Posts Tagged ‘Larry Summers’

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Everyone, it seems, now agrees that there’s a fundamental problem concerning wages and productivity in the United States: since the 1970s, productivity growth has far outpaced the growth in workers’ wages.*

Even Larry Summers—who, along with his coauthor Anna Stansbury, presented an analysis of the relationship between pay and productivity last Thursday at a conference on the “Policy Implications of Sustained Low Productivity Growth” sponsored by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Thus, Summers and Stansbury (pdf) concur with the emerging consensus,

After growing in tandem for nearly 30 years after the second world war, since 1973 an increasing gap has opened between the compensation of the average American worker and her/his average labor productivity.

The fact that the relationship between wages and productivity has been severed in recent decades presents a fundamental problem, both for U.S. capitalism and for mainstream economic theory. It calls into question the presumption of “just deserts” within U.S. economic institutions as well as within the theory of distribution created and disseminated by mainstream economists.

It means, in short, that much of what American workers are produced is not being distributed to them, but instead is being captured to their employers and wealthy individuals at the top, and that mainstream economic theory operates to obscure this growing problem.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Summers and Stansbury, while admitting the growing wage-productivity gap, will do whatever they can to save both current economic institutions and mainstream economic theory.

First, Summers and Stansbury conjure up a conceptual distinction between a “delinkage view,” according to which increases in productivity growth no long systematically translate into additional growth in workers’ compensation, and a “linkage view,” such that productivity growth does not translate into pay, but only because “other factors have been putting downward pressure on workers’ compensation even as productivity growth has been acting to lift it.” The latter—linkage—view maintains mainstream economists’ theory that wages correspond to workers’ productivity and that, in terms of the economy system, increasing productivity will raise workers’ wages.

Second, Summers and Stansbury compare changes in labor productivity and various time-dependent and lagged measures of the typical worker’s compensation—average compensation, median compensation, and the compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers—and find that, while compensation consistently grows more slowly than productivity since the 1970s, the series (both of them in log form) move largely together.

Their conclusion, not surprisingly, is that there is considerable evidence supporting the “linkage” view, according to which productivity growth is translated into increases in workers’ compensation and hence improving living standards throughout the postwar period. Thus, in their view, it’s not necessary—and perhaps even counter-productive—to shift attention from growth to solving the problem of inequality.

ButSummers and Stansbury are still unable to dismiss the existence of an increasing wedge between productivity and compensation, which has two components: mean and median labor compensation have diverged and, at the same time, there’s been a falling labor share in the United States.

That’s where they stumble. They look for, but can’t find, a link between productivity and those two measures of growing inequality. There simply isn’t one.

What there is is a growing gap between productivity and compensation in recent decades, which has result in both a falling labor share and higher growth of labor compensation at the top. That is, more surplus is being extracted from workers and some of that surplus is in turn distributed to those at the top (e.g., industrial CEOs and financial executives).

Moreover, one can argue, in a manner not even envisioned by Summers and Stansbury, that the increasing gap between productivity and workers’ compensation is at least in part responsible for the productivity slowdown. Changes in the U.S. economy that emphasize capturing an increasing share of the surplus from around the world have translated into slower productivity growth in the United States.

The only conclusion, contra Summers and Stansbury, is that even if productivity growth accelerates, there is no evidence that suggests “the likely impact will be increased pay growth for the typical worker.”

More likely, at least for the foreseeable future, is the increasing inequality and the (relative) immiseration of American workers. Those are the problems neither existing economic institutions nor mainstream economic theory are prepared to acknowledge or solve.

 

*Actually, the argument is about productivity and compensation, not wages. In fact, Summers and Stansbury assert that “the definition of ‘compensation’ should incorporate both wages and non-wage benefits such as health insurance.” Their view is that, since the share of compensation provided in non-wage benefits significantly rose over the postwar period, comparing productivity against wages alone exaggerates the divergence between pay and productivity. An alternative approach distinguishes what employers have to pay to workers, wages (the value of labor power, in the Marxian tradition), from what employers have to pay to others, such as health insurance companies, in the form of non-wage benefits (which, again in the Marxian tradition, is a distribution of surplus-value).

