Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

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Mainstream economics presents quite a spectacle these days. It has no real theory of the firm and, even now, more than nine years after the Great Recession began, its most cherished claim to relevance—the use of large-scale forecasting models of the economy that assume people always behave rationally—is still misleading policymakers.

As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, we now have a leading mainstream economist, Havard’s Martin Feldstein, claiming that the “official data on real growth substantially underestimates the rate of growth.”

Mr. Feldstein likes to illustrate his argument about G.D.P. by referring to the widespread use of statins, the cholesterol drugs that have reduced deaths from heart attacks. Between 2000 and 2007, he noted, the death rate from heart disease among those over 65 fell by one-third.

“This was a remarkable contribution to the public’s well-being over a relatively short number of years, and yet this part of the contribution of the new product is not reflected in real output or real growth of G.D.P.,” he said. He estimates — without hard evidence, he is careful to point out — that growth is understated by 2 percent or more a year.

This is not just a technical issue for Feldstein:

it is misleading measurements that are contributing to a public perception that real incomes — particularly for the middle class — aren’t rising very much. That, he said, “reduces people’s faith in the political and economic system.”

“I think it creates pessimism and a distrust of government,” leading Americans to worry that “their children are going to be stuck and won’t be able to enjoy upward mobility,” he said. “I think it’s important to understand this.”

Here’s what folks need to understand: mainstream economists like Feldstein, who celebrate an economic system based on private property and free markets, build and use models in which market prices capture all the relevant costs and benefits to society. And, since GDP is an accounting system based on adding up transactions of goods and services based on market prices, for mainstream economists it should represent an accurate measure of the “public’s well-being.”

Mainstream economists can’t have it both ways—either market prices do accurately reflect social costs and benefits or they don’t. If they do, then Feldstein & Co need to stick with the level and rate of growth of GDP as the appropriate measure of the wealth of the nation. And, if they don’t, all their claims about the wonders of free markets simply dissolve.

Notice also that, for Feldstein, the problem is always in one direction: GDP statistics only undercount social well-being. What he and other mainstream economists fail to consider is that whole sectors of the economy, like financial services (or, more generally, FIRE, finance, insurance, and real estate), are counted as adding to national income.

As Bruce Roberts has explained,

because “financial services” are deemed useful by those who pay for them, those services must be treated as generators in their own right of value and output (even though there is nothing there that can actually be measured as output at all). . .

the standard (neoclassical) approach embedded in GDP accounting means, in concrete terms, that profits in FIRE must be treated as a reflection of rising real output generated by FIRE activities, requiring a numerical “imputation” of greater GDP. And, worse, that *rising* profits in FIRE then go hand in hand with *rising* levels of imputed “output” and hence enhanced “productivity.”

If Wall Street doesn’t add to GDP—if FIRE activities just represent transfers of value from other economic sectors (both nationally and internationally)—then its resurgence in the years since the crash doesn’t contribute to output or growth.

The consequence is that GDP, as it is currently measured, actually overcounts national output and income. Actual growth during the so-called recovery is much less than mainstream economists and politicians would have us believe.

That’s the real reason many Americans are worried they and “their children are going to be stuck and won’t be able to enjoy upward mobility.”

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Apparently, the latest attempt to redefine the role of economists is to encourage them to be plumbers.

Maybe it’s just my age but, when I read plumbers, I immediately think of the covert Special Investigations Unit in the Nixon White House—the operation that began with attempting to stop the leak of classified information (such as the Pentagon Papers) and then branched into illegal activities while working for the Committee to Re-elect the President (including the Watergate break-in).

I don’t think that’s what MIT economist Esther Duflo (pdf) had in mind when, in her Ely Lecture to the American Economic Association meeting last month, she suggested that economists seriously engage with plumbing, “in the interest of both society and our discipline.”

As economists increasingly help governments design new policies and regulations, they take on an added responsibility to engage with the details of policy making and, in doing so, to adopt the mindset of a plumber. Plumbers try to predict as well as possible what may work in the real world, mindful that tinkering and adjusting will be necessary since our models gives us very little theoretical guidance on what (and how) details will matter.

