Monday, April 21, 2014

"Disgorge the Cash" in The New Inquiry

The New Inquiry, an excellent new online magazine some readers may be familiar, has published an article I wrote based on the various disgorge the cash posts on this blog. Thanks to the superb editing of Mike Konczal and Rob Horning, the article develops the argument more cohesively than I've been able to on the blog. Go read it there, and then, if you like, comment here.

UPDATE: Matt Levine at Bloomberg calls me "the world's leading Marxist analyst of the capital structure of the modern corporation." That's very flattering, but not remotely the case. What little I've written about this is all based on things I've learned from Jim Crotty, Dumenil and Levy, and Doug Henwood. (Including the phrase "disgorge the cash," which I got from Doug.) Any of them might be contenders for that title (I won't pick one), but not me. I'm just developing their ideas. And of course the original source of all this stuff is Part 5 of Volume III of Capital, especially chapter 27.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Notes from Capital in the 21st Century Panel

by Suresh Naidu

While I have a long piece on Piketty's book coming out in Jacobin, I was lucky enough to be a discussant on a panel with Thomas last Thursday, where I got a chance to lay out some second-order reactions to the book as well as talk with him a bit. Here are my notes from that, tidied up a bit and including some things I didn’t get to say.

Perhaps a useful analogy is that this is the "Free to Choose" or “Capitalism and Freedom” for our time, from the left. I can’t think of a book that emerged from economics for a mass audience with as much reception since then. And what good news this is for economics! For 50 years Milton Friedman was the public face of partisan economics, and stamped it with a conservative public face that persisted. Maybe now Piketty’s book will give my discipline another public face.

But let me push back against the book a bit. I think there is a "domesticated" version of the argument that economists and people that love economists will take away. Then there is a less domesticated one, one that is more challenging to economics as it is currently done. I'm curious which one Thomas believes more. I worry that the impact of the book will be blunted because it becomes a “Bastard Piketty-ism” and allows macroeconomics to continue in its modelling conventions, which are particularly ill-suited to questions of inequality.

The domesticated version is a story about technology and the world market making capital and labor more and more substitutable over time, and this is why r does not fall very much as wealth accumulates. It is fundamentally a story about market forces, technology and trade making the demand for capital extremely elastic. We continue to understand r as the marginal contribution of capital to the production of the economy. I think this is story that is told to academic economists, and it is plausible, at least on the surface. 

There is another story about this, one that goes back to Keynes. And the idea here is that the rate of return on capital is set much more by institutions, norms and expectations than by supply and demand of the capital market. Keynes writes that "But the most stable, and the least easily shifted, element in our contemporary economy has been hitherto, and may prove to be in future, the minimum rate of interest acceptable to the generality of wealth-owners." Keynes footnotes it with the 19th century saying that “John Bull can stand many things, but he cannot stand 2 percent.”

The book doesn't quite take a stand on whether it is brute market forces and a production function with a high elasticity of substitution or instead relatively rigid organization of firms and financial institutions that lies behind the stability of r.  

I think the production approach is less plausible, partly because housing plays such a large role in the data, partly because average wages would have increased along with K/Y, partly because the required elasticity of substitution is too big for net quantities, and partly because of the differences between book and market capital. The (really great) sections from the book on corporate governance actually suggest something quite different, that there is a gap between cash-flow rights and control rights, and this is why Germany has lower market relative to book values. This political dimension of capital, the difference between the valuation written down in the balance sheet and the real power to dispose of the asset, is something that the institutional view of capital can capture better than the marginal product view. This is, I think, also a fruitful interpretation of what was at stake behind the old capital controversies.

The policy stakes from this are also potentially large, because if it is just a very high substitutability, a variety of labor market reforms are taken off the table, as firms just replace workers with machines if you try to raise the wage.

Second, what is gained by producing long-run data? Why do economic historians do what we do? And why is it important that the series go before 1960? Part of the answer is that we discipline the modelling with useful analogies to a past. History gives us a library of options for understanding the present.  So if the wealth or income share looks like 1890 or 1913, maybe our social structure is also starting to look like 1890 or 1913. And the book uses literature to make some of those analogies vivid.  For example maybe our marriage patterns will start to look like those in the literature of the period.

But let us look at other dimensions of that time. The Gilded Age U.S. North was riven with labor conflict and the South was an apartheid state. U.S. military forces were deployed on U.S. territory more times in the late 19th century than any other period, solely for breaking up strikes and repressing labor conflict.And this points us towards one of the costs of inequality, which is a large amount of social conflict. But note that this doesn’t have to be actually observed to be costly. You could have a peaceful high inequality society by spending a lot on security guards and gated enclaves (or hired economists to tell people it is all efficient and for the best), but that is still costly, in that social resources are getting unnecessarily spent to repress, persuade, and manage social conflict. We see the same thing in unequal societies like India, South Africa or the gulf countries.

There is a place where the analogy breaks down, however. We live in a world where much more of everyday life occurs on markets, large swaths of extended family and government services have disintegrated, and we are procuring much more of everything on markets. And this is particularly bad in the US. From health care to schooling to philanthropy to politicians, we have put up everything for sale. Inequality in this world is potentially much more menacing than inequality in a less commodified world, simply because money buys so much more. This nasty complementarity of market society and income inequality maybe means that the social power of rich people is higher today than in the 1920s, and one response to increasing inequality of market income is to take more things off the market and allocate them by other means.

Finally, let me suggest that if we're aiming for politically hopeless ideas, open migration is as least as good as the global wealth tax in the short run, and perhaps complementary. One weakness of the book is its focus on the large core economies (the data obviously is better and the wealth is obviously larger). But liberalizing immigration, while not solving the ultimate problem the book diagnoses, can go some of the way by raising growth of both income and population. With political rights and liberties, it is also one thing that could set off a new set of progressive political energies. These restless and young populations of the developing world might catalyze a new set of political energies, just as socialist movements of the Gilded Age were powered by immigrant workers.

Another constituency for the global wealth tax could also be from this same group, demanding reparations for past slavery and colonialism. If those primordial injustices created the initial conditions for the accumulation of wealth in the core, perhaps those legacies can build energy for rectifying them in the future.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Harrodian Perspective on Secular Stagnation

I’ve mentioned before, I think a useful frame to think about the secular stagnation debate through is what’s become known as Harrod’s growth model. [1] My presentation here is a bit different from his.

Start with the familiar equation:

S - I + T - G = X - M

Private savings minus private investment, plus taxes minus government spending, equal exports minus imports. [2] If the variables refer to the actual, realized values, then this is an accounting identity, always true by definition. Anything that is produced must be purchased by someone, for purposes of consumption, investment, export or provision of public services. (Unsold goods in a warehouse are a form of investment.) If the variables refer to expected or intended values, which is how Harrod used them, then it is not an identity but an equilibrium condition. It describes the condition under which businesses will be “satisfied that they have produced neither more nor less than the right amount.”

The next step is to rearrange the equation as S - (G - T) - (X - M) = I. We will combine the government and external balances into A = (G - T) + (X - M). Now divide through by Y, writing  s = S/Y and a = A/Y. This gives us:

s - a = I/Y

Private savings net of government and foreign borrowing, must equal private investment. Next, we decompose investment. Logically, investment must either provide the new capital goods required for a higher level of output, or replace worn-out or obsolete capital goods, or be a shift toward a more capital-intensive production technique. [3] So we write:

s - a = gk + dk + delta-k

where g is the growth rate of the economy, k is the current capital-output ratio, d is the depreciation rate (incorporating obsolescence as well as physical wearing-out) and delta-k is the change in the capital-output ratio.