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Millions of workers have been displaced by robots. Or, if they have managed to keep their jobs, they’re being deskilled and transformed into appendages of automated machines. We also know that millions more workers and their jobs are threatened by much-anticipated future waves of robotics and other forms of automation.

But mainstream economists don’t want us to touch those robots. Just ask Larry Summers.

Summers is particularly incensed by Bill Gates’s suggestion that we begin taxing robots. So, he trots out all the usual arguments, hoping that at least one of them will stick. It’s hard to distinguish between robots and other forms of automation. Robots and other forms of automation produce better goods and services. And, of course, automation enhances productivity and leads to more wealth. So, we shouldn’t do anything to shrink the size of the economic pie.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. Indeed, it is common to point out that opening a country up to international trade is just like giving it access to a technology for transforming one good into another. The argument, then, is that since one surely would not regard such a technical change as bad, neither is trade, and so protectionism is bad. Mr Gates’ robot tax risks essentially being protectionism against progress.

Progress, indeed.

What mainstream economists like Summers fail to understand is that not touching the robots—or, for that matter, international trade—means keeping things just as they are. It means keeping the decisions about jobs, just like the patterns of international trade, in the hands of a small group of employers. They’re the ones who, under current circumstances, appropriate the surplus and decide where and how jobs will be created—and, of course, where they will be destroyed. Which, as I explained last year, is exactly how international trade takes place.

And because employers, now and as Summers would like to see the world, are the ones who are allowed to retain a monopoly over jobs and trade, they also decide how the economic pie is distributed and redistributed. Tinkering around the edges—with the usual liberal shibboleths about the need for “education and retraining”—doesn’t fundamentally alter the fact that workers remain subject to decisions about technology and trade in which they have no say. Workers are thus forced to have the freedom to adjust, with more or less government assistance, to decisions taken by their employers.

And to sit back and admire, but not touch, the growth in productivity.*

 

*And that’s pretty much what Brad DeLong also recommends in making, for the umpteenth time, the argument that today, the world’s population is, on average, many times richer than it was during the long preceding age—because both average wealth and consumer choice have increased. Delong, like Summers, doesn’t want us to touch the “innovations that have fundamentally transformed human civilization.”

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Contemporary capitalism has a big problem. And no one seems to be able to refute it.

The problem, as Robert J. Gordon sees it, is that economic growth is slowing down, it has been for decades, and there’s no prospect for a resumption of fast economic growth in the foreseeable future. After fifty (from 1920 to 1970) years of relatively fast growth, and a single decade (the 1950s) of spectacular growth, the prospects for continued growth seem to have dimmed after 1970.

In the century after the end of the Civil War, life in the United States changed beyond recognition. There was a revolution—an economic, rather than a political one—which freed people from an unremitting daily grind of manual labour and household drudgery and a life of darkness, isolation and early death. By the 1970s, many manual, outdoor jobs had been replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by machines, darkness was replaced by electric light, and isolation was replaced not only by travel, but also by colour television, which brought the world into the living room. Most importantly, a newborn infant could expect to live not to the age of 45, but to 72. This economic revolution was unique—and unrepeatable, because so many of its achievements could happen only once. . .

Since 1970, economic growth has been dazzling and disappointing. This apparent paradox is resolved when we recognise that recent advances have mostly occurred in a narrow sphere of activity having to do with entertainment, communications and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress has slowed since 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

From what I have read, Gordon appears to privilege technical innovation over other factors (such as dispossessing noncapitalist producers and creating a large class of wage-laborers, concentrating them in factories and cities, and so on). He also seems to argue that the fruits of past economic growth were evenly distributed and that the drudgery of work itself has been eliminated.