I’ll admit, I have a lot of respect for plumbers (especially when they’re able to fix the mess I’ve made trying to repair an existing fixture or install a new one). And I do think anyone involved in designing new policies and regulations should learn more about how they are actually implemented.

But economists, especially mainstream economists (of the sort Duflo is speaking for and to), are the last people I’d call in to fix the policy plumbing. Me, I’d pay them a large sum of money to learn about how policy formulation and implementation actually works. And then I’d pay them even more not to get anywhere near the process.

I’d much prefer that others—from the people actually affected by the policies to representatives from other academic disciplines and areas (such as anthropology, labor studies, peace studies, and so on)—be the ones who actually engage with the details of policy-making.

A good example of why I would want mainstream economists to be kept as far as possible away from the process of policy and implementation is a recent piece by Laura Tyson and Susan Lund.*

Their view is that capitalist globalization has had “disruptive effects on millions of advanced-economy workers” (and, we should add, on millions of workers—peasants, wage-laborers, and others—in economies that are not so advanced) and has aggravated income inequality within countries. So far so good.

But then they assert, without evidence, that the main culprit is not how globalization has been carried out, but technological change, which “automates routine manual and cognitive tasks, while increasing demand (and wages) for highly skilled workers.”

And because they take technological change as a given (rather than a strategy on the part of employers to boost profits), they recommend that workers (who, they presume, have no say in the development and implementation of new technologies) are the ones who need to adapt.

advanced economies must help workers acquire the skills needed to fill high-quality jobs in the digital economy. Lifelong learning cannot just be a slogan; it must become a reality. Mid-career retraining must be made available not only to those who have lost their jobs to foreign competition, but also to those facing disruption from the continuing march of automation. Training programs should be able to impart new skills in a matter of months, not years, and they should be complemented by programs that support workers’ incomes during retraining, and that help them relocate for more productive work.

Now, it’s true, Tyson and Lund don’t spend any time on the plumbing of creating and implementing lifelong learning programs. But that’s not the problem. Even if they were good economic plumbers, we’d still end up with a situation in which employers set the agenda and workers are forced to have the freedom to scramble to try to keep up.

That’s the plumbing Tyson and Lund leave out of their analysis. It’s what keeps the extra value flowing from workers to their employers. And, if workers are no longer useful for creating that extra value, they’re simply flushed down the drain.

If and when mainstream economists are willing to talk about those parts of the economic system, I’ll be the first to invite them to join the plumbers’ union.

But only, until they prove they can analyze and fix the problem, as plumber apprentices.

 

*This is not to pick on Tyson and Lund. I could have chosen any one of an almost infinite number of essays on economic policy by mainstream economists I’ve read over the years. Theirs just happens to be the latest I’ve run across.

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Now that President Trump has begun carrying out his campaign pledges to undo America’s trade ties, formally withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announcing he will start to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, it’s time to analyze what this means.

As it turns out, I’d already started to do this before the election, with a series of posts (e.g., here, here, here, and here) on Trump and the mounting criticism of the trade agreements the United States had signed (such as NAFTA) or was in the process of negotiating (the TPP).

It’s clear Trump’s decisions—which he claims are a “Great thing for the American worker”—challenge the view of economic and political elites, as well as those of mainstream economists (such as Brad DeLong), in the United States and around the world that everyone benefits from free trade.*

But, we now know, there has also been a growing counter-narrative, that not everyone has gained from growing international trade and trade agreements, which have generated  unequal benefits and costs. What’s interesting about this alternative story, at least when it comes to NAFTA, is that critics on each side argue the other side is the one that has benefited: U.S. critics that Mexico has gained, and just the opposite in Mexico, that the United States has captured the lion’s share of the benefits from NAFTA.

Here’s the problem: workers on both sides of the border have lost out, and their losses are mostly not due to NAFTA.

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We know, for example, that the wage share of national income in the United States has in fact declined after NAFTA was implemented (in January 1994)—from 45.1 percent of gross domestic income to 42.9 percent. But we also have to recognize workers have been losing out since at least 1970, when the wage share stood at 51.5 percent.