What happens if this doesn’t hold? Realized net savings and investment are always equal. So if desired savings and desired investment are different, that means that somebody’s expectations were not fulfilled. For a situation to arise in which desired net savings are greater than desired investment, either people must have saved less than they wish they had in retrospect, or businesses must have investment more than they wish they had in retrospect. Either way, expenditure in the next period will fall.

What prevents output from falling to zero, in this case? Remember, some consumption is linked to current income, but some is not. This means that when income falls, consumption falls less than proportionately. Which is equivalent to saying that when income falls, there is also a fall in the fraction of income that is saved. In other words, if the marginal propensity to save out of income is less than one, then s — which, remember, is average saving rate — must be a positive function of the current level of output. So the fall in output resulting from a situation in which s > I/Y will eventually cause s to fall sufficiently to bring desired saving into equality with desired investment. The more sensitive is consumption to current income, the larger the fall in income required; if investment is also sensitive to current income, then a still larger fall in income will be required. (If investment is more sensitive than saving to current income, this adjustment process will not work and the decline in output will continue until investment reaches zero.) This is simply the logic of the Keynesian multiplier.

In addition to current income, saving is also a function of the profit rate. Saving is higher out of profits than out of wages, partly because profit recipients are typically richer than wage-earners, but also because are large fraction of profits remain within the business sector and are not available for consumption. [4] Finally, saving is usually assumed to be a function of the interest rate. The desired capital output ratio may also be a function of the interest rate. All the variables are of course also subject to longer term social, technological and economic influences.

So we write

s(u, i, p) - a = gk + dk + delta-k(i, p)

where u is the utilization rate (i.e. current output relative to some measure of trend or potential), i is some appropriate interest rate, and p is the profit share. s is a positive function of utilization, interest rates and the profit share, and delta-k is a negative function of the interest rate and a positive function of the profit rate. Since the profit share and interest rate are normally positive functions of the current level of output, their effects on savings are stabilizing — they reduce the degree to which output must adjust to maintain equality of desired net savings equal and investment. The effect of interest rates on investment is also stabilizing, while the effect of the profit share on investment (as well as any direct effect of utilization on investment, which we are not considering here) are destabilizing.

How does this help make sense of secular stagnation?

In modern consensus macroeconomics, it is implicitly assumed that savings and/or investment are sufficiently sensitive to interest rates that equilibrium can be normally be maintained entirely by changes in interest rates, with only short-term adjustments of output while interest rates move to the correct level. The secular stagnation idea — in both its current and original 1940s edition, as well as the precursor ideas about underconsumption going back to at least J. A. Hobson — is that at some point interest rate adjustment may no longer be able to play this role. In that case, desired investment will not equal desired saving at full employment, so there will be a persistent output gap.

There are a number of reasons that s - a might rise over time. As countries grow richer, the propensity to consume may fall simply because people’s people’s desires for goods and services are finite. This was what Keynes and Alvin Hansen (who coined the term "secular stagnation") believed. Desired saving may also rise as a result of an upward redistribution of income, or a shift from wage income to profit income, or an increase in the share of profits retained by firms. [5] Unlike the progressive satiation of consumption demand, these three factors could in principle just as easily evolve in the other direction. Finally, government deficits or net exports might decline — but again, they might also increase.

On the right side of the equation, growth may fall for exogenous reasons, slowing population growth being the most obvious. This factor has been emphasized in recent discussions. Depreciation is hardly mentioned in today’s secular stagnation debate, but it is prominent in the parallel discussion of underconsumption in the Marxist tradition. The important point here is to remember that depreciation refers not only to the physical wearing-out or using-up of capital goods, but also to capital goods displaced by competition or obsolescence. In competitive capitalism, businesses invest not only to increase aggregate capacity, but to win market share from each other. Much of depreciation represents capital that goes out of use not because it has ceased to be physically productive, but because it is attached to businesses that have lost out in the competitive struggle. Under conditions of monopoly, the struggle over market share is suppressed, so effective depreciation rates, and hence desired investment, will be lower. Physical depreciation does also exist, and will change as the production technology changes. If there is a secular tendency toward longer-lived means of production, that will pull down desired investment. As for delta-k, it is clearly the case that the process of industrialization involves a large upward shift in the capital-output ratio. But it’s hard to imagine it continuing to rise indefinitely; there are reasons (like the shift toward services) to think it might reach a peak and then decline.

So for secular, long-term trends tending to raise desired saving relative to desired investment we have: (1) the progressive satiation of consumption demand; (2) slowing population growth; (3) increasing monopoly power; and (4) the end of the industrialization process. Factors that might either raise or lower desired savings relative to investment are: (5) changes in the profit share; (6) changes in the fraction of profits retained in the business sector; (7) changes in the distribution of income; (8) changes in net exports; (9) changes in government deficits; and (10) changes in the physical longevity of capital goods. Finally, there are factors that will tend to raise desired investment relative to desired saving. The include: (11) consumption as status competition (this may offset or even reverse the effect of greater inequality on consumption); (12) social protections (public pensions, etc.) that reduce the need for precautionary and lifecycle saving; (13) easier access to credit, for consumption and/or investment; and (14) major technological changes that render existing capital goods obsolete, increasing the effective depreciation rate. These final four factors will offset any tendency toward secular stagnation.

It’s a long list, but I think it’s close comprehensive. Different versions of the stagnation story emphasize various of these factors, and their relative importance has varied in different times and places. I don’t think there is any a priori basis for saying that any of them are more or less important in general.

One problem with this conversation, from my point of view, is that people have a tendency to pick out a couple items from this list as the story, without considering the whole question systematically. For instance, there’s a very popular story in left Keynesian circles that makes it all about (7), offset for a while by (13) and perhaps (11). I don’t doubt that greater income inequality has increased desired private saving. It may be that this is the main factor at work here. But people should not be confidently asserting it is before clearly posing the question and analyzing the full range of possible answers.

In a future post we will think about how to assess the relative importance of these factors empirically.

[1] While the model itself is simple, the interpretation of it — the question it’s intended to answer — is quite controversial. Harrod himself intended it as a model of economic dynamics — that is, describing the system’s transition from one state to another in historical time. As it entered mainstream economics (via the criticism of Samuelson) and also much of structuralist work, it instead became treated as a model of economic growth — that is, of a long-run equilibrium one of whose variables happens to be the growth rate rather than the level of growth. It seems to me that while Harrod clearly was interested in dynamics, not growth in the current sense, the classic article is in fact ambivalent. In particular, Harrod is simply inconsistent in his definition of g: sometimes it is the change in output from one period to the next, while at other times it is the normal or usual change in output expected by business. Furthermore, as Joan Robinson pointed out, his famous knife-edge results depend on using the average savings rate as a parameter, which only makes sense if we are describing a long-run equilibrium. In the short period, it’s the marginal savings rate that is stable, while the average savings rate varies with output. So while it is true that Harrod thought he was writing about economic dynamics, the model he actually wrote is inconsistent. One way to resolve this inconsistency is to treat it as a model of equilibrium long-run growth, as Samuelson did; the other way, which I take here, is to treat it as a Keynesian short-run model in which the current, usual or expected growth rate appears as a parameter.  

[2] Strictly speaking it should be the current account balance rather than the trade balance but there's no harm in ignoring cross-border income flows here.

[3] I am writing here in terms of a quantifiable capital stock, which I have deep misgivings about. But it makes the exposition much simpler. 

[4] This is true even in the "disgorge the cash" era, because much of the higher payouts from corporations go to financial institutions rather to households, and thus stay in the business sector.

[5] On the other hand, in a world where investment is constrained by funding, a higher share of profits retained will raise investment as well as savings, leaving its overall effect ambiguous.

