Links and Thoughts for March 15, 2017

Do you guys know The Death Ship? B. Traven’s first novel, the only one not set in Mexico? It begins with an American sailor who goes ashore in the Netherlands, gets distracted as you do, his ship leaves. The Dutch don’t want him, they send him across the border to Germany. The Germans don’t want him, send him to Belgium, the Belgians send him to France. The French send him back to the Netherlands, where he ends up on the eponymous ship. It’s a good book. I was just thinking of it the other day, for some reason.

 

Against the sonderweg. Here is a fascinating article on the pre-history of Swedish social democracy. Contrary to claims of Swedish “sonderweg”, or special path, toward egalitarianism, Erik Bengtsson convincingly shows that until the 1930s, Sweden was not especially egalitarian relative to other West European countries or the US. Both economically and politically, it was at the unequal end of the European continuum, and considerably less equal than the US. “In 1900, it was one of the countries in Western Europe with the most restricted suffrage, and wealth was more unequally distributed than in the United States. …The more likely explanation of Swedish twentieth-century equality, rather than any deep roots, is the extraordinary degree of popular organization in the labour movement and other popular movements” in the 210th century. Income and wealth distribution were similar to France or Britain, while the franchise was more restricted than in any other major West European country. Up through World War One, Swedish politic was dominated by the same kind of “iron and rye” alliance of feudal landowners with big industrialists as Bismarkian Germany. “The exceptional equality of Swedish economy and society c. 1920-1990 did not arrive as the logical conclusion of a long historical continuity”; rather, it was the result of an exceptionally effective mass mobilization against what was previously an unusually inegalitarian state.

More speculatively, Bengtsson suggests that it was precisely the exceptionally strong and persistent domination by a small elite that created the conditions for Swedish social democracy: “the late democratization of Sweden” may have “fostered a liberal-socialist democratizing alliance … [between] petit bourgeois liberals and working-class socialists … unlike Germany, where the greater inclusion of lower-middle class men meant that middle class liberals and haute bourgeois market liberals could unite around a program of economic liberalism.”  It’s a neat inversion of Werner Sombart’s famous argument that “the free gift of the ballot” prior to the appearance of an organized working class was the reason no powerful socialist party ever developed in the United States. Bengttson’s convincing claim that Swedish egalitarianism was not the result of a deep-rooted history but of a deliberate political project to transform a previously inegalitarian society, has obvious relevance for today.

 

High productivity in France. While we are debunking myths about social democracy, here is Thomas Piketty on French productivity. “If we calculate the average labour productivity by dividing the GDP … by the total number of hours worked … we then find that France is at practically the same level as the United States and Germany, … more than 25% higher than the United Kingdom or Italy.” And here’s a 2014 post from Merijn Knibbe making the same point.

 

Against Hamilton. In The Baffler, Matt Stoller argues that Hamilton is overrated. Richard Kreitner makes a similar case in The Nation, with an interestingly off-center focus on Paterson, New Jersey. Christian Parenti (my soon-to-be colleague at John Jay College) made the case for Hamilton not long ago in the Jacobin; he’s writing an introduction to a new edition of Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures. This is not a new debate. Twenty years ago, as the books editor of In These Times, I published a piece by Dan Lazare making a similar pro-Hamilton case; it was one of the things that Jimmy Weinstein fired me for.

My sense of these arguments is that one side says that Hamilton was a predecessor of today’s Koch brothers-neocon right, an anti-democratic militarist who believed the country should be governed by and for the top 1 percent; his opponent Jefferson must therefore have been a democrat and anti-imperialist. The other side says that Jefferson was a predecessor of today’s Tea Party right, an all-in racist and defender of slavery who opposed cities, industry and progress; his opponent Hamilton must therefore have been an abolitionist, an open-minded cosmopolitan and a liberal. I am far from an expert on early American politics. But in both cases, I think, the first half of the argument is right, but the second half is much more doubtful. There are political heroes in circa-1800 America, but to find them we are going to have look beyond the universe of people represented on dollar bills.

 

Against malinvestment. Brad Delong has, I think, the decisive criticism of malinvestment theories of the Great Recession and subsequent slow recovery. In terms of the volume of investment based on what turned out to be false expectations, and the subsequent loss of asset value, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s was much bigger than the housing bubble. So why were the macroeconomic consequences so much milder?

 

Selective memory in Germany. Another valuable piece of political pre-history, this one of German anti-Keynesianism by Jörg Bibow. Among a number of valuable points, he describes how German economic debate has been shaped by a strangely selective history of the 20th century, from which depression and mass unemployment – the actual context for the rise of Nazism — have been erased. Failures of economic policy can only be imagined as runaway inflation.

 

The once and future bull market in bonds. Here is an interesting conversation between Srinivas Thiruvadanthai of the Levy Center and Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg, on the future of the bond market. Thiruvadanthai’s forecast: interest rates can fall quite a bit more in the coming decades. He makes several interesting and, to me, convincing points. First, that in an environment of large balance sheets, we can’t analyze the effects of things like interest rate changes just in terms of the real sector. The main effect of higher rates today wouldn’t be to discourage borrowing, but to raise the burden of existing debt. He also makes the converse argument, which I’m less sure about — that after another round or two of fiscal expansion and unconventional monetary policy, public sector debt could make up a large share of private balance sheets, with proportionately less private debt. Under those conditions, an increase in interest rates would be much less contractionary, or even expansionary, creating the possibility for much larger rate hikes if central banks continue to use conventional policy to stabilize demand.

More generally, he points out that, historically, the peacetime inflation of the 1970s is a unique event over the hundreds of years in which bond markets have existed, so it’s a little problematic to build a whole body of macroeconomic theory around that one episode, as we’ve done. And, he says, capitalism doesn’t normally face binding supply constraints — the vast majority of firms, the vast majority of the time, would be happy to sell more at their current prices. And he expresses some — much-needed, IMO — skepticism about whether central banks can in general hit an inflation target, reliably or at all.

 

Positive money? Here is a vigorous critique of 100 percent reserve backed, or positive, money. (An idea which is a staple of monetary reformers going back at least to David Hume, and perhaps most famous as the Chicago Plan.)  I don’t have a settled view on this idea. I do think it’s interesting that the reforms the positive money people are calling for, are intended to produce essentially the tight link between public liabilities and private assets which MMT people claim already exists. And which Thiruvadanthai thinks we might inadvertently move toward in the future.

 

Captial flows: still unstable. Here’s a useful piece in VoxEU on the volatility of capital flows. Barry Eichengrreen and his coauthors confirm the conventional wisdom among heterodox critics of the Washington Consensus: free movement of finance is the enemy of macroeconomic stability. FDI flows — which are linked to the coordination of real productive activity across borders — are reasonably stable; but portfolio flows remain as prone to sudden stops and reversals as they’ve always been.

 

Killing conscience. Over at Evonomics, Lynn Stout makes the important point that any kind of productive activity depends on trust, norms, and the disinterested desire to do one’s job well – what Michelet called “the professional conscience.” These are undermined by the creation of formal incentives, especially monetary incentives. Incentives obstruct, discourage, even punish, the spontaneous “prosocial” behavior that actually makes organizations work, while encouraging the incentivized people to game the system in perverse ways. under socialism, to speak of someone’s interests will be considered an insult; to give someone incentives will be considered an act of violence.

It’s a good piece; the one thing I would add is that one reason incentives are used so widely despite their drawbacks is that they are are about control, as well as (or rather than) efficiency. Workers’ consciences are very powerful tools at eliciting effort; but the boss who depends on them is implicitly acknowledging a moral claim by those workers, and faces the prospect that conscience may at some point require something other than following orders.

 

The deficit is not the problem. Jared Bernstein makes the same argument about trade that I made in my Roosevelt Institute piece a few months ago. The macroeconomic-policy question posed by US trade deficits should not be, how do we move our trade towards balance? It should be: how do we ensure that the financial inflows that are the counterpart of the deficit, are invested productively?

