Posts Tagged ‘economics’

employment gap

Mainstream economists have, it seems, rediscovered what we’ve known since at least the middle of the nineteenth century: capitalism produces a relative surplus population of unemployed and unemployed workers. And that surplus of labor puts downward pressure on workers’ wages.

Back then it was called the “industrial reserve army.” I have referred to it since 2010 as the “reserve army of the underemployed.” David G. Blanchflower and Andrew T. Levin now point to the same phenomenon in terms of the “employment gap,” that is, the combination of conventional unemployment (individuals who did have a job, are now not working at all, and are actively searching for a job), underemployment (that is, people working part time who want a full-time job), and hidden unemployment (people who are not actively searching but who would rejoin the workforce if the job market were stronger).

What Blanchflower and Levin find is instructive.

First, the conventional unemployment rate has not served as an accurate reflection of the evolution of labor market slack.

it is evident that the U.S. economic recovery remains far from complete in spite of apparently reassuring recent signals from the conventional unemployment rate. Indeed, while the unemployment gap has become quite small, the incidence of underemployment remains elevated and the size of the labor force remains well below CBO’s assessment of its potential. In particular, the employment gap currently stands at 1.9 percent, suggesting that the “true” unemployment rate (including underemployment and hidden unemployment) should be viewed as around 71⁄2 percent. Gauged in human terms, the current magnitude of the employment shortfall is equivalent to about 3.3 million full-time jobs.

Second, in recent years, wage growth has been pushed down by a combination of the unemployment rate, the nonparticipation rate, and the underemployment rate. In particular,

we suspect that the wage curve is relatively flat at elevated levels of labor market slack, i.e., a decline in slack does not generate any significant wage pressures as long as the level of slack remains large. As noted above, our benchmark analysis indicates that the true unemployment rate is currently around 71⁄2 percent—a notable decline from its peak of more than 10 percent but still well above its longer-run normal level of around 5 percent. Thus, the shape of the wage curve can explain why nominal wage growth has remained stagnant at around 2 percent over the past few years even as the employment gap has diminished substantially. Moreover, our interpretation suggests that nominal wages will not begin to accelerate until labor market slack diminishes substantially further and and the true unemployment rate approaches its longer-run normal level of around 5 percent.

In other words, what Blanchflower and Levin have discovered is that there is a large relative surplus population of workers and that the existence of such a reserve army has a dampening effect on workers’ wages.

Now, all they need to do is discover a third component of what we’ve known since the Mohr wrote back in 1867: “The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production”

Investment

Both sides of mainstream economics will likely claim support in the International Monetary Fund’s latest report, the April 2015 World Economic Outlook—especially chapter 4, on business investment.*

The Keynesians will certainly like the relationship between investment and output—in other words, the idea that private business investment has declined since the start of the economic crisis because aggregate demand has fallen. Even more: they’ll find support in claim that fiscal policy aimed at reducing budget deficits has actually undermined private investment (which is the flip side of the Keynesian crowding-in argument, i.e., the notion that deficit spending doesn’t crowd out private investment, as neoclassical economists claim, but actually spurs or crowds in corporate investment).

The neoclassicals, for their part, will be encouraged by the focus on “business confidence,” that is, the argument that uncertainty (e.g., with respect to government policies) has played a role in discouraging business investment.

In other words, for Keynesians, the problem with insufficient business investment is mostly on the demand side; while for neoclassical economists, it’s mostly on the supply side.

And, true to form, the authors of that section of the report suggest policy changes on both the demand and supply sides:

We conclude that a comprehensive policy effort to expand output is needed to sustainably raise private investment. Fiscal and monetary policies can encourage firms to invest, although such policies are unlikely to fully return restore investment fully to precrisis trends. More public infrastructure investment could also spur demand in the short term, raise supply in the medium term, and thus ‘crowd in’ private investment where conditions are right. And structural reforms, – such as those to strengthen labor force participation, – could improve the outlook for potential output and thus encourage private investment. Finally, to the extent that financial constraints hold back private investment, there is also a role for policies aimed at relieving crisis-related financial constraints, including through tackling debt overhang and cleaning up bank balance sheets.

What no one seems to want to admit—the authors of the report as well as mainstream (both Keynesian and neoclassical) economists—is that private corporations, which got us into this mess in the first place, have failed to get us out of it. They’re the only ones that have benefited from the recovery, as corporate profits have reached record levels, but they haven’t responded by increasing investment. Instead, they’ve been using the profits they’re accumulated to buyback their stock, engage in new mergers and acquisitions, and distribute them to high-level executives and shareholders.

They want us to believe they’re superman. But we know they’ve simply failed—on both the demand and supply sides.

*To be clear, the chart does not indicate actual declines in business investment and output. Rather, it represents percent deviations from forecasts in the year of recessions.

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You remember the dialogue:

Queen: Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face.

Magic Mirror: What wouldst thou know, my Queen?

Queen: Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

I was reminded of this particular snippet from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs while reading the various defenses of contemporary macroeconomic models. Mainstream macroeconomists failed to predict the most recent economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but, according to them everything in macroeconomics is just fine.