EDIT: I think I've been misled by reading too much of the Keynesian classics from the 1930s and 40s. The dynamic I describe in this post is correct for that period, but not quite right for the US economy today. Since 1980, the average private savings rate has moved countercyclically, rather than procyclically as it did formerly and as I suggest here. So the mechanism that prevents booms and downturns from continuing indefinitely is no longer -- as Keynes said, and I unthinkingly repeated -- the behavior of private savings, but rather of the government and external balances. I can't remember seeing anything written about this fundamental change in business cycle dynamics, which is a bit surprising, but it's unambiguous in the data.

Fortunately we are interested here in longer term changes rather than cyclical dynamics, so the main argument of this post and the sequel shouldn't be too badly undermined.

EDIT 2: Of course this change has been written about, what was I thinking. For example, Andrew Glyn, Capitalism Unleashed:
From Marx to Keynes at least, consumption was viewed as an essentially passive component of the growth process. Capital accumulation, investment spending on machinery and buildings, was the essential driving force on the demand as well as on the supply side. It was the capitalists’ access to finance which allowed capital spending to exceed the previous period’s savings and fuelled the expansion of demand; future profits ensured that such borrowing was repaid with a real return. Deficit spending by the government could, in wartime for example, impart a similar impulse to demand, at least till capital markets took fright at the growing debt interest burden and worries about inflation. However household consumption, some two-thirds of aggregate demand, was seen as playing the role of sustaining the current output level rather than driving it up. Savings ratios often fell during recessions, as consumers attempted to maintain spending in the face of falling incomes. Indeed, Milton Friedman criticized the Keynesians for exaggerating the dependence of consumption on current income and ignoring the extent to which savings could be used to ‘smooth’ out the path of consumption. More recently, rather than acting as a stabilizing influence, sharp falls in the savings ratio have occurred during expansions. By boosting consumption proportionately more than the rise in incomes this has intensified upswings, with the danger of sharp falls in demand if savings rebound sharply when the expansion slackens and pessimism builds up.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Quick Note on Money

Nick Rowe and David Glasner are having an interesting debate on whether it is possible to speak of excess demand (or excess supply) for money in a world where most money consists of commercial bank deposits.

Nick, naturally, argues for the affirmative. Glasner argues for the negative, drawing on Tobin's 1967 restatement of the 19th century "law of reflux."

This is a tricky question to take sides on. The problem, from my point of view, is that to get from the classical "real exchange" economy , to our actual "monetary production" economy (both phrases are Keynes's), takes not one but two steps. First, you have to see how real activity depends on liquidity conditions. And second, you have to see how liquidity conditions depend on the whole network of actual and potential balance sheet positions — liquidity as a social relation, as Mike Beggs says. A focus on the special role of money is helpful in the first step but an obstacle to the second.

I think Keynes himself contributed to the problem with his discussion money in the General Theory. He was working so hard to get people to take the first step that he pushed the second one out of view. The GT is full of language like:
Unemployment develops, that is to say, because people want the moon; -- men cannot be employed when the object of desire (i.e. money) is something which cannot be produced and the demand for which cannot be readily choked off. There is no remedy but to persuade the public that green cheese is practically the same thing and to have a green cheese factory (i.e. a central bank) under public control.
This is a story about exogenous money; this kind of language smoothed the the way for what Perry Mehrling calls “Monetary Walrasianism,” as you get from someone like Nick Rowe. Jorg Bibow's definitive account of Keynesian liquidity preference theory (summarized here) makes it clear that Keynes did this for clear strategic reasons, and the Treatise on Money is better in this respect. But it’s still a problem.

So for me the Tobin article (and Glasner’s summary) has an ambivalent character. They are right to criticize the idea of an exogenous stock of money, and the related idea that transaction demand for money is central to aggregate demand; but I worry that their arguments tend to tip backward toward the classical dichotomy rather than point forward toward a fuller account of liquidity.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Substitutes or Complements: Marx and Brad and Me

by Suresh Naidu

Since Brad Delong has attributed some thoughts on Marx to me, and I have gotten some emails inquiring whether or not I did say them, I thought it would be useful to publically air what I understand to be the context. Brad has been a mentor and advisor for 10 years now, and is one of the very few economists broad and open enough to know anything about what Marx wrote. I have met very few other people in mainstream economics departments who cared enough to read Marx, let alone enough to assign the Communist Manifesto and Wage Labor and Capital in a mandatory first-year economics Ph.D. course (even I don’t do that).

The context of the long-running conversation has been trying to establish a dialogue between Marx and modern growth theory. Inside the modern production function there is a pretty undifferentiated view of “K” (which leads it into some troubles as bad as any in the labor theory of value). Marx on the other hand distinguishes (at least) machines, technology, and money-qua-productive-input as different from each other conceptually. The fact that these are rolled into an aggregate production function by mainstream growth theory is not Marx’s fault. And so when somebody is trying to translate Marx into modern economics, the slippage between what is “K” and “what Marx meant” can get confusing. I am still thinking about these issues, and won’t pretend to have figured it all out, but let me lay out some preliminary thoughts.

Brad in one sense is correct. I believed and still believe that Marx’s view of capitalist technological change is labor-saving. There is no way to read the chapters on machines and modern manufacturing without thinking that Marx was pretty convinced that technologically advanced machinery would displace labor and lower wages. 
But we have already seen that, with every advance in the use of machinery, the constant component of capital, that part which consists of machinery, raw material, etc., increases, while the variable component, the part laid out in labour-power, decreases.
But on the flip side, the increased use of machines can increase the demand for labor. More factories means more labor demand, even if those factories are 90% robot. So the relationship of capital and labor is both of these things: the net substitutability of labor by capital, holding output constant, and the gross complementarity of capital and labor while output changes.
We also know that in no, other system of production is improvement so continuous, and the composition of the capital employed so constantly changing as in the factory system. These changes are, however, continually interrupted by periods of rest, during which there is a mere quantitative extension of the factories on the existing technical basis. During such periods the operatives increase in number.
In terms of wages, Marx I think can be read as saying that that medium-run wages are pinned down by institutions and norms and the reserve army of labor. Long-run wages could be determined by political conflict and changing economic institutions, and short-run wages could be determined by the business cycle and labor-saving technological change. This is a pretty rich theory of wage-setting, and I think focusing on the technological change dimension of it is missing a lot of the full Marx story.

When "capital" is understood as money and financial services enlisted in circuits of production (the M-C-M' increments) or the quantity of investment, I think you can find passages where Marx thinks of them as complements to labor (i.e. they increase labor demand, even if marginal products don’t exist and wages are institutionally set). For example, here is a passage where (a young) Marx talks about capital and labor as complements, and perhaps even thinks of wages at marginal products.
To say that "the worker has an interest in the rapid growth of capital", means only this: that the more speedily the worker augments the wealth of the capitalist, the larger will be the crumbs which fall to him, the greater will be the number of workers than can be called into existence, the more can the mass of slaves dependent upon capital be increased.
In fact, rhetoric aside, this passage is completely consistent with, say, vintage optimal tax theory, which says that the best way to increase workers' crumbs wages in the long run is to not tax capital ever. And I think it is illuminating about the manifold criticisms Marx makes of capitalism. Perhaps Marx thought that even if workers’ standard of living increased under capitalism, it would not undo the exploitative/unfree/ undemocratic institutions inherent in the labor market. Maybe some of those criticisms are empirically wrong or don't resonate with contemporary ethical intuitions. In any case, it is not just any particular analysis of inequality and business cycles, but instead the unrelentingly political and conflict-ridden view of the economy that is what is precious to me in Marx. 