 

We simply do not know. Nick Rowe has always been one of my favorite economics bloggers – a model for making rigorous arguments in a clear, accessible way. I don’t read him as consistently as I used to, or comment there any more — vita breve and all that — but he still is writing good stuff. Here he makes the common-sensical point  that someone considering investment in long-lived capital goods does not face symmetric risks. “A recession means that capital services are wasted at the margin, because the extra output cannot be sold. But booms are not good, because a bigger queue of customers does nothing for profitability if you cannot produce more to meet the extra demand.” So uncertainty about future economic outcomes — or, what is not quite the same thing, greater expected variance — will depress the level of desired investment. I don’t know if Nick was thinking of Keynes — consciously or unconsciously when he wrote the post, but it’s very much in a Keynesian spirit. I’m thinking especially of the 1937 article “The General Theory of Employment,” where Keynes observes that to carry out investment according to the normal dictates of economic rationality, we must “assume that the present is a much more serviceable guide to the future than a candid examination of past experience would show it to have been hitherto.”

 

The health policy tightrope. The Republican plan health care plan, the CBO says, would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 24 million. I don’t know any reason to question this number. By some estimates, this will result in 40,000 additional deaths a year. By the same estimate, the Democratic status quo leaves 28 million people uninsured, implying a similar body count. Paul Ryan’s idea that health care should be a commodity to be bought in the market is cruel and absurd but the Democrats’ idea that heath insurance should be a commodity bought in the market is not obviously less so. Personally, I’m struggling to find the right balance between these two sets of facts. I suppose the first should get more weight right now, but I can’t let go of the second. Adam Gaffney does an admirable job managing this tightrope act in his assessment of the Obama health care legacy  in Jacobin. (But I think he’s absolutely right, strategically, to focus on the Republicans for the Guardian’s different readership .)

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

I’m looking forward to reading Ann Pettifor’s new book on money. In the meantime, here’s an interview with her in Vogue.

Towards the Garfield left.

The end of austerity is perfectly feasible in Spain.

“Underfunded” doesn’t mean what it sounds like. Based on the excellent Sgouros piece I linked to earlier.

Uber is doomed.

The decline of blue-collar jobs. I admit I was surprised to see what a large share of employment manufacturing accounted for a generation ago.

Perry Anderson: Why the system will win. Very worth reading, like everything Anderson writes. But  too sympathetic to anti-immigrant politics.

The ECB should give money directly to European citizens.

Manchester by the Sea is a good movie. But Margaret is a great movie.

Two Papers in Progress

There are two new papers on the articles page on this site. Both are work in progress – they haven’t been submitted anywhere yet.

 

[I’ve taken the debt-distribution paper down. It’s being revised.]

The Evolution of State-Local Balance Sheets in the US, 1953-2013

Slides

The first paper, which I presented in January in Chicago, is a critical assessment of the idea of a close link between income distribution and household debt. The idea is that rising debt is the result of rising inequality as lower-income households borrowed to maintain rising consumption standards in the face of stagnant incomes; this debt-financed consumption was critical to supporting aggregate demand in the period before 2008. This story is often associated with Ragnuram Rajan and Mian and Sufi but is also widely embraced on the left; it’s become almost conventional wisdom among Post Keynesian and Marxist economists. In my paper, I suggest some reasons for skepticism. First, there is not necessarily a close link between rising aggregate debt ratios and higher borrowing, and even less with higher consumption. Debt ratios depend on nominal income growth and interest payments as well as new borrowing, and debt mainly finances asset ownership, not current consumption. Second, aggregate consumption spending has not, contrary to common perceptions, risen as a share of GDP; it’s essentially flat since 1980. The apparent rise in the consumption share is entirely due to the combination of higher imputed noncash expenditure, such as owners’ equivalent rent; and third party health care spending (mostly Medicare). Both of these expenditure flows are  treated as household consumption in the national accounts. But neither involves cash outlays by households, so they cannot affect household balance sheets. Third, household debt is concentrated near the top of the income distribution, not the bottom. Debt-income ratios peak between the 85th and 90th percentiles, with very low ratios in the lower half of the distribution. Most household debt is owed by the top 20 percent by income. Finally, most studies of consumption inequality find that it has risen hand-in-hand with income inequality; it appears that stagnant incomes for most households have simply meant stagnant living standards. To the extent demand has been sustained by “excess” consumption, it was more likely by the top 5 percent.

The paper as written is too polemical. I need to make the tone more neutral, tentative, exploratory. But I think the points here are important and have not been sufficiently grappled with by almost anyone claiming a strong link between debt and distribution.

The second paper is on state and local debt – I’ve blogged a bit about it here in the past few months. The paper uses budget and balance sheet data from the census of governments to make two main points. First, rising state and local government debt does not imply state and local government budget deficits. higher debt does not imply higher deficits: Debt ratios can also rise either because nominal income growth slows, or because governments are accumulating assets more rapidly. For the state and local sector as a whole, both these latter factors explain more of the rise in debt ratios than does the fiscal balance. (For variation in debt ratios across state governments, nominal income growth is not important, but asset accumulation is.) Second, despite balanced budget requirements, state and local governments do show substantial variation in fiscal balances, with the sector as a whole showing deficits and surpluses up to almost one percent of GDP. But unlike the federal government, the state and local governments accommodate fiscal imbalances entirely by varying the pace of asset accumulation. Credit-market borrowing does not seem to play any role — either in the aggregate or in individual states — in bridging gaps between current expenditure and revenue.

I will try to blog some more about both these papers in the coming days. Needless to say, comments are very welcome.

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.

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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.

Can We Blame Low Labor Participation on Past High Unemployment?

Fifth post in a series. Posts onetwothree and four.

We know that US GDP fell sharply in 2008-2009. We know that none of that decline has been made up by faster growth since the recession: GDP today is about 14 percent below the pre-2008 trend, a gap that shows no sign of closing. We also know that one-third of that shortfall is accounted for by slower productivity growth, and the remaining two-thirds by slower employment growth.

To put numbers on it: Over the past decade, US employment rose by a total of 6 percent, or about 0.5 percent per year. This is about half the rate of employment growth over the last ten years before the recession, and less a quarter the average rate for the postwar period as a whole. 2000-2010 was the first decade since the Depression in which US employment actually fell. Since the unemployment rate today is very close to that of ten years ago, this whole slowdown is accounted for by a decline in laborforce participation.

Employment growth, unlike productivity growth, was already slowing prior to the recession, and  pre-recession forecasts predicted a further slowdown comparable to what actually occurred. This is consistent with a widely-held view that the slowdown in employment is the result of demographic and other structural factors, not of the recession or demand weakness in general. In the next couple posts, I want to take a critical look at this claim. How confident should we be that employment would be the same today in a counterfactual world where the 2008-2009 didn’t happen? How responsive might employment be to stronger demand going forward? And more broadly, how much do changes in laborforce participation seem to be explained by more or less exogenous factors like demographics, and how much by demand and labor-market conditions?

The rest of this post is about an approach to this question that did not produce the results I was hoping for. So I probably won’t include this material in whatever paper comes out of these posts. But as we feel our way into reality it’s important to note down the dead ends as well as the routes that seem promising. And even though this exercise didn’t help much in answering the big questions posed in the previous paragraph, it’s still interesting in its own right.

*

Can the fall in laborforce participation be explained as a direct, predictable effect of the rise in unemployment during the recession? It seems like maybe it can. The starting point is the observation that unemployed workers are much more likely to drop out of the laborforce than people with jobs are. You can see this clearly in the BLS tables on employment transitions. As the figure below shows, about 3 percent of employed people exit the laborforce each month, a fraction that has been remarkably stable since the data begins in 1990. Meanwhile, about 20 percent of unemployed people drop out of the laborforce each month.

transitions1

On the face of it, this 17-point difference suggests an important role for the unemployment rate in changes in labor force participation. All else equal, each year-point of additional unemployment should reduce the labor-force participation rate by two points. (0.17 x 12 = 2.) So you would think that much of the recent fall in laborforce participation could be explained simply by the rise in unemployment during the recession.

When I thought of this it seemed very logical. It would be easy to do a counterfactual exercise, I thought, showing how laborforce participation would have evolved simply based on the historical transition rates between employment, unemployment and out of the laborforce, and the actual evolution of employment and unemployment. If you could show that something like the actual fall in laborforce participation was a predictable result of the rise in unemployment during the recession, that would support the idea that demand rather than “structural” factors are at work. And even if it wasn’t that strong positive evidence, it would suggest skepticism about similar counterfactual exercises using historical participation rates by age and so on.

