Saturday, January 31, 2015

What It's About

I'm as thrilled as anyone by Syriza's first week in government. The European bourgeoisie has declared war on social democracy, with the euro as its weapon to re-subordinate society to the logic of the market. And now -- shades of Polanyi's double movement -- society is pushing back. It's amazing to see Varoufakis declare that the "troika" has no legitimacy and that Greece is done negotiating. (As my friend Harry says, maybe what's amazing that Dijsselbloem and the rest thought that Syriza would roll over. But I suppose that's what's happened before.)

Here's what I think is the most important point in all this: The debate now is not about claims on real resources, but about power -- who decides, and on what basis.

Daniel Davies:
Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have... 
It is, therefore, totally inimical to the Eurosystem to hold out any hope of the kind of debt writedown that Syriza wants, as opposed to some smaller, cosmetic face value reduction or maturity extension. The entire reason why Syriza wants to get a major up-front reduction in the debt number is to create political space to execute the rest of their program. The debt issue and the political issue are the same issue. Syriza understands this, and so does the Eurosystem. The people who don’t understand it are the ones writing editorials in the business press which support the debt reduction but don’t think that Syriza should be given carte blanche to do everything it wants.
One man's "carte blanche to do everything it wants" is another man's "freedom to make decisions as a sovereign, democratically elected government." But this gets the stakes of the negotiations just right.

Krugman is also very good, especially here.
at this point Greek debt, measured as a stock, is not a very meaningful number. After all, the great bulk of the debt is now officially held, the interest rate bears little relationship to market prices, and the interest payments come in part out of funds lent by the creditors. In a sense the debt is an accounting fiction; it’s whatever the governments trying to dictate terms to Greece decide to say it is
... the aspect of the situation that isn’t a matter of definitions: Greece’s primary surplus, the difference between what it takes in via taxes and what it spends on things other than interest. This surplus ... represents the amount Greece is actually paying, in the form of real resources, to its creditors... Greece has been running a primary surplus since 2013, and according to its agreements with the troika it’s supposed to run a surplus of 4.5 percent of GDP for many years to come. What would it mean to relax that target? 
... let’s think of a maximalist case, in which Greece stopped running a primary surplus at all (this is not a proposal). You might think that this would let the Greeks spend an additional 4.5 percent of GDP — but the benefits to Greece would actually be much bigger than that. Remember, the main reason austerity has been so harsh is that cutting spending leads to economic contraction, which leads to lower revenues, which forces further cuts to hit the budget target. A relaxation of austerity would run this process in reverse; the extra spending would mean a stronger economy
This makes three important points. First, Greece now has a primary surplus, meaning that the public budget is no longer dependent on foreign borrowing to maintain its current operations; default would allow for a higher level of public spending with no increase in taxes. [1] Second, the size of these transfers is a political decision, no less than the scale of the transfers under, say, the Common Agricultural Program. Third, while these flows are -- unlike the notional stock of debt -- objective economic facts, they are not the most important thing about the debt payments. The most important thing is the policies the Greek government has to adopt to keep generating those flows. It's a problem that Greece is making payments to the richer parts of Europe, and will do so indefinitely if the troika gets its way. But the bigger problem is that the overriding need to generate those payments prevents the Greek state from taking any positive action either to end the current depression or to foster longer-term economic development.

One issue where Krugman and Davies disagree is if a default on the Greek debt would automatically lead to a collapse of the Greek banking system (in which case exit from the euro would uncontroversially follow) or if this would require a positive decision of the ECB to withdraw support from Greek banks. [2] I don't claim any expertise here, but Krugman's position seems more plausible. And in general, one of the welcome effects of the crisis is that supposedly natural economic constraints are forced to take form as explicit political choices.

Maybe the best short overview I've seen is this piece by Mark Weisbrot. The key point he makes is that the big fear of the current of Euroland's rulers is not that economic catastrophe will follow Greek exit from the euro. It's that it won't.

And yes, it's published in VICE. These are strange days.