But all this said, I think Brad wrote a good column, even if the question of “Was Marx Right?” is fundamentally silly. The larger point is that Marx’s fertile mind generated many ideas, distributed over a lifetime of thinking and writing exactly as capitalism was transforming itself and the world. The theological endeavor to discern and police "what Marx really meant" is the worst kind of intellectual program. Marx, like Smith and Ricardo and Keynes, is a place to draw on for inspiration and hypotheses, not the last word on anything. So, at the end of the day, I don’t really care if “Marx was right”, and I certainly don’t begrudge others the right to find support for a variety of arguments on the invaluable The howls of outrage from the online guardians of the one true Marx in response to the NYT panel were more irksome than anything written by the panelists. Marxist economics is much larger than Marx, and textual exegesis of the original manuscripts, as opposed to reinventing and redeploying the concepts in new historical and intellectual environments, does it a great disservice. Brad is right to look to Capital  for inspiration to understand our possible robot future, even if Marxists don’t like it. To paraphrase Joan Robinson, the critics have Marx on their screens, not in their bones.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Wealth Distribution and the Puzzle of Germany

There’s been some discussion recently of the new estimates from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the distribution of household wealth in the US. Using the capital income reported in the tax data, and applying appropriate rates of return to different kinds of assets, they are able to estimate the distribution of household wealth holdings going back to the beginning of the income tax in 1913. They find that wealth inequality is back to the levels of the 1920s, with 40% of net worth accounted for the richest one percent of households. The bottom 50% of households have a net worth of zero.

There’s a natural reaction to see this as posing the same kind of problem as the distribution of income — only more extreme — and respond with proposals to redistribute wealth. This case is argued by the very smart Steve Roth in comments here and on his own blog. But I’m not convinced. It’s worth recalling that proposals for broadening the ranks of property-owners are more likely to come from the right. What else was Bush’s “ownership society”? Social Security privatization, if he’d been able to pull it off, would have  dramatically broadened the distribution of wealth. In general, I think the distribution of wealth has a more ambiguous relationship than the distribution of income to broader social inequality.

Case in point: Last summer, the ECB released a survey of European household wealth. And unexpectedly, the Germans turned out to be among the poorest people in Europe. The median German household reported net worth of just €50,000, compared with €100,000 in Greece, €110,000 in France, and €180,000 in Spain. The pattern is essentially the same if you look at assets rather than net worth — median household assets are lower in Germany than almost anywhere else in Europe, including the crisis countries of the Mediterranean.

At the time, this finding was mostly received in terms the familiar North-South morality tale, as one more argument for forcing austerity on the shiftless South. Not only are the thrifty Germans being asked to bail out the wastrel Mediterraneans, now it turns out the Southerners are actually richer? Why can't they take responsibility for their own debts? No more bailouts!

No surprise there. But how do we make sense of the results themselves, given what we know about the economies of Germany and the rest of Europe? I think that understood correctly, they speak directly to the political implications of wealth distribution.

First, though: Did the survey really find what it claimed to find? The answer seems to be more or less yes, but with caveats.

Paul de Grauwe points out some distortions in the headline numbers reported by the ECB. First, this is a survey of household wealth, but, de Grauwe says, households are larger in the South than in the North. This is true, but it turns out not to make much of a difference -- converting from household wealth to wealth per capita leaves the basic pattern unchanged.

Per capita wealth in selected European countries. From de Grauwe.

Second, the survey focuses on median wealth, which ignores distribution. If we look at the mean household instead of the median one, we find Germany closer to the middle of the pack -- ahead of Greece, though still behind France, Italy and Spain. The difference between the two measures results from the highly unequal distribution of wealth in Germany -- the most unequal in Europe, according to the ECB survey. For the poorest quintile, median net worth is ten times higher in Greece and in Italy than in Germany, and 30 times higher in Spain.

This helps answer the question of apparent low German wealth — part of the reason the median German household is wealth-poor is because household wealth is concentrated at the top. But that just raises a new puzzle. Income distribution Germany is among the most equal in Europe. Why is the distribution of wealth so much more unequal? The puzzle deepens when we see that the other European countries with high levels of wealth inequality are France, Austria, and Finland, all of which also have relatively equal income distribution.

Another distortion pointed to by De Grauwe is that the housing bubble in southern Europe had not fully deflated in 2009, when the survey was taken — home prices were still significantly higher than a decade earlier. Since Germany never had a housing boom, this tends to depress measured wealth there. This explains some of the discrepancy, but not all of it. Using current home prices, the median Spanish household has more than triple the net wealth of the median German household; with 2002 home prices, only double. But this only moves Germany up from the lowest median household wealth in Europe, to the second lowest.

The puzzle posed by the wealth survey seems to be genuine. Even correcting for home prices and household size, the median Spanish or Italian household reports substantially more net wealth than the median German one, and the median Greek household about an equal amount. Yet Germany is, by most measures, a much richer country, with median household income of €33,000, compared with €22,000, €25,000 and €26,000 in Greece, Spain and Italy respectively. Use mean wealth instead of median, and German wealth is well above Greek and about equal to Spanish, but still below Italian — even though, again, average household income is much higher in Germany than in Italy. And the discrepancy between the median and mean raises the puzzle of why German wealth distribution is so much more uneven than German income distribution.

De Grauwe suggests one more correction: look at the total stock of fixed capital in each country, rather than household wealth. Measuring capital consistently across countries is notoriously dicey, but on his estimate, Germany and the Netherlands have as much as three times the capital per head as the southern countries. So Germany is richer in real terms than the South, as we all know; the difference is just that "a large part of German wealth is not held by households and therefore must be held by the corporate sector." Problem solved!

Except... you know, Mitt Romney was right: corporations are people, in the sense that they are owned by people. The wealth of German corporations should also show up as the wealth of the owners of German stocks, bonds, or other claims on those corporations -- which means, overwhelmingly, German households. Indeed, in mainstream economic theory, the "wealth" of the corporate sector just is the wealth of the households that own it. According to de Grauwe, the per capita value of the capital stock is more than twice as large in Germany as in Spain. Yet the average financial wealth held by a German household is only 25% higher than in Spain. So as in the case of distribution, this solution to the net-wealth puzzle just creates a new puzzle: Why is a dollar of capital in a German firm worth so much less to its ultimate owners than a dollar of capital in a Spanish or Italian firm?

And this, I think, points us toward the answer, or at least toward the right question.

The question is, what is the relationship between the level of market production in an economy, and the claims on future production represented by wealth? It’s a truism — tho often forgotten — that the market production counted in GDP is only a part of all the productive activity that takes place in society. In the same way, not all market production is capitalized into assets. Wealth in an economic sense represents only those claims on future income that are exercised by virtue of a legal title that is freely transferable, and hence has a market value.

For example, imagine two otherwise similar countries, one of which makes provision for retirement income through a pay-as-you-go public pension system, and the other of which uses some form of funded pension. The two countries may have identical levels of output and income, and retirees may receive exactly the same payments in both. But because the assets held by the pension funds show up on balance sheets while the right to future public pension payments does not, the first country will have less wealth than the second one. Again, this does not imply any difference in production, or income, or who ultimately bears the cost of supporting retirees; it is simply a question of how much of those future payments are capitalized into assets.