I mean, it makes sense, right? Unemployed people are much more likely to leave the workforce than employed people, so a rise in unemployment should naturally lead to a decline in laborforce participation. But as the figure below shows, the numbers don’t work.

What I did was start with the populations of employe, unemployed and not-in-the-laborforce people at the end of the recession in December 2009. Then I created a counterfactual scenario for the remaining period using the actual transition rates between employment and unemployment but the pre-recession average rates for transitions between not in the workforce and unemployment and employment. In other words, just knowing the average rates that people move between employment, unemployment and out of the workforce, and the actual shifts between employment and unemployment, what path would you have predicted for laborforce participation over 2010-2016?

transitions2The heavy gray line shows the historical fraction of the population aged 16 and over who are not in the laborforce. The black line shows the results of the counterfactual exercise. Not very close.

There turn out to be two reasons why the counterfactual exercise gives such a poor fit. Both are interesting and neither was obvious before doing the exercise. The first reason is that there are  surprisingly large flows from out of the labor force back into it. Per the BLS, about 7 percent of people who report being out of the labor force in a given month are either employed or unemployed (i.e. actively seeking work) the following month. This implies that the typical duration of being out of the workforce is less than a year — though of course this is a mix of people who leave the workforce for just a month or two and people who leave for good. For present purposes, the important thing is that exogenous changes to the employment-population ratio decline quickly, with a half-life of only about a year. So while the historical data suggests that a rise in unemployment like we saw in 2008-2009 should have been associated with a large rise in the share of the population not in the laborforce, it also suggests that this effect should have been transitory — a couple years after unemployment rates returned to normal, participation rates should have as well. This is not what we’ve seen.

The large gross movements in and out of the laborforce mean that sustained lower participation rates can’t be straightforwardly understood as the “echo” of high unemployment in the past. But they do also tend to undermine the structural story — if the typical stint outside the laborforce lasts less than a year it can hardly be due to something immutable.

The second reason why the counterfactual doesn’t fit the data was even more surprising, at least to me. I constructed my series using the historical average transition rates into and out of the workforce. But transition rates during the recession and early recovery departed from the historical average in an important way: unemployed workers were significantly less likely to exit the workforce. This turns out to be the normal pattern, at least over the previous two business cycles — if you look back to that first figure, you can see dips in the transition rate from unemployed to out of the workforce in the early 1990s and early 2000s downturns as well. The relationship is clearer in the next figure, a scatter of the unemployment rate and the share of unemployed workers leaving the workforce each month.

transitions3

 

As you can see, there is a strong negative relationship — when unemployment was around 4 percent in 1999-2000 and again in 2006-2007, about a quarter of the unemployed exited the laborforce each month. But at the peak of the past recession when unemployment reached 10 percent, only 18 percent of the unemployed left the laborforce each month. That might not seem like a huge difference, but it’s enough to produce quite different dynamics. It’s also a bit surprising, since you would think that people would be more likely to give up searching for work when unemployment is high than when when it is low. The obvious explanation would be that the people who are out of work when the unemployment rate is low are not simply a smaller set of the same people who are out of work when the rate is high, but are different in some way. The same factors that keep them at the back of the hiring queue may make also be likely to push them out of the laborforce altogether. Extended unemployment insurance might also play a role.

It would be possible to explore this further using CPS data, which is the source for the BLS tables I’m working with. No doubt there are papers out there describing the different characteristics of the unemployed in periods of high versus low unemployment. (Not being a labor economist, I don’t know this literature.) But I am going to leave it here.

Summary: The fact that unemployed people are much more likely to leave the laborforce than employed people are, suggests that some part of the fall in laborforce particiaption since 2008 might be explained by the lingering effects of high unemployment in the recession and early recovery. But this story turns out not tow work, for two reasons. First, the rapid turnover of the not in the laborforce population means that this direct effect of high unemployment on participation is fairly shortlived. Second, the rate at which unemployed people exit the laborforce turns out to be lower when unemployment is high. Together, these two factors produce the results shown in the second figure — the fall in participation you would predict based simply on high unemployment is steeper but shorter-lived than what actually occurred. The first factor — the large flows in and out of the laborforce — while it vitiates the simple story I proposed here, is consistent with a broader focus on demand rather than demographics as an explanation for slow employment growth. If people are frequently moving in and out of the laborforce, it’s likely that their decisions are influenced by their employment prospects, and it means they’re not determined by fixed characteristics like age. The second factor — that unemployed people were less likely to give up looking for jobs during 2009-2011, as in previous periods of high unemployment — is, to me, more surprising, and harder to fit into a demand-side story.

Employment, Productivity and the Business Cycle

Fourth post in a series. Posts one, two and three.

Empirically-oriented macroeconomists have recognized since the early 20th century that output, employment and productivity move together over the business cycle. The fact that productivity falls during recessions means that employment varies less over the cycle than output does. This behavior is quite stable over time, giving rise to Okun’s law. In the US, Okun’s law says that the unemployment rate will rise by one point in each 2.5 point shortfall of GDP growth over trend — a ratio that doesn’t seem to have declined much since Arthur Okun first described it in the mid-1960s. [1]

It’s not obvious that potential should show this procyclical behavior. As I noted in the previous post, a naive prediction from a production function framework would be that a negative demand shock should reduce employment more than output, since business can lay off workers immediately but can’t reduce their capital stock right away. In other words, productivity should rise in recessions, since the labor of each still-employed worker is being combined with more capital.

There are various explanations for why labor productivity behaves procyclically instead. The most common focus on the transition costs of changing employment. Since hiring and firing is costly for businesses, they don’t adjust their laborforce to every change in demand. So when sales fall in recessions, they will keep extra workers on payroll — paying them now is cheaper than hiring them back later. Similarly, when sales rise businesses will initially try to get more work out of their existing employees. This shows up as rising labor productivity, and as the repeated phenomenon of “jobless recoveries.”

Understood in these terms, the positive relationship between output, employment and productivity should be a strictly short-term phenomenon. If a change in demand (or in other constraints on output) is sustained, we’d expect labor to fully adjust to the new level of production sooner or later. So over horizons of more than a year or two, we’d expect output and employment to change in proportion. If there are other limits on production (such as non-produced inputs like land) we’d expect output and labor productivity to move inversely, with faster productivity growth associated with slower employment growth or vice versa. (This is the logic of “robots taking the jobs.”) A short-term positive, medium term negative, long-term flat or negative relationship between employment growth and productivity growth is one of the main predictions that comes out of a production function. But it doesn’t require one. You can get there lots of other ways too.

And in fact, it is what we see.

prod-emp correl

The figure shows the simple correlation of employment growth and productivity growth over various periods, from one quarter out to 50 quarters. (This is based on postwar US data.) As you can see, over periods of a year or less, the correlation is (weakly) positive. Six-month periods in which employment growth was unusually weak are somewhat more likely to have seen weak productivity growth as well. This is the cyclical effect presumably due to transition costs — employers don’t always hire or fire in response to short-run changes in demand, allowing productivity to vary instead. But if sales remain high or low for an extended period, employers will eventually bring their laborforce into line, eliminating this relationship. And over longer periods, autonomous variation in productivity and labor supply are more important. Both of these tend to produce a negative relationship between employment and productivity. And that’s exactly what we see — a ten-year period in which productivity grew unusually quickly is likely to be one in which employment grew slowly. (Admittedly postwar US data doesn’t give you that many ten-year periods to look at.)

Another way of doing this is to plot an “Okun coefficient” for each horizon. Here we are looking at the relationship between changes in employment and output. Okun’s law is usually expressed in terms of the relatiojship between unemployment and output, but here we will look at it in terms of employment instead. We write

(1)    %ΔE = a (g – c)

where %ΔE is the percentage change in employment, g is the percentage growth in GDP, is a constant (the long-run average rate of productivity growth) and a is the Okun coefficient. The value of a says how much additional growth in employment we’d expect from a one percentage-point increase in GDP growth over the given period. When the equation is estimated in terms of unemployment and the period is one, year, a is generally on the order of 0.4 or so, meaning that to reduce unemployment by one point over a year normally requires GDP growth around 2.5 points above trend. We’d expect the coefficient for employment to be greater, but over short periods at least it should still be less than one.

