What Does Crowding Out Even Mean?

Paul Krugman is taking some guff for this column where he argues that the US economy is now at potential, or full employment, so any shift in the federal budget toward deficit will just crowd out private demand.

Whether higher federal spending (or lower taxes) could, in present conditions, lead to higher output is obviously a factual question, on which people may read the evidence in different ways. As it happens, I don’t agree that current output is close to the limits of current productive capacity. But that’s not what I want to write about right now. Instead I want to ask: What concretely would crowding out even mean right now?

Below, I run through six possible meanings of crowding out, and then ask if any of them gives us a reason, even in principle, to worry about over-expansionary policy today. (Another possibility, suggested by Jared Bernstein, is that while we don’t need to worry about supply constraints for the economy as a whole, tax cuts could crowd out useful spending due to some unspecified financial constraint on the federal government. I don’t address that here.) Needless to say, doubts about the economic case for crowding-out are in no way an argument for the specific deficit-boosting policies favored by the new administration.

The most straightforward crowding-out story starts from a fixed supply of private savings. These savings can either be lent to the government, or to business. The more the former takes, the less is left for the latter. But as Keynes pointed out long ago, this simple loanable-funds story assumes what it sets out to prove. The total quantity of saving is fixed only if total income is fixed. If higher government spending can in fact raise total income, it will raise total saving as well. We can only tell a story about government and business competing for a given pool of saving if we have already decided for some other reason that GDP can’t change.

The more sophisticated version, embodied in the textbook ISLM model, postulates a fixed supply of money, rather than saving. [1] In Hicks’ formulation, money is used both for transactions and as the maximally liquid store of wealth. The higher is output, the more money is needed for transactions, and the less is available to be held as wealth. By the familiar logic of supply and demand, this means that wealthholders must be paid more to part with their remaining stock of money. The price wealthholders receive to give up their money is interest; so as GDP rises, so does the interest rate.

Unlike the loanable funds story with fixed saving, this second story does give a logically coherent account of crowding out. In a world of commodity money, if such ever was, it might even be literally true. But in a world of bank-created credit money, it’s at best a metaphor. Is it a useful metaphor? That would require two things. First, that the interest rate (whichever one we are interested in) is set by the financial system. And second, that the process by which this happens causes rates to systematically rise with demand. The first premise is immediately rejected by the textbooks, which tell us that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” But we needn’t take this at face value. There are many interest rates, not just one, and the spreads between them vary quite a bit; logically it is possible that strong demand could lead to wider spreads, as banks stretch must their liquidity further to make more loans. But in reality, the opposite seems more likely. Government debt is a source of liquidity for private banks, not a use of it; lending more to the government makes it easier, not harder, for them to also lend more to private borrowers. Also, a booming economy is one in which business borrowers are more profitable; marginal borrowers look safer and are likely to get better terms. And rising inflation, obviously, reduces the real value of outstanding debt; however annoying this is to bankers, rationally it makes them more willing to lend more to their now less-indebted clients. Wicksell, the semi-acknowledged father of modern central banking theory, built his big book around the premise that in a credit-money system, inflation would give private banks no reason to raise interest rates.

And in fact this is what we see. Interest rate spreads are narrow in booms; they widen in crises and remain wide in downturns.

So crowding out mark two, the ISLM version, requires us to accept both that central banks cannot control the economically relevant interest rates, and that private banks systematically raise interest rates when times are good. Again, in a strict gold standard world there might something to this — banks have to raise rates, their gold reserves are running low — but if we ever lived in that world it was 150 or 200 years ago or more.

A more natural interpretation of the claim that the economy is at potential, is that any further increase in demand would just  lead to inflation. This is the version of crowding out in better textbooks, and also the version used by MMT folks. On a certain level, it’s obviously correct. Suppose the amount of money-spending in an economy increases. Then either the quantity of goods and services increases, or their prices do. There is no third option: The total percent increase in money spending, must equal the sum of the percent increase in “real” output and the percent increase in average prices. But how does the balance between higher output and higher prices play out in real life? One possibility is that potential output is a hard line: each dollar of spending up to there increases real output one for one, and leaves prices unchanged; each dollar of spending above there increases prices one for one and leaves output unchanged. Alternatively, we might imagine a smooth curve where as spending increases, a higher fraction of each marginal dollar translates into higher prices rather than higher output. [2] This is certainly more realistic, but it invites the question of which point exactly on this curve we call “potential”. And it awakens the great bane of postwar macro – an inflation-output tradeoff, where the respective costs and benefits must be assessed politically.

Crowding out mark three, the inflation version, is definitely right in some sense — you can’t produce more concrete use values without limit simply by increasing the quantity of money borrowed by the government (or some other entity). But we have to ask first, positively, when we will see this inflation, and second, normatively, how we value lower inflation vs higher output and income.

In the post-1980s orthodoxy, we as society are never supposed to face these questions. They are settled for us by the central bank. This is the fourth, and probably most politically salient, version of crowding out: higher government spending will cause the central bank to raise interest rates. This is the practical content of the textbook story, and in fact newer textbooks replace the LM curve — where the interest rate is in some sense endogenous — with a straight line at whatever interest rate is chosen by the central bank. In the more sophisticated textbooks, this becomes a central bank reaction function — the central bank’s actions change from being policy choices, to a fundamental law of the economic universe. The master parable for this story is the 1990s, when the Clinton administration came in with big plans for stimulus, only to be slapped down by Alan Greenspan, who warned that any increase in public spending would be offset by a contractionary shift by the federal reserve. But once Clinton made the walk to Canossa and embraced deficit reduction, Greenspan’s fed rewarded him with low rates, substituting private investment in equal measure for the foregone public spending. In the current contest, this means: Any increase in federal borrowing will be offset one for one by a fall in private investment —  because the Fed will raise rates enough to make it happen.

This story is crowding out mark four. It depends, first, on what the central bank reaction function actually is — how confident are we that monetary policy will respond in a direct, predictable way to changes in the federal budget balance or to shifts in demand? (The more attention we pay to how the monetary sausage gets made, the less confident we are likely to be.) And second, on whether the central bank really has the power to reliably offset shifts in fiscal policy. In the textbooks this is taken for granted but there are reasons for doubt. It’s also not clear why the actions of the central bank should be described as crowding out by fiscal policy. The central bank’s policy rule is not a law of nature. Unless there is some other reason to think expansionary policy can’t work, it’s not much of an argument to say the Fed won’t allow it. We end up with something like: “Why can’t we have deficit-financed nice things?” “Because the economy is at potential – any more public spending will just crowd out private spending.” “How will it be crowded out exactly?” “Interest rates will rise.” “Why will they rise?” “Because the federal reserve will tighten.” “Why will they tighten?” “Because the economy is at potential.”

Suppose we take the central bank out of the picture. Suppose we allow supply constraints to bind on their own, instead of being anticipated by the central planners at the Fed. What would happen as demand pushed up against the limits of productive capacity? One answer, again, is rising inflation. But we shouldn’t expect prices to all rise in lockstep. Supply constraints don’t mean that production growth halts at once; rather, bottlenecks develop in specific areas. So we should expect inflation to begin with rising prices for inputs in inelastic supply — land, oil, above all labor. Textbook models typically include a Phillips curve, with low unemployment leading to rising wages, which in turn are passed on to higher prices.

But why should they be passed on completely? It’s easy to imagine reasons why prices don’t respond fully or immediately to changes in wages. In which case, as I’ve discussed before, rising wages will result in an increase in the wage share. Some people will object that such effects can only be temporary. I’m not sure this makes sense — why shouldn’t labor, like anything else, be relatively more expensive in a world where it is relatively more scarce? But even if you think that over the long-term the wage share is entirely set on the supply side, the transition from one “fundamental” wage share to another still has to involve a period of wages  rising faster or slower than productivity growth — which in a Phillips curve world, means a period above or below full employment.

We don’t hear as much about the labor share as the fundamental supply constraint, compared with savings, inflation or interest rates. But it comes right out of the logic of standard models. To get to crowding out mark five, though, we have to take one more step. We have to also postulate that demand in the economy is profit-led — that a distributional shift from profits toward wages reduces desired investment by more than it increases desired consumption. Whether (or which) real economies display wage-led or profit-led demand is a subject of vigorous debate in heterodox macro. But there’s no need to adjudicate that now. Right now I’m just interested in what crowding out could possibly mean.

Demand can affect distribution only if wage increases are not fully passed on to prices. One reason this might happen is that in an open economy, businesses lack pricing power; if they try to pass on increased costs, they’ll lose market share to imports. Follow that logic to its endpoint and there are no supply constraints — any increase in spending that can’t be satisfied by domestic production is met by imports instead. For an ideal small, open economy potential output is no more relevant than the grocery store’s inventory is for an individual household when we go shopping. Instead, like the household, the small open economy faces a budget constraint or a financing constraint — how much it can buy depends on how much it can pay for.

