Secular Stagnation: Mainstream versus Marxian Traditions

By Despain, Hans G. | Monthly Review, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Secular Stagnation: Mainstream versus Marxian Traditions


Despain, Hans G., Monthly Review


Paul M. Sweezy wrote in 1982, "it is my impression that the economics profession has not yet begun to resume the debate over stagnation which was so abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War." Thirty years later things appear to have changed. Former U.S. Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers shocked economists with his remarks regarding "stagnation" at the IMF Research Conference in November 2013, and he later published these ideas in the Financial Times and Business Economics.1

Summers's remarks and articles were followed by an explosion of debate concerning "secular stagnation"-a term commonly associated with Alvin Hansen's work from the 1930s to '50s, and frequently employed in Monthly Review to explain developments in the advanced economies from the 1970s to the early 2000s.2 Secular stagnation can be defined as the tendency to long-term (or secular) stagnation in the private accumulation process of the capitalist economy, manifested in rising unemployment and excess capacity and a slowdown in overall economic growth. It is often referred to simply as "stagnation." There are numerous theories of secular stagnation but most mainstream theories hearken back to Hansen, who was Keynes's leading early follower in the United States, and who derived the idea from various suggestions in Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936).

Responses to Summers have been all over the map, reflecting both the fact that the capitalist economy has been slowing down, and the role in denying it by many of those seeking to legitimate the system. Stanford economist John B. Taylor contributed a stalwart denial of secular stagnation in the Wail Street Journal. In contrast, Paul Krugman, who is closely aligned with Summers, endorsed secular stagnation on several occasions in the New York Times. Other notable economists such as Brad DeLong and Michael Spence soon weighed in with their own views.3

Three prominent economists have new books directly addressing the phenomena of secular stagnation.4 It has now been formally modelled by Brown University economists Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra, while Thomas Piketty's high-profile book bases its theoretical argument and policy recommendations on stagnation tendencies of capitalism. This explosion of interest in the Summers/Krugman version of stagnation has also resulted in a collection of articles and debate, edited by Coen Teulings and Richard Baldwin, entitled Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures.5

Seven years after "The Great Financial Crisis" of 2007-2008, the recovery remains sluggish. It can be argued that the length and depth of the Great Financial Crisis is a rather ordinary cyclical crisis. However, the monetary and fiscal measures to combat it were extraordinary. This has resulted in a widespread sense that there will not be a return to "normal." Summers/Krugman's resurrection within the mainstream of Hansen's concept of secular stagnation is an attempt to explain how extraordinary policy measures following the 2007-2008 crisis merely led to the stabilization of a lethargic, if not comatose, economy.

But what do these economists mean by secular stagnation? If stagnation is a reality, does their conception of it make current policy tools obsolete? And what is the relationship between the Summers/Krugman notion of secular stagnation and the monopoly-finance capital theory?

Below the Mainstream Ideas of Secular Stagnation (hereafter MISS) are presented as six pillars, or six fundamental arguments, which constitute a renewed interest in secular stagnation. This is not to suggest these six arguments are all compatible with each other-indeed they are not, since they represent, as we shall see, a mainstream debate about the relative relevance of demand-side and supply-side causes of secular stagnationbut simply to help make sense of the broad parameters of MISS. We can then contrast the MISS understanding, representing the character of mainstream economic theory in this area, to monopoly-finance capital theory's quite different understanding of the stagnation tendency. …

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