Tag Archives: fiscal policy

Solving the productivity puzzle

10 Oct

In recent days, there has been much “I told you so” in the air. The IMF has revised its forecast for growth in the UK, predicting that the British economy will grow more than it had expected in earlier forecasts. The French chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, had raised something of a storm in the UK earlier this year when he criticized the government’s austerity drive. Now that the UK appears to be growing more than expected, the British Chancellor George Osborne feels vindicated.

This squabbling over numbers points us to one of the problems with the austerity debate as it stands. Much of it has rested on forecasts and estimates. Projections of growth trends and government revenues three or four years down the line are notoriously difficult and yet both sides of the debate have claimed that their estimates make the most sense.  

This focus on numbers is particularly problematic in the UK as it detracts from the main issue. Newspaper headlines and public debate tend to focus on interest rate movements, the UK’s government-fuelled housing price bubble, the revision of growth forecasts that we have seen in recent days. What is not being discussed is the real mystery in the UK since the beginning of the crisis: the marked dip in productivity. Writing in the Financial Times, Chris Giles rightly points out that being so focused on the ups and downs of fiscal policy has meant we have missed the big issue of the UK’s productivity puzzle. Looking back at forecasts made in 2008, the main finding is that growth is much lower and inflation higher than was predicted.

 According to Giles, this tells us that the main problem in the UK is not a lack of demand due to austerity policies. Rather, “it suggests that something has gone wrong with the supply of goods and services in Britain” – this is what economists are calling the productivity puzzle and few have any explanations for it. Steve Nickell, a member of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility committee, recently admitted that whilst there are many theories about this puzzle, there is still no coherent explanation for it (FT, 10/10/13).

One idea (see Charles Goodhardt’s article here) is that if employment is held roughly constant, then falls in demand will lead to falls in output, which will then depress productivity. Logically this holds: if the same number of people are producing fewer things, then their productivity (output per worker) will fall. Compared with previous recessions in the UK (early 1980s and early 1990s), employment has held up well. We have not seen the collapse in manufacturing employment that we saw in the early 1980s, for instance, which had the effect of boosting productivity. A feature of the 2008-2013 downturn in the UK has therefore been the protection of manufacturing capacity and the avoidance of massive liquidation and bankruptcies. The result has been a fall in productivity. In other countries, like Spain, where unemployment has mushroomed, productivity has risen noticeably. Why this job-rich recession in the UK? And what about other countries like Germany, who have also managed to hold up employment? Has productivity fallen there too?

Goodhart’s is one explanation amongst many others and it may not convince everyone. After all, unemployment in the UK rose from just over 5% in 2008 to 8% in 2010. Isn’t that enough to keep up productivity levels? If not, then how much is enough? Compared to the petty points scoring of Osborne and co, though, and the fixation on forecasts and projections that has characterized both sides of the austerity debate, this is what we should really be thinking about.

Fiscal rules and election campaigns

24 Sep

As the UK Labour Party’s annual conference kicks off this week, ideas are beginning to emerge about what Labour will offer in the run up to the 2015 general election. One of these ideas is to have the country’s independent budgetary body, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), to audit all of the pledges made by Labour in its election manifesto. Assuming that Labour’s tax and spend plans are found to be consistent with budgetary discipline and pledges on meeting deficit and public debt targets, the OBR would thus bolster Labour’s claims to responsibility and sound fiscal management.

This idea is nothing new for the Labour party. When Tony Blair carried his party to victory in 1997, he had promised to match Tory party spending commitments. This pledge had been intended to bury the long-standing image of the Labour party as a motley crew of profligate leftwingers. Over time, we have seen fiscal policy steadily depoliticized through the creation of fiscal councils and various fiscal rules, a development supported by the Left and the Right. The IMF estimated in 2009 that 80 countries in the world have adopted a fiscal rule of one kind of another. Debt brakes have been inscribed into constitutions in Germany and in Switzerland. In the UK, the OBR was created in order that government be made accountable to an independent body for its public spending. Elsewhere, fiscal councils with varying powers have become a common feature of the macro-economic policymaking landscape, as the table below highlights.

