Category Archives: Economic History

The economic legacy of Obama

Here is a good overview of President Obama’s economic legacy from PBS’s Paul Solman. Did his efforts to turn the country around after the 2008 financial crisis constitute a robust recovery, or too little, too late? Economics correspondent Paul Solman assembled a panel of economic experts to discuss employment across racial groups, the types of jobs created and the obstacles the president faced in enacting his economic agenda. Some of the comments are as follows:

  • He saved us from a great depression.
  • Over 15 million jobs have been added; 22 million more people have health insurance coverage than they did before.
  • If we characterise an economy as being in a catastrophe at unemployment rates greater than 8 percent, the black unemployment rate is still above 8 percent. So, frankly, black Americans are still in a great depression, or great recession at the very least.
  • The failure by the Obama administration to focus on economic growth.
  • A long-term infrastructure program would have made a great deal of sense, and frankly still does today. But that’s not what the Obama administration proposed. I think we need to have a more holistic structural agenda for lower-income Americans, rather than just treating it as a problem of recession and recovery.
  • We needed bolder, stronger, more fundamental, not tinkering, ideas to really structurally change the U.S. economy.

Keynes v Hayek with Chinese characteristics.

You will no doubt have heard about the battle of ideas – Keynes v Hayek. In the 1930’s this was probably the most famous debate in the history of economics – the battle of ideas -government v markets.

Now there is Chinese version of the debate:

Justin Lin (Keynes) versus Zhang Weiying (Hayek) – both are Professors at Peking University. Lin is on the right of the image below.

lin-v-zhangTheir latest debate is about industrial policy and the concept that the government can set the example of how to run successful industries – in the 1980’s textiles and today renewable energy. Although China’s growth record would seem to justify this some have seen these state run industries produce little innovation. Lin believes that countries that have a comparative advantage should receive help from the government whether it be in the form of tax cuts or improved infrastructure. Furthermore, because resources are limited the government should help in identifying industries which have earning  potential. This assistance includes subsidies, tax breaks and financial incentives — aimed at supporting specific industries considered crucial for the nation’s economic growth.

Zhang sees this industrial policy as a failure in that he believes government officials don’t know enough about new technologies.  He uses the example in the 1990s, when the Chinese government spent significant money on the television industry only for the cathode ray tubes to become outdated. He is also concerned about industrial inertia with local officials following the central government’s direction which tends to lead to an overcapacity. Zhang, however, credited the free market — not politically motivated government subsidies — with game-changing innovations that benefit society eg. James Watt and the steam engine, George Stephenson’s intercity railway, and Jack Ma’s innovative online marketplaces under Alibaba.

China’s ongoing transition to a market-based economy has relied on labour, capital and resource-intensive industries. But the transition’s negative side effects have included structural imbalances and excess capacity in certain sectors. Moreover, some state-owned enterprises such as telecoms have been challenged by disruptive innovators, such as social networks.

Zhang said industrial policy can foster greed. For example, companies may collude with government officials to win special favours. And policymakers can make mistakes, given that even the most well-informed intellectual cannot always predict market trends. Other economists have contributed to the debate stating that a lot of the most successful companies have not had any government assistance in their early years.

However the debate is sure to continue – what works best ‘Markets or Governments’?

Sources:

The Economist – 5th November 2016

CaixinOnline 

Should we have a Universal Basic Income?

Post Cap MasonI posted on this issue last year when Kim Hill (Radio NZ) interviewed Paul Mason  – author of Post Capitalism (now out in paperback). Mason makes the point that we are going to live through a long transition from capitalism – the state and the market to post capitalism which is the state, the market and the shared collaborative economy. With technology taking a lot of the jobs in traditional industries in the UK he states that further development in this sector is not the way of creating new jobs. He talks about delinking work from wages by just paying people to actually exist – rather than tax to exist.
Liam Dann (NZ Herald) wrote a piece about Amin Toufani’s presentation at SingualrityU summit in Christchurch where he talked about people in the labour force having to learn, unlearn, and learn again – unlearning should be core competency. However as there maybe many people who will struggle with this concept Toufani believes that a universal basic income (UBI) may need to be adopted – see RSA video below.

Recent events – UBI

  • Switzerland held a referendum on a basic income in June this year but it was comprehensively turned down.
  • Finland is going to run a U.B.I. experiment in 2018
  • Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator firm, is sponsoring a similar test in Oakland USA.

Why has the UBI become such a popular talking point?

  • The automation of a lot of jobs has left people very concerned about redundancy.
  • The modern economy can’t be expected to provide jobs for everyone
  • The UBI is easy to administer and it avoids paternalism of social-welfare programmes that tell people what they can and can’t do with the money they receive from the government.