Needless to say, we needn’t go to that extreme to imagine a binding external constraint. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that, thanks to dependence on imported inputs and/or demand for imported consumption goods, output can’t rise without higher imports. And a country may well run out of foreign exchange before it runs out of domestic savings, finance or productive capacity. This is the idea behind multiple gap models in development economics, or balance of payments constrained growth. It also seems like the direction orthodoxy is heading in the eurozone, where competitiveness is bidding to replace inflation as the overriding concern of macro policy.

Crowding out mark six says that any increase in demand from the government sector will absorb scarce foreign exchange that will no longer be available to private sector. How relevant it is depends on how inelastic import demand is, the extent to which the country as a whole faces a binding budget or credit constraint and, what concrete form that constraint faces — what actually happens if international creditors are stiffed, or worry they might be? But the general logic is that higher spending will lead to a higher trade deficit, which at some point can no longer be financed.

So now we have six forms of crowding out:

1. Government competes with business for fixed saving.

2. Government competes with business for scarce liquidity.

3. Increased spending would lead to higher inflation.

4. Increased spending would cause the central bank to raise interest rates.

5. Overfull employment would lead to overfast wage increases.

6. Increased spending would lead to a higher trade deficit.

The next question is: Is there any reason, even in principle, to worry about any of these outcomes in the US today? We can decisively set aside the first, which is logically incoherent, and confidently set aside the second, which doesn’t fit a credit-money economy in which government liabilities are the most liquid asset. But the other four certainly could, in principle, reflect real limits on expansionary policy. The question is: In the US in 2017, are higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher wages or a weaker balance of payments position problems we need to worry about? Are they even problems at all?

First, higher inflation. This is the most natural place to look for the costs of demand pushing up against capacity limits. In some situations you’d want to ask how much inflation, exactly, would come from erring on the side of overexpansion, and how costly that higher inflation would be against the benefits of lower unemployment. But we don’t have to ask that question right now, because inflation is by conventional measures, too low; so higher inflation isn’t a cost of expansionary policy, but an additional benefit. The problem is even worse for Krugman, who has been calling for years now for a higher inflation target, usually 4 percent. You can’t support higher inflation without supporting the concrete action needed to bring it about, namely, a period of aggregate spending in excess of potential. [2] Now you might say that changing the inflation target is the responsibility of the Fed, not the fiscal authorities. But even leaving aside the question of democratic accountability, it’s hard to take this response seriously when we’ve spent the last eight years watching the Fed miss its existing target; setting a new higher target isn’t going to make a difference unless something else happens to raise demand. I just don’t see how you can write “What do we want? Four percent! When do we want it? Now!” and then turn around and object to expansionary fiscal policy on the grounds that it might be inflationary.

OK, but what if the Fed does raise rates in response to any increase in the federal budget deficit, as many observers expect? Again, if you think that more expansionary policy is otherwise desirable, it would seem that your problem here is with the Fed. But set that aside, and assume our choice is between a baseline 2018-2020, and an alternative with the same GDP but with higher budget deficits and higher interest rates. (This is the worst case for crowding out.) Which do we prefer? In the old days, the low-deficit, low-interest world would have been the only respectable choice: Private investment is obviously preferable to whatever government deficits might finance. (And to be fair, in the actual 2018-2020, they will mostly be financing high-end tax cuts.) But as Brad DeLong points out, the calculation is different today. Higher interest rates are now a blessing, not a curse, because they create more running room for the Fed to respond to a downturn. [3] In the second scenario, there will be some help from conventional monetary policy in the next recession, for whatever it’s worth; in the first scenario there will be no help at all. And one thing we’ve surely learned since 2008 is the costs of cyclical downturns are much larger than previously believed. So here again, what is traditionally considered a costs of pushing past supply constraints turns out on closer examination to be a benefit.

Third, the danger of more expansionary policy is that it will lead to a rise in the wage share. You don’t hear this one as much. I’ve suggested elsewhere that something like this may often motivate actual central bank decisions to tighten. Presumably it’s not what someone like Krugman is thinking about. But regardless of what’s in people’s heads, there’s a serious problem here for the crowding-out position. Let’s say that we believe, as both common sense and the textbooks tells us, that the rate of wage growth depends on the level of unemployment. Suppose  we define full employment in the conventional way as the level of unemployment that leads to nominal wage growth just equal to productivity growth plus the central bank’s inflation target. Then by definition, any increase in the wage share requires a period of overfull employment — of unemployment below the full employment level. This holds even if you think the labor share in the long run is entirely technologically determined. A forteori it holds if you think that the wage share is in some sense political, the result of the balance of forces between labor and capital.

Again, I’m simply baffled how someone can believe at the same time that the rising share of capital in national income is a problem, and that there is no space for expansionary policy once full employment is reached. [4] Especially since the unemployment target is missed so often from the other side. If you have periods of excessively high unemployment but no periods of excessively low unemployment, you get a kind of ratchet effect where the labor share can only go down, never up. I think this sort of cognitive dissonance happens because economics training puts aggregate demand in one box and income distribution in another. But this sort of hermetic separation isn’t really sustainable. The wage share can only be higher in the long run if there is some short-run period in which it rises.

Finally, the external constraint. It is probably true that more expansionary fiscal policy will lead to bigger trade deficits. But this only counts as crowding out if those deficits are in some sense unsustainable. Is this the case for the US? There are a lot of complexities here but the key point is that almost all our foreign liabilities (and all of the government’s) are denominated in dollars, and almost all our imports are invoiced in dollars. Personally, I think the world is still more likely to encounter a scarcity of dollar liquidity than a surfeit, so the problem of an external constraint doesn’t even arise. But let’s say I’m wrong and we get the worst-case scenario where the world is no longer willing to hold more dollar liabilities. What happens? Well, the value of the dollar falls. At a stroke, US foreign liabilities decline relative to foreign assets (which are almost all denominated in their home currencies), improving the US net international investment position; and US exports get cheaper for the rest of the world, improving US competitiveness. The problem solves itself.

Imagine a corporation with no liabilities except its stock, and that also paid all its employers and supplies in its own stock and sold its goods for its own stock. How could this business go bankrupt? Any bad news would instantly mean its debts were reduced and its goods became cheaper relative to its competitors’. The US is in a similar position internationally. And if you think that over the medium term the US should be improving its trade balance then, again, this cost of over-expansionary policy looks like a benefit — by driving down the value of the dollar, “irresponsible” policy will set the stage for a more sustainable recovery. The funny thing is that in other contexts Krugman understands this perfectly.

So as far as I can tell, even if we accept that the US economy has reached potential output/full employment, none of the costs for crossing this line are really costs today. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m missing something. but it really is incumbent on anyone who argues there’s no space for further expansionary policy to explain what concretely would be the results of overshooting.

In short: When we ask how close the economy is to potential output, full employment or supply constraints, this is not just a factual question. We have to think carefully about what these terms mean, and whether they have the significance we’re used to in today’s conditions. This post has been more about Krugman than I intended, or than he deserves. A very large swathe of established opinion shares the view that the economy is close to potential in some sense, and that this is a serious objection to any policy that raises demand. What I’d like to ask anyone who thinks this is: Do you think higher inflation, a higher “natural” interest rate, a higher wage share or a weaker dollar would be bad things right now? And if not, what exactly is the supply constraint you are worried about?

 

[1] The LM in ISLM stands for liquidity-money. It’s supposed to be the combination of interest rates and output levels at which the demand for liquidity is satisfied by a given stock of money.

[2] OK, some people might say the Fed could bring about higher inflation just by announcing a different target. But they’re not who I’m arguing with here.

[3] Krugman himself says he’d “be a lot more comfortable … if interest rates were well clear of the ZLB.” How is that supposed to happen unless something else pushes demand above the full employment level at current rates?

[4] It would of course be defensible to say that the downward redistribution from lower unemployment would be outweighed by the upward redistribution from the package of tax cuts and featherbedding that delivered it. But that’s different from saying that a more expansionary stance is wrong in principle.

