FIRE in the Whole

Maybe the most interesting paper at this past weekend’s shindig at Bretton Woods was Duncan Foley’s. [1] He argues, essentially, that it’s wrong to include finance, real estate and insurance (FIRE) in measures of output. Excluding FIRE (and some other services) isn’t just conceptually more correct, it has practical implications — the big one being that an Okun’s law-type relationship between employment and output is more stable if we define output to exclude FIRE and other sectors where value-added can’t be directly measured.

It’s a provocative argument. He’s certainly right that the definition of GDP involves some more or less arbitrary choices about what is included in final output. (The New York Fed had a nice piece on this, a couple years ago, which was the subject of the one of the first posts on this humble blog.) However, I can’t help thinking that Foley is wrong on a couple key points. Specifically:

While in other industries such as Manufacturing (MFG) there are independent measures of the value added by the industry and the incomes generated by it (value added being measurable as the difference between sales revenue and costs of purchased inputs excluding new investment and labor), there is no independent measure of value added in the FIRE and similar industries mentioned above. The national accounts “impute” value added in these industries to make it equal to the incomes (wages and profits) generated. Thus when Apple Computer or General Electric pay a bonus to their executives, GDP does not change (since value added does not change–the bonus increases compensation of employees and decreases retained earnings), but when Goldman-Sachs pays a bonus to its executives, GDP increases by the same amount.

This seems confused on a couple of points. First, unless I’m mistaken, value-added in FIRE is calculated exactly in the way he describes — sale price of output minus cost of inputs. (The problem arises with government, where there is no sale price.) Second, I’m pretty sure there is no difference in the way wages are treated — total incomes in a sector always equal the total product of the sector, by definition. There is a question of whether executive bonuses are properly considered labor income or capital income, but that’s orthogonal to the issues the paper raises, and is not unique to FIRE. In any case, it is definitely not correct to say that higher compensation implies lower earnings in non-FIRE but not in FIRE.

It seems to me that there is a valid & important point here, but Foley doesn’t quite make it. The key thing is that there is no way of measuring price changes in FIRE. That’s what he should have said in place of the paragraph quoted above. The convention used in the national accounts is that the price of FIRE services rises at the same rate as the price level as a whole, so changes in nominal FIRE incomes relative total nominal income represent changes in FIRE’s share of total output. But you could just as consistently say that FIRE output grows at the same level as output as a whole, and deviations in nominal FIRE expenditure represent relative changes in FIRE prices. [2] There’s no empirical way of distinguishing these cases, it really is a convention. Doing it the second way would imply lower real GDP and higher inflation. I think this is the logically consistent version of Foley’s argument. And it would motivate the same empirical points about Okun’s Law, etc.

There’s another argument, tho, which I don’t quite have a handle on. Which is, what are the implications of considering FIRE services intermediate inputs rather than part of final output? If a firm pays more money to a software firm, that’s considered investment spending and final output is corresponding higher. If a firm pays more money to a marketing firm, that’s considered an intermediate good and final output is no higher, instead measured productivity is lower. I think that FIRE services provided to firms are considered intermediate goods, i.e. are already treated the way Foley thinks they should be. But I’m not sure. And there’s still the problem of FIRE services purchased by households. There’s no category of intermediate-goods purchases by households in the national accounts; any household expenditure is either consumption or investment, so contributes to GDP. This is a real issue, but again it’s not unique to FIRE; e.g. why are costs associated with commuting considered part of final output when if a business provides transportation for its employees, that’s an intermediate good?

He raises a third question, about the possibility that measured FIRE outputs includes asset transfers or capital gains. There is serious potential slippage between sale of financial services (part or GDP, conceptually) and sale of financial assets (not part of GDP).

Finally, it would be helpful to distinguish between services where measuring output is practically difficult but conceptually straightforward, and FIRE proper (and maybe insurance goes in the previous category). It seems clear that capital allocation as such should not be considered as part of final output. Whatever contribution it makes to total output (modulo the deep problems with measuring aggregate output at all) must come from higher productivity in the real economy. The problem is, there’s no real way to separate the “normal service” component of FIRE from the capital-allocation and representation-of-capitalist-interests (per Dumenil and Levy; or you could say rent-extraction) components.

But whatever the flaws of the paper, it’s pointing to a very important & profound set of issues. We can’t bypass the conceptual challenges of GDP, as Matt Yglesias (like lots of other people) imagines, with the simple assertion that labor is productive if it produces something that people are willing to pay for. Producing a consistent series for GDP still requires deliberate decisions about how to measure price changes, and how to distinguish intermediate goods from final output. Foley is absolutely right to call attention to these problems, that most social scientists are happy to sweep under the rug [3]; he’s right that they’re especially acute in the case of FIRE; and I think he’s probably right to say that to solve them we would do well to return to the productive/unproductive distinction of the classical economists.

