Shackle and uncertainty

Reading this interview with G.L.S. Shackle, I am struck by this point:

“involuntary unemployment” merely means that there are people who haven’t enough faith in their expectations to give employment.

Something I’ve always been unclear about with regards to Keynes is whether he (and the post Keynesians, and weird hybrids like Shackle) believed that uncertainty was the only barrier to full employment. There is no obligation on anyone to use all the resources at their disposal. You could argue that the only reason anyone ever maintains excess resources is because of uncertainty, but this presupposes that you – the individual entrepreneur – have direct control the quantity of the resources available to you.

In this context the “resource” is the population of employable people. The entrepreneurial class does not control the population of employable people, and it is not clear that they would necessarily choose to employ the entire population of employable people, even if they had perfect foresight. Indeed it could be argued that the *ahem* entrepreneurial class has an interest in keeping a reserve army of labour unemployed so as to maintain discipline within the ranks of those they do choose to employ.

Once again, economics ignores the political dimension.

Two economic realms

There is a real world of production, consumption, exchange, and distribution. At any given moment in time the economic system has a certain capacity. This capacity is determined by the total number of people available to work; and the total amount of tools, plant, and infrastructure they have available with which to work.


This capacity is not fixed in time. The total capacity can change through time. This change in total capacity can occur in several distinct ways:

  1. Changes in technology may enable more desirable economic outputs (or fewer undesirable outputs) with a fixed given set of inputs;
  2. Changes in the skills of the workforce may change the nature and quantity of the goods and services the economy is capable of producing; and,
  3. Changes the relative amounts of plant, tools, equipment, and infrastructure may change the nature and quantity of the goods and services the economy is capable of producing.

Point 1 is about changes in the quality tools through time, as well as the creation of new tools in response to new desires. Points 2 and 3 are about changes in the relative ratios of different existing desires. WWII provides examples of all three types of change. The war saw technological change, but it also saw changes in the type of outputs that the economies of the combatant economies were actually producing, and hence the skills and tools that were deployed.


Because this real world of production, consumption, exchange, and distribution involves people interacting and coordinating their efforts, there needs to be some way for them to communicate with each other. One of the unique features of the animal known as homo sapiens is our use of symbolic communication. This enables humans to coordinate their actions in ways that other animals are simply incapable.

There are lots of tools for symbolic communication. Books and instruction manuals are one example; prices and money are another. Although a particular form of symbolic communication will be instantiated in a particular way (for example, being recorded in a notebook, or stored in magnetic charges on a computer hard drive), it is their meaning, which is generated within human minds, that is really important as far as economics is concerned.

Symbols have meanings, and, depending on those meanings, symbols cause humans to behave in different ways. If I have lots of the symbol known as “money” (i.e. if my bank balance is high) I will behave differently than if I have little money. A share in a company is a symbol of the estimate of the real wealth that that company possesses at the moment and an estimate of the wealth it will generate in the future. This estimate is generated by the judgements of many different people, including accountants and market participants.

If I have purchased a share in a company I will behave differently depending on whether that symbolic value increases or decreases. If it decreases in value I may choose to “sell” my share in the company, thus cutting my losses, in doing so I will affect a small change on the collective estimate of that company’s prospects for generating real wealth.


There are two kinds of wealth; real wealth, and symbolic wealth. Real wealth is the ability to acquire a particular real good or real service at a time I wish. Symbolic wealth is the method by which we humans keep track of what our real wealth is, who is belongs to, and how it should be organised.

In praise of hierarchies

In which your humble correspondent has a minor disagreement with Chris Dillow.

Blogging titan Chris Dillow does not like managers.

As you would expect from such a luminary, Chris’s reasons for disliking the Boss Class are astute and well-thought-out:

The pursuit of efficiency – managerialism’s main goal – cannot be a value-free exercise. “Efficiency” has many conflicting meanings. Does it mean increasing GDP per head, Pareto-optimality, utilitarianism, maximizing Rawlsian primary goods or maximizing capabilities, in Amartya Sen’s sense? How do we choose a meaning of efficiency from this menu? And if we choose utilitarianism (as managerialism often does) what is the moral justification for imposing costs on some – up to and including death, Mr Hoon – so that others can gain?