Thoughts and Links for December 21, 2016

Aviation in the 21st century. I’m typing this sitting on a plane, en route to LA. The plane is a Boeing 737-800. The 737 is the best-selling commercial airliner on earth; reading its Wikipedia page should raise some serious doubts about the idea that we live in an era of accelerating technological change. I’m not sure how old the plane I’m sitting on is, but it could be 15 years; the 800-series was introduced in its present form in the late 1990s. With airplanes, unlike smartphones, a 20-year old machine is not dramatically — is not even noticeably — different from the latest version. The basic 737 model was first introduced in 1967. There have been upgrades since then, but to my far from expert eyes it’s striking how little changed tin 50 years. The original 737 carried 120 passengers, at speeds of 800 km/h on trips of up to 3,000 km, using 6 liters of fuel per kilometer; this model carries 160 passengers (it’s longer) at speeds of 840 km/h on trips of 5,500 km, using 5 liters of fuel per kilometer. Better, sure, but probably the main difference you’d actually notice from a flight 50 years ago is purely social: no smoking. In any case it’s pretty meager compared that with the change from 50 years earlier, when commercial air travel didn’t exist. The singularity is over; it happened on or about December 1910.

 

Unnatural rates. Here’s an interesting post on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street blog challenging the ideas of “natural rates” of interest and unemployment. good: These ideas, it seems to me, are among the biggest obstacles to thinking constructively about macroeconomic policy. Obviously it’s example of, well, naturalizing economic outcomes, and in particular it’s the key ideological element in presenting the planning by the central bank as simply reproducing the natural state of the economy. But more specifically, it’s one of the most important ways that economists paper over the disconnect between the the economic-theory world of rational exchange, and the real world of monetary production. Without the natural rate, it would be much hard to  pretend that the sort of models academic economists develop at their day jobs, have any connection to the real-world problems the rest of the world expects economists to solve. Good to see, then, some economists at the Fed acknowledging that the natural rate concepts (and its relatives like the natural rate of unemployment) is vacuous, for two related reasons. First, the interest rate that will bring output to potential depends on a whole range of contingent factors, including other policy choices and the current level of output; and second, that potential output itself depends on the path of demand. Neither potential output nor the natural rate reflects some deep, structural parameters. They conclude:

the risks associated with monetary easing are asymmetric. That is, excessive easing can be reversed, but excessive tightening may cause irreversible damage to the economy’s potential output.

In the research described in this blog, we focus on the effect of recessions on human capital. Recessions may affect potential output through other channels as well, such as lower capital accumulation, lower labor force participation, slow productivity growth, and so forth. Our research would suggest that to the extent that these mechanisms are operative, a monetary policy that seeks to track measured natural rates—of unemployment, interest rates, and so forth—might be insufficiently accommodative to engineer a full and quick recovery after a large recession. Such policies fall short because in a world with hysteresis, “natural” rates are endogenous. Policy should set these rates, not track them.

Also on a personal level, it’s nice to see that the phrases “potential output,” “other channels,” “lower labor force particiaption,” and “slow productivity growth” all link back to posts on this very blog. Maybe someone is listening.

 

More me being listened to: Here is a short interview I did with KCBS radio in the Bay area, on what’s wrong with economics. And here is a nice writeup by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing of “Disgorge the Cash,” my Roosevelt paper on shareholder payouts and investment.

 

Still disgorging. Speaking of that: There were two new working papers out from the NBER last week on corporate finance, governance and investment. I’ve only glanced at them (end of semester crunch) but they both look like important steps forward for the larger disgorge the cash/short-termism argument. Here are the abstracts:

Lee, Shin and Stultz – Why Does Capital No Longer Flow More to the Industries with the Best Growth Opportunities?

With functionally efficient capital markets, we expect capital to flow more to the industries with the best growth opportunities. As a result, these industries should invest more and see their assets grow more relative to industries with the worst growth opportunities. We find that industries that receive more funds have a higher industry Tobin’s q until the mid-1990s, but not since then. Since industries with a higher funding rate grow more, there is a negative correlation not only between an industry’s funding rate and industry q but also between capital expenditures and industry q since the mid-1990s. We show that capital no longer flows more to the industries with the best growth opportunities because, since the middle of the 1990s, firms in high q industries increasingly repurchase shares rather than raise more funding from the capital markets.

And:

Gutierrez and Philippon – Investment-less Growth: An Empirical Investigation

We analyze private fixed investment in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We show that investment is weak relative to measures of profitability and valuation… We use industry-level and firm-level data to test whether under-investment relative to Q is driven by (i) financial frictions, (ii) measurement error (due to the rise of intangibles, globalization, etc), (iii) decreased competition (due to technology or regulation), or (iv) tightened governance and/or increased short-termism. We do not find support for theories based on risk premia, financial constraints, or safe asset scarcity, and only weak support for regulatory constraints. Globalization and intangibles explain some of the trends at the industry level, but their explanatory power is quantitatively limited. On the other hand, we find fairly strong support for the competition and short-termism/governance hypotheses. Industries with less entry and more concentration invest less, even after controlling for current market conditions. Within each industry-year, the investment gap is driven by firms that are owned by quasi-indexers and located in industries with less entry/more concentration. These firms spend a disproportionate amount of free cash flows buying back their shares.

I’m especially glad to see Philippon taking this question up. His Has Finance Become Less Efficient is kind of a classic, and in general he somehow seems to manages to be both a big-time mainstream finance guy and closely attuned to observable reality.  A full post on the two NBER papers soon, hopefully, once I’ve had time to read them properly.

 

 

“Sets” how, exactly? Here’s a super helpful piece  from the Bank of France on the changing mechanisms through which central banks — the Fed in particular — conduct monetary policy. It’s the first one in this collection — “Exiting low interest rates in a situation of excess liquidity: the experience of the Fed.” Textbooks tell us blandly that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” This ignores the fact that there are many interest rates in the economy, not all of which move with the central bank’s policy rate. It also ignores the concrete tools the central bank uses to set the policy rate, which are not trivial or transparent, and which periodically have to adapt to changes in the financial system. Post-2008 we’ve seen another of these adaptations. The BoF piece is one of the clearest guides I’ve seen to the new dispensation; I found it especially clarifying on the role of reverse repos. You could probably use it with advanced undergraduates.

Zoltan Pozsar’s discussion of the same issues is also very good — it adds more context but is a bit harder to follow than the BdF piece.

 

When he’s right, he’s right. I have my disagreements with Brad DeLong (doesn’t everyone?), but a lot of his recent stuff has been very good. Here are a couple of his recent posts that I’ve particularly liked. First, on “structural reform”:

The worst possible “structural reform” program is one that moves a worker from a low productivity job into unemployment, where they then lose their weak tie social network that allows them to get new jobs. … “Structural reforms” are extremely dangerous unless you have a high-pressure economy to pull resources out of low productivity into high productivity sectors.

The view in the high councils of Europe is that, when there is a high-pressure economy, politicians will not press for “structural reform”: there is no obvious need, and so why rock the boat? Politicians kick every can they can down the road, and you can only try “structural reform” when unemployment is high–and thus when it is likely to be ineffective if not destructive.

This gets both the substance and the politics right, I think. Although one might add that structural reform also often means reducing wages and worker power in high productivity sectors as well.

Second, criticizing Yellen’s opposition to more expansionary policy,which she says is no longer needed to get the economy back to full employment.

If the Federal Reserve wants to have the ammunition to fight the next recession when it happens, it needs the short-term safe nominal interest rate to be 5% or more when the recession hits. I believe that is very unlikely to happen without substantial fiscal expansion. … In the world that Janet Yellen sees, “fiscal policy is not needed to provide stimulus to get us back to full employment.” But fiscal stimulus is needed to create a situation in which full employment can be maintained…. if we do not shift to a more expansionary fiscal policy–and the higher neutral rate of interest that it brings–now, what do we envision will happen when the next recession arrives?

This is the central point of my WCEG working paper — that output is jointly determined by the interest rate and the fiscal balance, so the “natural rate” depends on the current stance of fiscal policy.  Plus the argument that, in a world where the zero lower bound is a potential constraint — or more broadly, where the expansionary effects of monetary policy are limited — what is sometimes called “crowding out” is a feature, not a bug. Totally right, but there’s one more step I wish DeLong would take. He writes a lot, and it’s quite possible I’ve missed it, but has he ever followed this argument to its next logical step and concluded that the fiscal surpluses of the 1990s were, in retrospect, a bad idea?

 

Farmer on government debt. Also on government budgets, here are some sensible observations on the UK’s, from Roger Farmer. First, the British public deficit is not especially high by historical standards; second, past reductions in debt-GDP ratios were achieved by growth raising the denominator, not surpluses reducing the numerator; and third, there is nothing particularly desirable about balanced budgets or lower debt ratios in principle. Anyone reading this blog has probably heard these arguments a thousand times, but it’s nice to get them from someone other than the usual suspects.

 

Deviation and trend. I was struck by this slide from the BIS. The content is familiar;  what’s interesting is that they take the deviation of GDP from the pre-criss trend as straightforward evidence of the costs of the crisis, and not a demographic-technological inevitability.