Fiscal Councils

Austria

Government Debt Committee (1997)

Belgium

High Council of Finance (1989)

Canada

Parliamentary Budget Office (2008)

Denmark

Economic Council (1962)

Germany

Council of Economic Experts (1962)

Hungary

Fiscal Council (2008)*

Netherlands

Central Planning Bureau (1947)

Slovenia

Fiscal Council (2010)

Sweden

Fiscal Policy Council (2007)

United Kingdom

Office for Budget Responsibility (2010)

United States

Congressional Budget Office (1975)

* Hungary’s fiscal council was dismantled in 2010

The European Union as a whole is organized around a set of budgetary rules that are policed and monitored by the European Commission, the so-called Fiscal Compact of 2012.  Monetary and fiscal policy are slowly starting to look alike as both policy areas come under the oversight of independent bodies of experts.

The idea of the British Labour party to submit manifesto promises to an independent audit takes this idea one step further. The message is clear: a promise made about spending by politicians is only credible if it has been overseen by a body of experts. Credibility and responsibility lies with apolitical bodies. Politics, itself, is the terrain of half-truths and misleading creative accounting.

One problem with this is the idea that once a policy has been given the stamp of approval by a body of experts, it becomes incontestable. Especially in the realm of fiscal policy, this is nonsense. Spending plans are notoriously subject to revision and change because they rest upon assumptions about the wider economy. Small changes in growth projections throw even the most carefully prepared and audited spending plans into disarray. That a party’s manifesto commitments are given the all clear by the OBR tells us little about what a party will do once in government. The OBR itself operates according to a set of assumptions about the maco-economy that are constantly subject to revision and change.

Another problem is that parties and governments that rely on monetary and fiscal rules set by independent bodies are in effect out-sourcing responsibility to these agencies. At the same time, these agencies – fiscal councils, central banks – only operate according to strict mandates set by politicians. The result is that neither the politicians nor the agencies accept the responsibility of making choices that are not right or wrong in any objective sense, but are based rather on what one believes is the right thing to do. This leaves us with a vacuum at the heart of politics. Ed Balls’ idea of auditing his campaign pledges brings that vacuum into the election campaign itself. Far from being a moment where rules are challenged and redrawn, the 2015 campaign risks becoming subject to the same rules and constraints that govern everyday politics today.

A word of advice to Ed Balls? It’s not because the OBR has given your policies the all-clear that voters will trust you. That will only come from building a direct relationship with them and engaging with them as citzens.

The Real Culture War II: Utopia, Austerity and the F***** C****

18 Dec

Yesterday we argued for carrying the culture war into the heart of the American political economy. We made the very broad claim that a defining feature of our economic culture is the acceptance of limits. This might seem like a strange thing to say. Surely the last decade was marked not by limits but by a failure to acknowledge them. Individuals, businesses and eventually governments borrowed well beyond their means. That, so the story goes, was what created the credit crunch and the stagnant new normal. It is certainly the narrative behind the growing deal, in which Republicans appear to be ‘conceding’ on some tax hikes while Democrats accept 5-10% cuts to Social Security.

But that narrative exactly misreads the role of credit and consumption. The expansion of credit was largely an attempt to overcome the limits of capitalism within capitalism. As is now common knowledge, the expansion of consumer credit presupposed stagnant wages:

Real Household Debt Wealth Income

And, as the graph shows, it began with sagging profit rates of the late 1970s – perhaps most famously marked by Volcker’s revanchist announcement that “the standard of living of the average American must decline.”

Slide1

(graph from Robert Brenner, see also Henwood.) What the expansion of consumer credit permitted, in other words, was the appearance that capitalism could accommodate the expansion of desires, the demand for ‘more,’ even while suppressing labor costs and increasing the expropriation of the expropriated.

The expansion of credit over the past thirty years was in a sense a massive bridge loan to cover the transition to a leaner set of arrangements, in which more jobs would be low-paying, part-time and insecure, labor would be less able to defend attacks on the standard of living, ‘job-creating’ capital would take home a larger share of the pie and then basically sit on it, and politicians could pretend serious economic issues could simply be managed by technocrats.