Still, the idea that rapid economic growth took place during a relatively short period of time dispels one of the central myths of capitalism, much as the discovery that relative equality in the distribution of wealth and constant factor shares characterized an exceptional phase of capitalism.

And that’s a problem: the premise and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has mainstream commentators worried.

They’re worried that capitalism can no longer guarantee fast economic growth. And they’re worried, try as they might, that they can’t refute Gordon’s analysis. Not Paul Krugman or Larry Summers or, for that matter, Tyler Cowen.

All three applaud Gordon’s historical analysis. And all three desperately want to argue he’s wrong looking forward. But they can’t.

The best they can come up with is the idea that the future is uncertain. Thus, as Cowen writes, “many past advances came as complete surprises.”

Although the advents of automobiles, spaceships, and robots were widely anticipated, few foretold the arrival of x-rays, radio, lasers, superconductors, nuclear energy, quantum mechanics, or transistors. No one knows what the transistor of the future will be, but we should be careful not to infer too much from our own limited imaginations.

Indeed. We certainly don’t know what lies ahead. But, since the 1970s, we’ve witnessed growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, which resulted in and in turn was exacerbated by the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. Capitalism’s legitimacy, based on “just deserts” and economic stability, was already being called into question. Decades of slow economic growth and the real possibility that that trend might continue for the foreseeable future mean that capitalism (not to mention those who spend their time celebrating capitalism’s successes and failing to imagine alternatives) has an even bigger problem.

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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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Is 2015 going to be the year of class?

It certainly seems so, to judge by the widening gap between the wage and profit shares (the wage share in blue on the right scale of the chart above, the profit share in red on the left scale) and the worries recently expressed by politicians, economists, and journalists.

There is, of course, Mitt Romney on income inequality and the “scourge of poverty” (because Republicans have nowhere else to go, having been boxed in by Barack Obama on most other issues, but they’re going to have a hard time going against their pro-business agenda, especially with Romney as the standard-bearer).

And Obama himself, who apparently is going to propose closing the multibillion-dollar tax loopholes used by the wealthiest Americans, imposing a fee on big financial firms, and then using the revenue to benefit the middle-class (but he’s unlikely to get much bipartisan support in Congress for any kind of serious moves on those issues).

Plus we have the spectacle of Larry Summers (together with Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls) openly expressing his concern for the future of democracy if capitalism cannot deliver broad-based prosperity, which may give rise to “political alienation, a loss of social trust, and increasing conflict across the lines of race, class, and ethnicity.”

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But, as Mike Whitney [ht: ja] reminds us, the problem of class war is not a recent phenomenon: the most recent chapter started in the mid-1970s, when “everything started going down the plughole.” Once wages became detached from productivity,

the rich progressively got richer. They used their wealth to reduce taxes on capital, roll back critical regulations, break up the unions, install their own lapdog politicians, push through trade agreements that pitted US workers against low-paid labor in the developing world, and induce their shady Central Bank buddies to keep interest rates locked below the rate of inflation so they could cream hefty profits off gigantic asset bubbles. Now, 40 years later, they own the whole shooting match, lock, stock and barrel. And it’s all because management decided to take the lion’s share of productivity gains which threw the whole system off-kilter undermining the basic pillars of democratic government.

That’s where we stand today, in the midst of a class war. And, as everyone now acknowledges, only one side—a tiny minority at the top—is winning.

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My better half has insisted for years that I not be too hard on Paul Krugman. The enemy of my enemy. Popular Front. And all that. . .

But enough is enough.

I simply can’t let Krugman [ht: br] get away with writing off a large part of contemporary economic discourse (not to mention of the history of economic thought) and with his declaration that Larry Summers has “laid down what amounts to a very radical manifesto” (not to mention the fact that I was forced to waste the better part of a quarter of an hour this morning listening to Summers’s talk in honor of Stanley Fischer at the IMF Economic Forum, during which he announces that he’s finally discovered the possibility that the current level of economic stagnation may persist for some time).