Concerns

  • Potentially drives up wages and employees will compare their wages with the UBI.
  • Easier for people to take risks with their job knowing there is the UBI to fall back on.
  • It takes away the incentive to work and lowers GDP
  • UBI – not cheap to administer and would likely cost 13% of GDP in the US

Positives

  • In the Canadian province of Manitoba where the UBI was trialled, working hours for men dropped by just 1%.
  • The UBI would make it easier for people to think twice about taking unrewarding jobs which is a good consequence.
  • In the developing world direct-cash grant programs are used very effectively – Columbian economist Chris Blattman.
  • In New Jersey young people with UBI were more likely to stay in education

If the U.B.I. comes to be seen as a kind of insurance against a radically changing job market, rather than simply as a handout, the politics around it will change. When this happens, it’s easy to imagine a basic income going overnight from completely improbable to totally necessary. 

James Surowiecki – New Yorker – 20th June 2016

 

Trump’s economic policies a vision of the past.

tooze-wages-of-dI came across this interview on PBS News (Making Sense of Financial News) in which Paul Solman interviews economic historian Adam Tooze about the historical context of Trump’s economic policies. Tooze wrote an excellent book about the economics of World War II Germany entitled “The Wages of Destruction” – well worth a read.

He refers to Trump’s policies as nationalism, with a commitment to the redevelopment of American manufacturing and industrial jobs. He cites the following historical events which Trump has seized ownership of.

  • 1933 and 1938 – the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the origins of the modern public sector – government-driven infrastructure spending.
  • 1950s, in which the Eisenhower administration brings about the modern interstate highway system.

He does have concerns about Trump’s aggressive trade policy of protecting United States manufacturing industries and sees a depreciating US dollar, higher US interest rates and a collapse in the market for US debt. However Trump’s rhetoric only applies to approximately 15% of the US labour force. Tooze believes that the appeal of Trump to the voters was that he offered hope for ordinary Americans to be able to earn a living based on the historical context of nationalism.

US needs a new direction

Jeffrey Sachs wrote a very good piece in the Boston Globe regarding the way forward for the US economy. Some interesting data:

  • 1.4% GDP between 2009-2015 when it was projected at 2.7%
  • 81% of Americans experienced flat or falling incomes between 2005-2014
  • 1980 – top 1% earn 10% of income
  • 2015 – top 1% earn 22% of income
  • 10% unemployment in October 2009 – dropped to 4.9% today. Mainly caused by those of working age leaving the labour force entirely.
  • Employment relative to working age (25-54) in 2000 was 81.5%. In 2015 it was 77.2%
  • US Treasury debt owed:
  • – 2007 = 35% of GDP
  • – 2015 = 75% of GDP
  • – 2026 = 86% of GDP – forecast
  • – 2036 = 110% of GDP – forecast

Issues with the US Economy

US manufacturing jobs have shifted overseas – remember NAFTA. Northern Mexico saw a huge influx of US companies as they took advantage of cheaper labour costs.

Automation – the advent of smart machines seems to be shifting income from workers to capital, driving down wages and leading to frustration of low wage workers.

As well as debt sustainability the US economy needs to shift its reliance on carbon-based energy to non carbon energy sources – hydro, wind, solar etc. Some have argued that the US has simply run out of big new inventions to sustain growth levels but ultimately the world has got to change its model as resources will eventually run out. We can’t keep relying on people buying more and more stuff to maintain growth or the Chinese building more cities and blowing up and rebuilding bridges.

Sustainable Development 

Jeffrey Sachs argues that sustainable development works best when it focuses simultaneously on 3 big issues:

  1. Promoting economic growth and decent jobs
  2. Promoting fairness to women, the poor, and minority groups
  3. Promoting environmental sustainability.

US growth has tended to focus on economic growth and neglect inequality and environmental issues. Future growth needs to focus less on current consumption but investment in future knowledge, education, skills, health, infrastructure and environmental protection. Furthermore if the investment is carried out efficiently the economy can growth in an environmentally safe as well as being fair. Good investment requires two things:

  1. Planning – need to overcome complex challenges for our future – e.g. energy
  2. Public investment  – replacement of a crumbling infrastructure – roads, bridges, water systems, seaports etc

Jeffrey Sachs recent research measured how 150 countries performed with regard to sustainable development and the progress that countries will need to make to achieve the recently adopted SDGs – see image below. The Scandinavian countries came in top – Sweden, Denmark, Norway – the US was 22nd out of the 34 high-income countries whilst Canada was 11th.