The major problem with the credit crunch was not the attempt to surpass existing limits to consumption, but with the implicit practical belief that credit could in any way rise above and compensate for the class defeats of the past twenty years. Just as Obama has frequently tried to rise above politics in the name of some abstract non-partisan unity, so too did the borrowing public hope it could rise above the real disparities in society, without having to face them directly.

To put it another way, the ‘fiscal cliff’ is not just a false emergency engineered by Republicans and Democrats, it is the culmination of decades of attempting to paper over the limits, not merely injustices, of the American economy. It is not just that both parties have joined the austerity bandwagon, they in the process are attempting to neutralize the only utopian moment of the past few decades: the satisfaction of desires that the current society cannot satisfy. The expansion of debt would have been unlikely to succeed had that desire not been there to sublimate.

Of course, critics may say that many of these desires took a form not at all challenging to a consumer society. That criticism has some teeth, and we will take it up in tomorrow’s post. However, moving too quickly towards anti-consumerism not only misses the utopian moment, but also blurs quickly into the bland and conservative narrative of arguing we should do more with less. The starting point for an economic culture war must be to reject the austerity party and its culture of low expectations. Any reconstruction of meaningful alternatives must begin by rejecting that piece of our economic culture. After all, the so-called ‘solution’ of a grand bargain is really just a an attempt to throw back on society the political class’s own lack of imagination and inability to deal with the problems it has inherited.

(to be continued)

The Real Culture War, Or, The Ideological Mountain in front of the Fiscal Cliff

17 Dec

This is the first in a series following up on a previous post, in which we argued that the culture war should be carried into the heart of the American political economy, rather than presuppose the separation between culture and economics.

During the contest between Romney and Obama, lefties argued that the election was an instrument of political distraction. It focused attention on a false choice between Democrats and Republicans, which served mainly to narrow our sense of possibility and the full range of alternatives. They looked forward, therefore, to the day after the election, when ‘real’ politics could begin again. However, as the fiscal cliff debate reminds us, the American political system continuously produces and reproduces a narrow range of choices. How to cut trillions in dollars in spending in the midst of a post-crisis economic stagnation is a competition over who better fits in with the hegemonic idea of our time: limits.

What both sides agree on is that we have to expect less. The lesson of the past decade is people irresponsibly demanded more than the economy could provide, whether privately, through credit markets, or publicly, through state provision. Somehow we can only return to growth and progress by living within our means. Even the more significant recent expansions of the state – Obamacare in particular – have come with the rider that we should expect only the minimal humanization of capitalism, not its transformation. Extend health care to the poor, but don’t think that there could be a public option, and don’t even mention single payer.

Likewise, the fiscal cliff debate manufactures a climate of emergency that, in the name of sharpening the minds, just narrows our focus. While some liberals have fairly pointed out that fears about the cliff are exaggerated, and the product of wars and tax cuts issued the right-wing Keynesians of the Republican party, Democrats are just as much, perhaps more, the party of austerity. Even some liberals admit as much, though entertain the false hope that the party can be saved from itself. The oppressiveness of our political culture lies in its unrelenting ability to force upon us these limited choices, continually lowering our expectations. If there is a culture war to be had, it is this one.

(to be continued)

 

 

The Van Rompuy draft

28 Jun

This evening, heads of government will discuss a draft proposal put together by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and his team, prepared “in close collaboration” with the heads of the European Commission, the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank. Though it seems the terrain is already being prepared for an inconclusive summit, it worth looking at Van Rompuy’s draft to see exactly what is to be discussed.

The draft is striking by virtue of its conditional wording: there are many ifs, coulds, possiblies and maybies. The whole draft reads as a tentative and rather speculative account of what reforms the EU could take on board if it wanted to move forward with fiscal and monetary integration. There is none of the hubris or confidence one might find in earlier drafts produced by European institutions, confident of their authority and of member state compliance.