This is just an analogy; I don't think retirement savings are the main story here. The big story is home ownership. Only 44 percent of German households own their own homes, compared with 70-80 percent in Greece, Italy and Spain. Among both homeowners and non-homeowners considered separately, median household wealth is comparable in Germany and in the southern countries. It’s only the much higher proportion of home ownership that produces higher median wealth in the South. And this is especially true at the bottom end of the distribution — almost all the bottom quintile (by income) of German households are renters, whereas in Greece, Spain and Italy there is a large fraction of homeowners even at the lowest incomes. Furthermore, German renters have far more protections than elsewhere. As I understand it, German renters are sufficiently protected against both rent increases and loss of their lease that their occupancy of their home is not much less secure than that of home owners. These protections are, in a sense, a form of property right — they are a claim on the future flow of housing services in the same way that a title to a house would be. But with a critical difference: the protections from rent regulation can’t be sold, don’t show up on the household’s balance sheet, and do not get counted as wealth.

In short: The main reason that German household wealth is lower than than elsewhere is that less claims on the future output of the housing sector take the form of assets. Housing is just as commodified in Germany as elsewhere (I don’t think public housing is unusually important there). But it is less capitalized.

Home ownership is the biggest and clearest part of the story here, but it’s not the whole story. Correct for home ownership rates, use mean rather than median, and you find that German household wealth is comparable to household wealth in Italy or Spain. But given that GDP per capita is much higher in Germany, and the capital stock seems to be so much larger, why isn't household wealth higher in Germany too?

One possible answer is that income produced in the corporate sector is also less capitalized in Germany.

In a recent paper with Zucman, Thomas Piketty suggests that the relationship between equity values and the real value of corporate assets depends on who exercises power over the corporation. Piketty and Zucman:
Investors who wish to take control of a corporation typically have to pay a large premium to obtain majority ownership. This mechanism might explain why Tobin’s Q tends to be structurally below 1. It can also provide an explanation for some of the cross-country variation… : the higher Tobin’s Q in Anglo-Saxon countries might be related to the fact that shareholders have more control over corporations than in Germany, France, and Japan. This would be consistent with the results of Gompers, Ishii and Metrick (2003), who find that firms with stronger shareholders rights have higher Tobin’s Q. Relatedly, the control rights valuation story may explain part of the rising trend in Tobin’s Q in rich countries. … the ”control right” or ”stakeholder” view of the firm can in principle explain why the market value of corporations is particularly low in Germany (where worker representatives have voting rights in corporate boards without any equity stake in the company). According to this ”stakeholder” view of the firm, the market value of corporations can be interpreted as the value for the owner, while the book value can be interpreted as the value for all stakeholders.
In other words, one reason household wealth is low in Germany is because German households exercise their claims on the business sector not via financial assets, but as workers.

(The corporate sector is also relatively larger in Germany than in the southern countries, where small business remains widespread. 14 percent of Spanish households and 18 percent of Italian households report ownership of a business, compared with only 9 percent of German households. Again, this is a way in which lower wealth reflects a shift in claims on the social product from property ownership to labor.)

It’s not a coincidence that Europe’s dominant economy has the least market wealth. The truth is, success in the world market has depended for a long time now on limiting dependence on asset markets, just as the most successful competitors within national economies are the giant corporations that suppress the market mechanism internally. Germany, as with late industrializers like Japan, Korea, and now China, has succeeded largely by ensuring that investment is not guided by market signals, but through active planning by banks and/or the state. There’s nothing new in the fact that greater real wealth in the sense of productive capacity goes hand hand with less wealth in the sense of claims on the social product capitalized into assets. Only in the poorest and most backward countries does a significant fraction of the claims of working people on the product take the form of asset ownership.

The world of small farmers and self-employed artisans isn’t one we can, or should, return to. Perhaps the world of homeowners managing their own retirement savings isn’t one we can, or should, preserve.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Liquidity Preference and Solidity Preference in the 19th Century

So I've been reading Homer and Sylla's History of Interest Rates. One of the many fascinating things I've learned, is that in the market for federal debt, what we today call an inverted yield curve was at one time the norm.

From the book:
Three small loans floated in 1820–1821, principally to permit the continued redemption of high rate war loans, provide an interesting clue to investor preference... These were: 
$4.7 million “5s of 1820,” redeemable in 1832; sold at 100 = 5%.
“6s of 1820,” redeemable at pleasure of United States; sold at 102 = 5.88%.
“5s of 1821,” redeemable in 1835; sold at 1051⁄8 =4.50%, and at 108 = 4.25%. 
The yield was highest for the issue with early redemption risk and much lower for those with later redemption risks.
Nineteenth century government bonds were a bit different from modern bonds, in that the principal was repaid at the option of the borrower; repayment is usually not permitted until a certain date. [1] They were also sold with a fixed yield in terms of face value -- that's what the "5" and "6" refer to -- but the actual yield depended on the discount or premium they were sold at. The important thing for our purposes is that the further away the earliest possible date of repayment is, the lower the interest rate -- the opposite of the modern term premium. That's what the passage above is saying.

The pattern isn't limited to the 1820-21 bonds, either; it seems to exist through most of the 19th century, at least for the US. It's the same with the massive borrowing during the Civil War:
In 1864, although the war was approaching its end, it had only been half financed. The Treasury was able to sell a large volume of bonds, but not at such favorable terms as the market price of its seasoned issues might suggest. Early in the year another $100 million of the 5–20s [bonds with a minimum maturity of 5 years and a maximum of 20] were sold and then a new longer issue was sold as follows: 
1864—$75 million “6s”  redeemable in 1881, tax-exempt; sold at 104.45 = 5.60%. 
The Treasury soon made an attempt to sell 5s, which met with a lukewarm reception. In order to attract investors to the lower rate the Treasury extended the term to redemption from five to ten years and the maturity from twenty to forty years
1864—$73 million “5%, 10–40s of 1864,” redeemable 1874, due in 1904, tax-exempt; sold at 100 = 5%.
Isn't that striking? The Treasury couldn't get investors to buy its shorter bonds at an acceptable rate, so they had to issue longer bonds instead. You wouldn't see that story today.

The same pattern continues through the 1870s, with the new loans issue to refinance the Civil War debt. The first issue of bonds, redeemable in five to ten years sold at an interest rate of 5%; the next issue, redeemable in 13-15 years sold at 4.5%; and the last issue, redeemable in 27-29 years, sold at 4%. And it doesn’t seem like this is about expectations of a change in rates, like with a modern inverted yield curve. Investors simply were more worried about being stuck with uninvestable cash than about being stuck with unsaleable securities. This is a case where “solidity preference” dominates liquidity preference.

One possible way of explaining this in terms of Axel Leijonhufvud's explanation of the yield curve.

The conventional story for why long loans normally have higher interest rates than short ones is that longer loans impose greater risks on lenders. They may not be able to convert the loan to cash if they need to make some payment before it matures, and they may suffer a capital loss if interest rates change during the life of the loan. But this can't be the whole story, because short loans create the symmetric risk of not knowing what alternative asset will be available when the loan matures. In the one case, the lender risks a capital loss, but in the other case they risk getting a lower income. Why is "capital uncertainty" a greater concern than "income uncertainty"?