[1] There's a certain slippage in these conversations between "Greece" meaning the country as a whole and "Greece" meaning the government. It is true that the Greek government budget is in primary surplus (if the official numbers can be trusted, which probably shouldn't be taken for granted -- leaving aside questions of fraud, there are non-recurring revenues from privatization.) But if we are talking about Greece the country, the relevant number for real resource flows is the trade balance, which is close to zero. But it's still true that there is no net flow of real resources into Greece to be financed, which is important in thinking about the consequences of default.

[2] As far as I can understand, the Greek banking system could collapse in two ways. First, if it loses access to the interbank payment system, and second, if it faces a run because it becomes clear that the ECB is no longer willing to offer Greek banks liquidity support. Both of these events can happen just as easily if Greece is current on its debt as if it defaults.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


The Syriza victory as a Rorschach test for U.S. politicians:

Mayor De Blasio and President Obama both called Tsipras this morning to congratulate him. According to the press release from the Mayor's office,
Mayor Bill de Blasio called Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras Thursday morning to congratulate him on his victory, and to commend him for forcefully raising the issue of inequality during his campaign. The Mayor expressed New York City’s solidarity with Greece in the joint struggle against inequality, and commented on how the Prime Minister’s victory sends a powerful message to progressives across the world. The Prime Minister expressed his admiration for New York City, and called it one of the most extraordinary cities in the world. The Prime Minister invited the Mayor to visit Greece, and the Mayor expressed interest in visiting in the future.
And here's the one from the White House:
The President spoke with Prime Minister Tsipras today to congratulate him on his recent election victory. The President noted that the United States, as a longstanding friend and ally, looks forward to working closely with the new Greek government to help Greece return to a path of long-term prosperity.  The two leaders also reviewed close cooperation between Greece and the United States on issues of European security and counterterrorism
In this context, there's something sinister about the words "long-term."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Posts in Three Lines

There is no long run. This short note from the Fed suggests that the failure of output to return to its earlier trend following the Great Recession is not an anomaly; historically, recessions normally involve permanent output losses. This working paper by Lawrence Summers and Lant Pritchett argues that it is very hard to find persistent growth differences between countries. From opposite directions, these results suggest that there is no reason to think that supposedly "slow" variables are more stable than "fast" ones; in other words, there is no economically meaningful long run.


Krugman on the archaeology of "price stability." Here is Paul Krugman's talk from the same Roosevelt Institute/AFR/EPI even I spoke at last month. The whole thing is quite good but the most interesting part to me was on the (quite recent) origins of the idea that price stability means 2 percent inflation. From Adam Smith until the 1990s, price stability meant just that, zero inflation; but in the postwar decades it was more or less accepted that that was one objective to trade off against others, rather than the sine qua non of policy success.


Capital is back -- or is it? Here's an interesting figure from Piketty and Zucman's 2013 paper, showing the long-term evolution of capital and labor shares in the UK and France:

What we see is not a stable or rising capital share, but rather a secular shift in favor of labor income, presumably reflecting the long term growth of political power of working people from the early 19th century, when unions were illegal, labor legislation was unknown and only property owners could vote. What's funny is that this long-term decline in the power of capital is so clearly visible in Piketty's data, but so invisible in the discussion of his book.


Orange is the big lie. Like lots of people, I watched the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black and initially enjoyed it, enough to read the memoir on which it's based. It's not often you see ideology operation so visibly: The show systematically omits the book's depictions of abuse and racism among the guards and solidarity among the prisoners, and introduces violence from the prisoners and compassion from the authorities that is not present in the book. For example, both book and show feature an affair between a female prisoner and a male guard, but in the show nothing happens to the prisoner while the guard is fired and prosecuted, while in reality the prisoner was thrown into solitary confinement and there were no consequences for the guard.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Non-Accelerating What Now Rate of Inflation

The NAIRU is back. Here's Justin Wolfers in the Times the other day:
My colleague Neil Irwin wrote about this slow wage growth as if it were bad news. I feel much more optimistic. ... It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned...
Read that last sentence again. What is it that would be accelerating here?

