The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?
The IFS has launched a major five-year review into all aspects of inequality. The review is led by Sir Angus Deaton, the Scottish-born Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The review will cover all aspects of inequality, including inequality of income, wealth, health, life-span, education, social mobility, housing, opportunity and political access, and by gender, age, ethnicity, family and geography. It will look at trends in and causes of inequality, the impacts of globalisation and political change, barriers to tackling inequality and poverty, and at various policy measures.
Although the published Gini coefficient in England and Wales has not changed much over the past 15 years, largely because of support given to the poor by tax credits, it did rise from 31.7 to 33.2 from 2015/16 to 2017/18 (the latest year for which figures are available). Other measures of inequality, however, have changed more dramatically. There is huge geographical inequality in income in the UK, reflected in inequality in health. Average weekly earnings in London are 66% higher than in the north east of England. And, according to the IFS, ‘Men in the most affluent areas can expect to live nearly 10 years longer than those in the most deprived areas, and this gap is widening’.
The UK has the greatest inequality of income of developed countries, with the exception of the USA. The IFS warns that the UK could follow the USA:
…where wages for non-college-educated men have not risen for five decades, and where rising mortality for less-educated white men and women in middle age has caused average life expectancy in America to fall for the last three years – something that has not happened for a century. We have not experienced anything similar in the UK but we have now had a decade of stagnant wages and there is recent evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ – deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse – are now rising among middle-aged Britons. Sir Angus will go on to say:
‘I think that people getting rich is a good thing, especially when it brings prosperity to others. But the other kind of getting rich, “taking” rather than “making”, rent-seeking rather than creating, enriching the few at the expense of the many, taking the free out of free markets, is making a mockery of democracy. In that world, inequality and misery are intimate companions.’
The initial report, which introduces the IFS Deaton Review, points to some possible causes of growing inequality, including the dramatic decline in union membership, which now stands at just 13% of private-sector employees, with more flexible labour markets with growing numbers of workers on temporary or zero-hour contracts. Other causes include growing globalisation, rapid technological change making some skills redundant, the power of large companies and their shareholders, large pay rises given to senior executives, growing inequality of access to education and changing family environments with more single parents.
About one in six children in the UK are born to single parents – a phenomenon that is heavily concentrated in low-income and low-educated families, and is significantly less prevalent in continental Europe.
Then there is the huge growth in housing inequality as house prices and rents have risen faster than incomes. Home ownership has increasingly become beyond the reach of many young people, while many older people live in relative housing wealth. Generational inequality is another major factor that the Deaton Review will consider.
Inequalities in different dimensions – income, work, mental and physical health, families and relationships – are likely to reinforce one another. They may result in, and stem from, other inequalities in wealth, cultural capital, social networks and political voice. Inequality cannot be reduced to any one dimension: it is the culmination of myriad forms of privilege and disadvantage.
The review will consider policy alternatives to tackle the various aspects of inequality, from changes to the tax and benefit system, to legislation on corporate behaviour, to investment in various structural resources, such as health and education. As the summary to the initial report states:
The Deaton Review will identify policy responses to the inequalities we face today. It will assess the relative merits of available policy options – taxes and benefits, labour market policies, education, competition policy, ownership structures and regulations – and consider how policies in different spheres can be designed to complement each other and minimise adverse effects. We aim not just to further our understanding of inequalities in the twenty-first century, but to equip policymakers with the knowledge and tools to tackle those inequalities.
IFS Deaton Review
- Identify different aspects of inequality. Choose two or three aspects and examine how they are related.
- Why has inequality widened in most developed countries over the past 20 years?
- What is meant by ‘rent seeking’? Why may it be seen as undesirable? Can it be justified and, if so, on what grounds?
- What policies could be adopted to tackle poverty?
- What trade-offs might there be between greater equality and faster economic growth?
- What policies could be adopted that would both reduce inequality and boost long-term economic growth?
It’s been a while since I last blogged about labour markets and, in particular, about the effect of automation on wages and employment. My most recent post on this topic was on the 14th of April 2018 and it was mostly a reflection on some interesting findings that had been reported by Acemoglu et al (2017). More specifically, Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) developed a theoretical framework to evaluate the effect of AI on employment and wages. They concluded that the effect was negative and potentially sizeable (for a more detailed discussion see my blog).
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages … According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 percent.