 

Cap and dividend. In Jacobin, James Boyce and Mark Paul make the case for carbon permits. I used to take the conventional view on carbon pricing — that taxes and permits were equivalent in principle, and that taxes were likely to work better in practice. But Boyce’s work on this has convinced me that there’s a strong case for preferring dividends. A critical part of his argument is that the permits don’t have to be tradable — short-term, non transferrable permits avoid a lot of the problems with “cap and trade” schemes.

 

 

Why teach the worst? In a post at Developing Economics, New School grad student Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven forthrightly makes the case for teaching “the worst of mainstream economics” to non-economists. As it happens, I don’t agree with her arguments here. I don’t think there’s a hard tradeoff between teaching heterodox material we think is true, and teaching orthodox material students will need in future classes or work. I think that with some effort, it is possible to teach material that is both genuinely useful and meaningful, and that will serve students well in future economics class. And except for students getting a PhD in economics themselves — and maybe not even them — I don’t think “learning to critique mainstream theories” is a very pressing need. But I like the post anyway. The important thing is that all of us — especially on the heterodox side — need to think more of teaching not as an unfortunate distraction, but as a core part of our work as economists. She takes teaching seriously, that’s the important thing.

 

 

Apple in the balance of payments. From Brad Setser, here’s a very nice example of critical reading of the national accounts. Perhaps even more than in other areas of accounts, the classification of different payments in the balance of payments is more or less arbitrary, contested, and frequently changed. It’s also shaped more directly by private interests — capital flight, tax avoidance and so on often involve moving cross-border payments from one part of the BoP to another. So we need to be even more scrupulously attentive with BoP statistics than with others to how concrete social reality gets reflected in the official numbers. The particular reality Setser is interested in is Apple’s research and development spending in the US, which ought to show up in the BoP as US service exports. But hardly any of it does, because — as he shows — Apple arranges for almost all its IP income to show up in low-tax Ireland instead. To me, the fundamental lesson here is about the relation between statistical map and economic territory. But as Setser notes, there’s also a more immediate policy implication:

Trade theory says that if the winners from globalization compensate the losers from globalization, everyone is better off. But I am not quite sure how that is supposed to happen if the winners are in some significant part able to structure their affairs so that a large share of their income is globally (almost) untaxed.

 

Demand and Productivity

I’m picking up, after some months, the project I was working on over the summer on potential output. Obviously the political context is different now. But the questions of what potential output actually means, how tightly it binds, and how close the economy is to it at any given moment, are not going away. Previous entries: onetwothreefour, and five.

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You’ve probably heard the story about Ed Rensi, the former McDonald’s CEO who claimed the company’s move to replace cashier’s with self-serve kiosks was a response to minimum wage increases.

“I told you so,” he writes. “In 2013, when the Fight for $15 was still in its growth stage, I and others warned that union demands for a much higher minimum wage would force businesses with small profit margins to replace full-service employees with costly investments in self-service alternatives.”

Is this for real? Maybe not: The shift toward kiosks has been happening for a while, so it’s not just a response to the recent minimum wage hikes; and it may not end up reducing labor costs anyway.

But let’s say the move is as as Rensi claims. Then we should call it what it is: an increase in labor productivity. With fewer workers McDonald’s will produce just as many hamburgers; in other words, production per worker will be higher. [1]

As I’ve suggested, this sort of thing is a real problem for a certain strand of minimum wage advocacy. Advocates like to point to productivity gains in response to higher wages as an argument in their favor. (The gains are usually imagined in terms of loyalty, motivation, lower turnover, etc. rather than machines, but functionally it’s the same.) But productivity gains can only reduce the job losses from a minimum wage increase if those losses are large; they are not consistent with a story in which employment stays the same. [2]

But at the macro level, this dynamic has different implications. If the McDonald’s case is typical — if higher labor costs regularly lead to higher productivity — then we need to rethink our idea of supply constraints. There is more space for expansionary policy than we usually think.

Let’s start at the beginning. Suppose there is some policy change, or some random event, that boosts desired spending in the economy. It could be more government spending, it could be lower interest rates, it could be a rise in exports. What happens then?

In the conventional story, higher spending normally leads to greater production of goods and services, which in turn requires higher employment. This leaves fewer people unemployed. Lower unemployment increases the bargaining power of workers, forcing employers to bid up nominal wages. [3] These higher wages are passed on to prices, leading to higher inflation. When inflation reaches whatever level is considered price stability, then we say the economy is at full employment, or at potential output. (In this story the two are equivalent.) If spending continues to rise past this point, the responsible authorities (normally the central bank) will intervene to bring it back down.

This is the story you’ll find in any good undergraduate macroeconomics textbook. It’s a reasonable story, as far as these things go. In the strong form it’s usually given in, it implies a hard limit to how much demand can increase before inflation starts rising unacceptably. Once the pool of unemployed workers falls to the “full employment” level, any further increase in employment will lead to rapid increases in money wages, which will be passed on one for one to inflation.

One place this chain can break is that new workers are not necessarily drawn from the ranks of the currently unemployed — that is, if the size of the laborforce is endogenous. Insofar as people counted as out of the laborforce are in fact available for employment (or net immigration responds to demand), an increase in output doesn’t have to reduce the ranks of the officially unemployed. In other words, the official unemployment rate may underestimate the space available for raising output via increased employment. This motivates the question of how much the the fall in laborforce participation since 2007 is due to demographics, and how much is due to weak demand.

The conventional story can also break down at two other places if productivity growth is endogenous. First, output can increase without a proportionate increase in employment. And second, wages can rise without a proportionate rise in prices.

It’s useful to think about this in terms of a couple of accounting identities, which in my opinion should be part of every macroeconomics textbook. [4] The first is obvious (but worth spelling out), the second a little less so:

(1) growth in demand = percent change in labor productivity + percent change in employment + inflation

(2) percent change in nominal wages = percent change in labor productivity + percent change in labor share + inflation

The standard story is that productivity change on its own due to technology, and the labor shared is fixed and can be ignored in this context. If productivity and labor share can be taken as given, then an increase in demand (money spent on final goods and services) must lead to higher inflation if either employment fails to rise, or if it rises only with higher wages. In this story, if nominal wages rise thanks to a lower unemployment rats, that will pass on one for one to inflation. Pick up an advanced undergraduate textbook like Blanchard or Krugman or Carlin and Soskice, and you will find a Phillips curve of exactly this form, with exactly this story behind it. [5] Policy discussions at central banks conducted in same terms.

This is what underlies idea of hard supply constraints. Output growth is dictated by the fixed, exogenous growth of the laborforce and of productivity. If changes in demand push the economy off that fixed trajectory, all you’ll get is higher or lower inflation. Concretely: To keep inflation at 2 percent, unemployment must be such as to generate nominal wage growth 2 points above the technologically-determined growth of productivity.

But an alternative story is that variation in demand can lead to adjustment in one of the other terms. One possibility is that the laborforce adjusts, as participation rates vary in response to demand conditions. This is what is most often meant by hysteresis: persistent deviations in unemployment from the “natural” level lead to people entering or exiting the laborforce. That implies that even when headline unemployment rates are fairly low, further increases in employment may be possible without a rise in wages. Another possibility is that while higher employment will lead to (or require) higher wages, the wage increase is not passed on to prices but comes at the expense of profits instead. This is Anwar Shaikh’s classical Phillips curve; I’ve written about it here before.

A third possibility is that higher wages are accompanied by higher productivity. Again, this appears as a problem when we are talking about wage increases from legislation, union contracts, or similar developments. But it’s not a problem if the wage increases are thanks to low unemployment. In this case, the joint movement of wages and productivity just means that output can rise higher — that supply constraints are softer. That’s what I want to focus on now.

There are a number of reasons why productivity might rise with wages. Some of them simply amount to mismeasurement of employment — it appears that output per worker is rising but really the effective number of workers is. Others are more fundamental. If productivity responds strongly and persistently to demand, it blurs the distinction between aggregate supply and aggregate demand, to the point that it’s not clear what “potential output” even means.

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Suppose we do find a consistent pattern where, if demand is strong, unemployment is low, and wages are rising rapidly, then productivity growth is high. What could be happening?

1. Increased hours. If we measure productivity as output per worker, as we usually do, then an increase in average hours worked will show up as an increase in productivity. There is a cyclical component to this — in recessions, employers reduce hours as well as laying off workers. According to the BLS, seasonally adjusted weekly hours fell from 34.4 prior to the recession to a low of 33.7 in summer 2009. While a 2 percent fall in hours might seem small, it’s a big change in less than two years, especially when you consider that real output per worker normally rises by less than 2 percent a year.