There are nevertheless a few measures that seem a bit more thought out and have a whiff of probability about them. One is the integrated supervision of banks, the so-called banking union. This measure seems likely largely because member states can all agree on the point that national regulators have been found wanting. Instead of national regulators that sign off on generous assessments of the state of national banks, something more robust is needed. What is surprising is that the draft – with the presumed agreement of ECB head, Mario Draghi – singles out the ECB as the institution most likely to take on this role. This is surprising because – as Dermot Hodgson as shown – the ECB is generally rather reticent about any attempt at expanding its competences. Far from being a power-hungry supranational actor, the ECB has shied away from taking on new roles. Its sole concern is its price stability mandate: anything else smacks of back-handed attempts at imposing some sort of political oversight onto the bank, a terrible idea according to mainstream central bank thinking. Either it has accepted this new role because it does see it as an opportunity to increase its power or it has had this forced upon it in some way. One reason may be a convergence between Draghi, Van Rompuy, Barroso and Juncker, on the need to set up this banking union in a way that avoids any messy involvement with domestic politics. By placing it within the ECB, Van Rompuy notes in his draft, existing treaty law (“the possibilities foreseen under Article 127(6) of the TFEU”, to be exact) should be sufficient. A tidy legal solution to a thorny problem, and one that Draghi can no doubt appreciate even if it means a slight expansion in the ECB’s remit.

On the “integrated budgetary framework”, another important chunk of Van Rompuy’s draft, it is obvious what might be accepted by national leaders and what remains pretty unlikely. The key suggestion is that stronger measures to control the upward end of government spending need to be introduced. Van Rompuy suggests that in the end “the euro level area would be in a position to require changes in budgetary envelopes if they are in violation of fiscal rules”. This begs the question of what the sanction would be exactly – probably, fines of some sort – but it also makes clear how the evolution of economic governance in Europe is following well-trodden lines. What is being suggested here is really a constitutionalizing of limits to what governments can spend: exactly what national governments have been discussing for some time and what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had proposed in France.

The push to make excessive spending truly illegal is hardly new and the ideas are familiar to anyone who followed the events of the 1990s and the Maastricht criteria. Overwhelmingly, economic growth is assumed to come from private sector activity, supply-side reform and from a focus on exports. There is to be a minimal role for public spending in any national growth strategy. National government discretion with regard government spending, and especially the idea that market instability should be compensated by discretionary uses of the public purse, has little role to play in the draft. That the fiscal excesses were more consequence than cause of the present crisis, and were initially the result of massive wealth transfers in the form of bank bail-outs after the Lehman Brothers collapse, is not taken into account. Even the part of the draft that mentions a “European resolution scheme” to be funded by bank contributions – “with the aim of orderly winding-down non-viable institutions and therefore protect tax payer funds” – pales in comparison to the tax-payer funded European Stability Mechanism that is vaunted as a possible “fiscal backstop to the resolution and deposit guarantee scheme”.

What remain far more tentative are the parts that describe the issuance of common debt and the creation of a fully-fledged European treasury: ideas that are being firmly resisted by Chancellor Merkel. And the mention of strengthening democratic legitimacy is an afterthought in a draft that focuses on measures intended to restrict as much as possible the room of manoeuvre for nationally-elected representatives.

There is little evidence of federalizing ambition in Van Rompuy’s draft. The most likely measure – the banking union – is proposed in a way that avoids having to rewrite any existing laws. The suggestions about common budgetary rules are driven by national governments so lacking in authority that they need binding external frameworks in order to impose any sort of fiscal discipline on their own societies. The reaction to this end of week summit will most likely be disappointment at what is not in the final communiqué. But judging from Van Rompuy’s draft, the real problem is what is in it.

Was there austerity? Is there still?

22 May

As the Euro debate trades one nostrum for another, shifting from ‘pro-austerity’ to ‘pro-growth,’ it is worth asking ourselves what ‘austerity’ was about. After all, as Tyler Cowen and others have argued, if austerity means an absolute decline in spending, then that hasn’t happened. As this graphic from Veronica de Rugy shows, there has been an overall slowing of the growth rate of spending, with slight absolute declines in Spain, Ireland and Greece from 2009 highs:

 

But the graphic does not show dramatic cuts in real dollars. So is all this talk of austerity a ruse or rhetorical flourish? Is ‘austerity’ simply defined according to one’s economic preferences? That is sort of Cowen’s view, at least insofar as Cowen believes there is no good definition of austerity, which is why the word austerity just ends up measuring the distance between the amount of spending one thinks is correct relative to the actual amount of spending.