Click the link below for an article on income inequality from the Boston Globe by Jeffrey Sachs

Facing up to income inequality

Sustainable Development Goals_E_Final sizes

Ludicrous regulations of the US Airline Industry and Contestable Markets

We discussed Contestable Markets in my A2 class today and I used this clip from Commanding Heights to show how regulated the US airline industry was during the 1970’s. Regulations meant that major carriers like Pan Am never had to compete with newcomers. However an Englishman named Freddie Laker was determined to break this tradition and set-up Laker airways to compete on trans-atlantic flights. He offered flights at less than half the price of what Pan Am charged. Alfred Kahn was given the task by the then President Jimmy Carter to breakup the Civil Aeronautics Board (the regulatory body) and he wanted a leaner regulatory environment in which the market was free to dictate price. There is a piece in the clip that shows how ludicrous some of the regulations were:

When I got to the Civil Aeronauts Board, the biggest division under me was the division of enforcement – in effect, FBI agents who would go around and seek out secret discounts and then impose fines. We would discipline them. It was illegal to compete in price. That means it was illegal to compete in the discounts you offer travel agents. So we regulated travel agents’ discounts. Internationally, since they couldn’t cut rates, they competed by having more and more sumptuous meals. We actually regulated the size of sandwiches. Alfred Kahn

When the CAB was closed down competition was the rule and the industry had vastly underestimated the demand for air travel at lower prices – a very elastic demand curve – see graph below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the A2 course contestable markets is a popular essay question and is usually combined with another market structure.

What is a contestable market?

• One in which there is one firm (or a small number of firms)
• Because of freedom of entry and exit, the firm faces competition and might operate in a way similar to a perfectly competitive firm
• The threat of “hit and run entry” from new firms may be sufficient to keep the industry operating at a competitive price and output
• The key requirement for a contestable market is the absence of sunk costs – i.e. costs that cannot be recovered if a business decides to leave a market
• When sunk costs are high, a market is more likely to produce an price and output similar to monopoly (with the risk of allocative inefficiency and loss of economic welfare)
• A perfectly contestable market occurs only when entry and exit into and out of a market is perfectly costless
• Contestable markets are different from perfect competitive markets
• It is possible for one incumbent firm to dominate the industry
• Each existing firm in the market produces a differentiated product (i.e. goods and services are not perfect substitutes for each other)

There are 3 conditions for market contestability:

• Perfect information and the ability and or legal right to use the best available technology
• Freedom to market / advertise and enter a market
• The absence of sunk costs

Example
• Liberalisation of the US Airline Industry in the 1970’s and the European Airline Market in late 1990s
• Traditional “flag-flying” airlines faced new competition
• Barriers to entry in the industry were lowered (including greater use of leased aircraft)
• New Entrants – easyJet- Ryanair

Why everyone should know some basic economics.

Below is a great animation from RSA in which Ha-Joon Chang  (South Korean institutional economist specialising in development economics) explains why every single person should know some basic economics. He pulls back the curtain on the often mystifying language of derivatives and quantitative easing, and explains how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel. He mentions the nine schools of economic thought which are Austrian, Behaviourist, Classical, Developmentalist, Institutionalist, Keynesian, Marxist, Neoclassical and Schumpeterian. Furthermore, he makes the point that given the complexity of the world and the partial nature of all economic theories, you should be humble about the validity of our own favorite theory. Therefore keeping an open mind about its usefulness in society.

A lot of what he talks about is in his excellent book entitled “Economics: A User’s Guide”. 

Relevance of Economics Teaching at University

What is the use of EcoHere is a link to Peter Day’s Global Business programme from the BBC World Service – Economic Rebellion. In this episode he looks at the history of economics teaching and asks why some universities are changing their courses whilst others are staying put. Since the crash of 2008 students have been rebelling against the economics teaching. In an interview with John Kay, he quite rightly stresses the importance of teaching ‘Economic History’.

Arthur Marshall gave his advice to the economics profession.

* Are you covering different schools of economic thought in your teaching? Is your approach intellectually pluralistic enough?

* Are you teaching enough economic history, so that we can learn the lessons from the past?

* Do your students have enough time to absorb and reflect on the material they are learning? In fact, as the discipline expands, are your students taking enough economics?

* Are you encouraging your students to embrace and respect the perspectives that other disciplines bring to thinking about and solving economic problems? What, for example, have we learned about neuro, evolutionary and behavioural economics? And how can that learning be better incorporated into public policy-making?

* How can we better understand the trade-offs between policies that improve incomes and those that improve social inclusion or environmental sustainability or our resilience to economic shocks?

* And, perhaps most importantly, are you challenging yourselves, and your students, to think beyond the comfortable?

Having read ‘This Time is Different’ by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff you often wonder why economists and public officials didn’t pick the common patterns amongst so many previous financial crises

I can also recommend the book “What’s the use of Economics”, edited by Diane Coyle, which examines what economists need to bring to their jobs, and the way in which education in universities could be improved to fit graduates better for the real world.

