The Slack Wire

At the Left Forum: What’s the Alternative to Neoliberalism?

At the Left Forum last month, I was on a panel with Miles Kampf-Lassin, Kate Aronoff and Darrick Hamilton, on “What Would a Left Alternative to Neoliberalism Look Like?” My answer was that neoliberalism is a radical, utopian project to reshape all of society around markets and property claims; if you want an alternative, just look at the world around us. This is an argument I’ve also made in Jacobin and The New Inquiry.

The panel was recorded by someone from Between the Lines. At some point there’s suppose to be a transcript. In the meantime, the audio is here:

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Posts in Three Lines

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been doing real work, some of which will be appearing soon. But if I were blogging, here are some of the posts I might write.

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Lessons from the 1990s. I have a new paper coming out from the Roosevelt Institute, arguing that we’re not as close to potential as people at the Fed and elsewhere seem to believe, and as I’ve been talking with people about it, it’s become clear that your priors depend a lot on how you think of the rapid growth of the 1990s. If you think it was a technological one-off, with no value as precedent — a kind of macroeconomic Bush v. Gore — then you’re likely to see today’s low unemployment as reflecting an economy working at full capacity, despite the low employment-population ratio and very weak productivity growth. But if you think the mid-90s is a possible analogue to the situation facing policymakers today, then it seems relevant that the last sustained episode of 4 percent unemployment led not to inflation but to employers actively recruiting new entrants to the laborforce among students, poor people, even prisoners.

Inflation nutters. The Fed, of course, doesn’t agree: Undeterred by the complete disappearance of the statistical relationship between unemployment and inflation, they continue to see low unemployment as a threatening sign of incipient inflation (or something) that must be nipped in the bud. Whatever other effects rate increases may have, the historical evidence suggests that one definite consequence will be rising private and public debt ratios. Economists focus disproportionately on the behavioral effects of interest rate changes and ignore their effects on the existing debt stock because “thinking like an economist” means, among other things, thinking in terms of a world in which decisions are made once and for all, in response to “fundamentals” rather than to conditions inherited from the past.

An army with only a signal corps. What are those other effects, though? Arguments for doubting central bankers’ control over macroeconomic outcomes have only gotten stronger than they were in the 2000s, when they were already strong; at the same time, when the ECB says, “let the government of Spain borrow at 2 percent,” it carries only a little less force than the God of genesis. I think we exaggerate power of central banks over real economy, but underestimate their power over financial markets (with the corollary that economists — heterodox as much as mainstream — see finance and real activity as much more tightly linked than they are).

It’s easy to be happy if you’re heterodox. This spring I was at a conference up at the University of Massachusetts, the headwaters of American heterodox economics, where I did my Phd. Seeing all my old friends reminded me what good prospects we in the heterodox world have – literally everyone I know from grad school has a good job. If you are wondering whether your prospects would be better at a nowhere-ranked heterodox economics program like UMass or a top-ranked program in some other social science, let me assure you, it’s the former by a mile — and you’ll probably have better drinking buddies as well.

The euro is not the gold standard. One of the topics I was talking about at the UMass conference was the euro which, I’ve argued, was intended to create something like a new gold standard, a hard financial constraint on governments. But that that was the intention doesn’t mean its the reality — in practice the TARGET2 system means that national central banks don’t face any binding constraint , unlike under the gold standard the central bank is “outside” the national monetary membrane. In this sense the euro is structurally more like Keynes’ proposals at Bretton Woods, it’s just not Keynes running it.

Can jobs be guaranteed? In principle I’m very sympathetic to the widespread (at least among my friends on social media) calls for a job guarantee. It makes sense as a direction of travel, implying a commitment to a much lower unemployment rate, expanded public employment, organizing work to fit people’s capabilities rather than vice versa, and increasing the power of workers vis-a-vis employers. But I have a nagging doubt: A job is contingent by its nature – without the threat of unemployment, can there even be employment as we know it?

The wit and wisdom of Haavelmo. I was talking a while back about Merijn Knibbe’s articles on the disconnect between economic theory and the national accounts with my friend Enno, and he mentioned Trygve Haavelmo’s 1944 article on The Probability Approach in Econometrics, which I’ve finally gotten around to reading. One of the big points of this brilliant article is that economic variables, and the models they enter into, are meaningful only via the concrete practices through which the variables are measured. A bigger point is that we study economics in order to “become master of the happenings of real life”: You can contribute to economics in the course of advancing a political project, or making money in financial markets, or administering a government agency (Keynes did all three), but you will not contribute if you pursue economics as an end in itself.

Coney Island. Laura and I took the boy down to Coney Island a couple days ago, a lovely day, his first roller coaster ride, rambling on the beach, a Cyclones game. One of the wonderful things about Coney Island is how little it’s changed from a century ago — I was rereading Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities the other day, and the title story’s description of a young immigrant couple walking the boardwalk in 1909 could easily be set today — so it’s disconcerting to think that the boy will never take his grandchildren there. It will all be under water.

Links for May 5, 2017

Some economics content, for this rainy Friday afternoon:

 

Turbulence. Over at INET, Arjun Jayadev has posted the next in our series of “rebel masters” interviews with dissenting economists. This one is with Anwar Shaikh, who is, I’m sure, familiar to readers of this blog. Shaikh’s work resists summary, but the

broad thesis revolves around the idea that there is an alternative tradition-embedded in the classical approach of Smith, Ricardo and Marx which insists on understanding the world on its own terms rather than from an idealized economy from which the real world deviates. This approach focuses on what is termed “real competition” wherein competition between firms, each seeking to get the highest price they can, leads to a “turbulent gravitation” of prices around values. As such, there is never an equilibrium, but a dancing around some key deeper parameters.