While the Left might be inclined to jump at Cowen et al.’s approach to austerity, it is worth separating a few things. Data on overall state spending blurs together at least two distinct issues – changes in popular consumption (and expectations about that consumption) as compared with the role of the state in managing capitalism. Increases, or non-dramatic decreases, in state spending are perfectly compatible with across the board belt-tightening when it comes to popular consumption. War-time austerity, after all, is just that – sudden increases in overall state-spending, but simultaneous limitations on popular consumption. The graph below shows the rapid increase in US public spending during WWII despite belt-tightening at home:

Given the long-term trend over the twentieth century of the state’s increasing involvement in managing various aspects of capitalism, it would be very surprising if state spending dramatically declined. But it can still remain the case that the state is withdrawing from various welfare functions, or limiting its role in maintaining popular consumption – either through direct redistribution or through employment programs.

Consider, for instance, the fact that, over the same period that Cowen et al. think there have not been ‘savage cuts,’ we have seen the US, Spain and Greece cut public employment. The US government, for instance, has cut about 586,000 jobs since the recession began. As Doug Henwood pointed out a month ago (and the WSJ later agreed), state and local cuts to employment are responsible for about 1 to 1.5% of the unemployment. Put another way, were it not for cuts in public employment, the unemployment rate would be closer to 7%, not 8.5%. The Greek agreement includes cutting 15,000 jobs, despite a 22% unemployment rate. A similar story can be told for Spain. So it is worth separating discussions of austerity from overall state involvement in the economy. Spending can remain constant or even increase even as the state imposes new limits on its willingness to support popular consumption.

 

The Unholy Alliance of Monetary Expansion and Fiscal Austerity: More for those who have, less for those who don’t

16 Jan

Anyone observing the course of macro-economic policy in industrial countries over the past few years cannot help but notice an over-riding pattern: monetary expansion, fiscal austerity. This is an unholly alliance, in which the most regressive form of stimulus tacitly underwrites a fiscal contraction that punishes the least well off for the financial crisis and subsequent economic stagnation. (Skip the next two paragraphs if you already know the basic facts.)

Consider first some well-known facts. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has pushed interest rates about as low as they will go, and says it will keep them at the lower bound until 2013. It has also engaged in two rounds of quantitative easing, first buying in 2008-2009 over $1 trillion worth of MBS (Mortgage Backed Securities) and agency securities, then in 2010 it bought $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds, as well as the less significant Operation Twist. These measures have, in a narrow sense, been somewhat successful, with the Fed making profits on its original asset purchases, recently returning $77 billion to the Fed. The easing of the 2008-2009 credit constraints has acted as a kind of stimulus to the US economy by increasing the money supply, though strong doubts persist as to any further marginal improvements the Fed can make (e.g. Here and here). Meanwhile, while the Fed has pumped like crazy, state spending has come under serious attack. To be sure, there was the initial roughly $800 billion stimulus in late 2008, but this was almost entirely offset by contractions at the state and local level. The contractionary trend continued in 2011 such that government employment was “down by 280,000 over the year. Job losses in 2011 occurred in local government; state government, excluding education; and the U.S. Postal Service.” And then there is the whole super-committee, trillions of dollars in savings issue waiting in the wings.

We find a similar story in Europe. There have been in some cases multiple rounds of austerity in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and so on, despite record level Eurozone unemployment and economic economic stagnation, verging on recession. Meanwhile, despite initial recalcitrance, the ECB not only has pushed interest rates low, it has begun quietly expanding its balance sheet, offering nearly $500 billion in cheap 3-year loans, and after the recent success of Italian and Spanish bond auctions, has suggested it will loan more money in February. Fiscal austerity, monetary expansion.

