This week, Paul Krugman has been arguing that in some circumstances, the mysterious path of at least some capital investment can lead to lower wages, unemployment, and general misery. Furthermore, if the economy is not in "perfect competition," then a lot of the advantages of capital development are lost.
Likewise, he is arguing, at least some capital development can lead to monopoly in which capital is receiving large rents at the expense of workers and everyone else. There are a few things to remember as one goes through these two Krugman posts that he is not pointing out, yet do have significance.
These are interesting arguments, and they bring us back to the Socialist Calculation Debates that took place in the 1930s and 40s between socialists like Oskar Lange and Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek.
The first is that there is no such thing as an "aggregate production function." I remember several years ago attending a Paul Craig Roberts lecture in which he was arguing that if capital could move beyond national borders, then factors would revert to "absolute advantage," and one country would produce everything and make everyone else poorer. The disappearance of comparative advantage, of course, would mean that the Law of Opportunity Cost would also disappear, since comparative advantage is built upon the idea that there always is opportunity cost in producing anything.
He "proved" his point by using aggregate production functions, i.e. "Britain has this production function" and "China has THIS production function," and so on. That is nonsense. An attempt to aggregate something like numerous productions functions within an economy into One Big Function truly has no meaning; it is a fictitious concept like "aggregate demand" or "aggregate supply." In reality, one cannot reproduce any of these things. (Yeah, I know. This last statement will send the Keynesians into a frenzy.)
The second thing is Krugman's idea of "perfect competition" being some sort of Holy Condition. Remember that the assumptions necessary for "perfect competition" include perfect homogeneity of goods produced within an industry and small-scale capital, not to mention all firms being tiny and having no effect upon the overall supply of goods within a particular market.
Even the idea of homogeneity being the necessary ingredient for "competition" is laughable on its face. This kind of perfect homogeneity is not a basis for competition at all, but rather a basis for no competition, for if every good is exactly the same, an important mechanism for choice disappears and an economy then simply becomes little more than an exercise in randomness.
More important, socialists have argued that heterogeneity of goods then leads to inefficiency and "spatial monopolies" (to quote Joan Robinson). However, the concept of "efficiency" that Robinson and others were promoting (and I suppose Krugman believes it, too) is mathematical, not economic. The entire platform upon which these ideas are built is that everything discussed follows functions that are smooth, continuous, and twice-differentiable. While I have no problem with creating mathematical functions to use in parallel models to explain some aspects of an economy, the idea that an economy MUST follow exactly the constructs of mathematical models or it is creating great harm and must be smashed by the state is ludicrous.
It is obvious, then, that the entrepreneur in this whole Brave New Economy is a parasite, someone who disturbs the Holy Production Function, and creates heterogeneity, which then takes the economy down the Path of Perdition. There is a problem here that Krugman and others cannot answer: Why were the socialist economies of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites much more primitive than the economies of the "monopolistic" capitalists when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991?
After all, the aggregate planning mechanism of the socialist world followed what Robinson, Lange, and others claimed would create "efficiency." Lange argued that if planners had access to (1) production functions and (2) prices of goods (which could be found on financial pages in western newspapers), then planning an economy was as easy as solving a whole slew of simultaneous equations.
In fact, the Soviets were very good at solving these equations. As my math econ professor in grad school put it, the Soviets created a number of advancements in using matrices to solve these equations. However, he added, "It didn't do the economies any good."
Krugman, in trying to explain why corporate profits might be high at a time of high unemployment, simply reverts to the arguments used by Lange and Robinson and others: the U.S. economy is not in "perfect competition," monopolies abound everywhere, and the capitalists have managed to create aggregate production functions that don't benefit the workers, only the capitalists.
Salvation, in this view, lies in the omniscience of the monopolistic state. Yes, that huge monopoly known as government also contains the Very Secrets of how to create the perfectly-competitive economy that always operates at the point of efficiency. Bureaucrats and elite academic economists can collaborate to impose efficiency because they know exactly where the points of efficiency exist and they have the wisdom and foresight to move us to that point of Nirvana.
Krugman always is lambasting "faith-based" economics. I would contend that the economics of Paul Krugman requires the kind of religious faith that is not found in even the most fundamentalistic aspects of any religion. In the end, we get Faith-Based Keynesianism.
(To further demonstrate the whole idiocy of the Soviet economy, here is the link to a video on some of the automotive masterpieces produced by the Soviets back in the days when Paradise ruled.)