Chris makes the important distinction between managerialism and management. Managerialism is the ideology of the managerial class, and as such is the ruling ideology of our age. Management, or technocracy, is the application of science to the problem of achieving certain ends given certain resources, and is therefore a branch of engineering*.

I disagree with Chris that all top-down management is harmful. My reasons for thinking this are as follows.

An industrial society requires specialisation. Our world is too complex for one individual intellect to encompass any more than a tiny fraction of it in any depth. In order to function, our industrial society requires that people specialise and develop expertise in particular areas. We need teachers, nurses, paramedics, electrical engineers, baristas, taxi drivers, geologists, science fiction writers, booksellers, economists, entertainers, and economics bloggers. No one (contra Heinlein) can learn how to excel in every one of these areas.

Specialisation requires informational transfer. Individual people, with their individual specialisations, need a way of communicating. It is only through communication that these individual experts will be able to co-ordinate, and it is only through co-ordination that they will be able to deliver the products, projects, and services that we desire.

How is this co-ordination to be achieved? There are two broad answers to this question. One is hierarchy, and the other is… Something. I’m not going to say ‘markets’ because I’m fed up with that word. Call it decentralised co-ordination.


I know what a hierarchy is. I understand what a hierarchy is. It is a situation in which one person is vested with authority, and this authority entitles them to tell other people what to do, and it requires that those people do actually do what the first person tells them to do (within various limits and subject to various contextual caveats yaddah yaddah…).

But what is a market?


At this stage a market might as well be an invisible unicorn that grants magical wishes, or a pair of intersecting lines on a page of a textbook, or a place you go to at weekends to buy overpriced honey with bits of honeycomb left in it. I honestly don’t know any more. “The market” means so many things to say many different people that I give up on trying to understand it.

So instead of market, I will use the term decentralised co-ordination. This encompasses a much broader set of behaviours than just whatever markets are taken to be. When motorists are traversing a roundabout they are engaging in decentralised co-ordination. The crowds who walk down Oxford Street are engaging in decentralised co-ordination when they avoid bumping into each other (most of the time).


De-centralised co-ordination has a problem. This problem is best illustrated by an example. Suppose we want to build an aeroplane. This is a complex task and therefore requires specialisation. Specialisation requires co-ordination. Co-ordination requires communication. The problem is that within a completely  decentralised system of co-ordination each individual would have to communicate with each other individual. This results in a combinatorial explosion in the amount of communication that has to go on.

If you have, say, 300 engineers working on the design, manufacture, and commissioning of your aeroplane then, in a completely decentralised situation, each engineer would have to engage in 300! interactions (that’s factorial 300) in order to co-ordinate her individual efforts with her fellow engineers.

How much is 300 factorial? If we assume that each interaction will be a “brief chat”, how many “brief chats” will our engineers have to engage in so as to design, manufacture, and commission our aeroplane?

According to Wolfram Alpha, about this many:











Wow. OK.

So, what do we do?

A far more sensible option is to divide the engineers into functional groupings and have each group sub-divided into smaller groups, where each group reports to one particular engineer who digests their information and then passes it up the chain, whilst receiving instruction from those above based on what she has told them; in other words, a hierarchy.

If we have one engineer at the top of the chain, and if she has seven engineers reporting to her, and they have seven engineers reporting to each of them, and they have seven engineers reporting to each of them… we end up with a potential capacity of 1 + 7 + 49 + 343 engineers. What are the total number of “brief chats” required now?

Well let’s see, we have one to seven, then each one of those seven to seven, then each one of those seven to (substantially less than) 343.

So it’s 7 to the 4 right? That’s how many brief chats are going to have to take place. Which according to Wolfram Alpha is:


Which is a lot, yeah? But a lot less than we’d be dealing with if we expected our engineers to communicate on a completely non-hierarchical basis. Two thousand four hundred and ten is a tractable number. You can do business with that kind of number.

This is why hierarchies exist. They are more informationally efficient than non-hierarchies. We have managers because if we didn’t, we couldn’t have cheap flights, we couldn’t have a nuclear deterrent, we couldn’t have the Internet, we couldn’t have electricity. We couldn’t have almost all of the goods and services afforded by our wonderful industrial society.

