Monday, March 26, 2012

politics and methodology: alternative teaching resources

"Pyramid of Capitalist System"
We at Anti-Mankiw are no strangers to the idea that politics shapes economists' theories about how the world works. Unlike Mankiw, who regularly asserts in his textbook an ideal-type of "observation, theory, observation" method of economic science, the fact of the matter is that how we view the world often shapes our evaluation of the facts of that world.

Perhaps in no other place in economic theory is this fact more true, and thus more dangerous, than in the Marxian vs. non-Marxian (or neoclassical) theory of distribution. When Marx argued that the source of all wealth is the laborer and that surplus value, or profits, were taken from the laborer by the capitalist, neoclassical economists replied with a theory of distribution asserting that capital earns its fare share of the output, too.

The neoclassical response in the late 1800s offered a new theory, or new way of looking at the world. This subsequently helped shape how all neoclassical economists thought about the source of profits: instead of seeing them as fundamentally sourced from workers, these economists saw capital and entrepreneurs simply getting their fair share of the pie -- represented by the marginal price of capital multiplied by the marginal physical product of capital, or the value added by capitalists to production. This victory was a major one for capitalists because it essentially legitimated their control/monopoly over the means of production, which is really the main role capitalists play.

No more explanation for all the profit was necessary! And the political consequences were indeed severe. For one, the neoclassical response to Marx came in the 1870s, when labor militancy across Western Europe and America was reacting to a rapidly growing capitalist power in politics and the workplace. And the political victory is felt even up to today: even when compensation starts to be outstripped by worker productivity as it did in the 1970s, neoclassical economists could simply ignore it because in their baseline model, workers get what they put in, and so does capital. The rest was just minor details.

Why do we mention this now? Because Fred Moseley from Mount Holyoke College has written an excellent introduction to the neoclassical theory of distribution as well as some ways to critique it for an introductory- or intermediate-level class. Find it here. We highly recommend checking it out and trying it out in your own classes!


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