There’s David Andolfatto, who argues that the goal of macro models is not really prediction; it is, instead, only conditional forecasts (“IF a set of circumstances hold, THEN a number of events are likely to follow.”). So, in his view, the existing models are mostly fine—as long as they’re supplemented with some “financial market frictions” and a bit of economic history.

Mark Thoma, for his part, mostly agrees with Andolfatto but adds we need to ask the right questions.

we didn’t foresee the need to ask questions (and build models) that would be useful in a financial crisis — we were focused on models that would explain “normal times” (which is connected to the fact that we thought the Great Moderation would continue due to arrogance on behalf of economists leading to the belief that modern policy tools, particularly from the Fed, would prevent major meltdowns, financial or otherwise). That is happening now, so we’ll be much more prepared if history repeats itself, but I have to wonder what other questions we should be asking, but aren’t.

Then, of course, there’s Paul Krugman who (not for the first time) defends hydraulic Keynesianism (aka Hicksian IS/LM models)—”little equilibrium models with some real-world adjustments”—which in his view have been “stunningly successful.”

And, finally, to complete my sample from just the last couple of days, we have Noah Smith, who defends the existing macroeconomic models—because they’re models!—and chides heterodox economists for not having any alternative models to offer.

The issue, as I see it, is not whether there’s a macroeconomic model (e.g., dynamic stochastic general equilibrium, as depicted in the illustration above, or Bastard Keynesian or whatever) that can, with the appropriate external “shock,” generate a boom-and-bust cycle or zero-lower-bound case for government intervention. There’s a whole host of models that can generate such outcomes.

No, there are two real issues that are never even mentioned in these attempts to defend contemporary macroeconomic models. First, what is widely recognized to be the single most important economic problem of our time—the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth—doesn’t (and, in models with a single representative agent, simply can’t) play a role in either causing boom-and-bust cycles or as a result of the lopsided recovery that has come from the kinds of fiscal and monetary policies that have been used in recent years.

That’s the specific issue. And then there’s a second, more general issue: the only way you can get an economic crisis from mainstream models (of whatever stripe, using however much math) is via some kind of external shock. The biggest problem with existing models is not that they failed to predict the crisis; it’s that the only possibility of a crisis comes from an exogenous event. The key failure of mainstream macroeconomic models is to exclude from analysis the idea that the “normal” workings of capitalism generate economic crises on a regular basis—some of which are relatively mild recessions, others of which (such as we’ve seen since 2007) are full-scale depressions.  What really should be of interest are theories that generate boom-and-bust cycles based on endogenous events within capitalism itself.

With respect to both these issues, contemporary mainstream macroeconomic models have “stunningly” failed.

I imagine that’s what the slave in the magic mirror, who simply will not lie to the Queen, would say.

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Last night in the annual McBride Lecture (a series sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Higgins Labor Studies Program that honors the fourth international president of the United Steel Workers, Lloyd McBride, who was president from 1977 to 1983), Tom Geoghegan argued that the tide may finally be turning as more and more people (including leading mainstream economists such as Larry Summers) express their support for labor unions.

Here’s what I was able to find from Summers:

What about the role of more traditional unionization and collective bargaining?

I think that one has to maintain a sense of balance. Unions are right in some employment contexts. Unions do not add value in other employment contexts.

What I think is important is the principle enshrined in U.S. law that workers should have the right to collectively bargain if that is what they desire. I am concerned that in recent times that right has eroded because employers have been permitted to retaliate against those who seek to organize workers with impunity.

At the same time, I would be the first to recognize that in a world where American businesses are competing very vigorously with foreign competitors, in a world where domestic competition has increased substantially, prudent union leaders will need to recognize that they need to cooperate with management to craft employment arrangements that better serve workers, but also serve the objectives of competitiveness and economic efficiency.

I think there’s substantial scope for thinking about new compacts between firms and workers in the mutual interest of both.

Just sayin’. . .

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There is no doubt, for those of us who work in and around institutions of higher education, that the university is dying.

Terry Eagleton has been making that argument for a long time. Now, he’s making it in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja], with his characteristic incisiveness and wit.

Eagleton’s argument is about the death of the British university but much of his analysis holds for the United States as well.

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however, is what one might call Americanization without the affluence — the affluence, at least, of the American private educational sector.

But Eagleton, I think, focuses a bit too much on the decline of the humanities, as if English and art departments were the only source of critical thinking. Better, it seems to me, is to identify and analyze the crisis of critical thinking across the length and breadth of the university—in economics as well as English, anthropology alongside art. Critical thinking in all the disciplines is disappearing as “Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.”

The death of critical thinking in and across all its disciplinary forms is the real death of the university.

 

My article, “Contending Economic Theories: Which Side Are You On?” has just been published on Taylor & Francis Online for the journal Rethinking Marxism.

The first 50 interested readers (actually 49, since I downloaded a copy for myself) can download the text of the article here.

 

Apparently, there’s a new documentary film [ht: ja]—Boom Bust Boom, directed by Monty Python’s Terry Jones—whose aim is to to popularize the work of Hyman Minsky.

Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.

This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external.

This is the latest attempt, in a long sequence since the crisis of 2007-08, to rediscover and examine the implications of Minsky’s work (which I’ve discussed many times on this blog).