Bosses exist for a reason; if we didn’t have them, we’d have to create them. Or live in mud huts and grow all our own food.

This may sound strange. Many people think of hierarchies as barriers to communication. We see them as controlling, fusty, bureaucratic, and inefficient.

But really they’re not. Like democracy, hierarchies are the least bad solution to the problem they are intended to solve.


Some guy on Twitter disagreed with my disagreement with Chris. So what about Kaizen? Well Kaizen is all very well. But the other pillar of the Toyota production system is something called Just In Time. JIT is not a system that spontaneously arose because of the self-interested actions of atomistic individuals working as equals. JIT requires enormous amounts of discipline, morale, and managerial gumption to implement in the first place, and then requires that workers maintain that level of discipline consistently for a long period of time.

So how does one ensure that the workers maintain that level of discipline? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the workers are kept in line?

Well, the bosses, of course.

Once again, the question devolves to an issue of who benefits. Are workers better off for being corralled and controlled? Are the fruits of hierarchical, specialised industrialisation such that workers are – on the whole – better off for being managed? I honestly don’t know.

The real problem here is…


Chris has a point. Left Outside has a point. Hierarchies lend themselves to rent-seeking and power-grubbing. Here’s a points from Left Outside:

I’m thinking more along the lines of avoiding bad news, important people overriding the more knowledgeable.

This happens. But I submit that this will happen in basically any situation involving human beings ever. This is a problem of power, not hierarchy, per se. The problem, as ever, is politics. It is about the morality of the right of some people to dictate to others, as opposed to the effectiveness of the right of some people to dictate to others.

Kaizen is a good thing to have, but it only works if you treat your employees with respect. I don’t know what ‘respect’ means in this context. Some people would argue that demanding that people work for a capitalistic enterprise is inherently disrespectful, but there you are.

Bosses are always going to exist. I’d rather they were all elected by their peers, rather than being appointed by our capitalist overlords; but the fact remains they are necessary. Any socialist utopia worth living in will have bosses, because any socialist utopia worth living in will need the kinds of products, projects, and services that can only be provided by hierarchical organisations.


Like any technology, hierarchy can be used for malicious and anti-social purposes. But that doesn’t mean the technology is intrinsically harmful or that it isn’t worth using in the first place.

*Chris calls technocracy a practice, in the sense used by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Markets vs. central planning: some distinctions

I left the following comment on Unlearning Economics’ post at Peria:

As I see it, there are three intermingled debates going on here. They are: 1) An argument about the relative information-theoretic and allocative abilities of centralised hierarchical systems on the one hand and decentralised market systems on the other; 2) an argument about the intrinsic ethical and moral status of various types of political economy; and 3) an empirical argument about which nation states have killed the most people, and been responsible for the most suffering.

On the subject of argument 1): Free markets are not the same thing as capitalism. Central planning is not the same thing as communism. There has been a tendency for capitalist countries to exhibit far greater decentralisation of decision making and a greater reliance on some form of market system; but this historical fact doesn’t mean that ‘private ownership of the means of production’ necessarily requires a market system, nor does it mean that the historical tendency for communist countries to adopt central planning means that *all* future communist or socialist economies must be built around central planning.

I would also note that the most economically successful countries have historically used *both* central planning (in the form of large, centralised private firms; large, centralised government departments; and government-directed industrial policy) and decentralised market systems. Markets and hierarchies are tools, and different jobs require different tools.

I recommend ‘The Market System’ by Charles Lindblom on this subject. ‘The Origin of Wealth’ by Eric Beinhocker is also very good.


Capitalism vs. communism and markets vs. central planning

Reading the comments under this excellent article by Unlearning Economics, I am struck by the fact that most of the arguments in the capitalism vs. communism debate are let down by the two sides failing to lay out rigorous definitions from the outset. In order for a proper debate to take place, both sides must specify what they consider to be the necessary and sufficient conditions for an economy to be considered ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist.’

I have pointed out before that markets are not the same thing as capitalism; it would be useful now to note that central planning is not the same thing as communism. Historically, most so-called communist states have attempted to engage in central planning, rather than in market-based solutions to problems of resource allocation; but this does not mean that all conceivable communist states must necessarily engage in central planning.