Here is what we see if the estimate the equation for changes in output and employment for various periods, again ranging from one quarter up to ten years. (Again, postwar US data. The circles are the point estimates of the coefficients; the dotted lines are two standard errors above and below, corresponding to a standard 95% confidence interval.)

emp on output

What’s this show? If we estimate Equation (1) looking at changes over one quarter, we find that one percentage point of additional GDP growth is associated with just half a point of additional employment growth. But if we estimate the same equation looking at changes over two years, we find that one point of additional GDP growth is associated with 0.75 points of additional employment growth.

The fact that the coefficient is smallest for the shorter periods is, again, consistent witht he conventional understanding of Okun’s law. Because hiring and firing is costly, employers don’t fully adjust staffing unless a change in sales is sustained for a while. If you were thinking in terms of a production function, the peak around 2 years represents a “medium-term” position where labor has adjusted to a change in demand but the capital stock has not.

While it’s not really relevant for current purposes, it’s interesting that at every horizon the coefficient is significantly below zero. What this tells us is that there is no actual time interval corresponding to the “long run” of the model– a period long enough for labor and the capital stock to be fully adjusted but short enough that technology is fixed. Over this hypothetical long run, the coefficient would be one. One way to think about the fact that the estimated coefficients are always smaller, is that any period long enough for labor to adjust, is already long enough to see noticeable autonomous changes in productivity. [2]

But what we’re interested in right now is not this normal pattern. We’re interested in how dramatically the post-2008 period has departed from it. The past eight years have seen close to the slowest employment growth of the postwar period and close to the slowest productivity growth. It is normal for employment and productivity to move together for a couple quarters or a year, but very unusual for this joint movement to be sustained over nearly a decade. In the postwar US, at least, periods of slow employment growth are much more often periods of rapid productivity growth, and conversely. Here’s a regression similar to the Okun one, but this time relating productivity growth to employment growth, and using only data through 2008.

prod on empWhile the significance lines can’t be taken literally given that these are overlapping periods, the figure makes clear that between 1947 and 2008, there were very few sustained periods in which both employment and productivity growth made large departures from trend in the same direction.

Put it another way: The past decade has seen exceptionally slow growth in employment — about 5 percent over the full period. If you looked at the US postwar data, you would predict with a fair degree of confidence that a period of such slow employment growth would see above-average productivity growth. But in fact, the past decade has also seen very low productivity growth. The relation between the two variables has been much closer to what we would predict by extrapolating their relationships over periods of a year. In that sense, the current slowdown resembles an extended recession more than it does previous periods of slower growth.

As I suggested in an earlier post, I think this is a bigger analytic problem than it might seem at first glance.

In the conventional story, productivity is supposed to be driven by technology, so a slowdown in productivity growth reflects a decline in innovation and so on. Employment is driven by demographics, so slower employment growth reflects aging and small families. Both of these developments are negative shifts in aggregate supply. So they should be inflationary — if the economy’s productive potential declines then the same growth in demand will instead lead to higher prices. To maintain stable prices in the face of these two negative supply shocks, a central bank would have to raise interest rates in order to reduce aggregate spending to the new, lower level of potential output. Is this what we have seen? No, of course not. We have seen declining inflation even as interest rates are at historically low levels. So even if you explain slower productivity growth by technology and explain slower employment growth by demographics, you still need to postulate some large additional negative shift in demand. This is DeLong and Summers’ “elementary signal identification point.”

Given that we are postulating a large, sustained fall in demand in any case, it would be more parsimonious if the demand shortfall also explained the slowdown in employment and productivity growth. I think there are good reasons to believe this is the case. Those will be the subject of the remaining posts in this series.

In the meantime, let’s pull together the historical evidence on output, employment and productivity growth in one last figure. Here, the horizontal axis is the ten-year percentage change in employment, while the vertical axis is the ten-year percentage change in productivity. The years are final year of the comparison. (In order to include the most recent data, we are comparing first quarters to first quarters.) The color of the text shows average inflation over the ten year period, with yellow highest and blue lowest. The diagonal line corresponds to the average real growth rate of GDP over the full period.

e-p scatter

What we’re looking at here is the percentage change in productivity, employment and prices over every ten-year period from 1947-1957 through 2006-2016. So for instance, growth between 1990 and 2000 is represented by the point labeled “2000.” During this decade, total employment rose by about 20 percent while productivity rose by a total of 15 percent, implying an annual real growth of 3.3 percent, very close to the long-run average.

One natural way to think about this is that yellow points below and to the right of the line suggest negative supply shocks: If the productive capacity of the economy declines for some reason, output growth will slow, and prices will rise as private actors — abetted by a slow-to-react central bank — attempt to increase spending at the usual rate. Similarly, blue points above the line suggest positive supply shocks. Yellow points above the line suggest positive demand shocks — an increase in spending can increase output growth above trend, at least for a while, but will pull up prices as well. And blue points below the line suggest negative demand shocks. This, again, is Delong and Summers’ “elementary signal identification point.”

We immediately see what an outlier the recent period is. Both employment and productivity growth over the past ten years have been drastically slower than over the preceding decade — about 5 percent each, down from about 20 percent. 2000-2010 and 2001-2011 were the only ten-year periods in postwar US history when total employment actually declined. The abruptness of the deceleration on both dimensions is a challenge for views that slower growth is the result of deep structural forces. And the combination of the slowdown in output growth with falling prices — especially given ultra-low interest rats — strongly suggests that we’ve seen a negative shift in desired spending (demand) rather than in the economy’s productive capacities (supply).

Another way of looking at this is as three different regimes. In the middle is what we might call “the main sequence” — here there is steady growth in demand, met by varying mixes of employment and productivity growth. On the upper right is what gets called a “high-pressure economy,” in which low unemployment and strong demand draw more people into employment and facilitates the reallocation of labor and other resources toward more productive activity, but put upward pressure on prices. On the lower left is stagnation, where weak demand discourages participation in the labor force and reduces productivity growth by holding back investment, new business formation and by leaving a larger number of those with jobs underemployed, and persistent slack leads to downward pressure on prices (though so far not outright deflation). In other words, macroeconomically speaking the past decade has been a sort of anti-1960s.

 

[1] There are actually two versions of Okun’s law, one relating the change in the unemployment rate to GDP growth and one relating the level of unemployment to the deviation of GDP from potential. The two forms will be equivalent if potential grows at a constant rate.

[2] The assumption that variables can be partitioned into “fast” and “slow” ones, so that we can calculate equilibrium values of the former with the latter treated as exogenous, is a very widespread feature of economic modeling, heterodox as much as mainstream. I think it needs to be looked at more critically. One alternative is dynamic models where we focus on the system’s evolution over time rather than equilibrium conditions. This is, I suppose, the kind of “theory” implied by VAR-type forecasting models, but it’s rare to see it developed explicitly. There are people who talk about a system dynamics approach, which seems promising, but I don’t know much about them.

Links for May 25, 2016

Deliberately. The IMF has released its new Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece. Frances Coppola has the details, and they are something. Per the IMF,

Demographic projections suggest that working age population will decline by about 10 percentage points by 2060. At the same time, Greece will continue to struggle with high unemployment rates for decades to come. Its current unemployment rate is around 25 percent, the highest in the OECD, and after seven years of recession, its structural component is estimated at around 20 percent. Consequently, it will take significant time for unemployment to come down. Staff expects it to reach 18 percent by 2022, 12 percent by 2040, and 6 percent only by 2060.

Frances adds:

For Greece’s young people currently out of work, that is all of their working life. A whole generation will have been consigned to the scrapheap. …

The truth is that seven years of recession has wrecked the Greek economy. It is no longer capable of generating enough jobs to employ its population. The IMF estimates that even in good times, 20 percent of adults would remain unemployed. To generate the jobs that are needed there will have to be large numbers of new businesses, perhaps even whole new industries. Developing such extensive new productive capacity takes time and requires substantial investment – and Greece is not the most attractive of investment prospects. Absent something akin to a Marshall Plan, it will take many, many years to repair the damage deliberately inflicted on Greece by European authorities and the IMF in order to bail out the European banking system.