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Much the same has been happening in Mexico, where (according to the research of Norma Samaniego Breach [pdf]), the wage share (the dark green line in the chart above) has been falling since 1978—and continued to fall after NAFTA was put into place. And, as Alice Krozera, Juan Carlos Moreno Brid, and Juan Cristóbal Rubio Badan have shown, economic and political elites in Mexico, much like their U.S. counterparts, have mostly ignored the problem of inequality and resisted efforts to raise the minimum wage and workers’ share of national income.

The fact is, while NAFTA did propel a large increase in trade between Mexico and the United States, it “did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters” (according to a 2015 study commissioned by the Congressional Research Service [pdf]).

The bottom line is, eliminating or renegotiating NAFTA—including in the manner Trump is proposing—is not going to help the working-classes in either Mexico or the United States. It is merely a diversion from the real changes that need to be made, to which the political and economic elites as well as mainstream economists in both countries stand opposed.

 

*The only real debate within mainstream economics is between neoclassical economists who argue free trade generates the most efficient outcomes, within and between countries (regardless of whether countries run trade surpluses or deficits), and their critics (such as Jared Bernstein) who argue that trade deficits lead to a loss of jobs (e.g., in U.S. manufacturing), and thus require interventions of the sort Trump is proposing to change the pattern of international trade.

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When it comes to artificial intelligence and automation, the current White House seems to want to have it both ways.

On one hand, it warns about the potentially unequalizing, “winner-take-most” effects of the economic use of artificial intelligence:

Research consistently finds that the jobs that are threatened by automation are highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers. This means that automation will continue to put downward pressure on demand for this group, putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on inequality. In the longer-run, there may be different or larger effects. One possibility is superstar-biased technological change, where the benefits of technology accrue to an even smaller portion of society than just highly-skilled workers. The winner-take-most nature of information technology markets means that only a few may come to dominate markets. If labor productivity increases do not translate into wage increases, then the large economic gains brought about by AI could accrue to a select few. Instead of broadly shared prosperity for workers and consumers, this might push towards reduced competition and increased wealth inequality.

But then it invokes, and repeats numerous times across the report, the usual mainstream economists’ nostrums about the “strong relationship between productivity and wages”—such that “with more AI the most plausible outcome will be a combination of higher wages and more opportunities for leisure for a wide range of workers.”

Except, of course, historically that has not been the case—certainly not in the United States.

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For example, from the early 1970s to the present, workers’ wages have not kept pace with increases in productivity. Not by a long shot. As is clear from the chart above, productivity since 1973 has risen much more than workers’ compensation—72.2 percent, compared to a paltry 9.2 percent.

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And while over the same period hours worked have in fact fallen, the decrease in the United States (a minuscule 5.6 percent) has been far less than the increase in productivity—and much less than in other countries, such as France (24 percent) and Germany (27.3 percent).

So, yes, whether the use of artificial intelligence leads to improvements for U.S. workers—in the form of higher wages and fewer hours worked—”depends not only on the technology itself but also on the institutions and policies that are in place.”

But the experience of the past four decades suggests it will not benefit the American working-class.

And there’s nothing to suggest that trend won’t continue—unless, of course, there is a radical change in economic institutions and policies, which allow workers to have much more of a say in the technologies that are adopted and how wages and hours are set.

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There are two sides to the recent China Shock literature created by David Autor and David Dorn and surveyed by Noah Smith.

On one hand, Autor and Dorn (with a variety of coauthors) have challenged the free-trade nostrums of mainstream economists and economic elites—that everyone benefits from free international trade. Using China as an example, they show that increased trade hurt American workers, increased political polarization, and decreased U.S. corporate innovation.

The case for free international trade now lies in tatters, which of course played an important role in the Brexit vote as well as in the U.S. presidential campaign.

On the other hand, invoking the China Shock has tended to reinforce economic nationalism—treating China as an unitary entity, a country has shaken up world trade patterns, and disregarding the conditions and consequences of increased trade with other countries, including the United States.

