Trade-offs between inequality, productivity, and employment

In economically polarized societies, this dynamic breaks down. The very wealthy don’t employ everybody, because the marginal consumption value of a new hire falls below the insurance value of retaining wealth.

.. Idle unemployment is a problem in societies that are highly productive but very unequal. Here basic goods (food, clothing) can be produced efficiently by the wealthy via capital-intensive production processes. The poor do not employ one another, because the necessities they require are produced and sold so cheaply by the rich.

.. The rich produce and “get richer”, but often they don’t much feel richer. They feel like they are running in place, competing desperately to provide all the world’s goods and services in order to match their neighbors’ hoard of financial claims. However many claims they collectively earn, individually they remain locked in a zero-sum competition among peers that leaves most of them forever insecure.

.. In relatively equal, technologically advanced societies, people create plenty of demand for one another’s services. But when productivity and inequality are combined, we get a highly productive elite that cannot provide adequate employment, and a mass of people who preserve more value by remaining idle and cutting consumption than by attempting low-productivity work. (See “rentism” in Peter Frase’s amazing Four Futures.)

..  We had a kind of Wile E. Coyote moment in 2008, when, collectively, we could no longer deny that much of the debt the “middle class” was generating to fund purchases was, um, iffy. So long as the middle class could borrow, the “masses” could simultaneously pay high-productivity insiders for efficiently produced core goods and pay one another for yoga classes. If you didn’t look at incomes or balance sheets, but only at consumption, we appeared to have a growing middle class economy.

.. As polities, we have to trade-off extra consumption by the poor against a loss of insurance for the rich.

.. If we want to maximize total output, we have to compress the wealth distribution. If inequality continues to grow (and we don’t reinvent some means of fudging unpayable claims), both real output and employment will continue to fall as the poor can serve one another only inefficiently, and the rich won’t deploy their capital to efficiently produce for nothing

.. Why did World War II, one of the most destructive events in the history of world, engender an era of near-full employment and broad-based prosperity, both in the US where capital and infrastructure were mostly preserved, and in Europe where resources were obliterated?

.. I think an underrated factor is the degree to which the war “reset” the inequalities that had developed over prior decades. Suddenly nearly everyone was poor in much of Europe. In the US, income inequality declined during the war. Military pay and the GI Bill and rationing and war bonds helped shore up the broad public’s balance sheet, reducing indebtedness and overall wealth dispersion.

.. The financial effect of the war, in terms of the distribution of claims in the US, was not very different from what would occur under Keen’s jubilee.

.. Although in a narrow sense, the very wealthy lost some insurance against zero-sum scarcities, the post-war boom made such scarcities less likely. It’s not clear, on net (in the US), that even the very wealthy were “losers”. A priori, it would have been difficult to persuade wealthy people that a loss of relative advantage would be made up after the war by a gain in absolute circumstance for everyone. There is no guarantee, if we tried the jubilee without the gigantic war, that a rising tide would lift even shrinking yachts. But it might very well.

When Liberals Become Progressives, Much Is Lost

In recent decades, the label “progressive” has been resurrected to replace “liberal,” a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use. Both etymologically and ideologically, the switch to “progressive” carries historical freight that augurs poorly for Democrats and for the nation’s polarized politics.

.. Historical progressivism is an ideology whose American avatars, like Woodrow Wilson, saw progress as the inevitable outcome of human affairs.

.. The basic premise of liberal politics, by contrast, is the capacity of government to do good, especially in ameliorating economic ills. Nothing structurally impedes compromise between conservatives, who hold that the accumulated wisdom of tradition is a better guide than the hypercharged rationality of the present, and liberals, because both philosophies exist on a spectrum.

.. A liberal can believe that government can do more good or less, and one can debate how much to conserve. But progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it. Like conservative fundamentalism, progressivism contributes to the polarization and paralysis of government because it makes compromise, which entails accepting less progress, not merely inadvisable but irrational.

Hillary Clinton, for example, called herself “a progressive who likes to get things done” — the implication is that progress is the fundamental goal and that its opponents are atavists.

.. Unlike liberalism, progressivism is intrinsically opposed to conservation. It renders adhering to tradition unreasonable rather than seeing it, as the liberal can, as a source of wisdom.

The British philosopher Roger Scruton calls this a “culture of repudiation” of home and history alike.

