Friday, January 15, 2010

Stock Taking on the Cambridge Capital Debate

With a new semester, comes a lot of driving for me (I teach at multiple locations for MOC) and that means I have time to listen to the podcasts of lectures that I haven’t had time for earlier. One of these was Roger Garrison’s excellent lecture on “Macroeconomics: The Boom and Bust Cycle.” The video and mp3 are found here.

During the question and answer period, a question came up on the Cambridge Capital Debate. The debate was started by neo-Ricardian economists like Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa who argued that there was a mathematical flaw in the Austrian conception of capital. They argued that there could be “capital reswitching.” At a low interest rate, a producer would use method A, but as interest rates rise they would switch to method B—so far, so good. However, they argued that if the interest rate went even higher, then the producer would switch back to method A, hence “reswitching.”

The Austrians debated the neo-Ricardians’ points and this debate is called the “Cambridge Capital Debate.” Why Cambridge? Well, that is where Robinson taught and it was from there that the controversy was launched.

A few years ago, after the article by Cohen and Harcourt (2003) came out I did a little stock taking about the debate and found that there were few very answers to the modern Austrian responses. I have not published them, but kept them for a handy reference. After listening to the question posed to Garrison, I figure that a blog might make an excellent source to cite simply because this controversy has a tendency to come up without any regard for the state of the debate, especially if you are arguing with a Post-Keynesian.

So here are 10 issues that I think the “reswitchers” need to address before the debate can continue:

  1. Yeager’s (1979) argument on “waiting” as a component in the production process;
  2. Garrison’s (1979) species-reswitching parody;
  3. Garrison’s (1979) and Robinson’s (1975) observation that the reswitching differences are very small;
  4. Yeager’s (1979) and Garrison’s (1979) observation that there is really no reswitching occurring, but the problem only appears because when we are comparing two static states;
  5. Yeager’s (1979) observation that there is no mechanism to “move” the interest rate independently and without a causal factor;
  6. Lachmann’s (1978) observation that the debate consists more between the neo-Classicals and the neo-Ricardians, not the Austrians;
  7. Lachmann’s (1978) insistence that the problem is with macroeconomic formalism that ignores microeconomic foundations;
  8. Lachmann’s (1978) emphasis that there is no single rate of profit or return in the real world;
  9. Lachmann’s (1978) observation that the neo-Ricardians do not adequately deal with expectations; and finally
  10. Yeager (1979), Garrison (1979) and Lachmann’s (1978) observations that the problem really stems from the fact that the production function is presented as a relationship between physically defined capital inputs.

This last issue is of particular importance. Usually the neo-Ricardian will create an input/output table and shows how much steel, etc. is used in each stage of production. Then the neo-Ricardian assumes that any unit of steel is perfectly substitutable with any other unit of steel. This sort of analysis is not how an Austrian sees the Structure of Production. A ton of steel in an early stage of production is not necessarily substitutable with a ton of steel at a later stage of production. In fact, the same applies to labor and every other type of resource in the production process. Inputs and Capital, in particular, are not transferable homogeneous blobs. There are degrees of complementarity and substitutability that varies with each production process.

In order to bring back the debate, the neo-Ricardians need to respond to the Austrian replies to the reswitching debate. By simply reviewing the literature I have found 10 unanswered issues. I know that there are more. I know that this post is sort of odd, but here are the articles that I have referred to above. I hope that this might help anyone who is stuck in one of these too often recurring debates.

Cohen, A. J. and G. C. Harcourt (2003). “Whatever Happened to the Cambridge Capital Theory Controversies”, Journal of Economic Perspectives. V. 17, N. 1, Winter: 199-214.

Garrison (1979) “Waiting in Vienna”, in Time, Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium, edited by Mario Rizzo.

Garrison (2001) Time and Money: The Macroeconomics of Capital Structure.

Lachmann (1978 [1973]) “Macro-Economic Thinking and the Market Economy”, Studies in Economics No. 6, Institute for Humane Studies.

Robinson (1975) “The Unimportance of Reswitching”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 89(1), pp. 32-39.

Yeager (1979) “Capital Paradoxes and the Concept of Waiting”, in Time, Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium, ed by Mario Rizzo.


Nathan said...

Dr. Cwik, where can I find a nice summary of the Austrian view on the time value of capital in comparison to views from the other schools of thought? Something more than editorial - maybe a relatively simple journal article? Maybe a handful of researchers' names that I can follow up on? That's something - in addition to Kirzner's view of entrepreneurship as a dynamic discovery process along with the (early?) Austrian conception of "false utility" (I can't remember what it was called in "Hayek's Challenge"), where a product or service is only later discovered to be counter-productive to fulfilling demand - that caught my interest at FEE.

P F Cwik said...


Your questions are not that easy to answer. A summary article that compares the Austrian Capital Theory to other schools, hmmm. There are several authors that have bits and pieces here and there. The authors are Garrison, Kirzner, Lewin, Rothbard, Lachmann, Yeager, Skousen, Fetter, Huerta de Soto and several others. I will do some digging and find an a good overview aritcle.

As to your second point, I am a little confused. What exactly are you asking?

Nathan said...

What I was trying to ask was if you know of any modern research into Menger's idea of "useful" and "nonuseful goods" (cf. pg 33-34 of Hayek's Challenge by Bruce Caldwell). I bet that Kirzner has expounded on that idea in his theory of entrepreneurship and that Hayek probably built on Menger's idea in his work on Knowledge and Economics... but I just don't know! I'm still an Austrian neophyte!

Thanks for you help, Dr. Cwik!

P F Cwik said...

Why not just ask Caldwell himself? His e-mail is:

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