I’ve just realised I used the phrase ‘so-called communist states’ in my previous paragraph; in doing so, I could be accused of ‘special pleading’, and claiming that ‘true communism’ has never existed. This wasn’t my intention, which was to highlight the fact that just because people give something a particular name doesn’t mean that the name is accurate or descriptive.

So what is communism?

I’m not entirely sure. I can think of several highly limited and unsatisfactory definitions off the top of my head. Marx himself was somewhat vague on the subject of exactly what communism would look like. This continuing vagueness is part of the problem; communism can mean lots of things to lots of different people, just like capitalism. All this just shows how important it is to lay out rigorous definitions at the outset.

Some thoughts on Charles E. Lindblom’s “The Market System”

The Market System: What It Is, How It Works, and What to Make of It is a very good book. Go read it, and enjoy. Lindblom is the epitome of scholarly good faith and rhetorical balance. He presents a fair and intellectually rigorous analysis of just what it is we speak of when we speak of ‘the market’ or, as he calls it, ‘the market system.’ Care is taken to distinguish capitalism from the market system, and to discuss allocative efficiency as something distinct from dynamic efficiency. Lindblom recognises that the market system is a fragile instrument, which cannot work in isolation from a set of other institutions and norms of ethical practice.

This is not intended as a complete review or, God forbid, a precis of the book. It is my understanding that The Market System is by way of being a precis of Lindblom’s life work, and as such the book is as informationally dense as one would expect. It is fairly abstract and theoretical, which I appreciate*, but utterly readable and compelling. There are a few points which I feel need to be highlighted, as they are many important insights I would like to be able to refer back to at a later date. I am going to list some of these insights here, with a short comment:

Markets are about co-ordination.

Society is based on co-ordination. People behave in ways that enable them to achieve common and personal ends. Lindblom distinguishes between two types of co-ordination. One is co-ordination to curb violence inflicted by one person against another. The other, more ambitious form of co-ordination involves people helping each other to accomplish goals.

Co-ordination can be achieved in a number of different ways. One way is tyrannical, that is, it consist of one person telling other people what to do. Another way of achieving co-ordination is democratic, whereby people collectively decide what to do, and which among them shall do it.

Lindblom argues that the market system is ‘a method of social co-ordination by mutual adjustment among participants rather than by a central co-ordinator.’ The market is just one form of social co-ordination, and is not the only form of social co-ordination that takes place without a central co-ordinator. One example Lindblom gives of non-market, co-ordinator-less social co-ordination** is that of people walking down the street without bumping into each other. We observe where other people are heading, we make eye-contact, and adjust our own heading to those of other people, who in turn adjust their heading… und so weiter.

The nature of efficiency

Lindblom defines efficiency as “the ratio of valued output to valued input’. He then presents the argument for ‘efficiency prices’, which was the part of the book I was least happy with. ‘Efficiency prices’ are ratios between different commodities and services determined by good old-fashioned supply and demand, with all the limitations and abstractions of such arguments. I’m not going to discuss it much further here, but I will note that Lindblom is alive to the problems of the ‘efficiency prices’ argument as he presented it. Some of these problems include:

  1. Real market systems contain monopolies that limit the extent to which real market systems can approximate efficiency prices.
  2. Some goods and services are, by their very nature, not amenable to being traded in market systems.
  3. Spillovers, also known as externalities.

Allocative efficiency versus dynamic efficiency.

One way in which markets are about competition lies in their role in dynamic efficiency. This is in contrast with allocative efficiency, which entails that a given set of resources are distributed in a fashion that leads to an outcome superior to the initial condition. Allocative efficiency is about co-ordination.

But Dynamic efficiency, whereby agents change what they supply to the market in response to changes in market demand, is, arguably, about competition. Because it is through competition that those agents that attempt to provide one service at too high a cost are ‘forced out’ and therefore required to provide some other service. The distinction here between co-operation and competition becomes blurred, and might ultimately come down to a matter of nuance and personal values. For example, is it ‘efficient’ if a worker is replaced by a machine that does the worker’s job for less money? Maybe, maybe not, it all depends.

Think social, not economic.