Since then, I have seen a constant stream of news on my news feed about the development of ever more advanced industrial robots and artificial intelligence. And this was not because of some spooky coincidence (or worse). It has been merely a reflection of the speed at which technology has been progressing in this field.
There are now robots that can run, jump, hold conversations with humans, do gymnastics (and even sweat for it!) and more. It is really impressive how fast change has been happening recently in this field – and, unsurprisingly, it has stimulated the interest of labour economists!
A paper that has recently come to my attention on this subject is by Graetz and Michaels (2018). The authors put together a panel dataset on robot adoption within seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007 and use advanced econometric techniques to evaluate the effect of these technologies on employment and productivity growth. Their analysis focuses exclusively on developed economies (due to data limitations, as they explain) – but their results are nevertheless intriguing:
We study here for the first time the relationship between industrial robots and economic outcomes across much of the developed world. Using a panel of industries in seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007, we find that increased use of industrial robots is associated with increases in labor productivity. We find that the contribution of increased use of robots to productivity growth is substantial and calculate using conservative estimates that it comes to 0.36 percentage points, accounting for 15% of the aggregate economy-wide productivity growth.
The pattern that we document is robust to including various controls for country trends and changes in the composition of labor and other capital inputs. We also find that robot densification is associated with increases in both total factor productivity and wages, and reductions in output prices. We find no significant relationship between the increased use of industrial robots and overall employment, although we find that robots may be reducing the employment of low-skilled workers.
This is very positive news for most – except, of course, for low-skilled workers. Indeed, like Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) and many others, this study shows that the effect of automation on employment and labour market outcomes is unlikely to be uniform across all types of workers. Low-skilled workers are found again to be likely to lose out and be significantly displaced by these technologies.
And if you are wondering which sectors are likely to be disrupted most/first by automation, the rankings developed by McKinsey and Company (see chart below) would give you an idea of where the disruption is likely to start. Unsurprisingly, the sectors that seem to be the most vulnerable, are the ones that use the highest share of low-skilled labour.
- “The effect of automation on wages and employment is likely to be positive overall”. Discuss.
- Using examples and anecdotal evidence, do you agree with these findings?
- Using Google Scholar, put together a list of 5 recent (i.e. 2015 or later) articles and working papers on labour markets and automation. Compare and discuss their findings.
Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:
China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!
But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.
It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).
The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.
In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).
Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.
This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.
The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.
Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.
For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.
But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.
- What are the arguments for central bank independence?
- Are there any arguments against central bank independence?
- Explain what is meant by an ‘output gap’? Why is it important to be clear on what is meant by ‘potential output’?
- Would there be any supply-side effects of a strong monetary stimulus to the US economy at the current time? If so, what are they?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘political business’ cycle? Are governments in the UK, USA or the eurozone using macroeconomic policy to take advantage of the electoral cycle?
- The Fed seems to be ending its programme of quantitative tightening (QT). Why might that be so and is it a good idea?
- If inflation is caused by cost-push pressures, should central banks stick rigidly to inflation targets? Explain.
- How are expectations likely to affect the success of a monetary stimulus?
Latest resesarch from the independent American think tank The Conference Board paints a worrying picture about the growth of UK labour productivity. While global growth in labour productivity has weakened following the financial crisis, its weakness in the UK is singled out in the Board’s 2019 Productivity Brief. It finds that amongst large mature economies the decline in labour productivity growth rates has been greatest in the UK. This has important implications for the country’s longer-term well-being and, specifically, it peoples’ living standards.
The UK saw the growth in real GDP (national output) fall from 1.8 per cent in 2017 to 1.4 per cent in 2018. The Conference Board predicts that this will fall further to 0.8 per cent in 2019. In the context of living standards, the growth in real GDP per capita is particularly important. An increase in the population will, other things being equal, lower living standards because more people will be sharing a given amount of real national income. The growth in real GDP per capita fell from 1.1 per cent in 2017 to 0.7 per cent in 2018 and is predicted to fall to just 0.1 per cent in 2019.
Chart 1 shows the annual rates of growth in real GDP and real GDP per capita from the 1950s. The average growth rates are 2.4 and 1.9 per cent respectively. The other series shown is the annual growth in real GDP per person employed. This is a measure of the growth in labour productivity. Its average annual growth rate is also 1.9 per cent. This illustrates the intrinsic long-run relationship between labour productivity growth and the growth rate of GDP per capita and hence in general living stanadards. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
In the short term, rates of growth in output per worker (labour productivity) and GDP per capita (general living standards) can be less similar. For example, when unemployment rates rise labour productivity rates may be little affected despite GDP per capita falling. Nonetheless, the important point here is the close long-run relationship between the growth in labour productivity and GDP per capita. This then raises an important question: what factors contribute to the growth in output and labour productivity?