As with all these interviews, there’s also some discussion of his own political and intellectual development, as well as of the content of his work.

I haven’t made a serious effort to read Shaikh’s big new book Capitalism. Given its heft, I suspect it will function more as a reference work, with people going to specific sections rather than reading it from front to back. (I know one person who is using it as an undergraduate textbook, which seems ambitious.) But if you want an admiring but not uncritical overview of the book as a whole, this review in New Left Review by John Grahl could be a good place to start. It’s written for people interested in the broad political economy tradition; it’s focused on the broad sweep of the argument, not on Shaikh’s position within current debates in heterodox economics.

 

The rich are different from you and me. [1] At Washington Center for Economic Growth, Nick Bunker calls attention to some new research on income inequality over the past 15 years. The key finding is that since the end of the 1990s, the rise in income inequality is almost all due to income from S-corporations (pass-through companies, partnerships, etc.) at the very top of the distribution. As a result, rising inequality shows up in tax data, but not in Social Security data, which captures only labor income. What do we take from this? First, the point I’ve made periodically on this blog: Incomes at the top are mainly capital income, not labor income. But there’s also a methodological point — the importance of constantly walking back and forth between your theoretical construct, the concrete social reality it hopes to explain, and the data (collected by somebody, according to some particular procedures) that stands between them.

 

What are foreign investors for? At FT Alphaville, Matthew Klein has a very interesting post on capital controls. As he notes, during the first decade of the euro, Spain was the recipient of one of “the greatest capital flows of all time,” with owners of financial assets all over Europe rushing to trade them for claims on Spanish banks. This created immense pressure on Spanish banks to increase lending, which in the event financed a runup in real estate prices and an immense quantity of never-to-be-occupied houses and hotels. (It’s worth noting in passing that this real estate bubble developed without any of the securitization that so mesmerized observers of the American bubble.) Surely, Klein says,

if you accept the arguments for regulating cross-border financial movements in any situation, you have to do the same for Spain. The country raised bank capital requirements and ran large fiscal surpluses, but none of that was enough. Plus, it didn’t have the luxury of a floating currency. Both the boom and bust would clearly have been smaller if foreigners had been prevented from buying so many Spanish financial assets, or even just persuaded to buy fewer bonds and more stocks and direct equity.

This seems right. But we could go a step farther. What’s the point of capital mobility?  If you don’t in fact want bank balance sheets expanding and shrinking based on the choices of foreign investors, what benefit are those investors providing to your economy? They provide foreign exchange (allowing you to run current account deficit), they provide financing (allowing credit to expand more), they substitute their judgement of future for domestic actors’. These are exactly the problems in the Spanish case. What is the benefit, even in principle, that Spain got from allowing these inflows?

 

There’s always a first time. Also from Matthew Klein, here is a paper from the Peterson Institute looking at historical fiscal balances and making the rather obvious point that there is little historical precedent for the surpluses the Greek government is expected in order to  pay its conquerors creditors. It is not quite true that no country has ever sustained a primary surplus of 3.5 percent for a decade a more, as Greece is expected to do; but such episodes are exceedingly rare.

My one criticism of Klein’s piece is that it is a little too uncritical of the idea that “market rates” are just a fact about the world. The Peterson paper also seems to regard interest rates as set by markets in response to more or less objective macroeconomic variables. Klein notes in passing that the interest rate Greece pays on its borrowing will depend on official choices like whether Greek debt is included in the ECB’s bond-buying programs. But I think it’s broader than this — I think the interest rate on Greek bonds is entirely a policy choice of the ECB. Suppose the ECB announced that they were fixing the interest rate on Greek bonds at 1 percent, and that they’d buy them as long as the yield was above this. Then private lenders would be happy to hold them at 1 percent and the ECB would not have to make any substantial purchases. This is how open market operations work – when a central bank announces a policy rate, they can move market rates while buying or selling only trivial amounts. If the ECB wished to, it could put Greece on a stable debt path and open up space for a less sociocidal budget, without the need for any commitment of public funds. But of course it doesn’t wish to.

 

Capital with Chinese characteristics. This new paper on wealth and inequality in China from Piketty, Zucman and Li Yang is an event; it’s a safe bet it’s going to be widely cited in the coming years. The biggest contribution is the construction of long-run series on aggregate wealth and the distribution of wealth and  income for China. Much of the paper is devoted, appropriately, to explaining how these series were produced. But they also draw several broad conclusions about the evolution of the Chinese economy over the apst generation.

First, while the publicly-owned share of national wealth has declined, it is still very high relative to other industrialized countries:

China has ceased to be communist, but is not entirely capitalist; it should rather be viewed as a “mixed economy” with a strong public ownership component. … the share of public property in China today is somewhat larger than – though not incomparable to – what it was in the West during the “mixed economy” regime of the post-World War 2 decades (30% in China today vs. 15-25% in the West in the 1950s-1970s). … Private wealth was relatively small in 1978 (about 100% of national income), and now represents over 450% of national income. Public wealth [has been] roughly stable around 250% of national income.

It’s worth noting that the largest component of this increase in private wealth is housing, which largely passed from public to private hands, The public sector, by Piketty and coauthors’ measures, continues to own about half of China’s non-housing wealth, including the majority of corporate equity, and this fraction seems to have increased somewhat over the past decade.

