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8.7 What Type of an Economic System is ‘Irrational’ Enough to use Money Contracts?

A fundamental axiom of neoclassical theory is the neutrality of money.

Hence economic agents in a neoclassical world are presumed to make decisions

based solely on ‘real’ valuations; they do not suffer from any ‘money

illusion’. Thus in a ‘rational’ classical world, all contracts should be made in

real terms and are always enforceable in real terms.

The economy in which we live, on the other hand, utilizes money contracts

– not real contracts – to seal production and exchange agreements among

self-interested individuals. The ubiquitous use of money contracts has always

presented a dilemma to neoclassical theory. Logically consistent mainstream

classical theorists must view the universal use of money contracts by modern

economies as irrational, since such agreements, fixing payments in nominal

terms, can impede the self-interest optimizing pursuit of real incomes by

economic decision makers. Hence mainstream economists tend to explain the

existence of money contracts by using non-economic reasons such as social

customs, invisible handshakes and so on – societal institutional constraints

which limit price signalling and hence limit adjustments for the optimal use

of resources to the long run. For Post Keynesians, on the other hand, binding

nominal contractual commitments are a sensible method for dealing with true

uncertainty regarding future outcomes whenever economic activities span a

long duration of calendar time.

In order to understand why there is this fundamental difference in viewpoints

regarding the use of money contracts, one must distinguish between a

money-using entrepreneur economy and a cooperative (barter) economy. The

distinction between a cooperative economy and an entrepreneur economy

was developed by Keynes in an early draft of the General Theory (see

Keynes, 1979, pp. 76–83). A cooperative economy is defined as one where

production is organized such that each input owner is rewarded for its real

contribution to the process by a predetermined share of the aggregate physical

output produced. Examples of cooperative economic systems include

monasteries, nunneries, prisons, or even an Israeli kibbutz. In each of these

cooperative economies, a central authority or a predetermined set of rules

governs both the production and payments in terms of real goods distributed

to the inputs. There is never any involuntary unemployment of monks, nuns,

prisoners, or workers on a kibbutz. Say’s Law prevails. This is the world of

classical analysis.

An entrepreneur economy, on the other hand, is a system that has two

distinctly different characteristics. First, production is organized by ‘a class

of entrepreneurs who hire the factors of production for money and look to

their recoupment from selling the output for money’ (Keynes, 1979, p. 77).

Second, there is no automatic mechanism which guarantees that all the money

paid out to inputs in the production process will be spent on the products of

industry. Hence entrepreneurs can never be sure that they can recoup all the

money costs of production. As Keynes (1979, p. 78) pointed out, ‘it is obvious

on these definitions that it is in an entrepreneur economy that we actually

live to-day’. In an entrepreneur economy, by definition, Say’s Law cannot be

applicable.

In our entrepreneur economy, market-oriented managers of business firms

organize the production process on a forward-money contract basis; that is,

they hire inputs and purchase raw materials for the production process by

entering into contractual agreements to pay money sums for delivery of

specific materials and services at exact future dates. These managers of

production processes expect to recoup these money outlays by selling the

resulting output for money on either a spot or forward contracting basis.

When we speak of ‘the bottom line’ in our economy we are essentially

indicating that entrepreneurs are motivated by pursuing cash inflow from

sales that will equal or exceed the money outflows spent on production costs.

In an entrepreneurial economic system, the earning of income (as defined

by Keynes above) is directly associated with the existence of these money

contracts which permit entrepreneurs to ‘control’ both the sequencing of

inputs into production activities and the cash outflows of firms. These contractual

money payments give the recipient claims on the products of industry.

The reader should recall that in some economic discourse, the term income is

not only associated with current output, but also with a welfare aspect as

measured by the current services available to the community. Since some

services available to the community in any period will flow from pre-existing

durables, the use of the income term in its welfare garb is not compatible

with the use of income as the value of current output, except if all the goods

produced are always non-durable. Since the term ‘income’ is associated with

contributions to the production of current output in the economy, therefore

aggregate income is equal to the money receipts arising from the contractual

sale of services and current products. (Profits occupy a sort of halfway house,

since they are not directly determined by factor-hire contracts. Instead they

are the residual due to the difference between the contractually determined

receipts on the sale of products and the contractual costs of the hired factors

of production.) Income-in-kind payments should be conceived of as the combination

of two separate contractual transactions, namely money income

payments to factor owners from the employer, with a simultaneous purchase

commitment of goods by the factor owner to the employer.

Although Keynes defined the economy that we live in on the basis of the

use of monetary contracts for hire and sale, this definition does not per se

explain the existence and ubiquitous use of this human institution. In order to

provide an explanation for the widespread use of money contracts, we must

delve into how entrepreneurs make decisions, and recognize the difference

between risk and uncertainty – a difference that is essential to Keynes’s

analysis of involuntary unemployment.