The answer, Leijonhufvud suggests, lies in
Keynes' ... "Vision" of a world in which currently active households must, directly or indirectly, hold their net worth in the form of titles to streams that run beyond their consumption horizon. The duration of the relevant consumption plan is limited by the sad fact that "in the Long Run, we are all dead." But the great bulk of the "Fixed Capital of the modem world" is very long- term in nature and is thus destined to survive the generation which now owns it. This is the basis for the wealth effect of changes in asset values. 
The interesting point about this interpretation of the wealth effect is that it also provides a price-theoretical basis for Keynes' Liquidity Preference theory. ... Keynes' (as well as Hicks') statement of this hypothesis has been repeatedly criticized for not providing any rationale for the presumption that the system as a whole wants to shed "capital uncertainty" rather than "income uncertainty." But Keynes' mortal consumers cannot hold land, buildings, corporate equities, British consols, or other permanent income sources "to maturity." When the representative, risk-averting transactor is nonetheless induced by the productivity of roundabout processes to invest his savings in such income sources, he must be resigned to suffer capital uncertainty. Forward markets will therefore generally show what Hicks called a "constitutional weakness" on the demand side.
I would prefer not to express this in terms of households' consumption plans. And I would emphasize that the problem with wealth in the form of long-lived production processes is not just that it produces income far into the future, but that wealth in this form is always in danger of losing its character as money. Once capital is embodied in a particular production process and the organization that carries it out, it tends to evolve into the means of carrying out that organization's intrinsic purposes, instead of the capital's own self-expansion. But for this purpose, the difference doesn't matter; either way, the problem only arises once you have, as Leijonhufvud puts it, "a system 'tempted' by the profitability of long processes to carry an asset stock which turns over more slowly than [wealth owners] would otherwise want."

The temptation of long-lived production processes is inescapable in modern economies, and explains the constant search for liquidity. But in the pre-industrial United States? I don't think so. Long-lived means of production were much less important, and to the extent they did exist, they weren't an outlet for money-capital. Capital's role in production was to finance stocks of raw materials, goods in process and inventories. There was no such thing, I don't think, as investment by capitalists in long-lived capital goods. And even land -- the long-lived asset in most settings -- was not really an option, since it was abundant. The early United States is something like Samuelson's consumption-loan world, where there is no good way to convert command over current goods into future production. [2] So there is excess demand rather than excess supply for long-lasting sources of income.

The switch over to positive term premiums comes early in the 20th century. By the 1920s, short-term loans in the New York market consistently have lower rates than corporate bonds, and 3-month Treasury bills have rates below longer bonds. Of course the organization of financial markets changed quite a lot in this period too, so one wouldn't want to read too much into this timing. But it is at least consistent with the Leijonhufvud story. Liquidity preference becomes dominant in financial markets only once there has been a decisive shift toward industrial production by long-lived firm using capital-intensive techniques, and once claims on those firms has become a viable outlet for money-capital.

* * *

A few other interesting points about 19th century US interest rates. First, they were remarkably stable, at least before the 1870s. (This fits with the historical material on interest rates that Merijn Knibbe has been presenting in his excellent posts at Real World Economics Review.)

Second, there's no sign of a Fisher equation. Nominal interest rates do not respond to changes in the price level, at all. Homer and Sylla mention that in earlier editions of the book, which dealt less with the 20th century, the concept of a "real" interest rate was not even mentioned.

As you can see from this graph, none of the major inflations or deflations between 1850 and 1960 had any effect on nominal interest rates. The idea that there is a fundamentals-determined "real" interest rate while the nominal rate adjusts in response to changes in the price level, clearly has no relevance outside the past 50 years. (Whether it describes the experience of the past 50 years either is a question for another time.)

Finally, there is no sign of "crowding out" of private by public borrowing. It is true that the federal government did have to pay somewhat higher rates during the periods of heavy borrowing (and of course also political uncertainty) in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. But rates for other borrowers didn't budge. And on the other hand, the surpluses that resulted in the redemption of the entire debt in the 1830s didn't deliver lower rates for other borrowers. Homer and Sylla:
Boston yields were about the same in 1835, when the federal debt was wiped out, as they were in 1830; this reinforces the view that there was little change in going rates of long-term interest during this five- year period of debt redemption.
If government borrowing really raises rates for private borrowers, you ought to see it here, given the absence of a central bank for most of this period and the enormous scale of federal borrowing during the Civil War. But you don't.

[1] It seems that most, though not all, bonds were repaid at the earliest possible redemption date, so it is reasonably similar to the maturity of a modern bond.

[2] Slaves are the big exception. So the obvious test for the argument I am making here would be to find the modern pattern of term premiums in the South. Unfortunately, Homer and Sylla aren't any help on this -- it seems the only local bond markets in this period were in New England.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Long Run Growth and Functional Finance

Tom Michl has some comments -- insightful as always -- on the previous post on functional finance. The key point he raises is that we can't treat the long-run growth rate as given exogenously. Policy that targets current output will also have effects on the long run trajectory that have to be taken into account. He writes:
I've become convinced that the real interest rate belongs in the investment equation, g(r), which means that g-r is not something we can just set greater than zero to solve the problem of fiscal deficits. Also that fiscal policy, e.g. the debt ratio, affects the long run position of the IS curve (assuming interest payments go to rentiers who spend them on consumption), so it affects the r that stabilizes inflation.  
The question of exo/endogenous growth is important because a given growth target puts constraints on the feasible fiscal policy, or given fiscal policy, on the ability of a monetary authority to set the inflation-neutral interest rate. 
This is something I've heard from other smart people in response to these arguments. [1] I certainly agree with Tom and everyone else that a complete story cannot just take g as given. And I agree that there should be some systematic relationship between the liquidity conditions that we summarize as the interest rate and demand conditions, and the long term growth of income. But it doesn't seem so straightforward to show that this relationship will be a constraint on the fiscal position.

There are two (sets of) channels: The one Tom mentions here, from financial conditions to investment to growth, and the other, on the supply side from the output gap via the labor supply (hysteresis) or technological change (Verdoorn's law) to growth. I think the second kind of channel is very important, but it doesn't create any issues for a functional finance position. It just means that we should define a higher level of output as "full employment" or "price stability." So let's focus on the first channel.

We think of investment as additions to the capital stock. Then we have g = s/c - dk, where g is the growth rate, s is the average savings rate, c is the incremental capital-output ratio, d is the depreciation rate and k is the average capital-output ratio. This is just accounting. As we know, this accounting relationship is often used to develop the idea of knife-edge instability. But that's never seemed right to me (and I don't think it's what Harrod intended with it.) s is the average savings rate, so in a Keynesian framework it will be a negative function of output. So what this equation is telling us is that if we need to achieve a given growth rate, and the capital-output ratio is fixed, then the output gap will have to adjust so as to get s to satisfy this equation. This is the adjustment that policy is allowing us to avoid. Fiscal policy raises or lowers average s at a given level of income. Monetary policy perhaps raises or lowers s also; more conventionally it is supposed to change the desired capital-output ratio c

So from my point of view, it is not quite correct to say that growth is a function of the interest rate. Rather, variation in the interest rate allows us to reconcile full employment with our chosen growth rate, whatever it may be. 

Now, if we think that interest rates act through the capital-output ratio, then we need that as an additional degree of freedom if we want to combine full employment, our chosen growth rate, and a stable debt-income ratio. As it happens, Peter Skott and Soon Ryoo presented a paper at the Easterns where the requirement to achieve a target capital-output ratio meant that monetary policy was not available to close the output gap, requiring the use of fiscal policy. The additional degree of freedom is supplied by allowing the debt-GDP ratio to evolve freely.  This isn't a problem in this case. In their model, fiscal policy works through its additions to the stock of assets available to private wealth-owners, not through the flow of demand for currently produced goods and services. So the public-debt GDP ratio will automatically converge to whatever level satisfies the private sector's demand for net wealth above the capital stock.

So Peter's paper, I think, addresses Tom's point. Yes, fiscal policy affects the IS curve. Namely, it moves the IS curve to wherever it needs to be to get full employment at a given growth rate, as long as we are willing to let either the ratio of either capital or debt to output vary endogenously.