For some reason, that reminds me of this. Good times.

Also, here’s the Economist, back in 2006:

The core countries of Europe are not ready to make the economic reforms they so desperately need—and that will change, alas, only after a diabolic economic crisis. … The sad truth is that voters are not yet ready to swallow the nasty medicine of change. Reform is always painful. And there are too many cosseted insiders—those with secure jobs, those in the public sector—who see little to gain and much to lose. … One reason for believing that reform can happen … is that other European countries have shown the way. Britain faced economic and social meltdown in 1979; there followed a decade of Thatcherite reform. … The real problem, not just for Italy and France but also for Germany, is that, so far, life has continued to be too good for too many people.

I bet they’re pretty pleased right now.

 

 

Polanyism. At Dissent, Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber have a very nice introduction to Karl Polanyi. One thing I like about this piece is that they present Polanyi as a sort of theoretical back-formation for the Sanders campaign.

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters … are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. …

One of the divides within the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been between a social-democratic and a “progressive” but market-friendly vision of addressing social problems. Take, for example, health care. Sanders proposes a single-payer system in which the government pays and health care directly, and he frames it explicitly in the language of rights: “healthcare is a human right and should be guaranteed to all Americans regardless of wealth or income.” … Sanders offers a straightforward defense of decommodification—the idea that some things do not belong in the marketplace—that is at odds with the kind of politics that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered … Polanyi’s particular definition of socialism sounds like one Sanders would share.

 

Obamacare and the insurers. On the subject of health care and decommodification, I liked James Kwak’s piece on Obamacare.

The dirty not-so-secret of Obamacare … is that sometimes the things we don’t like about market outcomes aren’t market failures—they are exactly what markets are supposed to do. …  at the end of the day, Obamacare is based on the idea that competition is good, but tries to prevent insurers from competing on all significant dimensions except the one that the government is better at anyway. We shouldn’t be surprised when insurance policies get worse and health care costs continue to rise.

It’s too bad so many intra-Democratic policy debates are conducted in terms of the radical-incremental binary, it’s not really meaningful. You can do more or less of anything. Would be better to focus on this non-market vs market question.

In this context, I wish there’d been some discussion in the campaign of New York’s new universal pre-kindergarten, which is a great example incremental decommodification in practice. Admittedly I’m a bit biased — I live in New York, and my son will be starting pre-K next year. Still: Here’s an example of a social need being addressed not through vouchers, or tax credits, or with means tests, but through a universal public services, provided — not entirely, but mainly and increasingly — by public employees. Why isn’t this a model?

 

The prehistory of the economics profession. I really liked this long piece by Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger on the early history of the American Economics Association. The takeaway is that the AEA’s early history was surprisingly radical, both intellectually and in its self-conception as part of larger political project. (Another good discussion of this is in Michael Perelman’s Railroading Economics.) This is history more people should know, and Steinbaum and Weisberger tell it well. I also agree with their conclusion:

That [the economics profession] abandoned “advocacy” under the banner of “objectivity” only raises the question of what that distinction really means in practice. Perhaps actual objectivity does not require that the scholar noisily disclaim advocacy. It may, in fact, require the opposite.

The more I struggle with this stuff, the more I think this is right. A field or discipline needs its internal standards to distinguish valid or well-supported claims from invalid or poorly supported ones. But evaluation of relevance, importance, correspondence to the relevant features of reality can never be made on the basis of internal criteria. They require the standpoint of some outside commitment, some engagement with the concrete reality you are studying distinct from your formal representations of it. Of course that engagement doesn’t have to be political. Hyman Minsky’s work for the Mark Twain Bank in Missouri, for example, played an equivalent role; and as Perry Mehrling observes in his wonderful essay on Minsky, “It is significant that the fullest statement of his business cycle theory was published by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.” But it has to be something. In economics, I think, even more than in other fields, the best scholarship is not going to come from people who are only scholars.

 

Negative rates, so what. Here’s a sensible look at the modest real-world impact of negative rates from Brian Romanchuk. It’s always interesting to see how these things look from the point of view of market participants. The importance of a negative policy rate has nothing to do with the terms on which present consumption trades off against future consumption, it’s about one component of the return on some assets relative to others.

 

I’m number 55. Someone made a list of the top 100 economics blogs, and put me on it. That was nice.

Can Sanders Do It?

My old professor Jerry Friedman wrote a piece several weeks ago, arguing that a combination of increased public spending and income redistribution (higher minimum wages and other employment regulation favorable to labor) proposed by the Sanders campaign could substantially boost growth and employment during his presidency. As readers of this blog know, this piece has gotten a lot of attention in the past couple of days. Most notably, it inspired a letter from four former CEA chairs strongly rejecting the claim that Sanders proposals could “have huge beneficial impacts on growth rates, income and employment that exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans about the impact of their tax cut proposals.” A number of prominent liberal economists have endorsed the CEA letter or expressed similar doubts.

I want to try to clarify the stakes in this debate. There are three questions, each logically prior to the other.

1. Is it reasonable to think that better macroeconomic policy could deliver substantially higher output and employment?
2. Are the kinds of things proposed by Sanders capable in principle of getting us there?
3. Are the specific numbers in Sanders’ proposals the right ones for such a really-full employment plan?

The second question doesn’t matter until we’ve answered yes to the first one. And the third doesn’t matter until we’ve answered yes to the first two.

The first question is not only logically prior, it also seems to be what the public debate is actually about . The CEA letter, and almost all the other criticism of the Friedman paper I have seen, focuses on whether the outcomes described are plausible at all, not the specific ways they are derived from the Sanders proposals. Almost all the pushback I have seen has been to the effect that 5 percent real GDP growth and 275,000 new jobs per month are not possible results of any conceivable macro policies.

As I’m sure Jerry Friedman would agree, there are plenty of ways his estimates could be improved. But it’s pointless, even disingenuous, to debate the specific numbers before agreeing on the larger questions. I want to focus on the first question here, both because it is the premise of the others and because it is where the debate is currently located.

So: Is it plausible that there could be 5 percent-plus real GDP growth and 300,000 new jobs per month over the eight years of a Sanders presidency? I think it is — or at least, I don’t think there is a good economic argument that it’s not.

I want to make five related points here. First, conventional wisdom in economics is that an exceptionally deep recession should be followed by a period of exceptionally strong growth. Second, the growth in output and employment implied by the paper are more or less what is required to return to the pre-recession trend. Third, discussions of macroeconomic policy in other contexts imply the possibility of growth qualitatively similar to what Jerry describes. Fourth, it is not necessarily the case that the employment Jerry projects would exceed full employment in any meaningful sense. Fifth, if you don’t believe a growth performance at this level is possible, that implies a sharp slowdown in potential output, for which you need a credible story. The last point is probably the most important.
1. It’s not controversial to say that a historically deep recession ought to be followed by a period of historically strong growth. Every macroeconomics textbook teaches that changes in GDP can be split into two components: short-run variation driven by aggregate demand and by monetary and financial factors, and a long-run trend driven by population growth and technological change. While all sorts of things that constrain or inhibit spending can cause temporary dips in production, over time it should converge back to the fundamentals-determined trend. Unless they involve the destruction of real resources — and they don’t — recessions should not have lasting effects. A direct corollary of this textbook view is that the deeper the recession, the stronger should be growth in the following period — otherwise, there’s no way to get back to trend. The people who are saying that Jerry’s growth numbers are impossible on their face are implicitly saying that that we should expect all output losses in recessions to be permanent. This is not orthodox economic theory, at all. Orthodoxy says that the exceptionally deep recession should be followed by a period of exceptionally strong growth — and if it hasn’t been, that suggests some ongoing demand problem which policy can reasonably be expected to solve.
2. Friedman’s growth estimates are just what you need to get output and employment back to trend. This point is well made by Matthew Klein. As Klein puts it, this “supposedly ‘extreme’ and ‘unsupportable’ forecast implies American output will return to its previous trend just as Sanders would be finishing up his second term, in the third quarter of 2024.”

from Matthew Klein, FT Alphaville
from Matthew Klein, FT Alphaville

As Klein and others point out, the level of GDP projected by Jerry for the end of Sanders’ second term is right in line with what the CBO and other establishment forecasters were saying just a few years ago. I just now was looking at the CBO’s forecasts as of January 2013; they were projecting 4-4.5 percent real GDP growth over 2016-2017. This is, of course, exceptionally high by historical standards — Paul Krugman says that Jeb Bush was “rightly mocked” by progressives for suggesting he could deliver growth at that level. But the CBO was making the same prediction and it’s no mystery why — a period of growth well above historical levels is the logical condition of a return of output to trend. By the way, I should emphasize that Friedman’s growth estimates were not derived this way. It’s just a lucky coincidence — if it holds up — that the measures proposed by the Sanders campaign happen to be the right magnitude to close the output gap over eight years.