The change in the wage share is equal to the increase in average nominal wages, less inflation and the increase in labor productivity. This is just accounting. So Wolfer's condition, that wage growth not exceed the sum of inflation and labor productivity growth is, precisely, the condition that the wage share not rise. If we take him literally -- and I don't see why we shouldn't -- then the Fed should be less concerned to raise rates when inflation is higher. Which makes no sense if the goal is to control inflation. But perfect sense if the real concern is to prevent a rise in the wage share.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Unemployment and Productivity Growth

I write here frequently about "the money view" -- the idea that we need to see economic relationships as a system of money flows and money commitments, that is not reducible to the "real" production and exchange of goods and services. Seeing the money-game as a self-contained system is the first step; the next step is to ask how this system interacts with the concrete activities of production.

One way to look at this interface is through the concept of potential output, and its relationship to current expenditure, or demand. In the textbook view, there is no connection between the long-run evolution of potential output with demand. This is a natural view if you think that economic quantities have an independent material existence. First we have scarce resources, then the choice about which end to devote them to. Knut Wicksell suggests somewhere an evocative metaphor for this view of economic growth: It's as if we had a cellar full off wine in barrels, which will improve with age. The problem of economic growth is then equivalent to choosing the optimal tradeoff between having better wine, and drinking it sooner than later. But whatever choice we make, all the wine is already there. Ramsey and Solow growth models, with their "golden rule" growth rate, are descriptions of this kind of problem. Aggregate demand doesn't come into it.

From our point of view, on the other hand, production is a creative, social activity. Economic growth is not a matter of allowing an exiting material process to continue operating through time, but of learning how to work together in new ways. The fundamental problem is coordination, not allocation.  From this point of view, the technical conditions of production are endogenous to the organization of production, and the money payments that structure it. So it's natural to think that aggregate expenditure could be an important factor determining the pace at which productive activity can be reorganized.

Now, whether demand actually does matter in the longer run is hotly debated point in heterodox economics. You can find very smart Post Keynesians like Steve Fazzari arguing that it does, and equally smart Marxists like Dumenil and Levy arguing that it does not. (Amitava Dutt has a good summary; Mark Setterfield has a good recent discussion of the formal issues of incorporating demand into Kaldorian growth models.) But within our framework, at least it is possible to ask the question.

Which brings me to this recent article in the Real World Economic Review. I don't recommend the piece -- it is not written in a way to inspire confidence. But it does make an interesting claim, that over the long run there is an inverse relationship between unemployment and labor productivity growth in the US, with average labor productivity growth equal to 8 minus the unemployment rate. This is consistent with the idea that demand conditions influence productivity growth, most obviously because pressures to economize on labor will be greater when labor is scarce.

A strong empirical regularity like this would be interesting, if it was real. But is it?

Here is one obvious test (a bit more sensible to me than the approach in the RWER article). The figure below shows the average US unemployment rate and real growth rate of hourly labor productivity for rolling ten-year windows.

It's not exactly "the rule of 8" -- the slope of the regression line is just a big greater than -0.5, rather than -1. But it is still a striking relationship. Ten-year periods with high growth of productivity invariably also have low unemployment rates; periods of high average unemployment are invariably also periods of slow productivity growth.

Of course these are overlapping periods, so this tells us much less than it would if they were independent observations. But the association of above-average productivity growth with below-average unemployment is indeed a historical fact, at least for the postwar US. (As it turns out, this relationship is not present in most other advanced countries -- see below.) So what could it mean?

1. It might mean nothing. We really only have four periods here -- two high-productivity-growth, low-unemployment periods, one in the 1950s-1960s and one in the 1990s; and two low-productivity-growth, high-unemployment periods, one in the 1970s-1980s and one in the past decade or so. It's quite possible these two phenomena have separate causes that just happened to shake out this way. It's also possible that a common factor is responsible for both -- a new technology-induced investment boom is the obvious candidate.