Second, income distribution has become much more unequal in China over the past generation, but seems to still be more equal than in the United States:

In the late 1970s China’s inequality… [was] close to the levels observed in the most egalitarian Nordic countries — while it is now approaching U.S. levels. It should be noted, however, that … inequality levels in China are still significantly lower than in the United States…. The bottom 50% earns about 15% of total income in China (19% in rural China, 23% in urban China), vs. 12% in the U.S. and 22% in France. For the time being, China’s development model appears to be more egalitarian than that of the United States, and less than Europe’s. Chinese inequality levels seem to have stabilized in recent years (the biggest increase in inequality took place between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s)

The third story — much less prominent in the article, and of less important, but of particular interest to me — is what explains the observed rise in the ratio of wealth to national income. Piketty et al. suggest that 50-70 percent of the rise can be explained, in accounting terms, by the observed rates of saving and investment and their estimate of depreciation, while the remaining 30-50 percent is due to valuation changes. But in a footnote they add that this includes a large negative valuation change for China’s net foreign wealth, presumably attributable to the appreciation of the renminbi relative to the dollar. So a larger share of the rise in domestic wealth relative to income must be accounted for by valuation changes. (The data to put an exact number on this should be available in their online appendices, which are comprehensive as always, but I haven’t done it yet.)

This means that a story that conflates wealth with physical capital, and sees its growth basically in terms of net investment, will not do a good job explaining the actual growth of Chinese capital. (The same goes for the growth in capital relative to income in the advanced countries.) The paper explains the valuation increase in terms of a runup in the value of private housing plus

changes in the legal system reinforcing private property rights for asset owners (e.g., lifting of rent control, changes in the relative power of landlords and tenants, changes in the relative power of shareholder and workers).

This seems plausible to me. But I wish Piketty and his coauthors — and even more, his admirers — would take this side of the story more seriously. If we want to talk about the “capital” we actually see in public and private accounts, a theory that sees it growing through net investment is not even roughly correct. We really do have to think of capital as a social relation, not a physical substance.

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

Here’s a video of me chatting with James Parrott about robots.

Who’d have thought that Breitbart is the place to find federal government employment practices held up as an ideal?

At PERI, Anders Fremstad and Mark Paul have a nice paper on the distributional impact of different forms of carbon taxes.

Also at PERI, another whack at the Reinhart-Rogoff piñata.

I’ll be speaking at this Dissent thing on May 22.

 

 

[1] This phrase has an interesting backstory. The received version has it that it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, to which Ernest Hemingway replied: “Yes. They have more money.” But in fact, Hemingway was the one who said the rich were different, at a lunch with Maxwell Perkins and the critic Mary Colum, and it was Colum who delivered the putdown. (The story is in that biography of Perkins.) In “Hills like White Elephants,” Hemingway, for reasons that are easy to imagine, put the “rich are different” line in the mouth of his frenemy Fitzgerald, and there it’s stayed.

At Dissent: A Cautious Case for Economic Nationalism

I have an article in the new issue of Dissent, arguing that “As long as democratic politics operates through nation-states, any left program will require some degree of delinking from the global economy.”

My piece is part of a special section on “Capitalism Today.” There will be an accompanying event at the New School on May 22, with Jamie Galbraith, Julia Ott, Mark Levinson and me.

I’ve made similar arguments to this article’s in a number of posts on this blog:

Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse
Only the Debt Is National
How to Think about the Balance of Payments
What Is Foreign Investment For?
Lessons from the Greek Crisis
Prices and the European Crisis, Continued

One thing that’s probably not as clear as it should be in the Dissent piece, is that the case for delinking is much stronger for most other countries than for the United States. For most countries, free trade and, even more, free capital mobility, drastically reduce the choices available to national governments. (This “disciplining” of the state by foreign investment is sometimes acknowledged as its real function.) For the US, I don’t think this is true – I don’t think the threat of capital flight meaningfully constrains policy here. And in particular I don’t think it makes sense to see a more positive trade balance as necessary or even particularly desirable to boost demand, for reasons laid out here and here.

 

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.

Saving and Borrowing: A Response to Klein

Matthew Klein has a characteristically thoughtful post disagreeing with my new paper on income distribution and debt. I think his post has some valid arguments, but also, from my point of view, some misunderstandings. In any case, this is the conversation we should be having.

I want to respond on the specific points Klein raises. But first, in this post, I want to clarify some background conceptual issues. In particular, I want to explain why I think it’s unhelpful to think about the issues of debt and demand in terms of saving.

Klein talks a great deal about saving in his post. Like most people writing on these issues, he treats the concepts of rising debt-income ratios, higher borrowing and lower saving as if they were interchangeable. In common parlance, the question “why have households borrowed more?” is equivalent to “why have households saved less?” And either way, the spending that raises debt and reduces saving, is also understood to contribute to aggregate demand.

This conception is laid out in Figure 1 below. These are accounting rather than causal relationships. A minus sign in the link means the relationship is negative.

 

We start with households’ decision to consume more or less out of their income. Implicitly, all household outlays are for consumption, or at least, this is the only flow of household spending that varies significantly. An additional dollar of household consumption spending means an additional dollar of demand for goods and services; it also means a dollar less of savings. A dollar less of savings equals a dollar more of borrowing. More borrowing obviously means higher debt, or — equivalently in this view — a higher debt-GDP ratio.