The bottom line is that when you move from the short run to the long run you do have to think about growth but that does not necessarily impose any additional constraint. First, if monetary policy operates through the savings rate, then the price stability target already implicitly means price stability at a given growth rate. So the model works the same regardless of what you think the growth rate is or should be. If monetary policy works through the capital-output ratio, then we can no longer say that, but in that case the capital-output ratio itself provides an additional degree of freedom. Only if we impose both a given growth rate and a given capital-output ratio do we possibly foreclose the option of setting r at whatever value is consistent with price stability and a constant debt ratio. And even then, I emphasize "possibly," because it depends on what you think happens to maintain the constraint. It seems to me the most natural answer is that at some point the desired capital-output ratio becomes insensitive to the interest rate, so, assuming that savings are also insensitive, then full employment cannot be reached at our target growth rate through monetary policy alone. In that case, fiscal policy becomes mandatory. This is where Keynes ended up, more or less, and also the implication of Peter's paper. But this doesn't give any argument for why interest rates cannot stay arbitrarily low, it just says that even very low interest rates won't be sufficiently expansionary to get us to full employment at low growth rates and that fiscal policy or some equivalent will be required as well. Which, as they say, is where we came in.

(I realize that this post probably will not make sense unless you're already having this conversation.)

[1] Last year's functional finance post is, thanks to my coauthor Arjun Jayadev, evolving into an academic article; I presented a version at the Eastern Economic Association a few days ago. This was one of the main comments there.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Work, Unemployment and Aggregate Demand

(I originally posted this as a series of comments on a 2012 post at Steve Randy Waldman's Interfluidity. In that post, Steve suggested that we should think of redistribution under capitalism as "the poor collectively sell[ing] insurance against riot and revolution, which the rich are happy to pay for with modest quantities of efficiently produced goods.")

In Theories of Surplus Value, Marx writes:
Assume that the productivity of industry is so advanced that whereas earlier two-thirds of the population were directly engaged in material production, now it is only one-third. Previously 2/3 produced means of subsistence for 3/3; now 1/3 produce for 3/3. Previously 1/3 was net revenue (as distinct from the revenue of the labourers), now 2/3. Leaving [class] contradictions out of account, the nation would now use 1/3 of its time for direct production, where previously it needed 2/3. Equally distributed, all would have 2/3 more time for unproductive labour and leisure. But in capitalist production everything seems and in fact is contradictory… Those two-thirds of the population consist partly of the owners of profit and rent, partly of unproductive labourers (who also, owing to competition, are badly paid). The latter help the former to consume the revenue and give them in return an equivalent in services—or impose their services on them, like the political unproductive labourers. It can be supposed that—with the exception of the horde of flunkeys, the soldiers, sailors, police, lower officials and so on, mistresses, grooms, clowns and jugglers—these unproductive labourers will on the whole have a higher level of culture than the unproductive workers had previously, and in particular that ill-paid artists, musicians, lawyers, physicians, scholars, schoolmasters, inventors, etc., will also have increased in number.
A large and growing share of employment, in other words, is unnecessary from a technical standpoint. It exists because useless jobs are more conducive to social stability than either mass poverty or a social wage. The payments the majority of the population receives for not rioting or rebelling look better when they are dressed up as payment for our work as mistresses, grooms, jugglers -- or as yoga instructors or economics professors. This way, people are still dependent on a boss. In a differently organized world, we could dispense with most of these jobs and take the benefits of increased productivity in some combination of shorter hours for productive workers and a shift toward more intrinsically fulfilling (craft-like) forms of productive work.

By starting from here we can think more sensibly about employment and unemployment. From a macroeconomic standpoint, all we need is that expenditure on unproductive labor changes in some rough proportion with income.

From my point of view, the essential facts about employment are (1) As long as the most socially accepted form of claim on the social product is wages for work, work will be found for people, along the lines Marx suggests. (This is not true in poor societies, where a large portion of the poor engage in subsistence labor, of either the traditional or garbage-picking variety.) And (2) In the short run, employment will rise and fall as the rich feel a smaller or a greater need for the insurance-value of financial wealth.

As soon as you being to think about employment in terms of an input of labor to a production process, you've taken a wrong turn. We should not try to give supply-based explanations of unemployment, i.e. to show how the allocation of some stock of productive resources by some decision makers could generate unemployment. Unemployment is strictly a phenomenon of aggregate demand.

Unemployment in advanced countries is not characterized by exogenous factor supplies and Leontief-type production functions, where some factors are exhausted leaving an excess supply of their complements.  (The implicit model that lies behind various robots-will-take-all-the-jobs stories.) Unemployment in capitalist economies involves laid-off workers and idle factories; it involves unemployed construction workers and rising homelessness; it involves idle farmworkers and apples rotting on the trees. Unemployment never develops because we need fewer people to make the stuff, but because less stuff is being made. (Again, things are different in poor countries, and in the early stages of industrialization historically.) Unemployment cannot be explained without talking about aggregate demand any more than financial crises can be explained without talking about money and credit. It exists only to the extent that income and expenditure are determined simultaneously.

Unemployment rises when planned money expenditure falls for a given expected money income. Unemployment falls when planned money expenditure rises for a given expected money income. Conditions of production have no (direct) effect one way or the other.

Recognizing that unemployment is an aggregate expenditure phenomenon, not a labor-market phenomenon, helps avoid many errors. For example:

It is natural to think of unemployed people as people not engaged in productive work. This is wrong. The two things have nothing to do with each other. Unemployed people are those whose usual or primary claim on the social product takes the form of a wage, but who are not currently receiving a wage. There are lots of people who do not receive wages but are not unemployed because they have other claims on the social product — children, retirees, students, caregivers, the institutionalized, etc. Almost all of tehse people are capable of productive work, and many are actively engaged in it — caregiving and other forms of household production are essential to society’s continued existence. At the same time, there many people who do receive wages but who are not engaged in productive work; one way to define these is as people whose employment forms part of consumption out of profits or rents.

While there is no relationship between people’s capability for and/or engagement in useful work, on the one hand, and employment, on the other, there is a close link between aggregate expenditure and employment, simply because a very large fraction of expenditure takes the form directly or indirectly of wages, and aggregate wages adjust mainly on the extensive rather than the intensive margin. So when we see people unemployed, we should never ask, why does the production of society’s desired outputs no longer require their labor input? That is a nonsense question that will lead nowhere but confusion. Instead we should ask, why has there been a fall in planned expenditure?


Going beyond the 2012 conversation, two further thoughts:

1. The tendency to talk about unemployment in terms of why some peoples' labor is no longer needed for production, is symptomatic of a larger confusion. This is the confusion of imagining money claims and payments as a more or less transparent representation of physical and social realities, as opposed to a distinct system that rests on but is substantially independent from underlying social and biological existence. Baseball requires human beings who can throw, hit and run; but the rules of baseball are not simply shorthand for people's general activity of throwing, hitting and running. Needless to say, economics education assiduously cultivates the mixing-up of the money game with the substrate upon which it is played.

2. It's natural to think of productive and unproductive labor as two distinct kinds of employment, or at least as opposite poles on a well-defined continuum. Marx usually writes this way. But I don't think this is right, or at least it becomes less valid as the division of labor becomes more extensive and as productive activity becomes more directly social and involves more coordination of activities widely separated in space and time, and more dependent on the accumulation of scientific and technical knowledge.

Today our collective productive and creative activity requires the compliance of a very large number of people, both active and passive. This post will never be read by anyone if I don't keep on typing. It will also never be read if the various tasks aren't performed that are required to operate the servers where this blog is hosted, my internet connection and yours, the various nodes between our computers, the utilities that supply electricity to all the above, and so on. It would not be read if someone hadn't assembled the computers, and transported and sold them to us; and if someone hadn't developed the required technologies, step by step as far back as you want to go. It would not be read, or at least not by anyone except me and a few friends, if various people hadn't linked to this blog over the years, and shared it on social media; and more broadly, if the development of blogs hadn't gotten people into the habit of reading posts like this. Also, the post won't be read if someone breaks into my house before before I finish writing it, and steals my laptop or smashes it with a hammer.