2. It might be that high productivity growth leads to lower unemployment. The story here I guess would be the Fed responding to a positive supply shock. I don't find this very plausible.

3. It might be that low unemployment, or strong demand in general, fosters faster productivity growth. This is the most interesting for our purposes. I can think of several versions of this story. First is the increasing-returns story that originally motivated Verdoorn's law. High demand allows firms to produce further out on declining cost curves. Second, low unemployment could encourage firms to adopt more labor-saving production techniques. Third, low unemployment might associated with more rapid movement of labor from lower-productivity to higher-productivity activities. (In other words, the relationship might be due to lower visible unemployment being associated with lower disguised unemployment.) Or fourth, low unemployment might be associated with a relaxing of the constraints that normally limit productivity-boosting investment -- demand itself, and also financing. In any of these stories, the figure above shows a causal relationship running from the x-axis to the y-axis.

One scatterplot of course hardly proves anything. I'm really just posing the question. Still, this one figure is enough to establish one thing: A positive relationship between unemployment and labor productivity has not been the dominant influence on either variable in the postwar US. In particular, this is strong evidence against the idea the idea of technological unemployment, beloved by everyone from Jeremy Rifkin to Lawrence Summers. (At least as far as this period is concerned -- the future could be different.) To tell a story in which paid labor is progressively displaced by machines, you must have a positive relationship between labor productivity and unemployment. But historically, high unemployment has been associated with slower growth in labor productivity, not faster. So we can say with confidence that whatever has driven changes in unemployment over the past 75 years, it has not been changes in the pace at which human labor is replaced by technology.

The negative relationship between unemployment and productivity growth, whatever it means, turns out to be almost unique to the US. Of the dozen or so other countries I looked at, the only one with a similar pattern is Japan, and even there the relationship is weaker. I honestly don't know what to make of this. But if you're interested, the other scatterplots are below the fold.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

German Unification as Proto-Europe?

Here is the opening passage of a pamphlet published by the German central bank in 1900, on the 25th anniversary of its founding:
The newly established German Empire found in the organization of the coinage, paper money, and bank-note systems, an urgent and difficult task. Probably in no department of the entire national economic system were the disadvantages of the political disunion of Germany so clear…; in no economic department were greater advantages to be expected from a political union. 
Although the customs union (Zollverein) had happily united the greater part of Germany in a commercial union, similar attempts in monetary affairs had met with but modest success, and were absolutely fruitless in banking.  
The inconvenience most complained of was the multiplicity and variety of the different coinage systems (seven in all) in the different states, also the want of an adequate, regulated circulation of gold coins.
This is quoted in Goodhart's Evolution of Central Banks. An additional motivation for establishing a German central bank, Goodhart notes, was to organize the national payment system. Before then, there had ben no Germany-wide clearinghouse for interbank settlement. When the Reichsbank (as it then was) opened branches throughout Germany, the purpose was not only to manage the money supply but to offer a new facility for long-distance payments.

(Goodhart's larger themes are first, that central bank-like institutions develop organically within banking systems, whether or not they are established by law. And second, that the fusion of payment and intermediation functions that defines banks is a historical accident; banks as we know them needn't, and he probably shouldn't, be features of future financial systems. I am convinced on the first point, not so much on the second.)

What this passage makes me wonder is: Has anyone ever written about European integration in the light of German unification in the late 19th century? The claim in the Reichsbank pamphlet that customs union was the easy first step, and that monetary union followed only later and with difficulty, certainly suggests some parallels. So does the suggestion that monetary union was the biggest economic benefit of political union. It would be interesting to ask, what were the concrete problems that monetary union was understood to be solving? And how did it fit into the larger political agenda of German unification?

Of course there are fundamental differences -- most importantly that German unification took place under the aegis of a sovereign political authority, whereas the central political-economic fact about Europe is that the monetary authority stands above the various national governments. But it still seems like the comparison could be illuminating.