There’s nothing particularly orthodox or heterodox about this way of looking at things. You can hear the claim that a rise in the household debt-income ratio contributes more or less one for one to aggregate demand as easily from Paul Krugman as from Steve Keen. Similarly, the idea that a decline in savings rates is equivalent to an increase in borrowing is used by Marxists as well as by mainstream economists, not to mention eclectic business journalists like Klein. Of course no one actually says “we assume that household assets are fixed or nonexistent.” But implicitly that’s what you’re doing when you treat the question of what has happened to household borrowing as if it were the equivalent of what has happened to household saving.

There is nothing wrong, in principle, with thinking in terms of the logic of Figure 1, or constructing models on that basis. Social science is impossible without abstraction. It’s often useful, even necessary, to think through the implications of a small subset of the relationships between economic variables, while ignoring the rest. But when we turn to  the concrete historical changes in macroeconomic quantities like household debt and aggregate demand in the US, the ceteris paribus condition is no longer available. We can’t reason in terms of the hypothetical case where all else was equal. We have to take into account all the factors that actually did contribute to those changes.

This is one of the main points of the debt-inequality paper, and of my work with Arjun Jayadev on household debt. In reality, much of the historical variation in debt-income ratios and related variables cannot be explained in terms of the factors in Figure 1. You need something more like Figure 2.

Figure 2 shows a broader set of factors that we need to include in a historical account of household sector balances. I should emphasize, again, that this is not about cause and effect. The links shown in the diagram are accounting relationships. You cannot explain the outcomes at the bottom without the factors shown here. [1] I realize it looks like a lot of detail. But this is not complexity for complexity’s sake. All the links shown in Figure 2 are quantitatively important.

The dark black links are the same as in the previous diagram. It is still true that higher household consumption spending reduces saving and raises aggregate demand, and contributes to lower saving and higher borrowing, which in turn contributes to lower net wealth and an increase in the debt ratio. Note, though, that I’ve separated saving from balance sheet improvement. The economic saving used in the national accounts is quite different from the financial saving that results in changes in the household balance sheet.

In addition to the factors the debt-demand story of Figure 1 focuses on, we also have to consider: various actual and imputed payment flows that the national accounts attribute to the household sector, but which do not involve any money payments to or fro households (blue); the asset side of household balance sheets (gray); factors other than current spending that contribute to changes in debt-income ratios (red); and change in value of existing assets (cyan).

The blue factors are discussed in Section 5 of the debt-distribution paper. There is a much fuller discussion in a superb paper by Barry Cynamon and Steve Fazzari, which should be read by anyone who uses macroeconomic data on household income and consumption. Saving, remember, is defined as the difference between income and consumption. But as Cynamon and Fazzari point out, on the order of a quarter of both household income and consumption spending in the national accounts is accounted for by items that involve no actual money income or payments for households, and thus cannot affect household balance sheets.

These transactions include, first, payments by third parties for services used by households, mainly employer-paid premiums for health insurance and payments to healthcare providers by Medicaid and Medicare. These payments are counted as both income and consumption spending for households, exactly as if Medicare were a cash transfer program that recipients then chose to use to purchase healthcare. If we are interested in changes in household balance sheets, we must exclude these payments, since they do not involve any actual outlays by households; but they still do contribute to aggregate demand. Second, there are imputed purchases where no money really changes hands at all.  The most important of these are owners’ equivalent rent that homeowners are imputed to pay to themselves, and the imputed financial services that households are supposed to purchase (paid for with imputed interest income) when they hold bank deposits and similar assets paying less than the market interest rate. Like the third party payments, these imputed interest payments are counted as both income and expenditure for households. Owners’ equivalent rent is also added to household income, but net of mortgage interest, property taxes and maintenance costs. Finally, the national accounts treat the assets of pension and similar trust funds as if they were directly owned by households. This means that employer contributions and asset income for these funds are counted as household income (and therefore add to measured saving) while benefit payments are not.

These items make up a substantial part of household payments as recorded in the national accounts – Medicare, Medicaid and employer-paid health premiums together account for 14 percent of official household consumption; owners’ equivalent rent accounts for another 10 percent; and imputed financial services for 4 percent; while consolidating pension funds with households adds about 2 percent to household income (down from 5 percent in the 1980s). More importantly, the relative size of these components has changed substantially in the past generation, enough to substantially change the picture of household consumption and income.

Incidentally, Klein says I exclude all healthcare spending in my adjusted consumption series. This is a misunderstanding on his part. I exclude only third-party health care spending — healthcare spending by employers and the federal government. I’m not surprised he missed this point, given how counterintuitive it is that Medicare is counted as household consumption spending in the first place.

This is all shown in Figure 3 below (an improved version of the paper’s Figure 1):

The two dotted lines remove public and employer payments for healthcare, respectively, from household consumption. As you can see, the bulk of the reported increase in household consumption as a share of GDP is accounted for by healthcare spending by units other than households. The gray line then removes owners’ equivalent rent. The final, heavy black line removes imputed financial services, pension income net of benefits payments, and a few other, much smaller imputed items. What we are left with is monetary expenditure for consumption by households. The trend here is essentially flat since 1980; it is simply not the case that household consumption spending has increased as a share of GDP.

So Figure 3 is showing the contributions of the blue factors in Figure 2. Note that while these do not involve any monetary outlay by households and thus cannot affect household balance sheets or debt, they do all contribute to measured household saving.

