To Move Beyond Boom and Bust, We Need a New Theory of Capitalism

This is the year that economics might, if we are lucky, turn a corner. There’s a deluge of calls for change in the way economics is taught in universities. There’s a global conference at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, where the giants of radical economics – including Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – will get their biggest ever mainstream platform. And there’s a film where a star of Monty Python talks to a puppet of Hyman Minsky.


Terry Jones’ documentary film Boom Bust Boom hits the cinemas this month. Using puppetry and talking heads (including mine), Jones is trying to popularize the work of Minsky, a US economist who died in 1996 but whose name has become for ever associated with the Lehman Brothers crash. Terrified analysts labelled it the “Minsky moment.”

Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.

This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external. It did so by reducing economic thought to the construction of abstract models, which perfectly describe the system 95% of the time, but break down during critical events.

In the aftermath of the crisis – which threatens some countries with a phase of stagnation lasting decades – Minsky’s insight has been acknowledged. But his supporters face a problem. The mainstream has a model; the radicals do not. The mainstream theory is “good enough” to run a business, a finance ministry or a central bank – as long as you are prepared, in practice, to ignore that theory when faced with crises.

That, effectively, describes the situation among the policymaking elite today. They are trying to wrestle the economy back into a state where their models can cope with it again, using measures their theories say are not needed: quantitative easing, bank nationalisations, partial debt defaults and currency devaluations.

The radical, pro-Minsky faction is at a disadvantage because it does not possess a complete alternative model of capitalism. Some have generated computer programs showing how financial crises happen. But, by their own admission, they do not have a complete alternative model of how capitalism works. They are, admits Dutch finance professor Theo Kocken, “roughly right” rather than “exactly wrong”. Kocken’s solution is to concentrate on why we misperceive risk. Behavioural economics has had a field day since 2008, identifying problems for the human brain when faced with complex risks: oversimplification, overconfidence and “confirmation bias”, where we ignore facts that challenge our existing beliefs. But adding behavioural insights to the Minsky model of financial mania does not turn it into a theory of capitalism.

Here, the parallels with events in physics are obvious. After Einstein’s big breakthrough, we were left with two competing – and mutually incompatible – accounts of the laws of physics. Einstein himself was dissatisfied with this, pursuing from the 1920s a “theory of everything”. It is a laudable aim in economics too. And this is where we come to the turning point. The defenders of orthodox economics and the Minsky rebels are, essentially, asking the same question: “What does capitalism normally look like?” The one answers “stable”; the other “unstable.” But it’s the wrong question. The right question is: Where are we in the long arc of capitalist development? Nearer the beginning, the middle or the end? But that question goes to the heart of darkness.

For the mainstream, their convictions about equilibrium and abstract models were always founded on the belief that capitalism is an eternal system: the social arrangement most completely reflecting human nature. Minsky’s followers, as with all followers of JM Keynes, assume that a better understanding of financial mania can stabilise an inherently unstable system. But even physicists, who study a universe that has lasted 13 billion years, are prepared to countenance – indeed, are obsessed with modelling – its death.

So the pursuit of theory is obligatory in economics. The holy grail is not a new orthodoxy, cobbled together from Minsky and the remnants of mainstream thought so that bankers can construct trading models to iron out problems created by the way our brains work. The aim should be something bigger to model capitalism’s current crisis within an understanding of its destiny.

For me, the most fundamental question in economics still concerns the 2008 crisis. Was this event the last in a series of shocks needed to allow a third technological revolution to take off? Or was it evidence that capitalism’s tendency to adapt and reshape in response to technology has stalled, or is even finished? That is the shadow we have to jump over in economics. Amid a mania for “new economic thinking,” it is what we need to think hardest about.

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