2. Workers moving into real jobs from pseudo-employment or disguised unemployment. In any economy there are activities that are formally classified as jobs but are not employment in any substantive sense — you can take these “jobs” without anyone making a decision to hire you, and they don’t come with a wage or any similar claim on any established production process. Joan Robinson’s examples were someone who gathers firewood in a poor country, or sells pencils on streetcorners in a richer one. You could add work in family businesses and various kinds of self-employment and commission-based work to this category. In countries with traditional rural sectors — not the US — work on a family farm is the big item here. These activities absorb people who are unable to find formal jobs; the marginal product of additional workers here is normally very low. So if higher demand draws people from this kind of disguised unemployment back into regular jobs, measured productivity will rise.

3. Workers may be more fully utilized at their existing jobs. Because hiring and firing is costly, business don’t immediately adjust staffing in response to changes in sales. when demand falls, businesses will initially keep some redundant workers because paying them is cheaper than laying them off and replacing them later; and when demand rises, businesses will first try to get more work out of existing employees rather than paying the costs of hiring more. Some of this takes the form of the hours adjustment above, but some of it simply takes the form of hiring “too little” or “too much” labor for the current level of production. These changes in the utilization of existing labor will show up as changes in labor productivity.

4. Higher wages may lead to more capital-intensive production. This is the McDonald’s story: When labor gets more expensive (or scarcer), businesses use more capital instead. This is presumably what people mean when they say “Econ 101” shows that rising wages lead to less employment (assuming they mean anything at all). This may be seen as a negative when it’s a question of raising wages through legislation or unions, but it shouldn’t be when it’s a question of rising wages due to labor scarcity. Insofar as businesses can substitute machines for labor, rising wages will not be passed on to prices, so there is more space to push unemployment down.

5. Productivity-boosting innovations may be more likely when demand is strong and wages rise. This is a variant of the previous story. Now instead of high wage leading business to adopt more capital-intensive techniques from those already available, they redirect innovation toward developing new labor-saving techniques. Conceptually this is not a big difference, but it implies a different signal in the data. In the previous case we would expect  the productivity improvements to be associated with higher investment and to be concentrated at the firms actually experiencing higher wages costs; in this case they might not be.

6. The composition of employment may shift toward higher-productivity sectors. This might happen for either of two reasons. First, higher wages will disproportionately raise costs for more labor-intensive sectors; these higher costs may be absorbed by profits or by prices, but either way they will presumably depress growth in those sectors to the benefit of less labor-intensive, more productive ones. Second, it may so happen that the more income-elastic sectors are also higher-productivity ones. In the short run this is presumably true since durables and investment goods are both capital-intensive and income-elastic. Over the longer run, the opposite is more likely — the composition of demand slowly but steadily shifts toward lower-productivity sectors.

7. The composition of employment may shift toward higher-productivity firms. This sounds similar but it’s a different story. Technical change isn’t an ineffable output-raising essence diffusing across society, it’s embodied in specific new production processes and new businesses — Schumpeter’s new plant, new firms, new men. This means that productivity increases often require new or growing firms to attract workers away from established ones. Given the “frictions” in the labor market, this will require offering a wage significantly above the going rate. And on the other side the fact that the least productive firms can’t afford to pay higher wages will cause them to decline or exit, which also raises average productivity. When wages are flat, on the other hand, low-productivity firms can continue operating. In this sense, higher wages are an integral part of productivity growth. [6]

8. There may be increasing returns in production. It may literally be the case that output per worker rises — at the firm, industry or economy-wide level — when the number of workers rises. Or this may be a more abstract version of some of the stories above. It’s worth noting that increasing returns is an area where the intuitions of people with economics training diverge sharply from people who look at the economy through other lenses. To almost anyone except an economist, it’s obvious that  costs normally fall as more of something is produced. [7]

All of these stories imply that higher demand should lead to higher measured labor productivity. But to figure out how strong this relationship is in reality, we’ll look at different data depending on which of these stories we think it works through.

Another important difference between the stories is they imply different domains over which the relationship should operate. The first three suggest a more or less immediate response of productivity to changes in demand, but also one that cannot continue indefinitely. There’s limits to how much hours per worker can rise and how much additional effort can be extracted from the existing workforce, and a limited pool of disguised unemployment to draw from. (The last is not true in developing countries, where the “latent reserve army” in subsistence agriculture may be effectively unlimited.) The other mechanisms are presumably slower, requiring a sustained “high-pressure economy.”  With these stories, increased demand may push the economy up against supply constraints, with rising inflation, bottlenecks, and so on; but if it keeps pushing against them, eventually they’ll give. In this case, potential output is a medium-term constraint — over longer periods it can adjust to actual output, rather than the reverse.  So in the opposite of conventional story, a temporary increase in inflation can lead to a permanent increase in output. People like Laurence Ball say exactly this about hysteresis, but they are usually thinking of the longer-run adjustment coming on the laborforce side.

If we follow this a step further, we could even say that in the long run, the big problem isn’t that excessively high wages do lead to the substitution of capital for labor but that excessively low wages don’t. People like Arthur Lewis argue that it’s the low wages of poor countries that have led to low productivity there, and not vice versa; there’s a well-known argument that the reason the industrial revolution happened first in Britain rather than in China or India (or Italy or France) is not that that the necessary technical innovations were present only in Britain. They were present many places; it was the uniquely high cost of British labor that made them profitable to adopt for production.

*

I think that productivity does respond to demand. I think this is a good reason to doubt whether the US economy close to “potential output” today, and to doubt what, if anything, this concept actually means. But I also think we need to be clearer about how they are linked concretely. If we want to tell a story about productivity responding to demand, it makes a difference which of the stories above we have in mind. Heterodox people, it seems to me, are too quick to just invoke Verdoorn’s law (productivity rises with output), and justify it with some vague comments about how labor is used more efficiently when it is scarce. [8] Does this apparent law work via substitution of machines for labor, or through fuller utilization of existing employees’ times, or through reallocation of labor to more productive firms and/or industries, or through a labor-saving-bias in technical change, or pure increasing returns, or what? If you’re just making a formal model it may not matter. But if we want to connect the model to concrete historical developments, it certainly does.

Personally, I am most interested in the reallocation stories. They shift our idea of the fundamental constraint on capitalist economies from biophysical resources, to coordination. The great difficulty for any program of raise or transform production —  industrialization, wartime mobilization, decarbonization — isn’t the limited supply of “real” resources, but the speed at which people’s productive activity can be redirected in a coordinated way. This connects with the historical fact that the more rapid and the larger scale is economic development, the more it requires some form of central planning. And it implies that at the most basic level, what the capitalist provides is not money or means of production, but cooperation.

To tell this story, it would be nice if big shifts in productivity growth took the form of changes in the composition of employment, rather than higher output per worker in given jobs. That may or may not be there in the data. For the more immediate question of how much space there is in the US for further expansion, it doesn’t matter as much which of these stories is at work, as long as we can show that at least some of them are. [9]

In the next post or two — which I hope to write in the next week, but we’ll see — I will ask what we can say about the link between demand and productivity based on historical US data. In particular, it’s fairly straightforward to decompose changes in output per worker into three components: within-industry output per hour, within-industry hours per worker, and shifts in the employment between industries. Splitting up productivity growth this way cannot, of course, directly establish a causal link with demand. but it can help clarify which stories are plausible and which are not.

 


 

[1] Throughout this discussion, I use “productivity” to mean labor productivity — output per worker or per hour. There is also “total factor productivity,” which purports to be a measure of output for a given input of labor and capital. This concept, which IMF chief economist Paul Romer memorably called “phlogiston,” is measured as the residual from a production function — the output growth the function does not explain. Since construction of the production function requires several unobseravable parameters, total factor productivity cannot be derived even in principle from economic data. It’s a fun toy for economic theory but useless for describing the behavior of actual economies.

Nonetheless it is widely used — for instance by the CBO as discussed here. As Nathan Tankus pointed out to me the other day, under the ARRA Medicare payments to hospitals are reduced each year based on an estimate of TFP growth for the economy as a whole. It’s a great example of the crackpot wonkery of the law’s authors.

[2] Unless productivity improvements all take the form of higher quality, rather than higher output per worker.

[3] This unemployment-money wages relationship was the original Phillips curve, but it’s better now to refer to it as a wage curve.

[4] It’s a topic for another time, but I think it would be very natural to replace the “aggregate supply” framework of the textbooks with these two identities.

[5] Other textbooks, like Mankiw, base the wage-unemployment relationship on a labor-supply curve rather than a bargaining relationship. Graduate textbooks, of course, replace the institutional detail of workers and employers with a single representative agent, in order to make more space for playing with math.

[6]  Andrew Glyn and his coauthors have a good discussion of this in the context of the postwar boom in  Capitalism Since 1945 (p. 122-123).