The gray factors involve household assets. No one denies, in principle, that balance sheets have both an asset side and a liability side; but it’s striking how much this is ignored in practice, with net and gross measures used interchangeably. In the first place, we have to take into account residential investment. Purchase of new housing is considered investment, and does not reduce measured saving; but it does of course involve monetary outlay and affects household balance sheets just as consumption spending does. [2] We also have take into account net acquisition of financial assets. An increase in spending relative to income moves household balance sheets toward deficit; this may be accommodated by increased borrowing, but it can just as well be accommodated by lower net purchases of financial assets. In some cases, higher desired accumulation of financial asset can also be an autonomous factor requiring balance sheet adjustment. (This is probably more important for other sectors, especially state and local governments, than for households.) The fact that adjustment can take place on the asset as well as the liability side is another reason there is no necessary connection between saving and debt growth.

Net accumulation of financial assets affects household borrowing, but not saving or aggregate demand. Residential investment also does not reduce measured saving, but it does increase aggregate demand as well as borrowing. The red line in Figure 3 adds residential investment by households to adjusted consumption spending. Now we can see that household spending on goods and services did indeed increase during the housing bubble period – conventional wisdom is right on that point. But this was a  spike of limited duration, not the secular increase that the standard consumption figures suggest.

Again, this is not just an issue in principle; historical variation in net acquisition of assets by the household sector is comparable to variation in borrowing. The decline in observed savings rates in the 1980s, in particular, was much more reflected in slower acquisition of assets than faster growth of debt. And the sharp fall in saving immediately prior to the great recession in part reflects the decline in residential investment, which peaked in 2005 and fell rapidly thereafter.

The cyan item is capital gains, the other factor, along with net accumulation, in growth of assets and net wealth. For the debt-demand story this is not important. But in other contexts it is. As I pointed out in my Crooked Timber post on Piketty, the growth in capital relative to GDP in the US is entirely explained by capital gains on existing assets, not by the accumulation dynamics described by his formula “r > g”.

Finally, the red items in Figure 2 are factors other than current spending and income that affect the debt-income ratio. Arjun Jayadev and I call this set of factors “Fisher dynamics,” after Irving Fisher’s discussion of them in his famous paper on the Great Depression. Interest payments reduce measured saving and shift balance sheets toward deficit, just like consumption; but they don’t contribute to aggregate demand. Defaults or charge-offs reduce the outstanding stock of debt, without affecting demand or measured savings. Like capital gains, they are a change in a stock without any corresponding flow. [3] Finally, the debt-income ratio has a denominator as well as a numerator; it can be raised just as well by slower nominal income growth as by higher borrowing.

These factors are the subject of two papers you can find here and here. The bottom line is that a large part of historical changes in debt ratios — including the entire long-term increase since 1980 — are the result of the items shown in red here.

So what’s the point of all this?

First, borrowing is not the opposite of saving. Not even roughly. Matthew Klein, like most people, immediately translates rising debt into declining saving. The first half of his post is all about that. But saving and debt are very different things. True, increased consumption spending does reduce saving and increase debt, all else equal. But saving also depends on third party spending and imputed spending and income that has no effect on household balance sheets. While debt growth depends, in addition to saving, on residential investment, net acquisition of financial assets, and the rate of chargeoffs; if we are talking about the debt-income ratio, as we usually are, then it also depends on nominal income growth. And these differences matter, historically. If you are interested in debt and household expenditure, you have to look at debt and expenditure. Not saving.

Second, when we do look at expenditure by households, there is no long-term increase in consumption. Consumption spending is flat since 1980. Housing investment – which does involve outlays by households and may require debt financing – does increase in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before falling back. Yes, this investment was associated with a big rise in borrowing, and yes, this borrowing did come significantly lower in the income distribution that borrowing in most periods. (Though still almost all in the upper half.) There was a debt-financed housing bubble. But we need to be careful to distinguish this episode from the longer-term rise in household debt, which has different roots.

 

[1] Think of it this way: If I ask why the return on an investment was 20 percent, there is no end to causal factors you can bring in, from favorable macroeconomic conditions to a sound business plan to your investing savvy or inside knowledge. But in accounting terms, the return is always explained by the income and the capital gains over the period. If you know both those components, you know the return; if you don’t, you don’t. The relationships in the figure are the second kind of explanation.

[2] Improvement of existing housing is also counted as investment, as are brokers’ commissions and other ownership transfer costs. This kind of spending will absorb some part of the flow of mortgage financing to the household sector — including the cash-out refinancing of the bubble period — but I haven’t seen an estimate of how much.

[3] There’s a strand of heterodox macro called “stock-flow consistent modeling.” Insofar as this simply means macroeconomics that takes aggregate accounting relationships seriously, I’m very much in favor of it. Social accounting matrices (SAMs) are an important and underused tool. But it’s important not to take the name too literally — economic reality is not stock-flow consistent!

 

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.