The critic of progress is not merely wrong but a fool. Progressivism’s critics have long experienced this as a passive-aggressive form of re-education.

.. Because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.

.. The ideology of progress tends to regard the traditions that have customarily bound communities and which mattered to Trump voters alarmed by the rapid transformation of society, as a fatuous rejection of progress.

.. Trump supporters’ denunciation of “political correctness” is just as often a reaction to progressive condescension as it is to identity politics.

.. Where liberalism seeks to ameliorate economic ills, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate them.

.. Moynihan recognized this difference between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he always supported — as exemplified by his opposition to Clinton-era welfare reform — and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which he sympathetically criticized.

.. The Great Society partook more of a progressive effort to remake society by eradicating poverty’s causes. The result, Moynihan wrote, was the diversion of resources from welfare and jobs to “community action” programs that financed political activism.

.. Conservatism holds that accumulated tradition is a likelier source of wisdom than the cleverest individual at any one moment. It fears the tyranny of theory that cannot tolerate dissent.

.. Liberalism defends constitutionalism. One of the finest traditions of 20th-century liberalism was the Cold War liberal

.. progressivism, by its very definition, makes progress into an ideology. The appropriate label for those who do not believe in the ideology of progress but who do believe in government’s capacity to do good is “liberal.”

Trade Wars, Stranded Assets, and the Stock Market (Wonkish)

Yet you go to trade war with the capital you have, not the capital you’re eventually going to want – and stocks are claims on the capital we have now, not the capital we’ll need if America goes all in on Trumponomics.

Or to put it another way, a trade war would produce a lot of stranded assets.

.. The costs of protectionism, according to conventional economic theory, are not that tariffs caused the Great Depression, or anything like that. They come, instead, from moving your economy away from things you’re relatively good at to things you aren’t.

American workers could sew clothes together, instead of importing apparel from Bangladesh; in fact, we’d surely produce more pajamas per person-hour than the Bangladeshis do. But our productivity advantage is much bigger in other things, so there’s an efficiency gain – for both economies – in having us concentrate on the things we do best.

.. So, what would a trade war do? Suppose the US were to impose a 30 percent tariff across the board, with other countries retaliating in kind so that there’s no improvement in the U.S. terms of trade (more technical stuff I don’t want to get into.) How much would this reduce trade? It depends on the elasticity of import demand; a reasonable number seems to be around 4. This would mean a fall in imports from 15 percent of GDP to around 5 percent – a 10-point reduction. And that in turn means a reduction in US real income of around 1.5 percent.

.. even a trade war that drastically rolled back globalization wouldn’t impose costs on the economy comparable to the kinds of movement we’ve seen in stock prices.

But the costs to the economy as a whole might not be a good indicator of the costs to existing corporate assets.

.. Meanwhile, the factories that do exist were built to serve globalized production – and many of them would be marginalized, maybe even made worthless, by tariffs that broke up those global value chains. That is, they would become stranded assets. Call it the anti-China shock.

.. Of course, it wouldn’t just be factories left stranded by a trade war. A lot of people would be stranded too. The point of the famous “China shock” paper by Autor et al wasn’t that rapid trade growth made America as a whole poorer, it was that rapid changes in the location of production displaced a significant number of workers, creating personal hardship and hurting their communities. The irony is that an anti-China shock would do exactly the same thing. And I, at least, care more about the impact on workers than the impact on capital.

Paroling the Spanish Prisoner (Wonkish)

one of the issues that came up was the recovery in Europe, which is real and in some ways a bigger story for the world economy than the continuation of the Obama expansion here. An obvious question, which Anil raised, was whether this recovery calls for a reconsideration by Euroskeptics like myself.

.. we underestimated the political cohesion of the single currency, the willingness of political elites to suffer enormous economic pain in order to stay in the monetary union.

.. During the good years money poured into Spain, fueling a huge housing bubble. This fed inflation that made Spanish industry uncompetitive, leading to a huge trade deficit.

.. over the period 2008-2018 Spain suffered an enormous cumulative loss of output it could have produced: 33 percent of potential GDP. That’s as if the U.S. were forced to pay a price of more than $6 trillion to, say, remain on the gold standard.

.. the politics of the euro have been far more robust than us Anglo-Americans could have imagined.