[7] For example, here’s Laurie Winkless in Science and the City, which happens to be sitting nearby:

Bessemer’s system rapidly began to change the world of steel manufacturing, and by 1875, costs had dropped to $32 (£23) per tonne. as always, in the supply-and-demand equation, the availability of cheap, high-quality steel made it immensely popular, leading to another huge drop in the price per tonne.

Winkless has made the mistake of studying the actual history of the steel history. If she were an economist, she would know that in the world of supply and demand, immense popularity makes prices rise, not fall!

[8] In Shaikh’s Capitalism, for example, there are a number of models that rely on the claim that productivity rises with output. It’s a big book and I may well have missed a part where he explains more fully why this is true. But as far as I can tell, all he says is that higher unit labor costs “provide a strong incentive for firms to raise productivity.”

[9] The politics of this question under Trump are for another time. But certainly Jeff Spross is right that we don’t want to oppose Trump’s (dubious) plans for a big stimulus by embracing the politics of austerity. We should not respond to Trump by reflexively insisting that the US is already at full employment, and by mocking “vulgar Keynesians” who think there might still be problems for macro policy to solve.

 

EDIT: Fixed the footnote numbering, which was garbled before.

Links for October 14

Now we are making progress. This piece by CEA chair Jason Furman on “the new view” of fiscal policy seems like a big step forward for mainstream policy debate. He goes further than anyone comparably prominent in rejecting the conventional macro-policy wisdom of the past 30 years. From where I’m sitting, the piece advances beyond the left edge of the current mainstream discussion in at least three ways.

First, it abandons the idea of zero interest rates as a special state of exception and accepts the idea of fiscal policy as a routine tool of macroeconomic stabilization. Reading stuff like this, or like SF Fed President John Williams saying that fiscal policy should be “a first responder to recessions,” one suspects that the post-1980s consensus that stabilization should be left to the central banks may be gone for good. Second, it directly takes on the idea that elected governments are inherently biased toward stimulus and have to be institutionally restrained from overexpansionary policy. This idea — back up with some arguments about  the“time-inconsistency” of policy that don’t really make sense — has remained a commonplace no matter how much real-world policy seems to lean the other way. It’s striking, for instance, to see someone like Simon Wren-Lewis rail against “the austerity con” in his public writing, and yet in his academic work take it as an unquestioned premise that elected governments suffer from “deficit bias.” So it’s good to see Furman challenge this assumption head-on.

The third step forward is the recognition that the long-run evolution of the debt ratio depends on GDP growth and interest rates as well as on the fiscal balance. Some on the left will criticize his assumption that the debt ratio is something policy should be worried about at all — here the new view has not yet broken decisively with the old view; I might have some criticisms of him on this point myself. But it’s very important to point out, as he does, that “changes in the debt ratio depend on two factors: the difference between the interest rate and the growth rate… and the primary balance… The larger the debt is, the more changes in r – g dwarf the primary balance in the determination of debt dynamics.” (Emphasis added.) The implication here is that the “fiscal space” metaphor is backward — if the debt ratio is a target for policy, then a higher current ratio means you should focus more on growth, and that responsibility for the “sustainability” of the debt rests more with the monetary authority than the fiscal authority. Admittedly Furman doesn’t follow this logic as far as Arjun and I do in our paper, but it’s significant progress to foreground the fact the debt ratio has both a numerator and a denominator.

If you’re doubting whether there’s anything really new here, just compare this piece with what his CEA chair predecessor Christina Romer was saying a decade ago — you couldn’t ask for a clearer statement of what Furman now rejects as “the old view.” It’s also, incidentally, a sign of how far policy discussions — both new view and old view — are from academic macro. DSGE models and their associated analytic apparatus don’t have even a walk-on part here. I think left critics of economics are too quick to assume that there is a tight link — a link at all, really — between orthodox theory and orthodox policy.

 

Why do stock exchanges exist? I really enjoyed this John Cochrane post on volume and information in financial markets. The puzzle, as he says, is why there is so much trading — indeed, why there is any trading at all. Life cycle and risk preference motivations could support, at best, a minute fraction of the trading we see; but information trading — the overwhelming bulk of actual trading — has winners and losers. As Cochrane puts it:

all trading — any deviation of portfolios from the value-weighted market index — is zero sum. Informed traders do not make money from us passive investors, they make money from other traders. It is not a puzzle that informed traders trade and make money. The deep puzzle is why the uninformed trade, when they could do better by indexing. …

Stock exchanges exist to support information trading. The theory of finance predicts that stock exchanges, the central institution it studies, the central source of our data, should not exist. The tiny amounts of trading you can generate for life cycle or other reasons could all easily be handled at a bank. All of the smart students I sent to Wall Street for 20 years went to participate in something that my theory said should not exist.

At first glance this might seem like one of those “puzzles” beloved of economists, where you describe some real-world phenomena in terms of a toy model of someone maximizing something, and then treat the fact that it doesn’t work very well as a surprising fact about the world rather than an unsurprising fact about your description. But in this case, the puzzle seems real; the relevant assumptions apply in financial markets in a way they don’t elsewhere.

I like that Cochrane makes no claim to have a solution to the puzzle — the choice to accept ignorance rather than grab onto the first plausible answer is, arguably, the starting point for scientific thought and certainly something economists could use more of. (One doesn’t have to accept the suggestion that if we have no idea what social needs, if any, are met by financial markets, or if there is too much trading or too little, that that’s an argument against regulation.) And I like the attention to what actual traders do (and say they do), which is quite different from what’s in the models.

 

Yes, we know it’s not a “real” Nobel. So the Nobel went to Hart and Holmstrom. Useful introductions to their work are here and here. Their work is on contract theory: Why do people make complex ongoing agreements with each other, instead of just buying the things they want? This might seem like one of those pseudo-puzzles — as Sanjay Reddy notes on Twitter, the question only makes sense if you take economists’ ideal world as your starting point. There’s a whole genre of this stuff: Take some phenomenon we are familiar with from everyday life, or that has been described by other social scientists, and show that it can also exist in a world of exchange between rational monads. Even at its best, this can come across like a guy who learns to, I don’t know, play Stairway to Heaven with a set of spoons. Yes, getting the notes out takes real skill, and it doesn’t sound bad, but it’s not clear why you would play it that way if you weren’t for some reason already committed to the gimmick. Or in this case, it’s not clear what we learn from translating a description of actual employment contracts into the language of intertemporal optimization; the process requires as an input all the relevant facts about the phenomenon it claims to explain. What’s the point, unless you are for some already committed to ignoring any facts about the world not expressed in the formalism of economics? This work — I admit I don’t know it well — also makes me uncomfortable with the way it seems to veer opportunistically between descriptive and prescriptive. Is this about how actual contracts really are optimal given information constraints and so on, or is it about how optimal contracts should be written? Anyway, here’s a more positive assessment from Mark Thoma.

 

Still far from full employment. Heres’ a helpful report from the Center for Economics and Policy Research on the state of the labor market. They look at a bunch of alternatives to the conventional unemployment rate and find that all of them show a weaker labor market than in 2006-2007. Hopefully the Clinton administration and/or some Democrats in the Senate will  put some sharp questions to FOMC appointees over the next few years about whether they think the Fed as fulfilled its employmnet mandate, and on what basis. They’ll find some useful ammunition here.

 

Saving, investment and the natural rate. Here’s a new paper from Lance Taylor taking another swipe at the pinata of the “natural rate”. Taylor points out that if the “natural” interest rate simply means the interest rate at which aggregate demand equals potential output (even setting aside questions about how we measure potential), the concept doesn’t make much sense. If we look at the various flows of spending on goods and services by sector and purpose, we can certainly identify flows that are more or less responsive to interest rates; but there is no reason to think that interest rate changes are the main driver of changes in spending, or that “the” interest rate that balances spending and potential at a given moment is particularly stable or represents any kind of fundamental parameters of the economy. Even less can we think of the “natural” rate as balancing saving and investment, because, among other reasons, “saving” is dwarfed by the financial flows between and within sectors. Taylor also takes Keynes to task (rightly, in my view) for setting us on the wrong track with assumption that households save and “entrepreneurs” invest, when in fact most of the saving in the national accounts takes place within the corporate sector.

 

On other blogs, other wonders:

At Vox, another reminder that the rise in wealth relative to income that Piketty documents is mainly about the rising value of existing assets, not the savings-and-accumulation process he talks about in his formal models.

Also at Vox: How much did Germany benefit from debt forgiveness after World War II? (A lot.) EDIT: Also here.

Is there really a “global pivot” toward more expansionary fiscal policy? The IMF and Morgan Stanley both say no.

Another one for the short-termism file: Here’s an empirical paper suggesting that when banks become publicly traded, their management starts responding to short-run movements in their stock, taking on more risk as a result.