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Why has there been an increasing U.S. trade deficit with China in recent decades? As James Chan explained, in response to an August 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal,

Our so-called China problem isn’t really with the Chinese but rather our own multinational companies.

As I see it, U.S. corporations have made a variety of decisions—to subcontract the production of parts and components with enterprises in China (which are then used in products that are later imported into the United States), to purchase goods produced in China to sell in the United States (which then show up in U.S. stores), to outsource their own production of goods (to sell in China and to export to the United States), and so on. The consequences of those corporate decisions (and not just with respect to China) include disrupting jobs and communities in the United States (through outsourcing and import competition) and decreasing innovation (since existing technologies can be used both to produce goods in China and sell in the expanding Chinese consumer market), thereby increasing political polarization in the United States.

The flip side of the story is the accumulation of capital in China. Until the development of the conditions for the development of capitalism existed in China, none of those corporate decisions were possible—not by U.S. corporations nor by multinational enterprises from other countries, all of whom were eager to take advantage of the growth of capitalism in China. Which of course they then contributed to, thus spurring the widening and deepening of capital accumulation within China.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s been an upsurge of strike activity by workers in the fast-growing centers of manufacturing and construction within China—especially in the provinces of Guandong, Shandong, Henan, Sichuan, and Hebei.

According to Hudson Lockett, China this year

saw a total of 1,456 strikes and protests as of end-June, up 19 per cent from the first half of 2015

The problem with the China Shock literature, which has served to challenge the celebration of free-trade by mainstream economists and economic elites in the West, is that it hides from view both the decisions by U.S. corporations that have increased the U.S. trade deficit with China (with the attendant negative consequences “at home”) and the activity by Chinese workers to contest the conditions under which they have been forced to have the freedom to labor (which we can expect to continue for years to come).

It’s our responsibility to keep those decisions and events in view. Otherwise, we risk the economic and political equivalent of the China Syndrome.

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Certainly not by mainstream economists—not if they continue to defend their turf and to attack the new literature on “Slavery’s Capitalism” with the vehemence they’ve recently displayed.

It makes me want to forget I ever obtained my Ph.D. in economics and the fact that I’ve spent much of my life working in and around the discipline.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja] highlights Edward E. Baptist’s novel book, The Half Has Never Been Told (which I wrote about back in 2014), and some of the outrageous ways it has been criticized by mainstream economists—first in a review in the Economist (which was so over-the-top it was subsequently retracted) and then in a group of reviews published in the Journal of Economic History (unfortunately, behind a paywall).

In my view, this is not a clash between two disciplines (as the Chronicle would have it), but rather a fundamental incompatibility between mainstream economic theory and a group of historians who have refused to adhere to the epistemological and methodological protocols established and defended—with a remarkable degree of ignorance and intolerance—by mainstream economists.

What is at stake is a particular view of slavery in relation to U.S. capitalism—as well as a way of producing economic history (of slavery, capitalism, and much else).

Baptist’s argument, in a nutshell, is that slavery was central to the development of U.S. capitalism (“not just shaping but dominating it”) and systematic torture (a “whipping machine”) was one of the principal means slaveowners used to increase the productivity of cotton-picking slaves and thus boost the surplus they were able to extract from them.

Mainstream economists hold a quite different view—that slavery was an outdated, inefficient system that had little to do with the growth of capitalism in North America, and increased productivity in cotton production was due to biological innovation (improved varieties of seeds that yielded more pickable cotton) not torture in the labor process.

They also use different frameworks of analysis: whereas Baptist relies on slave narratives and contingent historical explanations, mainstream economists fetishize quantitative methods and invoke universal (transcultural and transhistorical) modes of individual decision-making.

Those are the two major differences that separate Baptist (and other “Slavery’s Capitalism” historians) and mainstream economists.

This is how one mainstream economist, Alan L. Olmstead, begins his review:

Edward Baptist’s study of capitalism and slavery is flawed beyond repair.