[1] I wasn’t there, but a comrade who was thought so. And he seems to be right, based on the papers they’ve got up on the website.

[2] Or you could say that FIRE output is fixed (perhaps at 0), and all changes in nominal FIRE output represents price changes. Again, this problem can’t be resolved empirically, nor does it go away simply because you adopt a utility-based view of value.

[3] Bob Fitch had some smart things to say about the need to distinguish productive and unproductive labor.

Roubini, Deflationist

Last week, Nouriel Roubini wrote a somewhat puzzling op-ed in the Washington Post, in support of a payroll tax cut as a stimulus measure.

It’s a rather strange argument, or mix of arguments, since he’s never clear whether it’s a demand-side or supply-side policy. For example, he argues both that the cut should be higher for low-income workers (since they have a higher propensity to consume), and that “to maximize the incentives for private-sector hiring, there should be sharper reductions to the payroll taxes paid by employers than for those paid by employees.”

But let’s take the supply-side half of Roubini’s argument at face value. Suppose a payroll tax cut lowered the cost of labor to employers. Is it so obvious that would increase employment?

The implicit model Roubini is using is the one every undergraduate learns, of a firm in a perfectly competitive market with increasing marginal costs. But in the real world firms face downward-sloping demand curves, especially in recessions. So the only way a reduction of labor costs can increase hiring is if it allows firms to lower costs, i.e. contributes to deflation. Does Roubini really think that more deflation is what the economy needs? (Does he even realize that’s what he’s arguing?)

This, anyway, was my reaction when I read the piece. But it wouldn’t be worth dragging out a week-old op-ed to take shots at, if my friend Arin hadn’t pointed out a recent NY Fed working paper by Gauti Eggerston making exactly this point. From the abstract: “Tax cuts can deepen a recession if the short term nominal interest rate is zero, according to a standard New Keynesian business cycle model. An example of a contractionary tax cut is a reduction in taxes on wages. This tax cut deepens a recession because it increases deflationary pressures.” The paper itself involves building up a complicated model from microfoundations (that’s why Eggerston gets paid the big bucks) but the underlying intuition is the same: The only way a decrease in labor costs can lead to increased hiring is by lowering prices, and under current conditions lower prices can only mean lower aggregate demand.

As Arin points out, the incoherence of the argument for payroll tax cuts may be precisely their appeal. People who think unemployment is the result of inadequate demand and people who think it’s the result of lazy, overpaid workers (i.e. it’s “structural”) can both support them, even though the arguments are incompatible. (People who don’t scruple too much over consistency can even make both arguments at once.) But if macroeconomic policy is limited to stuff that can be supported with bad arguments, we shouldn’t be surprised if the results are disappointing. That lower labor costs don’t help in a recession is, I guess, another lesson from the Great Depression that will have to be learned again.

As for Roubini, it’s hard to improve on Jamie Galbraith’s very diplomatic judgment: I cannot discern his methods.

Those Who Forget History, Are Probably Historians

There are hardly any economists or economic historians who have contributed more to our understanding of the role of international finance in the Great Depression than Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin. [1] So it’s disappointing to see them so strenuously refusing to learn from that history.

They start by correctly observing that the fatal flaw of the gold standard was the “asymmetry between countries with balance-of-payments deficits and surpluses. There was a penalty for running out of reserves .. but no penalty for accumulating gold.” Thus the structural tendency toward deflation in the gold standard era, and the instability of the system once workers recognized that lower wages for “sound money” wasn’t such a great deal. If Temin and Eichengreen want to draw a parallel with the Euro system today, well, I’m not sure I agree, but it’s an avenue worth pursuing. But as they want to apply it, to the US and China, it’s unambiguously wrong, as economics and as history.

“The point,” say Temin and Eichengreen, “is not to let deficit countries off the hook.” Barry, Peter — read your books! Letting the deficit countries off the hook is exactly the point. If there’s one lesson in Lessons from the Great Depression, it’s that no practical response to the crisis was possible until the idea that a trade deficit represented a kind of moral failing was abandoned. The whole point, first, of leaving the gold standard, and later, of the Bretton Woods institutions, was to free deficit countries from the obligation to “live within their means” by curtailing domestic investment and consumption.

Keynes couldn’t have been clearer on this. The goal of postwar monetary reform, he wrote, was “A system which would maintain balance of payments equilibrium without trade discrimination but also without forcing unemployment .. on deficit countries,” [2] in other words, a system in which governments’ efforts to pursue full employment was not constrained by the balance of payments. We needn’t take Keynes as holy writ, but if we’re going to analyze current arrangements in light of his writings in the 1940s, as Temin and Eichengreen claim to, we have to be clear about what he was aiming for.