Matias Vernengo has a new paper on Raul Prebisch’s thought on business cycles and growth. Prebisch would be near the top of my list of twentieth century economists who deserve more attention than they get.

I was just at Verso for the release party for Peter Frase’s new book Four Futures, based on his widely-read Jacobin piece. I don’t really agree with Peter’s views on this — I don’t see the full replacement of human labor by machines as the logical endpoint of either the historical development of capitalism or a socialist political project — but he makes a strong case. If the robot future is something you’re thinking about, you should definitely buy the book.

 

EDIT: Two I meant to include, and forgot:

David Glasner has a follow-up post on the inconsistency of rational expectations with the “shocks” and comparative statics they usually share models with. It’s probably not worth beating this particular dead horse too much more, but one more inconsistency. As I can testify first-hand, at most macroeconomic journals, “lacks microfoundations” is sufficient reason to reject a paper. But this requirement is suspended as soon as you call something a “shock,” even though technology, the markup, etc. are forms of behavior just as much as economic quantities or prices are. (This is also one of Paul Romer’s points.)

And speaking of people named Romer, David and and Christina Romer have a new working paper on US monetary policy in the 1950s. It’s a helpful paper — it’s always worthwhile to reframe abstract, universal questions as concrete historical ones — but also very orthodox in its conclusions. The Fed did a good job in the 1950s, in their view, because it focused single-mindedly on price stability, and was willing to raise rates in response to low unemployment even before inflation started rising. This is a good example of the disconnect between the academic mainstream and the policy mainstream that I mentioned above. It’s perfectly possible to defend orthodoxy macroeconomic policy without any commitment to, or use of, orthodox macroeconomic theory.

 

EDIT: Edited to remove embarrassing confusion of Romers.

Potential Output: Why Should We Care?

Brian Romanchuk has a characteristically thoughtful post making “the case against growth and stimulus.” He’s responding to pieces by Larry Summers and John Cochrane arguing that macroeconomic policy should focus more on output growth.

Brian has two objections to this. First, environmental resource constraints are real. Not in an absolute sense — in principle a given throughput of physical inputs can be associated with an arbitrarily high GDP. But in our economies as currently organized there is a tight connection between rising GDP and increased use of fossil fuels. Even leaving aside climate change concerns, that means that faster growth may well be cut off by a spike in oil prices. [1] The second objection is that the link between higher growth and better labor-market outcomes may not be as tight as Summers suggests. In Brian’s view, things like public investment may not do much for incomes at the bottom because the

U.S. labour market is obviously segmented. The “high skill” segments are doing relatively well… Non-targeted “demand management” (such as infrastructure spending) is probably going to require creating jobs for college-educated workers. (You need an engineering degree to sign off on plans, for example.) It is a safe bet that the job market for college graduates would become extremely tight before the U-6 unemployment rate even begins to close on its historical lows. This would cause inflationary pressures…

This suggests that the focus should be on direct job-creation programs for people left out of the private market, rather than policies to raise aggregate demand.

Since I am (very slowly) making an argument that there is space for more expansionary policy, evidently I disagree.

Before saying why, I should add one other argument on Brian’s side. One reason to be against “growth” as a political project is that higher GDP does not increase people’s wellbeing. In my view this is clearly true for countries with per-capita GDP above $15,000-20,000 or so. This is a moderately respectable view these days, though obviously a minority one. For most economists the case for growth is still so obvious it doesn’t even need stating — having more stuff makes people happier.

I don’t believe that. But I still think it’s worth arguing that there is more space for expansionary policy to raise GDP. For three reasons:

First, I think Summers and Cochrane are right (!) about the importance of tight labor markets to raise wages, flatten the income distribution and increase the social power of working people more broadly. I don’t think you would have had the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s (even on such apparently non-economic ones as feminism and gay rights) if there hadn’t been a long period of very tight labor markets. [2] The threat of unemployment maintains the power of the boss in the workplace, and that reinforces all kinds of other hierarchies as well.

Corollary to this, I’m not convinced that the labor market is as segmented as Brian suggests. I think that in many cases, people with more credentials get to the front of the queue for the same jobs, as opposed to competing for a distinct pool of jobs. It seems to me the historical evidence is unambiguous that when overall unemployment falls there are disproportionate gains for those at the bottom.

Second, I think the idea of a hard ceiling to potential output is an important part of the logic of scarcity that hems in our political imagination in all kinds of harmful ways. Yes, infrastructure spending, and sometimes also increased social spending, even a basic income, can be presented as measures to boost demand and output. But you can also look at it the other way — these are good things on the merits, and the claim that they will boost output is just a way of defusing arguments that we “can’t afford” them. To me, the policy importance of saying we are far from any real supply constraint is not that higher output is desirable in itself (apart from its labor-market effects); it’s that it strengthens the argument for public spending that’s desirable for its own sake.

Third, on a more academic level, I think the idea of a fixed exogenous potential output is one of the most important patches (along with the “natural rate of interest”) covering up the disconnect between the “real exchange” world of economic theory and the actual monetary production economy we live in. Assuming that the long-run path of output is fixed by real supply-side factors is a way of quarantining monetary and demand factors to the short run. So the more space we open up for demand-side effects, the more space we have to analyze the economy as a system of money claims and payments and coordination problems rather than the efficient allocation of scare resources

 

[1] As it happens, this was the the topic of the first real post on this blog.

[2] The best discussion of this link I know of is in Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison’s Capitalism Since 1945. Jefferson Cowie’s more recent book on the ’70s makes a similar case for the US specifically.

 

(I wrote this post a month ago and for some reason never posted it.)

 

UPDATE: There’s another argument I meant to mention. When I look around I see a world full of energetic, talented, creative people forced to spend their days doing tedious shitwork and performing servility. I find it morally offensive to claim that a job at McDonald’s or in a nail salon or Amazon warehouse is the fullest use of anyone’s potential. When Keynes says that we will build “our New Jerusalem out of the labour which in our former vain folly we were keeping unused and unhappy in enforced idleness,” he doesn’t have to mean literal idleness. In a society in which aggregate expenditure was constantly pushing against supply constraints, millions of people today who spend the working hours of the day having the humanity slowly ground out of them would instead be developing their capacities as engineers, artists, electricians, doctors, scientists. To say that most of the jobs we expect people to do today make full use of their potential is a vile slander, even if we are only measuring potential by the narrow standards of GDP.

Links for July 27, 2016

Labor dynamism and demand. My colleagues Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum have an important new paper out on  the decline in new business starts and in labor mobility. They argue that the data don’t support a story where declining labor-market dynamism is the result of supply-side factors  like occupational licensing. It looks much  more like the result of chronically weak demand for labor, which for whatever reason is not picked up by the conventional unemployment rate.  This is obviously relevant to the potential output question I’m interested in — a slowdown in the rate at which workers move to new firms is a natural channel by which weak demand could reduce labor productivity. It’s also a very interesting story in its own right.

Konczal and Steinbaum:

The decline of entrepreneurship and “business dynamism” has become an accepted fact … Explanations for these trends … broadly fall on the supply side: that increasingly onerous occupational licensing impedes entry into certain protected professions and restricts licensed workers to staying where they are; that the high cost of housing thanks to restrictions on development hampers individuals from moving… But we find that the data reject these supply-side explanations: If there were increased restrictions on changing jobs or starting a business, we would expect those few workers and entrepreneurs who do manage to move to enjoy increased wage gains relative to periods with higher worker flows, and we would expect aggressive hiring by employers with vacancies. … Instead, we see the opposite…

We propose a different organizing principle: Declining business dynamism and labor mobility are features of a slackening labor market … workers lucky enough to have formal employment stay where they are rather than striking out as entrepreneurs …

Also in Roosevelt news, here’s a flattering piece about us in the New York Times Magazine.

 

John Kenneth who? Real World Economics Review polled its subscribers on the most important economics books of the past 100 years. Here’s the top ten. Personally I suspect Debt will have more staying power than Capital in the 21st Century, and I think Minsky’s book John Maynard Keynes is a better statement of his vision than Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, a lot of which is focused on banking-sector developments of the 1970s and 1980s that aren’t of much interest today. But overall it’s a pretty good list. The only one I haven’t read is The Affluent Society. I wonder if anyone under the age of 50 picked that one?