Now one perfectly reasonable response to this relationship between central banks expanding the money supply and central governments contracting demand is to say “thank God for the Fed/ECB! At least there is one sane institution left intervening in the economy.” And as a response to those banging the drums of austerity, who believe in ‘expansionary austerity’, or to those who think the Fed is the root of all evil, this is a perfectly reasonable response. Austerity makes things worse, and displaces the costs of the crisis onto the worst off; the Fed, though it is not a progressive institution, is not the root of all evil. However, there is more going on here than that.

For one, in the European case, the tradeoff has been explicit. Draghi held out for as long as he could, on the grounds that Europe had to get its fiscal house in order before the ECB would become more adventurous. Moreover, as Henry Farrell has pointed out, while the raison d’etre of central banks to be insulated from political pressure, what this really means is that they are insulated from the kinds of political pressure felt by elected representatives, i.e. democratic political pressure. They are not from political pressure tout court. Instead, they are influenced by those like them, who speak their language of expertise and money. This makes it much easier for them to propose ‘solutions’ that hurt the majority – who do not so easily understand financial matters, nor tend to produce expert knowledge about it. Which is why it is easy for them to be so nonchalant about fiscal austerity, and why one hears very little about how regressive stimulus through loose monetary policy is relative to fiscal policy.

Just a refresher on that last point because it is relevant. Those best able to take advantage of low interest rates are those with positive net worth, not to mention financial savvy, which is for the most part the wealthy. And it does so without forcing them to invest in any particular way (one of the reasons why it can be of limited use as stimulus – borrowers can just park their money in T-bills, Swiss francs, or some other safe asset, rather than invest in job-creating enterprises). Additionally, it indirectly helps the wealthies by boosting the stock market, and thus those who gain most from increases in stock values (regardless of the underlying employment situation.) Moreover, as Doug Henwood has pointed out, monetary stimulus does the least to disrupt the existing class structure. It increases the ability of private borrowers to spend without actually altering the ability of average workers to earn or increasing their bargaining power with employers. Fiscal policy, on the other hand, especially something like jobs programs, puts a floor under wages, increases demand for labor, and thus changes labor-capital relations. On top of which, it challenges employers’ claims that they should possess exclusive control over investment.

The unholy alliance between monetary expansion and fiscal austerity is more intricate yet. A further response to those who want to present central banks right now as the only sane actors is that their expansionary activity deadens the impact of the insanity. That is to say, even when central bankers argue there should be more fiscal expansion, as Bernanke is reputed to want, their expansionary monetary policy conceals the full damage of the fiscal policy. It gives even greater room for fiscal irrationality. In all, the unholy alliance amounts in practice to a kind of policy combination that serves to redistribute upwards: fewer social services and public benefits for majority, alongside a monetary policy that directly or indirectly benefits the wealthy. And this combination does little to address the underlying sources of the crisis and continued lack of employment/stagnating wages.

Finally, and this is the most difficult part of the unholy alliance to tease out, there is a deep-seated, tacit ideological dimension here. The willingness of central banks to engage in massive pump-priming seems to us to be conditional in certain ways on a certain balance of class forces. The balance is one in which working class demands are weak, expressed not just in more passive unions with lower membership, but in the wider ideological defeat of the idea that public power could be used to meet the basic needs of all and even to socialize investment. Central bankers, once called in to lower the American standard of living by raising interest rates, have been freely keeping interest rates low now that weak labor bargaining power practically eliminates fears about inflation (a reality to which German bankers have yet fully to adjust.) It is harder to imagine an expansionary monetary policy, at least of the magnitude that we have seen, in the midst of a more robust fiscal response by the state to protect the bargaining power and living standards of workers, not to mention in the midst of significant labor militancy. Insofar as the absence of strong political support for expansionary fiscal policy registers the wider political weakness of the Left, the unholy alliance speaks to the ideological hegemony of conservative economic views (despite the hand-wringing of certain Austrians and ‘end-the-Fed’ Randians.) While the credit crunch was supposed to have discredited economic orthodoxy, in fact it seems to have created the conditions for its consolidation. The result: easier money for those who have, less for those who don’t.

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