Everyone has heard of the law of supply and demand. It’s supposed to be why markets work (whatever ‘work’ is supposed to mean). The price for a product or service is high enough to stimulate enough supply for the market, yet low enough that all of that product or service is consumed. In other words, the market finds its own equilibrium.
Free-market advocates also claim that the law of supply and demand, operating across markets for all goods and services, leads to the most efficient allocation of resources. This is less persuasive. When China was plagued with opium dens, it’s hard to see how this was efficient in any useful sense of the word. It is equally hard to see how a modern economy would benefit from an open market in heroin, tainted food, or half-trained doctors.
While the efficacy of supply and demand in finding an equilibrium price seems indisputable (with exceptions like asset bubbles), there are areas of the modern capitalist economy where it just doesn’t work that way.
Take savings and investment. Some people labor under the impression that savings must always equal investment, but they forget the role of financial intermediaries (or else they are confused as to what ‘investment’ is). Decisions to save and decisions to invest are made by different people, or at least people acting in different roles, and they are often made for contradictory reasons. When the economic horizon looks cloudy, the preference to save increases, but the desire to invest decreases. You might think that interest rates would fall until things are brought back into balance again, but if you’re worried about your job, you don’t save based on the rate of return. You save to have cash available. It won’t matter much if your savings earn 5% or 0.5%. In the same situation, financial intermediaries (e.g. banks) accumulate reserves (or they should), which means they’re happy to accept your deposit, even if they have no plans to lend it out.
This is a source of economic instability. Barring intervention by the authorities (monetary policy or fiscal stimulus), production drifts down until enough people have lost jobs or hours so that they are forced to spend more of what they do make, and their diminished savings falls back into balanced with the diminished need for business investment.
So there’s an equilibrium, but one could hardly call it ‘optimum’.
There is another area. Less explored, but perhaps all the more significant.
Virtually everything produced in a modern economy is the result of a collective effort, meaning it takes an organization to deliver goods and services. The main reason for this is that it takes specialization to produce something of sufficient value in sufficient quantity to be competitive in the market.
So if it takes 100 different jobs and skills sets to produce XYZ widgets, and the sale of those widgets brings in a certain amount of money, how is that money divided among the different jobs, and the return to capital?
In other words, what is the value of any particular kind of labor, versus the owners and managers of capital?
Well, you say, it’s determined by supply and demand. And yet, I respond, the US economy is awash in capital (starting long before quantitative easing) in the forms of monetary wealth and glutted capacity, while at the same time the returns to capital and its managers absorb a steadily greater portion of national income.
So what is the mechanism supposed to be that brings the distribution of income into equilibrium? Is it stagnation, where low or no inflation combines with low rates of interest, declining growth, and a declining labor force participation? It’s hard to see how this leads to rising wages for those who continue working, without fairly disruptive changes to society. Alternatively, it’s hard to see how the continued stagnation of income for most of the population represents a useful optimum.
The history of the past 20 or 30 years suggests that, if there is an equilibrium process at work, unlike the markets we are familiar with this one may operate over time frames that exceed the normal allotment of working years, if not the human life span. And this is not at all optimal.