 

Deflating the elephant. Here is a nice catch from David Rosnick. Brank Milanovic has a well-known graph of changes in global income distribution over 1988-2008. What we see is that, while within most countries there has been increased polarization, at the global level the picture is more complicated. Yes, the top of the distribution has gone way up, and the very bottom has gone down. But the big fall has been in the upper-middle of the distribution — between the 80th and 99th percentiles — while most of the lower part has has risen, with the biggest gains coming around the 50th percentile. The decline near the high end is presumably working-class people in rich countries and most people in the former Soviet block —who were still near the top of the global distribution in 1988. A big part of the rise in the lower half is China. A natural question is, how much? — what would the distribution look like without China? Milanovic had suggested that the overall picture is still basically the same. But as Rosnick shows, this isn’t true — if you exclude China, the gains in the lower half are much smaller, and incomes over nearly half the distribution are lower in 2008 than 20 years before. It’s hard to see this as anything but a profoundly negative verdict on the Washington Consensus that has ruled the world over the past generation.

gic_100

By the way, you cannot interpret this — as I at first wrongly did — as meaning that 40 percent of the world’s people have lower incomes than in 1988. It’s less than that. Faster population growth in poor countries would tend to shift the distribution downward even if every individual’s income was rising.

 

Does nuclear math add up? Over at Crooked Timber, there’s been an interesting comments-thread debate between Will Boisvert (known around here for his vigorous defense of nuclear power) and various nuke antis and skeptics. I’m the farthest thing from an expert, I can’t claim to be any kind of arbiter. But personally my sympathies are with Will. One important thing he brings out, which I hadn’t thought about enough until now, is the difference between electricity and most other commodities. Part of the problem is the very large share of fixed costs — as the Crotty-Minsky-Perelman strain of Keynesians have emphasized, capitalism does badly with long lived capital assets. A more distinctive problem is the time dimension — electricity produced at one time is not a good substitute for electricity produced at a different time, even just an hour before or after. Electricity cannot be stored economically at a meaningful scale, nor — given that almost everything in modern civilization uses it — can its consumption be easily shifted in time.  This means that straightforward comparisons of cost per kilowatt — hard enough to produce, given the predominance of fixed  costs — can be misleading. Regardless of costs, intermittent sources — like wind or solar — have to be balanced by sources that can be turned on anytime — which in the absence of nuclear, means fossil fuels.

Do you believe, as I do, that climate change is the great challenge facing humanity in the next generation? Then this is a very strong argument for nuclear power. Whatever its downsides, they are not as bad as boiling the oceans. Still, it’s not a decisive argument. The big other questions are the costs of power storage and of more extensive transmission networks — since when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing in one place, they probably are somewhere else. (I agree with Will that using the price mechanism to force electricity usage to conform to supply from renewables is definitely the wrong answer.) The CT debate doesn’t answer those questions. But it’s still an example of how informative blog debate can be when there are people  both sides with real expertise who are prepared to engage seriously with each other.

 

On other blogs, other wonders. Here is a fascinating post by Laura Tanenbaum on the end of sex-segregated job ads and the false dichotomy between “elite” and “grassroots”  feminism.

This very interesting article by Jose Azar on the extent and economic significance of common ownership of corporate shares deserves a post of its own.

Here’s a nice little think piece from Bloomberg wondering what, if anything, is meant by “the natural rate” of interest. I’m glad to see some skepticism about this concept in the larger conversation. In my mind, the “natural rate” is one of the key patches covering over the disconnect between economic theory and the observable economy.

Bhenn Bhiorach has a funny post on the lengths people will go to to claim that low inflation is really high inflation.

Unemployment and Productivity Growth

I write here frequently about “the money view” — the idea that we need to see economic relationships as a system of money flows and money commitments, that is not reducible to the “real” production and exchange of goods and services. Seeing the money-game as a self-contained system is the first step; the next step is to ask how this system interacts with the concrete activities of production.

One way to look at this interface is through the concept of potential output, and its relationship to current expenditure, or demand. In the textbook view, there is no connection between the long-run evolution of potential output with demand. This is a natural view if you think that economic quantities have an independent material existence. First we have scarce resources, then the choice about which end to devote them to. Knut Wicksell suggests somewhere an evocative metaphor for this view of economic growth: It’s as if we had a cellar full off wine in barrels, which will improve with age. The problem of economic growth is then equivalent to choosing the optimal tradeoff between having better wine, and drinking it sooner than later. But whatever choice we make, all the wine is already there. Ramsey and Solow growth models, with their “golden rule” growth rate, are descriptions of this kind of problem. Aggregate demand doesn’t come into it.

From our point of view, on the other hand, production is a creative, social activity. Economic growth is not a matter of allowing an exiting material process to continue operating through time, but of learning how to work together in new ways. The fundamental problem is coordination, not allocation.  From this point of view, the technical conditions of production are endogenous to the organization of production, and the money payments that structure it. So it’s natural to think that aggregate expenditure could be an important factor determining the pace at which productive activity can be reorganized.

Now, whether demand actually does matter in the longer run is hotly debated point in heterodox economics. You can find very smart Post Keynesians like Steve Fazzari arguing that it does, and equally smart Marxists like Dumenil and Levy arguing that it does not. (Amitava Dutt has a good summary; Mark Setterfield has a good recent discussion of the formal issues of incorporating demand into Kaldorian growth models.) But within our framework, at least it is possible to ask the question.

Which brings me to this recent article in the Real World Economic Review. I don’t recommend the piece — it is not written in a way to inspire confidence. But it does make an interesting claim, that over the long run there is an inverse relationship between unemployment and labor productivity growth in the US, with average labor productivity growth equal to 8 minus the unemployment rate. This is consistent with the idea that demand conditions influence productivity growth, most obviously because pressures to economize on labor will be greater when labor is scarce.

A strong empirical regularity like this would be interesting, if it was real. But is it?

Here is one obvious test (a bit more sensible to me than the approach in the RWER article). The figure below shows the average US unemployment rate and real growth rate of hourly labor productivity for rolling ten-year windows.

It’s not exactly “the rule of 8” — the slope of the regression line is just a big greater than -0.5, rather than -1. But it is still a striking relationship. Ten-year periods with high growth of productivity invariably also have low unemployment rates; periods of high average unemployment are invariably also periods of slow productivity growth.

Of course these are overlapping periods, so this tells us much less than it would if they were independent observations. But the association of above-average productivity growth with below-average unemployment is indeed a historical fact, at least for the postwar US. (As it turns out, this relationship is not present in most other advanced countries — see below.) So what could it mean?

1. It might mean nothing. We really only have four periods here — two high-productivity-growth, low-unemployment periods, one in the 1950s-1960s and one in the 1990s; and two low-productivity-growth, high-unemployment periods, one in the 1970s-1980s and one in the past decade or so. It’s quite possible these two phenomena have separate causes that just happened to shake out this way. It’s also possible that a common factor is responsible for both — a new technology-induced investment boom is the obvious candidate.

2. It might be that high productivity growth leads to lower unemployment. The story here I guess would be the Fed responding to a positive supply shock. I don’t find this very plausible.

3. It might be that low unemployment, or strong demand in general, fosters faster productivity growth. This is the most interesting for our purposes. I can think of several versions of this story. First is the increasing-returns story that originally motivated Verdoorn’s law. High demand allows firms to produce further out on declining cost curves. Second, low unemployment could encourage firms to adopt more labor-saving production techniques. Third, low unemployment might associated with more rapid movement of labor from lower-productivity to higher-productivity activities. (In other words, the relationship might be due to lower visible unemployment being associated with lower disguised unemployment.) Or fourth, low unemployment might be associated with a relaxing of the constraints that normally limit productivity-boosting investment — demand itself, and also financing. In any of these stories, the figure above shows a causal relationship running from the x-axis to the y-axis.

One scatterplot of course hardly proves anything. I’m really just posing the question. Still, this one figure is enough to establish one thing: A positive relationship between unemployment and labor productivity has not been the dominant influence on either variable in the postwar US. In particular, this is strong evidence against the idea the idea of technological unemployment, beloved by everyone from Jeremy Rifkin to Lawrence Summers. (At least as far as this period is concerned — the future could be different.) To tell a story in which paid labor is progressively displaced by machines, you must have a positive relationship between labor productivity and unemployment. But historically, high unemployment has been associated with slower growth in labor productivity, not faster. So we can say with confidence that whatever has driven changes in unemployment over the past 75 years, it has not been changes in the pace at which human labor is replaced by technology.

The negative relationship between unemployment and productivity growth, whatever it means, turns out to be almost unique to the US. Of the dozen or so other countries I looked at, the only one with a similar pattern is Japan, and even there the relationship is weaker. I honestly don’t know what to make of this. But if you’re interested, the other scatterplots are below the fold.

Note: Labor productivity is based on real GDP per hour, from the BLS International Labor Comparisons project; unemployment is the harmonized unemployment rate for all persons from the OECD Main Economic Indicators database. I used these because they are (supposed to be) defined consistently across countries and were available on FRED. Because the international data covers shorter periods than the US data does, I used 8-year windows instead of 10-year windows.