One would expect, then, that they would go on to show how “global imbalances” are constraining national efforts to pursue full employment. But they don’t even try. Instead, they offer ambiguous phrases whose vagueness is a sign, perhaps, of a bad conscience: Keynes “wanted measures to deal with chronic surplus countries.” What kind of surpluses, exactly? and deal with how?

The beginning of wisdom here is the to recognize the distinction between the balance of payments and the current account. Keynes was concerned with the former, not the latter. Keynes didn’t care if some countries ran trade surpluses or deficits, temporarily or persistently; what he cared about was that these imbalances did not interfere with other countries’ freedom “to pursue full employment and progressive social policies.” In other words, current account imbalances were not a problem as long as the financial flows to finance them were guaranteed.

“Creditor adjustment” is rightly stressed by Eichengreen and Temin as a central feature of Keynes’ vision of postwar monetary arrangements, but they seem to have forgotten what it meant. It didn’t mean no one could run a trade surplus, it just meant that the surplus countries would be obliged to lend to the deficit ones as much as it took to finance the trade imbalances. As Keynes’ follower Roy Harrod put it,”The most important requirement [is] to get the United States committed to creditor adjustment. …. Creditor adjustment could be secured most simply by an agreement that the creditor would always accept cheques from the deficit countries in full discharge of their debts. … So long as their credit position cannot cause pressure elsewhere, there is no harm in allowing a further accumulation.” All of Keynes’ proposals at Bretton Woods were oriented toward committing the countries with surpluses to lend, at concessionary rates if necessary, to the deficit ones.

China today accepts American checks in full discharge of our debts; they don’t demand payment in gold. The Chinese surplus isn’t putting upward pressure on US interest rates, or constraining public spending. All Keynes ever wanted was for all surplus countries to be like China.

“Sixty-plus years later, we seem to have forgotten Keynes’ point,” Eichengreen and Temin conclude. True that.

[1] The strangely forgotten Robert Triffin is one.

[2] The historical material in this post post, including all quotes, is drawn from chapters 6 and 9 of the third volume of Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes.

Keyes Is Right

Alan Keyes says, “If citizenship is not a birthright then it must be a grant of the government. And if it is a grant of the government, it could curtail that grant in all the ways that fascists and totalitarians always want to.”

In other words, the rights vis-a-vis the state we call citizenship, are prior to the legal acts that formalize them.

Joshua Micah Marshall thinks that’s “dramatically crazier than any of the opinions on offer,” since Keyes attributes the priority of citizenship, in part, to God.

But as a historical matter, Keyes is certainly right. The founding documents of political liberalism — the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the Declaration of Independence — explicitly state that the rights of the citizen are prior to their recognition by governments. If a government fails to recognize them, it’s that government’s legitimacy that is diminished, not the rights of the citizen.

In the specific 14th Amendment context, the point is that the right of the freedmen to citizenship wasn’t created by the 14th Amendment, but already existed by virtue of their living in this country and being subject to its laws. Did Congress have the power or the authority to deny them citizenship? Seems to me the Civil War answered that question clearly in the negative. The law binds most of the time, but ultimately it derives its authority from a set of norms that are prior to it.

This is certainly how the founders of liberal political orders, here and elsewhere, understood the relationship between the rights of the citizen and the law. That’s why they were ready to overthrow existing governments by force. Of course today it’s the Constitution and the law that regulate citizenship. But it’s important to remember that the fact that we — or almost anyone else — are citizens at all is not the result of legal or constitutional acts.

EDIT: It’s funny that reference to the founding documents of political liberalism is these days almost a monopoly of conservatives. Of course it’s not so strange, since conservatism is backward-looking by nature, while progressives naturally believe in progress. But the DNA of liberalism hasn’t changed that much, and Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, Lafayette and Saint-Just, and other Enlightenment political figures expressed it pretty robustly.

Unlike their forebears, modern liberals tend to insist on the absolute autonomy of the law in general, and the Constitution in particular. They’re unwilling, for obvious reasons, to accept a political order grounded on divine revelation, but they don’t have any alternative ground to put it on, so it ends up floating in the air. (Carl Schmitt is very good on this.) There’s what’s useful, and there’s what’s legal, under the law as it exists; but there’s no category of political legitimacy behind the law. Given the remarkable political stability of the United States since the Civil War, and just as important, as Herbert Croly emphasized, the continuously rising standard of living here, we’ve mostly gotten along fine without one. But one suspects that it wouldn’t take that much political strain for “government by lawyers” (Croly’s phrase) to experience its Wile E. Coyote moment, when it turns out that the authority of the law wasn’t underpinned by anything but a lack of good reasons to question it. Not unlike, perhaps, what happened in the financial crisis of 2008, when it turned out that not only did the traditional tools of monetary policy not work, they’d stopped working some time before.