History of the Renminbi

Below is a very good video from the FT which outlines the growth of the Chinese currency – the Renminbi (RMB). It includes some excellent graphics including the value of the currency against the US$ from 2005 – 2015 (see graphic below)

  • 1948 – RMB was put into circulation by the Communist party
  • 1997 – RMB was pegged to the US$
  • 2005 – Peg was removed
  • 2009 – China allowed approved companies to settle trade payments with non-Chinese customers using the RMB
  • 2015 – 20% of China foreign trade is settled in RMB compared to 3% in 2010
  • 2015 – RMB the 5th most traded currency although it is a long way behind US$ and €

The Chinese authorities want to have the RMB included in the basket of currencies that make up the IMF’s special drawing rights. This would mean an official endorsement of the RMB as a reserve currency. However one of the conditions of the IMF of being a reserve currency is that it must be freely tradable. Although the Chinese government is reducing its interventionist approach it is not yet ready to give market forces complete free rein over its exchange rate.

Renmimbi

Wealth Accumulation vs Imagination and Creativity

InnovationA recent piece by Edmund Phelps in the New York Review of Books argues that Western economies have generally failed at giving the labour force access to jobs that provide self-respect.

The classsical idea of political economy is to let wages rates fall to what the market determines and then provide everyone with a safety net of unemployment benefit, healthcare etc. Although this policy does assist those in need, it negates the desire for people to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and leisure time. A lot of people have a desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop new skills and self-esteem.

People need to ‘flourish’

He goes into the notion of “flourishing”( defined as “using one’s imagination, exercising one’s creativity, taking fascinating journeys into the unknown, and acting on the world”), and how current Western economies act to deter such human activity. Phelps refers to this as the good life which typically involves acquiring mastery in one’s work and using imagination, creativity and taking the journeys into the unknown. These benefits are in experience and not in material reward – he quotes Kabir Sehgal “Money is like blood. You need it to live but it isn’t the point of life.”

He argues that individuals prospered in the 19th Century when in Europe and America, economies emerged with the dynamism to generate their own innovation. Participants were constantly trying to think of new ways to produce things. What made innovating so powerful in these economies was that it was not limited to elites. It permeated society from the less advantaged parts of the population on up. People of ordinary background might be involved in innovations, large and small. George Stephenson was illiterate, John Deere a blacksmith, Isaac Singer a machinist, Thomas Edison of humble origins. People of ordinary ability could also have innovative ideas.

The Mechanical Model of Economics

Today most companies are highly efficient and labour that are reasonably well off, have gone on saving pushing up their wealth to very high levels. As a consequence the supply of labour contracts as does the labour force participation rate.  However many people although comparatively rich are poor in the conditions for the good life of flourishing and prospering. With the absence of innovation comes decreased investment and an underutilised labour force. This is especially prevalent in Europe where figures for levels of happiness are indicative of unemployment levels and job satisfaction – Spain (54), France (51), Italy (48), and Greece (37).

This is in contrast to nations which are labeled as ‘emerging’—Mexico (79), Venezuela (74), Brazil (73), Argentina (66), Vietnam (64), Colombia (64), China (59), Indonesia (58), Chile (58), and Malaysia (56).

The US has a similar syndrome with a productivity slowdown and the decline of job satisfaction but more significant is the loss of indigenous innovation in the established industries like traditional manufacturing and services that was not nearly offset by the innovation that flowered in a few new industries—digital, media, and financial. You may think that companies on Silicon Valley offer jobs that are very creative and forward thinking but companies like Google and Facebook account for only 3% of national income.

Causes of the narrowing of innovation?

Phelps looks at two possible causes of this narrowing of innovation.

  1. There has been a suppression of innovation by vested interests. Professions have had instituted regulation and licensing to curb experimentation and thus reducing innovation. He uses the example of the US car industry which was able to regain their positions in the market by government bailouts. This meant that companies like BMW and Toyota lose money in their attempts to be more innovative in order to acquire market share. Consequently companies would be skeptical of being innovative in the US car market. Furthermore stakeholders use lobbyists to regulate and implement patents which increases the barriers to entry for new entrants.
  2. Schools are doing less to expose the young to the great books of adventure and personal development. Parents teach their children from infancy to be careful and stay close to the family. There is discussion now of the overprotected child: the need for a return to “free range” children who are allowed to explore, to try things and take chances

The problem is that young people are not taught to see the economy as a place where participants may imagine new things, where entrepreneurs may want to build them and investors may venture to back some of them. It is essential to educate young people to this image of the economy.

Final thought

We will all have to turn from the classical fixation on wealth accumulation and efficiency to a modern economics that places imagination and creativity at the center of economic life.