Similarly, Friedman’s employment numbers (around 277,000 new jobs per month) are indeed way above what we have seen recently. But if you want to get the employment-population ratio back to its 2006 levels by 2024, you need even more than that — about 300,000 new jobs per month, by my calculations. Many respectable economists — including at least one of the CEA signers —  have written that the employment ratio is a better indicator of labor-market conditions than the unemployment rate, and expressed concern about its decline. A few years ago, Brad DeLong had no doubt that more expansionary policy could raise the employment population ratio back to 60.8 percent, if not to the pre-recession level of 63 percent: “we could still put 5.5 million more people to work with appropriate demand-management policies.” To do that by 2024 would imply monthly job growth around 220,000 — less than what Friedman claims for the Sanders proposals, but about double what we are seeing now more than double what the CBO is currently projecting for 2017-2024. It’s just arithmetic: you can’t raise the employment-population ratio without a sustained period of job growth substantially higher than what we are seeing now. So it makes no sense to talk about that as a goal if you think that faster job growth is not a feasible outcome for policy.

It is true, of course, that the aging of the population implies a long-term fall in the employment ratio, all else equal. But let’s put this in perspective. DeLong, for example, suggests that 0.13 points per year is probably an overestimate  of the decline due to demographics. David Rosnick, applying the 2006 employment ratios of various age groups to the population projected for 2026, finds a larger decline due to demographics, on the order of 0.25 points per year. But even that leaves most of the fall in employment unexplained by demographics.  By any standard, there is a lot of room to do better.  But we have to agree that this is something that, in principle, demand  side policy can do.

rosnick-2014-12-23-fig4
from David Rosnick

3. In other contexts, it’s taken for granted that more expansionary policy could deliver substantially higher growth. Anyone who says that the zero lower bound is a constraint on monetary policy, or who suggests that the “natural rate of interest” is negative, is saying that output could be substantially higher given more expansionary monetary policy. Presumably, this is true for other forms of expansionary policy as well. (In terms of the model beloved by undergraduate textbooks and New York Times columnists: If the preferred point in ISLM space is to the right of the current one, we should be able to get there by shifting the IS curve just as well as by shifting the LM curve.) Obviously, the transition to that higher level of GDP would involve a period of much higher growth. It would be interesting to ask how fast output would have grown if we’d been able to remove the ZLB constraint in, say, 2010; I suspect the numbers might not look that different from Friedman’s.

Similarly, most participants in this debate agree that the ARRA stimulus of 2009 was effective, with multipliers above 2.0 for at least some categories of spending. Many also think that it should have been bigger. If increased government spending could boost output in 2008, then why couldn’t it today? And if the right answer to “how big?” then was “enough to close the output gap,” why isn’t that the right answer today? Yes, it would be a big number. (Again, it’s a lucky coincidence — if correct — that it happens to be close to what Sanders is proposing.) But so what? If “a trillion has a lot of zeroes”  wasn’t a good argument against an adequate stimulus in 2009, then it isn’t one today.

Or again: If we think that austerity explains a big part of poor growth in European countries, we have to at least consider the the same might be true here. It would be very good luck, to say the least, if years of feuding between the administration and Republican congresses had somehow delivered exactly the right fiscal balance. In general, this discussion has been muddied by the fact that the pragmatic choice to delegate demand management to central banks, has been turned into an axiom in economic theory. From where I’m sitting, the statement “it would be helpful if the central bank set a lower interest rate” is equivalent, for most macroeconomic purposes, with the statement “it would be helpful if the level of public spending were higher.”

4. Friedman’s projections are unreasonable only if you think the US is already at full employment. The unstated but central premise of the critics is that we are at or near full employment, so there is no space for further demand policy. Friedman’s paper says that by the end of a second Sanders term, unemployment would be at 3.8%. Krugman replies:  “It’s possible that we can get unemployment down under 4 percent, but that’s way below any estimates I’ve seen of the level of unemployment consistent with moderate inflation.” Now here we have an interesting question. Whether we are at full employment today depends, first, on how much you think the fall in the employment-population ratio reflects weak demand as opposed to structural or demographic factors — or in other words, to what extent faster job growth would draw nonworkers into the labor market, as opposed to pushing down the unemployment rate. But it also depends on what you think full employment means.

If you believe that any demand-induced acceleration of nominal wage growth will be passed to higher prices, or if you think that price stability should be the sole concern of macro policy, then there will be a hard floor on unemployment, which may not be much lower than where we are today. But if you think some appreciable fraction of faster nominal wage growth would go to an increase in the wage share (or faster productivity growth) rather than to inflation, and if you think some acceleration in inflation is acceptable (or even desirable), then “full employment” becomes a broad region rather than a sharp line. (I wrote a bit about these issues here.) In this case there will even be an argument — made by plenty of mainstream people, including some of the ones criticizing Friedman now  — that a period of “overfull” employment would be desirable to bring the wage share back up from its current historically low levels. To believe that a 3.8% unemployment rate is ruled out by price stability considerations is to claim that faster wage growth cannot raise the wage share, which I don’t think is well supported either theoretically or empirically. (Or that raising the wage share is not desirable.) Also worth recalling: In the debates around the NAIRU in the 1990s, the general conclusion was that the idea of a hard floor to unemployment below which inflation will rise uncontrollably, is not in fact a useful guide for policy.

5. The argument against Friedman’s piece comes down to the claim that the economy is already close to potential. If this is the case then, yes, claims that increased public spending can achieve large gains in output are delusional. I think this is a useful debate to have, but I’m not sure how the CEA chairs would make the case. First, again, many of those criticizing Friedman’s numbers have supported the idea of more expansionary policy in other contexts. Second and more fundamentally, the persistent fall in the employment population ratio and the deviation of output from pre-recession trend seem very hard to explain in “supply” terms. Yes, there are demographic changes, but again, even if you hold the age distribution of the population constant, the employment ratio is still 3 points lower than at the start of the recession. That’s a deficit of 10 million jobs. Closing that gap requires an extended period of above average growth, qualitatively similar to what Friedman describes. If you believe that’s impossible, you have to explain why.

Logically, there are a couple possible answers. Either you argue that the earlier estimates of potential GDP were exaggerated, and we were at overfull employment prior to the recession. If you take this route, you have to be ready to make the case that the country needed substantially slower growth and higher unemployment in the 2000s, despite the noticeable lack of wage growth or rising inflation. Or, you can claim that something happened in 2008-2009 that permanently reduced potential output. So then, what is the negative technological shock that hit the economy in 2008-2009? Is Casey Mulligan right that American businesses have been crippled by the red tape of Obamacare? I don’t think either of those are good options for liberals. Another possibility is to talk about hysteresis and so on — the persistent effects on the laborforce and productivity growth from periods of weak demand. Here you will be on firmer ground — there is plenty of evidence that deep recession inflict lasting harm on workers and businesses. But this kind of reasoning makes Friedman’s numbers more plausible, not less. Because if weak demand can drag potential output down, strong demand can presumably pull it up.