Krugman may want to curse Summers out of professional jealousy. Me, I want to curse the lot of them—not only the MIT family but mainstream economists generally—for their utter cluelessness when it comes to making sense of (and maybe, eventually, actually doing something about) the current crises of capitalism.

So, what is he up to? Basically, Krugman showers Summers in lavish praise for his belated, warmed-over, and barely intelligible argument that attains what little virtue it has about the economic challenges we face right now by vaguely resembling the most rudimentary aspects of what people who read and build on the ideas of Marx, Kalecki, Minsky, and others have been saying and writing for years. The once-and-former-failed candidate for head of the Federal Reserve begins with the usual mainstream conceit that they successfully solved the global financial crash of 2008 and that current economic events bear no resemblance to the First Great Depression. But then reality sinks in: since in their models the real interest-rate consistent with full employment is currently negative (and therefore traditional monetary policy doesn’t amount to much more than pushing on a string), we may be in for a rough ride (with high output gaps and persistent unemployment) for some unknown period of time. And, finally, an admission that the conditions for this “secular stagnation” may actually have characterized the years of bubble and bust leading up to the crisis of 2007-08.

That’s where Krugman chimes in, basking in the glow of his praise for Summers, expressing for the umpteenth time the confidence that his simple Keynesian model of the liquidity trap and zero lower bound has been vindicated. The problem is, Summers can’t even give Alvin Hansen, the first American economist to explicate and domesticate Keynes’s ideas, and the one who first came up with the idea of secular stagnation based on the Bastard Keynesian IS-LM model, his due (although Krugman does at least mention Hansen and provide a link). I guess it’s simply too much to expect they actually recognize, read, and learn from other traditions within economics, concerning such varied topics as the role of the Industrial Reserve Army in setting wages, political business cycles, financial fragility, and much more.

And things only go down from there. Because the best Summers and Krugman can do by way of attempting to explain the possibility of secular stagnation is not to analyze the problems embedded in and created by existing economic institutions but, instead, to invoke that traditional deus ex machina, demography.

Now look forward. The Census projects that the population aged 18 to 64 will grow at an annual rate of only 0.2 percent between 2015 and 2025. Unless labor force participation not only stops declining but starts rising rapidly again, this means a slower-growth economy, and thanks to the accelerator effect, lower investment demand.

You would think that a decent economist, not even a particularly left-wing one, might be able to imagine the possibility that a labor shortage might cause higher real wages, which might have myriad other effects, many of them really, really good—not only for people who continue to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work but also for their families, their neighbors, and for lots of other participants in the economy. But, apparently, stagnant wages (never mind supply-and-demand) are just as “natural” as Wicksell’s natural interest rate.

And then, finally, this gem:

The point is that it’s not hard to think of reasons why the liquidity trap could be a lot more persistent than anyone currently wants to admit.

No, it’s not hard to think of many such reasons. But when the question is asked in the particular way Krugman poses it—in terms of natural rates of this and that, of interest-rates, population, wages, innovation, and so on—the only answers that need be admitted into the discussion come from other members of the close-knit family (and thus from Summers, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Gordon). All of the other interesting work that has been conducted in the history of economic thought and by contemporary economists concerning in-built crisis tendencies, long-wave failures of growth, endogenous technical innovation, financial speculation, and so on is simply excluded from the discussion.

It is no wonder, then, that mainstream economists—even the best of them—are so painfully inarticulate and hamstrung when it comes to making sense of the current economic malaise.

I’ll admit, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just a matter of professional jealousy and their not being able to analyze what is going on except through the workings of a small number of familiar assumptions and models. They talk as if it’s only their academic reputations that are on the line. But we can’t forget there are millions and millions of people, young and old, in the United States and around the world, whose lives hang in the balance—well-intentioned and hard-working people who are being made to pay the costs of economists like Krugman attempting to keep things all in the family.

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Special mention

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