Thursday, June 27, 2013

Flawed Assumptions (2013)

Book Review from the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

What Went Wrong With Economics by Michael Reiss. Goldhurst Press. 2011

This is an interesting and provocative book that sets out to challenge a number of the received assumptions of conventional modern economics. The book is subtitled ‘The Flawed Assumptions That Led Economists Astray’ and this captures the essence of Reiss’s line of argument. There is an underlying supposition that if only economists really understood the market economy and its operation they would more effectively be able to recommend workable reforms to it.

Reiss makes some well argued points on occasion about the dynamic of markets, using a number of simplified, illustrative models (some taken from game theory or risk analysis) to explain his key points. Thus he shows that the dynamic of financial asset prices in capitalism is different to that for the prices of most other goods and services (e.g. when asset prices rise that often makes them more rather than less attractive to potential buyers – like those buying houses, or shares – on the basis that what goes up must continue to go up). He also discusses issues such as how statistical measurements within capitalism don’t always take into account such apparent market distortions – inflation measurements, for example, typically don’t include asset prices for houses, bonds, shares and so on, despite their prominence in the economy.

Reiss argues for a financial transaction tax on secondary sharedealing to stop stock market bubbles, and land reform and banking reform to address housing bubbles. He also argues against private pensions on the grounds that these also encourage asset price bubbles and crashes, and that the banks should not ‘create money’ for non-productive purposes like the granting of mortgages, share and derivatives dealing, and so on.

There are a number of problems with these so-called solutions to modern economic problems, however. One is that the proverbial genie is already out of the bottle and won’t go back in. If any government tried to implement these reforms they would only serve to prompt a massive outflow of capital to parts of the world economy that did not impose such restrictions. Such a capital outflow would cripple any economy and no government in the modern world would seriously contemplate it.

Also, Reiss is missing a trick, because he has focused almost entirely on what might be termed the financial and credit-based superstructure of capitalism as a system rather than its fundamentals. Indeed, it is illustrative that Marx and Marxian economics are not mentioned at all. This is a serious omission because Marxian economics explains why the surface phenomena within capitalism that Reiss rails against are the reflection of the deeper, underlying ‘laws of motion’ of the market economy.

To take one example, the problem within capitalism regarding housing and mortgages is not that large numbers of people are debt-slaves to banks and that this situation needs reforming (there are plenty of countries in the world where renting – part of Reiss’s favoured solution – is more common than buying houses using mortgages, and people there are no better off because of it). The real problem is that capitalism everywhere is based on an antagonistic system of income distribution where the vast majority of the population cannot directly access housing on the basis of need. Access to this housing is dependant instead on their ability to use their restricted salaries, wages or benefits to pay for it. But those who own the land and the houses (as well as the factories and offices, etc more generally) naturally wish to pay their workers as little as possible, so there is a clash of interests. It is this intrinsically class-divided aspect of capitalism, combined with the anarchic, unplanned nature of the market economy’s expansion that is a consequence of its competitive nature, which is the real issue. It is this that causes permanent social problems like poor housing and also periodic economic crises. Credit and asset price bubbles are an aggravating feature of this, but not its fundamental cause (for instance, there would have been no sub-prime mortgage crisis without an impoverished section of the working class in need of these sub-prime mortgages . . . ).

For Marx, the financial apparatus of capitalism and the periodic expansion and contraction of its credit system wasn’t the problem of itself, but essentially a reflection of it. Indeed, at root, it is focusing almost exclusively on this surface phenomenon rather than the deeper, underlying structural factors within capitalism that has led Reiss astray in this otherwise readable book. 

Capitalism is Sharia-Compliant (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sharia law bans lending money at interest, denouncing it, as Christianity used to, as ‘usury.’ So how come there can be such a thing as ‘Islamic banking?’

Sharia commercial law emerged as a way of regulating trade in pre-capitalist times in those parts of the world where Islam was the dominant religion. This trade was fairly extensive (think Silk Road) and involved buying goods in one place and transporting them to another where they could be sold at a higher price that would more than cover the expenses. Buying cheap to sell dear. Mohammed himself had been such a merchant.

Sharia commercial law was perfectly happy with a merchant making a money profit and distinguished this from a moneylender’s interest by seeing it as coming from the merchant using goods rather than money. The profit derived from the goods, not money. It is this concept that modern Muslim theologians have built on to get round their religion’s ban on making money out of money; this is all right as long as it involves using goods in the course of making the money.

In fact sharia commercial law developed many of the same practices that later emerged in Christian Europe. For instance, the word ‘cheque’ comes from the Arabic word sakk. The (London) Times Raconteur supplement on ‘Islamic Finance’ (16 April) quoted Harris Irfan, described as ‘a seasoned Islamic finance professional,’ as saying:

‘Trade finance ... fits neatly into the Sharia system because, rather than providing a loan and charging interest on it, the bank effectively buys the asset and then sells it to the end-buyer, with the mark-up being the profit.’

Discounting trade bills was precisely one of the origins of banking in Western Europe. There are ‘Islamic mortgages’ too:

‘Common forms of Islamic mortgages include ijara, in which the homebuyer pays rent until they purchase the property outright by a given period, and diminishing musharaka, which is an equity partnership where the homebuyer and mortgage-provider share ownership of the property until it is bought back in monthly instalments.’

The trick, then, is to make a loan of money appear to be a loan of a non-money asset and the Muslim theologians will declare it sharia-compliant. Property speculation easily passes the test as, like the merchants of old, it involves buying something cheap to sell dear later.

But what about bonds? Surely these, as an arrangement whereby you lend a government or a company money and receive regular fixed payments and get your money back at the end, can’t be sharia-compliant? But no, Islamic financiers have developed a product called ‘sukuk’ which is a bond in all but name.

This gets by the clerics by claiming that the stream of income that provides the regular payments comes from the asset in which the money is invested, not from the money itself. Actually, this is the case. Which means, ironically, that sharia commercial law has a more accurate explanation for banks’ interest than that of most economics textbooks. Despite appearances, money can’t produce more money out of nothing. The source of interest is always in the end, and in however roundabout a way, past or future production; in other words, from the use of non-money assets.

Sharia law condemns the appearance but not the substance; in fact it emphasises the substance. In Marxist terms it condemns M-M but not M-C-M (where M is money and C is commodity). Which is why it had no objection to capitalist production when it developed. Capitalism, Muslim capitalists will be pleased to learn, is sharia-compliant.