The bottom line is this. Ten years ago, the CBO expected GDP to be $20.5 trillion (correcting for inflation) as of the end of 2015. Today, it is $18.1, trillion, or about 12 percent lower. Similarly, the employment-population ratio fell by 5 points during the recession (from 63.4 to 58.4 percent) and has risen by only one point during the past six years of recovery. Either these facts — unprecedented in the postwar period — reflect a shortfall of effective demand, or they don’t. If they do reflect a lack of demand, then there is no reason the expanded pubic spending and downward redistribution that Sanders proposes cannot close the gap, with a period of high growth while output and employment return to trend. (The fact that such high growth hasn’t been seen in the postwar period is neither here nor there, since there also has been no comparable deviation from trend.) Alternatively, you may think that the shortfall relative to previous growth rates reflects a decline in potential output. But then you need to offer some explanation of why the growth of the economy’s productive capacity slowed so abruptly, and you need to apply this belief consistently. I think it’s more reasonable to believe that the gaps in output and employment reflect a demand shortfall. In which case, the Sanders plan could in principle have the kind of results Friedman describes.

 

UPDATE: There was a significant error in section 2, which I’ve corrected.

How Strong Is Business Investment, Really?

DeLong rises to defend Ben Bernanke, against claims that unconventional monetary policy in recent years has discouraged businesses from investing. Business investment is doing just fine, he says:

As I see it, the Fed’s open-market operations have produced more spending–hence higher capacity utilization–and lower interest rates–has more advantageous costs of finance–and we are supposed to believe that its policies “have hurt business investment”?!?! … As I have said before and say again, weakness in overall investment is 100% due to weakness in housing investment. Is there an argument here that QE has reduced housing investment? No. Is nonresidential fixed investment below where one would expect it to be given that the overall recovery has been disappointing and capacity utilization is not high?

As evidence, DeLong points to the fact that nonresidential investment as a share of GDP is back where it was at the last two business cycle peaks.

As it happens, I agree with DeLong that it’s hard to make a convincing case that unconventional monetary policy is holding back business investment. Arguments about the awfulness of low interest rates seem more political or ideological, based on the real or imagined interests of interest-receivers than any identifiable economic analysis. But there’s a danger of overselling the opposite case.

It is certainly true that, as a share of potential GDP, nonresidential investment is not low by historical standards. But is this the right measure to be looking at? I think not, for a couple of reasons, one relatively minor and one major. The minor reason is that the recent redefinition of investment by the BEA to include various IP spending makes historical comparisons problematic. If we define investment as the BEA did until 2013, and as businesses still do under GAAP accounting standards, the investment share of GDP remains quite low compared to previous expansions. The major reason is that it’s misleading to evaluate investment relative to (actual or potential GDP), since weak investment will itself lead to slower GDP growth. [1]

On the first point: In 2013, the BEA redefined investment to include a variety of IP-related spending, including the commercial development of movies, books, music, etc. as well as research and development. We can debate whether, conceptually, Sony making Steve Jobs is the same kind of thing as Steve Jobs and his crew making the iPhone. But it’s important to realize that the apparent strength of investment spending in recent expansions is more about the former kind of activity than the latter.  [2] More relevant for present purposes, since this kind of spending was not counted as investment — or even broken out separately, in many cases — prior to 2013, the older data are contemporary imputations. We should be skeptical of comparing today’s investment-cum-IP-and-R&D to the levels of 10 or 20 years ago, since 10 or 20 years ago it wasn’t even being measured. This means that historical comparisons are considerably more treacherous than usual. And if you count just traditional (GAAP) investment, or even traditional investment plus R&D, then investment has not, in fact, returned to its 2007 share of GDP, and remains well below long-run average levels. [3]

investment

More importantly, using potential GDP as the yardstick is misleading because potential GDP is calculated simply as a trend of actual GDP, with a heavier weight on more recent observations. By construction, it is impossible for actual GDP to remain below potential for an extended period. So the fact that the current recovery is weak by historical standards automatically pulls down potential GDP, and makes the relative performance of investment look good.

We usually think that investment spending the single most important factor in business-cycle fluctuations. If weak investment growth results in a lower overall level of economic activity, investment as a share of GDP will look higher. Conversely, an investment boom that leads to rapid growth of the economy may not show up as an especially high investment share of GDP. So to get a clear sense of the performance of business investment, its better to look at the real growth of investment spending over a full business cycle, measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, not in percent of GDP. And when we do this, we see that the investment performance of the most recent cycle is the weakest on record — even using the BEA’s newer, more generous definition of investment.

investmentcycles_broad
Real investment growth, BEA definition

The figure above shows the cumulative change in real investment spending since the previous business-cycle peak, using the current (broad) BEA definition. The next figure shows the same thing, but for the older, narrower GAAP definition. Data for both figures is taken from the aggregates published by the BEA, so it includes closely held corporations as well as publicly-traded ones. As the figures show, the most recent cycle is a clear outlier, both for the depth and duration of the fall in investment during the downturn itself, and even more for the slowness of the subsequent recovery.

investmentcycles_narrow
Real investment growth, plant and equipment only

Even using the BEA’s more generous definition, it took over 5 years for inflation-adjusted investment spending to recover its previous peak. (By the narrower GAAP definition, it took six years.) Five years after the average postwar business cycle peak, BEA investment spending had already risen 20 percent in real terms. As of the second quarter of 2015 — seven-and-a-half years after the most recent peak, and six years into the recovery — broad investment spending was up only 10 percent from its previous peak. (GAAP investment spending was up just 8.5 percent.) In the four previous postwar recoveries that lasted this long, real investment spending was up 63, 24, 56, and 21 percent respectively. So the current cycle has had less than half the investment growth of the weakest previous cycle. And it’s worth noting that the next two weakest investment performances of the ten postwar cycles came in the 1980s and the 2000s. In recent years, only the tech-boom period of the 1990s has matched the consistent investment growth of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

So I don’t think it’s time to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner up on Maiden Lane quite yet.

As DeLong says, it’s not surprising that business investment is weak given how far output is below trend. But the whole point of monetary policy is to stabilize output. For monetary policy to work, it needs to able to reliably offset lower than normal spending in other areas with stronger than normal investment spending. If after six years of extraordinarily stimulative monetary policy (and extraordinarily high corporate profits), business investment is just “where one would expect given that the overall recovery has been disappointing,” that’s a sign of failure, not success.

 

[1] Another minor issue, which I can’t discuss now, is DeLong’s choice to compare “real” (inflation-adjusted) spending to “real” GDP, rather than the more usual ratio of nominal values. Since the price index for investment goods consistent rises more slowly than the index for GDP as a whole, this makes current investment spending look higher relative to past investment spending.

[2] This IP spending is not generally counted as investment in the GAAP accounting rules followed by private businesses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s problematic that national accounts diverge from private accounts this way. It seems to be part of a troubling trend of national accounts being colonized by economic theory.

[3] R&D spending is at least reported in financial statements, though I’m not sure how consistently. But with the other new types of IP investment — which account for the majority of it — the BEA has invented a category that doesn’t exist in business accounts at all. So the historical numbers must involve more than usual amount degree of guesswork.

Guest Post on Portugal

(In comments to one of the posts here on Greece, Tiago Lemos Peixoto posted some observations on the situation in Portugal. In response to some questions from me, he sent the message below. We don’t hear much in the US about the the political-economic situation in Portugal, and I thought Tiago’s discussion was interesting enough to post on the front page. I’ve posted his original comment first, and then then the followup. My questions to him are in italics. JWM.)

I am a 37 year old Portuguese, born merely 4 years after a semi fascist dictatorship that furthered our already geographical peripheral position to one of political isolation. We joined the EEC 10 years after that, while still trying to recover from the aftermath of the democratic transition on the promise of cooperation, solidarity, prosperity, and a helping hand in developing our economy to the european standards of living.

Now, let’s forget for a while the fact that such a thing never happend. Instead of modernizing and improving our competitiveness, the EEC brought in fact production quotas to our industries and agriculture, and effected a great many deals that turned out to be unilateral. One example out of many would be our milk and dairy production, which is capable of producing in vast quantities, but due to said quotas are, to this day, often destroyed and wasted so that we don’t outperform.