Olmstead then proceeds to accuse Baptist of being careless with the numbers, of “making things up,” and “misunderstanding economic logic,” all of which leads to “a vast overstatement of cotton’s and slavery’s ‘role’ on the wider economy and on capitalist development.”

He concludes:

All and all, Baptist’s arguments on the sources of slave productivity growth and on the essentiality of slavery for the rise of capitalism have little historical foundation, raise bewildering and unanswered contradictions, selectively ignore conflicting evidence, and are error-ridden.

Baptist, for his part, has responded to Olmstead’s scathing attack (as well as critical reviews by others) in the following fashion:

Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.

That’s a problem for those of us who work in and around the discipline of economics: mainstream economists are simply unwilling to give up on homo economicus and doggedly refuse to examine either the economic effects of the brutal system of torture that was central to U.S. slavery or the role slave cotton played in the development of U.S. capitalism. Not to mention their arrogance in responding to the work of anyone who argues otherwise.

And that’s why the other half of the story will never be told by mainstream economists.

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Like the conceptual equivalent of Gresham’s Law, bad ideas about work keep driving out good ones.

The latest example is from Noah Smith, who, like other mainstream economists before him (e.g., Brad DeLong), asserts that “jobs give people dignity and a sense of self-worth.”

That’s bad enough. But even worse is that Smith thinks he’s criticizing and improving on mainstream economic theory, according to which “a job isn’t treated as something inherently valuable — it’s just a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee.” So, he recommends mainstream economists look to sociology to affirm the dignity of labor.

The problem is, sociology—especially the sociology of work—is not going to give Smith what he wants.

A job is, of course, more than “a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee.” That’s just the beginning of the process, the exchange of the ability to work for a wage or salary. That’s already an enormous indignity—to be forced to have the freedom to sell one’s ability to work to a tiny group of employers who have access to the wealth to hire them. And, once the exchange is completed, people have to actually do the job—producing goods or services for their employers, who are able to appropriate the surplus workers create. Thus, in the realm of production, after having sold their ability to perform labor, workers are forced to submit to the control of employers and their hired supervisors, who subject them to whatever conditions are necessary to generate a profit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be hired in the first place.

Whatever it takes: low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions, little time off, constant surveillance, no say in what is produced or how it’s produced. And the list goes on.

Where’s the dignity in that?

And all Smith would have to do is read a little of the sociology of work (e.g., in Philip Hodgkiss’s essay on “The Origins of the Idea and Ideal of Dignity in the Sociology of Work and Employment,” in The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Work and Employment)—starting with the “classics” (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) and continuing with the recent literature (including Harry Braverman,  Michael Burawoy, and Arlie Hoschschild).

That’s not to say there’s no place for dignity in and around work. When workers band together to form a union and collectively bargain with their employers, they manage to achieve a level of dignity. And when they eliminate discrimination or bargain to expand benefits. They achieve a different kind of dignity when they are able to participate in decision-making or establish their own firms—whether in the form of cooperatives or worker-owned enterprises.

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So, yes, workers can achieve dignity—not by having jobs (as Smith and other mainstream economists assert) but by struggling over the conditions of those jobs. When they assert and affirm their dignity as human beings, not because of but in spite of the fact that, within current economic institutions, they’re forced to have the freedom to work for someone else. And, even more, when they reject those institutions and become their own bosses.

As Sharon Bolton explains,

There is general consensus, though originating from many different perspectives, that dignity is an essential core human characteristic. It is overwhelmingly presented as meaning people are worth something as human beings, that it is something that should be respected and not taken advantage of and that the maintenance of human dignity is a core contributor to a stable moral order in society. However, when entering the realms of work and the complexities of exchanging labour for a wage the definitions become much less clear. In selling one’s labour does one also relinquish autonomy, freedom, equality and, often, well-being—the very ingredients of life that have been most commonly associated with human dignity.

So, yes, Smith and other mainstream economists might want to spend more time reading in and around the sociology or work. But, once they do, they’re probably not going to experience a great deal of self-worth in relation to their blithe assertions concerning the dignity of work under capitalism.