How State Budgets Adjust

Here is a figure from the paper I’m presenting at the Eastern Economics Association meetings next weekend, on state and local government balance sheets:

State Government Finances 1999-2013. Source: Census of Governments, author’s analysis

This figure is just for aggregate state governments. It shows total borrowing (red), net acquisition of financial assets (blue), and the overall fiscal balance (black, with surplus as positive). It also shows the year over year change in the ratio of state debt to GDP (the gray dotted line). A number of interesting points come out here:

  • Despite statutory balanced-budget requirements, state budgets do show significant cyclical movement, from aggregate deficits of around 0.5 percent of GDP in recent recessions to surpluses as high as 0.5 percent of GDP in the expansions of the 1980s and 1990s (not shown here). Individual state governments show larger movements.
  • Shifts in state government fiscal balances are accommodated almost entirely on the asset side of the balance sheet. When state government revenue exceeds current expenditure, they buy financial assets; when revenue falls or expenditure rises, they sell financial assets (or buy less). State governments borrow in order to finance specific capital projects; unlike the federal government, they do not use credit-market borrowing to close gaps between current expenditure and revenue. (As I show in the paper, this is still true when we look at state governments cross-sectionally rather than aggregate data.) Between 2005 and 2009, state budgets moved from an aggregate surplus of around 0.3 percent of GDP to an aggregate deficit of around 0.5 percent. But borrowing over this period was completely flat – the entire shortfall was made up by reduced acquisition of financial assets.
  • The ratio of state government debt to GDP rose over the Great Recession period, by a total of about 2 points. While this is small compared with the increase in federal debt over the same period, it is certainly not trivial. Among other things, rising state debt ratios have been used as arguments for austerity and attacks on pubic-sector unions in a number of states. But as we see here, the entire rise in state debt-GDP ratios over this period is explained by slower growth. The ratio rose because of a smaller denominator, not a bigger numerator.
  • State debt ratios rose around the same time that state budgets moved into deficit. But there is no direct relationship between these two developments. Deficits were financed entirely through a reduction in assets. Simultaneously, the drastic slowdown in growth mean that even though state governments significantly reduced their borrowing, in dollar terms, during the recession, the ratio of debt to income rose. It is true, of course, that both the deficits and the growth slowdown were the result of the recession. But the increase in state debt ratios would have been exactly the same if state budgets had not moved to deficit at all.
  • Since 2010 there has been a simultaneous fall in state government borrowing and acquisition of assets. When these two variables vary together (as they also do across governments in some periods) it suggests that there is some autonomous balance sheet adjustment going on that can’t be reduced to the net financial position changing to accommodate real flows. (The fact that offsetting financial positions cannot in general be netted out is one of the main planks of Bezemer’s accounting view of economics.)

The pattern is similar in the previous recession. Although there was some increase in borrowing as state governments moved into deficit in 2002-2003, the large majority of the financing was on the asset side.

The larger significance of all this, and the data underlying it, is discussed more in the paper.  I will post that here next week. In the meantime, the two big takeaways are, first, that a lot of historical variation in debt ratios are driven by the effect of different nominal growth rates on the existing debt stock rather than by new borrowing; and that state governments don’t finance budget imbalances on the liability side of their balance sheets, but on the asset side.

(Earlier posts based on the same work here and here.)

Links and Thoughts for Feb. 17

Minimum wages are good for poor people. Here is an important paper from Arin Dube on the impact of minimum wage increases on family income. Using a variety of approaches, he asks what the record of minimum wage changes tells us about how the effects of the minimum at different points in the income distribution. The core finding is that, in his preferred specification, the elasticity of income at the 10th percentile with respect to the minimum wage is around 0.4 – that is, a one percent increase in the minimum wage will raise income for poor families by close to half a percent. This is, to my mind, a really big number – it suggests that pay at most low-wage jobs is tightly linked to the minimum wage, and that criticism of minimum wages as being badly targeted at low income households is off the mark. Tho to be fair, he also finds that minimum wage increases don’t do much for the very bottom of the distribution, where there is not much wage income to begin with. But beyond whatever this ammo this gives for minimum wage supporters, this is a great example of how you should approach this kind of question as a social scientist. The paper gets out of the box of qualitative debates about job loss that have dominated this debate and makes a positive, quantitative claim about what minimum wages actually do.

This is the effect of a doubling of the state minimum wage on family income, per Dube.

 

Why prefund? I’m still trying to finish this interminable paper on state and local government balance sheets. But one of the big things I’ve learned is that the biggest constraint these governments face is not the terms on which they can borrow, but the extent to which they are required to prefund future expenses. The idea that pensions should be fully funded has a solid basis for private employers but it’s not at all clear that the same arguments apply for governments. It’s good to see that some professionals in state and local finance have come to the same conclusion. Here is a new paper from the Haas Institute on exactly this question. It makes a strong case that the requirement to fully fund public employee pensions is costly and unnecessary, and is an important factor in local government budget crises.

 

Privilege: still exorbitant. Here’s a nice analysis of the international role of the dollar. This is the same argument I tried to make in my Roosevelt Institute piece on trade policy last summer. The Economist says it better:

Unlike other aspects of American hegemony, the dollar has grown more important as the world has globalised, not less. … As economies opened their capital markets in the 1980s and 1990s, global capital flows surged. Yet most governments sought exchange-rate stability amid the sloshing tides of money. They managed their exchange rates using massive piles of foreign-exchange reserves … Global reserves have grown from under $1trn in the 1980s to more than $10trn today.

Dollar-denominated assets account for much of those reserves. Governments worry more about big swings in the dollar than in other currencies; trade is often conducted in dollar terms; and firms and governments owe roughly $10trn in dollar-denominated debt. … the dollar is, on some measures, more central to the global system now than it was immediately after the second world war. …

America wields enormous financial power as a result. It can wreak havoc by withholding supplies of dollars in a crisis. When the Federal Reserve tweaks monetary policy, the effects ripple across the global economy. Hélène Rey of the London Business School argues that, despite their reserve holdings, many economies have lost full control over their domestic monetary policy, because of the effect of Fed policy on global appetite for risk.