The market system is not something that exists independently of society. The market is one element of the vast and interlocking set of systems that human beings have developed to solve problems of social co-ordination and co-operation. Although we are used to thinking of ‘the economy’ as a separate entity from (say) ‘the Church’ or ‘the state’, all of these institutions impinge on each other in countless different ways. Moreover the way they impinge on each other has changed over time, and this has changed how the market system itself is thought of and (as a consequence) how the market system works.

Islands of hierarchy in a sea of markets.

Lindblom distinguishes between market systems and command systems. He also notes that a great deal of economic activity actually takes place in hierarchical command systems, rather than purely through markets. Corporations exist, and their internal operation is guided through a more-or-less centralised command and control system. Command systems and market systems are two different solutions to problems of co-ordination, and each has their own pros and cons.

Market outcomes are not fair

Because prior determinations (e.g. inherited property, IQ, talent) are randomly allocated, there is no inherent justice in the market system. Market outcomes are as just as the prior determinations that go into them. Because the prior determinations are random at best, or the result of a long history of coercion and violence at worst, then market outcomes are not just.

Elites and mass

Lindblom distinguishes between ‘elites’ and ‘mass’ in both the governmental and market domains. He highlights how the elites – the ruling classes – of both the public and private sector, have successfully obfuscated and manipulated the public, who are rendered ignorant by a constant barrage of advertising and propaganda.


This latter point is crucially important. I don’t know if there ever was a golden age of enlightened public discourse, but it is clear to me that the ‘mass’ of the developed world has become more inert and ignorant*** even as it has lost the ability to act as a countermanding power to the interests of elites, whether they be market or governmental. I don’t know what to do about this.



* I dislike the habit some writers have of peppering their books with Illustrative Anecdotes (Malcolm Gladwell, I’m looking at you Ketchup Boy). Examples are fine, but I’d rather have them presented within a framework of rigorous theoretical argument. Lindblom strikes exactly the right pedagogical pose, at least as far as I’m concerned, but I realise that this fairly abstract approach might not be to everyone’s taste.

** Jesus Christ that’s an ugly sentence. Writing is really difficult.

*** So this is a point that’s been on my mind for some time now. I really, really don’t want to be one of those guys that sits at his computer bewailing how ignorant and stupid everyone else is and how all the bad things in the world are because everyone else is so ignorant and stupid, not least because I recognise that I’m pretty ignorant and stupid myself. Yet here we are.

Markets are not the same thing as capitalism

Many left wingers are, broadly speaking, against markets. This is unfortunate, because markets are powerful tools for solving particular problems of collective action. Markets can enable diverse agents to engage in cooperation, on a more-or-less equal basis, in a fashion that leads to every participant agent being better off than they would be in the absence of the market.

So why are left-wingers so suspicious of markets? After all, as Chris Dillow argues, markets encourage many of the behaviours and outlooks that left wingers eulogise; individual freedom, consideration for the needs of others, and co-operation in pursuit of general prosperity. So it is perhaps surprising that there is so much hostility to market solutions on the left.

I suspect that the reason for this is that right-wingers have successfully elided capitalism and markets in popular debate on the subject, with the result that many left-wingers believe arguing against the iniquities of capitalism requires that they also argue against the use of markets. This view is reinforced by the historical observation that the rise of the ‘market system’ occurred alongside the rise of capitalism.

But it is important to note that capitalism and markets are not the same thing, nor is one a necessary condition for the other. Capitalism is a social system in which the means of production are privately owned, and in which those means of production grow and accumulate over time. Markets are a social technology whereby individual agents aggregate knowledge and so optimise the allocation of a given set of resources. The knowledge they aggregate consists of information about their abilities and resources, and information about their desires and needs.

It is possible for a social system to be capitalistic and simultaneously lack free markets. The ‘market’ for oil in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century was such a social system. The means of production were owned by one company, which largely dictated the price of oil. Similarly it is possible for markets to exist in social systems that are not capitalistic, for example one can conceive of a social system consisting of worker-owned cooperatives which interact with each other through market interactions.

So markets are distinct from capitalism. Capitalism is a social system with characteristics that many find iniquitous. Markets are a tool – a very powerful tool – for resource allocation, and like all powerful tools they need careful monitoring, maintenance, and oversight for them to work properly. Furthermore it is important to use the right tools for the job, and to recognise those problems for which markets are not a suitable solution.