An approach known as growth accounting helps to identify four key contributors to the growth of total output. The first is the quantity of labour, commonly measured in labour hours. The second is the quality of labour, also known as labour composition. Third is capital services which are physical inputs into production and include machinery, structures and IT capital. Capital services are affected by quantity and quality, but, unlike labour, it is practically more difficult to separate out these dimensions. Fourth, is Total Factor Productivity (TFP).
TFP it is essentially the residual contribution to output growth that cannot be explained by changes in the quantity and quality of the individual inputs. Hence, in principle, it is capturing changes in how effectively the labour and capital inputs are being employed and combined in production. The Conference Board’s Productivity Brief describes the growth in TFP as providing ‘a more accurate picture of the overall efficiency by which capital, labour and skills are combined in the production process’.
Chart 2 shows Conference Board estimates of the percentage point contribution of these four sources of growth since 1990. Over this period, output growth averaged 2 per cent per year. The contribution of capital services and, hence, what is known as capital accumulation is particularly significant at 1.5 percentage points per year. This has been significantly larger than the contribution of labour hours which averaged only 0.3 percentage points per year since 1990. This evidences the importance played by capital deepening for output growth in the UK. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
Capital deepening captures the growth in capital services relative to the growth in the labour input. It takes on even greater significance when we think about the growth in labour productivity since, after all, this is the growth in output relative to the quantity of labour. It is significant though that since 2015 the growth of capital services has contributed only 1 percentage point to output growth while the growth of labour hours has contributed an average of 0.7 percentage points. This points to a slowdown in capital deepening and hence in the growth of labour productivity.
Chart 2 also illustrates the importance of TFP growth to overall output growth. It is also important (along with capital deepening and the growth in labour quality) for the growth in labour productivity. Interestingly, we observe significant fluctuations in the growth of TFP. This is thought to reflect fluctuations in the utilisation of inputs. For example, if the utilisation of inputs falls (rises) when output falls (increases) this will be mirrored by a disproportionately large fall (increase) in TFP. In the longer-term, however, changes in TFP capture aspects of technological progress and advancement that enable more effective production methods and techniques to be deployed. In other words, the growth of TFP captures the ability of production to benefit from the advancement in ideas, products, processes and know-how.
A decline in the growth in TFP growth following the financial crisis is found quite widely in mature economies. The annual rate of growth of TFP across mature economies fell from 0.5 per cent year in 2000-2007 to 0.2 per cent in 2010-2017. In the UK this fall was from 0.5 per cent to -0.1 per cent. Hence, the decline in TFP growth of 0.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2017 was double the 0.3 percentage point fall across all mature economies. In 2018 the Conference Board estimate that TFP in the UK fell by 0.1 percent further exacerbating the downward pressure on labour productivity.
As our final chart shows, it is the magnitude to which labour productivity has eased following the financial crisis that sets the UK apart. While across all mature economies the growth of output per labour hour (another measure of labour productivity growth) fell from an average of 2.3 per cent per year in 2000-2007 to 1.2 per cent in 2010-2017, in the UK the fall was from 2.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent per year. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
While the productivity problem facing the UK is not new, the latest figures comes as a very timely reminder of the extent of the problem. To some extent the uncertainty around Brexit and the negative impact on capital accumulation has only helped to exacerbate the problem. But, this may mask a more systemic problem facing the UK. Getting to the root of this problem matters. It matters most significantly for our long-term wellbeing and prosperity. The productivity gap with our major industrial competitors is a gap that policymakers need not only to be mindful of but one that needs closing.
- What do you understand by the term labour productivity. How could we measure it?
- Why is it important to look at the growth of output per capita when assessing the benefits of long-term growth?
- Why is labour productivity important for the long-term well-being of a country?
- What do you understand by the method of growth accounting?
- What is the distinction between capital accumulation and capital deepening?
- What might explain why the growth of labour productivity has been lower in the years following the post-financial crisis?
- What do you understand by Total Factor Productivity (TFP)?
- What does the long-term growth of TFP attempt to capture?
- If you were an economic advisor to the government, what types of policy initiatives might you recommend for a government concerned about low rates of growth of labour productivity?