… During the heyday of Bretton Woods, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a French finance minister (later president), complained about the “exorbitant privilege” enjoyed by the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. America’s return on its foreign assets is markedly higher than the return foreign investors earn on their American assets…  That flow of investment income allows America to run persistent current-account deficits—to buy more than it produces year after year, decade after decade.

Exactly right. You can have free capital mobility, or you can have a balanced trade for the US. But you can’t have both, as long as the world depends on dollar reserves.

 

Greece: still a catastrophe. Over at Alphaville, Matthew Klein makes a strong case that Greece’s experience in the euro has been uniquely catastrophic – no modern balance of payments crisis elsewhere has led to anything like as large and as sustained a fall in output and employment. Martin Sandbu objects, arguing that the Greek catastrophe is the result of austerity, not of the single currency per se. Which is true, but also, it seems to me, misses the point. The problem with the euro — as Klein more or less says — isn’t mainly that it precludes devaluation, but that it surrenders authority over the basic tools of macroeconomic policy to a foreign authority — an authority, as it turns out, that has been happy to see Greece burn pour encourager les autres.

 

The myth of capital strike. I was more on Team Streeck than Team Tooze in their great LRB showdown. But this followup post by Tooze is very smart. Mostly he’s just trying to bring some much-needed order to a complicated set of debates about the role of private finance, credit markets, central banks and the state. But he also scores, I think, a stronger point against Streeck than in the LRB review: Streeck exaggerates the threat of capital strike in modern “managed-money” economies. As Tooze says:

Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland even Italy and France all experienced bond market attacks. But this is because they were left by the ECB in a situation which was as though they had borrowed their entire sovereign debt in a foreign currency with no central bank support. … That peculiarity is the result of deliberate political construction. To generalize and reify it into a general theory of capitalist democracy in crisis is highly misleading.

I think Tooze is right: behind the apparent power of the bondholders there’s always either a hostile central bank, or else other, stronger countries.

 

Things are speeding up here at the end. From Credit Suisse, here is an interesting discussion of longevity of firms in the S&P 500.

There is a general sense that the rate of change is accelerating and that corporate longevity is shrinking. This assertion appears frequently in the business press. Our research shows a more nuanced picture. Indeed, a common measure of corporate longevity, turnover of the companies in the S&P 500, shows that longevity has lengthened in recent years.

 

A hell of a way to run a railroad. For New Yorkers who are bored of the things they are mad about and want something new to be mad about: The Port Authority capital plan approved this week includes $1.5 billion for Cuomo’s pointless LaGuardia AirTrain. Of course it would be too much to ask that we extend the existing transit system, we have to create a special new system for airport travelers only. But Cuomo’s plan is useless even for them.

 

Strikes: still declining. Various people have been sharing a graph of strikes “involving 1000 or more workers” on Facebook. I expressed some doubts about this – it’s obviously true that the US has seen a drastic decline in strikes and in worker militance in general, but how well is this captured by a series that only includes the largest strikes? Andrew Bossie replies, showing that for the earlier period where we have more comprehensive strike data, it matches the 1000+ series pretty well. Fair enough.

 

Welfare is not only for whites. Here is a useful corrective from Matt Bruenig to claims that the welfare state disproportionately serves white Americans.  I assume the idea behind these arguments is to disarm claim that welfare is just for “them.” But the politics could cut other way – it’s equally easy to see “welfare goes to whites” as a move to advance the idea that racial justice and economic justice are unrelated, even conflicting, goals. Anyway, whatever it rhetorical uses, we still need a clear and honest assessment of how things work. Which Matt as usual provides.

 

TPP is dead … or is it? My collaborator Arjun Jayadev has a nice piece in The Hindu (circulation 1.4 million, not far off the New York Times) on the legacy of the late, unlamented Trans-Pacific Partnership. It can be hard to rememebr, amid the shrieks and shudders and foul smells coming from the Oval Office, how destructive and, in its own way, insane, was the pre-Trump liberal consensus for free trade and endless war.

 

Just give people nice things is a sound basis for policy. When we decided peoples’ houses shouldn’t burn down, we didn’t provide savings accounts for private fire insurance, we hired firefighters and built fire stations. If the broad left takes power again, enough with too-clever-by-half social engineering. Help people and take credit.”

What Exactly Does Mexico Export to the US?

One of the many ways conventional economic theory hinders our discussions of trade is it gets us thinking about goods “produced” in one country and “consumed” in another. Mexicans grow tomatoes, drill oil, sew shirts, and assemble cars; Americans eat, burn, wear and drive them.

Most trade in the real world does not look like this. What you have, rather, are commodity chains, where different parts of the production process take place in different countries. In most cross-border transactions, the buyers are not consumers, or even distributors, but producers who use the imported goods as inputs. And in many cases, the relevant transactions are not arm’s-length market exchanges, but transfers within a single corporate structure. Even the final purchasers may not be consumers: In general, investment goods and exports have higher imported content than consumption goods do.