We didn’t readily see that, however. Along with our joining in 1986 came communitary funds which were generously abundant, almost trickle down. Why would we think about our lack of competitiveness when Europe paid our producers subsidies to cut down excess? Who could really complain when great and bloated artistic endeavours, ambitious new infrastructures were being developed via communitary funds? Or with the tearing down of the old borders, the freedom to move within anywhere in the Schengen space? After the years of dictatorship and extreme poverty, after all that crippling isolation, it seemed like the dawn of a new age. And there are striking paralels to Greece here as well, what with their being a peripheral country who survived a period of dictatorship.

Add to that the promise of the €. Now, that one was harder to sell, since it actually doubled a lot of the prices, but hey, all seemed to be going so well, surely it would all adjust soon, and this is just another step to an unified Europe of progress.

That’s what we’ve been pretty much conditioned to believe, and that is the mindset that made people equate the European project with prosperity. For the Greeks, it’s very likely that any Greek between 50 and 60 grew up in a dictatorship, and same goes to every Portuguese between 40 and 90. Adults like myself grew up with the European Union and its promise of a better world and barely know any world outside of it. And communitary funds, even if they’re all almost universally badly applied, worked like a Skinner’s box of sorts.

And now, they threaten us, the adults who barely know a world outside EEC/EU, the young adults who grew up on the possibilities given by Erasmus projects, the older people who grew up or lived through overt dictatorships, that all this can go away. And that with it comes fire and brimstone, that we HAD to join the € because our currency was too weak (and what better argument to NOT join the Euro?) and would be even more worthless if we were to readopt it. They throw the ghosts of market anathema at us, “leaving the Euro would be catastrophic, the markets react just from your mere mention of it, you really want to go back to those bad old days? Do you really want to be out of the cool kids’ club, and have no EU funding for your arts association anymore?”

That is why we fear the alternative, even as we begin to see the bars that hold our gilded cage.

Is there any kind of organized challenge to austerity there? Is there any kind of left opposition party?

Well, there is, and there isn’t. The most consistent and organized opposition is the local Communist Party (PCP), which commands a respectable position in parliament (about 11%). What’s more significant, the vote on PCP has been relatively unchanged since the 1974 revolution, so they’re a familiar presence in our democracy, and relatively well respected outside of its circles for the fact that they were the “vanguard” against Salazar’s regime. They’re incredibly well organized and have the support of the majority of the unions. They’re also relatively less “orthodox” than something like the KKE, for the most part. However, despite all this, their voting base is incredibly stable for better and for worse.

Then there’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc or BE) which could be seen as our own Syriza: a broad front of minor leftist parties of different traditions, disgruntled communists and modern socialists which formed 15 years ago and was on the rise in parliament. They took a huge hit in the last elections, though, through a combination of leadership bickerings, lack of cohesive message, and the center left Socialist Party (PS) being able to sideline them via pushing BE’s social issues agenda on issues like women and LGBT rights. Many saw BE a bit redundant after PS pushed those issues through parliament. They managed to have around 12% at their best, got 5-6% on the last election.

And that’s the extent of organized opposition. BE and PCP do work together a lot better both in parliament and on the streets than in other countries and are a lot closer than say, KKE and Syriza. But whereas PCP’s strength and weakness lies in the rigidity of its speech, BE has failed to have an open discussion on issues like debt restructuring and the like.

Social movements were strong for a while in 2010-2012, and were a ineffectual, uncohesive mess after that, I’m sad to say. There was a strong grass roots response to the austerity packages with absolutely gigantic demonstrations occuring in 2011-2012. But there was also failure to plainly articulate a political alternative, as well as the prevalent “sibling rivalries” that so often fracture these kinds of movements. The government and mainstream media narrative effectively pushed back via Thatcher’s “TINA”, and it’s not so much that people bought the narrative, but they’re failing to see anyone present anything else.

Dairy has been an issue in Greece too, it’s specifically mentioned in the new agreement. It seems as tho the crude mercantilist arguments, which I think mostly miss the larger picture, really may be the story in agriculture.

There is an apparent mercantilist side to the way that the EU is constructed. In many ways, it’s a paradox: its current ruling minds come from that neoliberal school of Thatcher and Reagan policies, but the actual construct is almost neo-colonial, with very apparenty peripheries and semi peripheries forming around the German epicenter. Any analysis of trade relations will show Germany as either the no. 1 or no. 2 exporter to other European countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, all of those have Germany in their top 2 of imports. Which is, I believe, all the more significant when you cross that data with the prevalence of production quotas.

Though I’d argue that in Portugal’s specific case, these quotas end up helping Spain, especially in terms of food products. Germany’s our second larger import origin, but we import a staggering 27% from Spain alone. Now, though I’m no economist and my field lies in History, I do believe this is a rabbit hole worth chasing.

Has there been significant liberalization in Portugal over the past five years? Rolling back of labor laws, weakening of unions, cutting back pensions, etc.? In other words, has the crisis worked?

It has. Completely. Nearly anything that could be privatized, including energy, our airfields, our air company, our telecommunications grids our energetic infrastructure, our mail service, all have been sold off at the time we’re speaking. It’s worth mentioning that, while it could be argued that there were severe deficiencies in the management of these companies, nearly all of them actually turned a profit. So, selling off, say, our energy for €3 billion 5 years ago stops being an impressive feat when we see that the company’s profits were at about €1 billion/year, and we’d have €2 billion more at our disposal by not selling.

Collective bargaining took a major hit. Most new jobs are being created on a temporary basis. People have in fact been “temps” without social welfare benefits for more than ten years now in many cases (this did not start with the crisis, but did speed up considerably). Others work under weekly renewable temp contracts, which can prolong themselves for months. Our minimum wage is net €505/month, but many make less than that by working 6.5 hour long “part time” jobs for €300-400. Any company can hire you and sign temp contracts with you for a period of 3 years during which the rules are more or less “at will”; firing you sometime during those 3 years, waiting a couple of months and then calling you back to rehire you (obviously resetting that 3 year grace period) is a very common occurence. Unpaid internships are the norm, with some of them taking on surreal form. Unpaid internships for bartender or hairdresser are things we can see on job websites and ads papers.
Unemployment is predictably high, currently at 14% after a 18% peak. We should account for the fact that Portugal measures unemployment by the number of people who have enrolled in our unemployment centers. Which are ineffective to Kafkaesque levels, often summoning you by letter to interviews which have already happened by the time you received that letter, at which point you’re out of the center (and the stats) and have to justify your absence or wait for four months before you can enroll again. Add to those numbers the fact that half a million left the country in the last 5 years. In a country of 10 million, that means 5% of our population, most of them college educated youths between 20 and 35 is absent from the active population.

But despite all that, despite the 6% GDP contraction, or the fact that the austerity measures actually skyrocketed the debt from 95% to 130%, we’re told (in an election year, no less) that we can rest assured in the fact that we’re not Greece (which if one wants to argue that we’ve been put under a slow burn as opposed to Greece’s scorched earth can be a point I do concede), and that “though the Portuguese are worse off, the country is better” (actual quote from Luis Montenegro, Parliamentary leader to the majority party), and that the worst has passed, and austerity is a thing of the past… though they need to make an extra 500 millions in pension cuts this year alone.

Lessons from the Greek Crisis

The deal, obviously it looks bad. No sense in spinning: It’s unconditional surrender. It is bad.

There’s no shortage of writing about how we got here. I do think that we — in the US and elsewhere — should resist the urge to criticize the Syriza government, even for what may seem, to us, like obvious mistakes. The difficulty of taking a position in opposition to “Europe” should not be underestimated. It’s one of the ironies of history that the prestige of social democracy, earned through genuine victories by and for working people, is now one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of those who would destroy it. For a sense of the constraints the Syriza government has operated under, I particularly recommend this interview with an unnamed senior advisor to Syriza, and this interview with Varoufakis.

Personally I don’t think I can be a useful contributor to the debate about Syriza’s strategy. I think those of us in the US should show solidarity with Greece but refrain from second-guessing the choices made by the government there. But we can try to better understand the situation, in support of those working to change it. So, 13 theses on the Greek crisis and the crisis next time.

These points are meant as starting points for further discussion.  I will try to write about each of them in more detail, as I have time.

Continue reading Lessons from the Greek Crisis