, in the absence of a national health service, every lost job can produce a larger exclusion from essential health care... The failure of the market mechanism to provide health care for all has been flagrant, most noticeably in the United States, but also in the sharp halt in the progress of health and longevity in China following its abolition of universal health coverage in 1979. ...

The revival of Keynes has much to contribute both to economic analysis and to policy, but the net has to be cast much wider. ... A crisis not only presents an immediate challenge that has to be faced. It also provides an opportunity to address long-term problems ... like conservation of the environment and national health care, as well as the need for public transport, which has been very badly neglected ... even in the initial policies announced by the Obama administration

The present economic crises do not, I would argue, call for a "new capitalism," but they do demand a new understanding of older ideas, such as those of Smith and, nearer our time, of Pigou, many of which have been sadly neglected. What is also needed is a clearheaded perception of how different institutions actually work, and of how a variety of organizations—from the market to the institutions of the state—can go beyond short-term solutions and contribute to producing a more decent economic world. ...

    Posted by on Friday, March 6, 2009 at 12:15 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)


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