Case in point: US-Mexico trade. What with the latest eruption from DC, I was curious what US imports from Mexico actually look like. [1] Here’s what the Census says:

$ millions % of total
Consumer goods 84,572 26.6
   food 22,432 7.0
   autos 23,434 7.4
   clothing 5,257 1.7
   others 33,448 10.5
Industrial inputs 89,583 28.1
   oil 13,689 4.3
   other raw materials 7,568 2.4
   auto parts 53,175 16.7
   other intermediate goods 15,152 4.8
Investment goods 113,312 35.6
   computers 41,778 13.1
   vehicles 31,943 10.0
   other machinery/equipment 39,590 12.4
Services and other 30,872 9.7
Total 318,338 100

As you can see, consumer goods account for only about a quarter of US imports from Mexico. Given that a large fraction of the service imports are tourism, the total share of consumption in US imports from Mexico will be a bit higher, between 30 and 35 percent. [2] (But presumably tourism would not be affected by a tariff.) The remainder is divided about evenly between industrial inputs (raw materials plus intermediate goods like cloth, steel, auto parts, etc.) and investment goods. Machinery and equipment, including computers, account for an impressive 25 percent of Mexican exports to the US. Petroleum products, despite the widespread perception of Mexico as an oil exporter, account for less than 5 percent.

OK, so why does this matter?

Well, it’s enough, to begin with, that most of us have a distorted idea of what “trade” involves. It’s always dangerous to talk about something at a high level of abstraction without a clear sense of the concrete reality involved — even if, in a given case, the abstract description works fine.

But in this case I don’t think it works fine. I think our model of one country and producing and the other consuming, misleads us in some important ways about the likely impact of something like Trump’s tariff.

First of all, the fact that trade is normally part of a longer commodity chain helps explain why trade flows are often insensitive to changes in relative prices. Notice, for instance, the $50 billion auto parts imported from Mexico — about one-seventh of total Mexican exports to the US. Some of these parts may be generic but most presumably represent investment by the parent company in a specialized supply chain. There’s little or no short-run possibility of substituting components from elsewhere in response to changes in relative prices. In any case, insofar as the importer and exporter are part of the same corporate structure, the relevant price is an administered one that presumably has more to do with internal accounting practices than with exchange rates, tariffs or other macro phenomena. This kind of trade is the excluded category in orthodox trade theory — it doesn’t responds rapidly to changes in prices, but neither does it reflect any fundamental differences in natural resources or other “endowments” between countries.

The second reason the composition of trade matters is when we look at the distributional impact. If Mexican exports were just corn tortillas, as some people seem to imagine, it would be relatively easy to answer “who pays” for a tariff. You just estimate the price elasticities of supply and demand and do the math. (OK, maybe not that easy.) But with a high proportion of intermediate and investment goods it’s much trickier. Especially since there are profits collected at a number of points along the commodity chain, so an increase in the price of Mexican imports at the border is not necessarily passed on to ultimate consumers. Some fraction will presumably come out of the various rents along the way. Even the broad claim that it must ultimately be Americans who pay doesn’t hold, since a large fraction of imports are inputs for export industries.

The third reason follows directly. Insofar as the final users of imports are exporters, tariffs and other relative-price changes will have less of an effect on the trade balance. In the old days of import-substitution industrialization people took this problem seriously — they recognized that the effective rate of protection  for a given industry might be quite different from the statutory rate, depending on how dependent the industry was on imported inputs. In this case, if a large fraction of Mexican imports are destined for US export industries — and they are — then a tariff on Mexican goods will improve US competitiveness less than the textbook analysis would predict.

Finally,  the disproportionately large share of intermediate and investment goods in international  trade should factor into how we think about trade in general. The more I study this stuff, the more I get the sense of international trade and finance as a world unto itself — sitting on top of, dependent on, the rest of the economy, but irrelevant to most of the routine activity of extracting human labor to meet human needs. Imports are purchased to make exports, which will be purchased to make more exports to somewhere else.

An exaggeration? Yes, but maybe not an extreme one. Somewhere in Civilization and Capitalism, Fernand Braudel describes the early modern world as an archipelago of towns scattered around the margins of an interior world — whether in France or India — that remained focused on immediate, local needs. The boundary regions were more connected to each other than to their own hinterlands perhaps only a few miles away. Mutatis mutandis (and there’s a lot of mutatis!) I think something like this applies today. Traders and producers for trade are mostly much more integrated with each other than with the rest of us. Your t-shirt is a valid counterexample, but not necessarily a representative one.

In summary: Most US imports from Mexico are intermediate and investment goods, not consumer goods. A tariff on Mexican goods is more likely to raise costs for US businesses — including for US exporters — than to lead people to substitute American-made goods for Mexican ones.

 

[1] This is my own categorization of the more detailed breakdown given by the census. I’ve included computers with investment goods because most computer expenditure in the US is by businesses, not households. Yes, some computers are purchased by households, but on the other hand some autos are purchased by businesses, so it probably balances out.

[2] Under the conventions of the national accounts, when someone from country A visits country B as a tourist, their spending there counts as a service export from country B to A.

 

 

UPDATE: I feel obliged to point out that I anticipated the latest iteration of “Mexico will pay for the wall’ towards the end of this post from last summer.

UPDATE 2: As Peter K. points out in comments, my line about trade within corporate supply chains not responding to relative costs doesn’t really make sense as written. As he reasonably asks, in that case why would they relocate production to lower-cost areas in the first place? What I should have said is that intra-corporate trade (1) isn’t responsive to *short-run* changes in relative prices and (2) is responsive to long-run changes, but on the supply side, not the demand side. I.e. if there were a large persistent rise in prices in Mexico relative to the US, that might well eventually reduce Mexican exports, but the main way this would happen would be firms disinvesting in production capacity there. Not expenditure switching by consumers in response to higher prices.