All of these steps are necessary to the production of a blog post. Some of them we recognize as "labor" entitled to wages, like whoever is watching the dials at Ravenswood. Some we definitely don't, like the all-important not-stealing and not-smashing steps. And the status of some, like linking and sharing,  is being renegotiated. Again, a factory only runs if the workers choose to show up rather than stay home in bed; we reserve a share of the factory's output to reward them for making that choice. It also only runs if passersby choose not to throw bricks through the windows; we don't reserve any share of the output for them. But if we were going to write down the physical requirements for production to take place, the two choices would enter equivalently.

In a context where a large part of the conditions of production appear as tangible goods with physically rival uses; where the knowledge required for production was not itself produced for the market; where patterns of consumption are stable; where the division of labor is limited; where most cooperation takes the form of arms-length exchanges of goods rather than active coordination of productive activity; where production does not involve large commitments of fixed capital that are vulnerable to disruption; then the idea that there are distinct identifiable factors of production might not be too big a distortion of reality. In that context, splitting claims on the social product into shares attributable to each "factor" is not too disruptive; if anything, it can be a great catalyst for the development of productive capacities. But as the development of capitalism transforms and extends the division of labor, it becomes more and more difficult to separate out which activities that are contributing to a particular production process. So terms like productivity or productive labor lose touch with social reality.

You can find this argument in chapters 13-14 and 32 of Capital Volume 1. The brief discussion in chapter 32 is especially interesting, since Marx makes it clear that it is precisely this process that will bring capitalism to an end -- not a fall in the rate of profit, which is never mentioned, nor a violent overthrow, which is explicitly rejected. But that thought will have to wait for another time.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Response to Tom Palley

Tom Palley wrote a strongly worded critique of Modern Monetary Theory last year, which got a lot of attention int he world of heterodox economics. He has just put up a second piece, MMT: The Emperor Still Has No Clothes, reiterating and extending his criticisms.

Palley is a smart guy who I've learned a lot from over the years. But this is not his best work.

By way of preliminaries: MMT consists of three distinct arguments. First is chartalism, the claim that the value of money depends on its acceptability to settle tax obligations. This goes back to G. F. Knapp. Second is functional finance, the claim that government (conceived of as a consolidated budget and monetary authority) seeks to adjust the budget balance to achieve full employment, it can never be prevented from doing so by a financing constraint. This goes back to Abba Lerner and Evsey Domar. And third is the employer of last resort (ELR), a proposal for a specific form of spending to be adjusted under the functional finance rule. This seems to be an original contribution of Warren Mosler goes back to Hyman Minsky.

Personally, I find it useful to set aside the first and third of these arguments and focus on the second, functional finance. My own attempt to restate the functional finance claim in the language of contemporary textbooks is here. In my view, the essential difference between functional finance and orthodoxy is that the assignments of the interest rate and budget instruments are flipped. Instead of setting the interest rate to keep output at potential and setting the budget balance to keep the debt on a sustainable path, we assign the budget balance to keeping output at potential and the interest rate to debt sustainability.

Palley wants to knock down all three planks of MMT. What are his objections to functional finance?

(1) In the absence of economic growth, government deficits will lead to inflation regardless of the output gap. This claim is asserted rather than argued for. [1] It's not clear what the relevance of this point is, since he agrees that deficits are not inherently inflationary when there is positive growth. Perhaps more importantly, this is a rejection not just as of MMT but of almost all policy-oriented macroeconomics, mainstream and heterodox. Whether you're reading David Romer or Wendy Carlin or Lance Taylor, you're going to find a Phillips curve that relates inflation to current output. There are plenty of disagreements about how expected inflation comes in, but nobody is going to include the budget balance as an independent term. In his eagerness to debunk MMT, Palley here finds himself reasserting Milton Friedman-style monetarism.

(2) If we assume an arbitrary floor on spending and an arbitrary ceiling on taxes, then it may be impossible to achieve both full employment/price stability and a sustainable debt path with interest rates fixed at zero. Yes, this is true. But it proves too much: If we impose arbitrary constraints on tax and spending levels then there is no guarantee that we can achieve debt sustainability and price stability with ANY interest rate. At any given interest rate, there is minimum primary balance that must be achieved to keep output at potential. There is also a minimum primary balance that must be achieved to keep the debt-GDP ratio constant. There is no a priori reason to think the first balance is higher than the second. So Palley's argument here could just as well be a proof that there is nothing government can do to prevent public debt from rising without limit. In any case, these arbitrary limits on taxes and spending are not a feature of standard macro models (including Palley's own models elsewhere), so it's hard to justify bringing them in here.

(3) MMT lacks a theory of inflation. On the contrary, MMT has exactly the same theory of inflation as orthodox macro: High or rising inflation is the result of output above potential, disinflation or deflation the result of output below potential. In other words, MMT is consistent with a standard Phillips curve of the same kind Palley (and almost everybody else) uses. To be fair, the Wray and Tymoigne piece Palley is responding to is not as clear as it might be on this point. But Palley is supposed to be writing a critique of MMT, not just of one particular article. And people like Stephanie Kelton state unambiguously that MMT shares the orthodox output-gap story of inflation; see for instance slide 13 here.

(4) MMT doesn't work in open economies because it requires persistent interest rate differentials between countries. Palley claims that the idea that you can hold interest rates in a given country at zero indefinitely is inconsistent with covered interest parity, a "well-established empirical regularity" that "states there is no room for systematic arbitrage of cross-country interest rates." It seems that Palley has confused covered and uncovered interest parity. CIP is indeed well established empirically, but it only says that there is no arbitrage possible between the spot and forward markets for a given exchange rate. It does not rule out interest-rate arbitrage in the form of the carry trade, and so does not have any implications for the viability of MMT. If UIP held, that would indeed rule out a persistent zero interest policy in the absence of an equally persistent currency appreciation. But UIP, unlike CIP, gets no empirical support in the literature. Japan has sustained the near-zero interest rates that Palley says are unsustainable for 15 years now, and in general, persistent interest rate differentials without any offsetting exchange rate movements are ubiquitous. Furthermore, if financial openness rules out a policy of i=0, then it equally rules out the use of interest rates as a tool for demand management. The best thing you can say about Palley here is that he is parroting orthodoxy; otherwise he is thoroughly confused.

There is one thing that Palley is right about, which is that substantially all of MMT can be found in the old Keynesian literature. This isn't news -- in the same Stephanie Kelton slideshow linked above, she goes out of her way to say that there is nothing "modern" about MMT. And so what? There's nothing wrong with updating insights from the past. In my opinion, most useful work in economics is about pouring old wine in new bottles.

I don't write this from a position within MMT. I tend to feel that the genuine insights of Lernerian functional finance are obscured rather than strengthened by basing them in a chartalist theory of money. It's fine if Tom Palley disagrees with our friends at UMKC and the Levy Institute. But he needs to put down the blunderbuss.

[1] In fact it's a bit hard to understand what Palley is claiming here. First he says that "money financed deficits" must lead to inflation in a static economy, even with a zero output gap. He adds in a footnote that money-financed are not inflationary in a growing economy; in that case, for price stability "the high-powered money stock must grow at the rate of growth." Then when he writes down a model, this has become the condition that government budget must be balanced, which is something different again. Also, I must say I can't help wrinkling my nose a little, when I read about the "stock of high-powered money," at the smell of a musty antique.

EDIT: Thanks to Daniele Santolamazza for correcting me on the origins of the ELR proposal.