Category Archive for: Productivity [Return to Main]

Saturday, April 05, 2014

'Automation Alone Isn’t Killing Jobs'

Tyler Cowen:

Automation Alone Isn’t Killing Jobs, by Tyler Cowen, Commentary, NY Times: Although the labor market report on Friday showed modest job growth, employment opportunities remain stubbornly low in the United States, giving new prominence to the old notion that automation throws people out of work.
Back in the 19th century, steam power and machinery took away many traditional jobs, though they also created new ones. This time around, computers, smart software and robots are seen as the culprits. They seem to be replacing many of the remaining manufacturing jobs and encroaching on service-sector jobs, too.
Driverless vehicles and drone aircraft are no longer science fiction, and over time, they may eliminate millions of transportation jobs. Many other examples of automatable jobs are discussed in “The Second Machine Age,” a book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and in my own book, “Average Is Over.” The upshot is that machines are often filling in for our smarts, not just for our brawn — and this trend is likely to grow.
How afraid should workers be of these new technologies? There is reason to be skeptical of the assumption that machines will leave humanity without jobs. ...

See also, Dean Baker "If Technology Has Increased Unemployment Among the Less Educated, Someone Forgot to Tell the Data."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

'Moore's Law: At Least a Little Longer'

Tim Taylor:

Moore's Law: At Least a Little Longer: One can argue that the primary driver of U.S. and even world economic growth in the last quarter-century is Moore's law--that is, the claim first advanced back in 1965 by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel Corporation that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years. But can it go on? Harald Bauer, Jan Veira, and Florian Weig of the McKinsey Global Institute consider the issues in "Moore’s law: Repeal or renewal?" a December 2013 paper. ...
The authors argue that technological advances already in the works are likely to sustain Moore's law for another 5-10 years. This As I've written before, the power of doubling is difficult to appreciate at an intuitive level, but it means that the increase is as big as everything that came before. Intel is now etching transistors at 22 nanometers, and as the company points out, you could fit 6,000 of these transistors across the width of a human hair; or if you prefer, it would take 6 million of these 22 nanometer transistors to cover the period at the end of a sentence. Also, a 22 nanometer transistor can switch on and off 100 billion times in a second. 
The McKinsey analysts point out that while it is technologically possible for Moore's law to continue, the economic costs of further advances are becoming very high. They write: "A McKinsey analysis shows that moving from 32nm to 22nm nodes on 300-millimeter (mm) wafers causes typical fabrication costs to grow by roughly 40 percent. It also boosts the costs associated with process development by about 45 percent and with chip design by up to 50 percent. These dramatic increases will lead to process-development costs that exceed $1 billion for nodes below 20nm. In addition, the state-of-the art fabs needed to produce them will likely cost $10 billion or more. As a result, the number of companies capable of financing next-generation nodes and fabs will likely dwindle."
Of course, it's also possible to have performance improvements and cost decreases on chips already in production: for example, the cutting edge of computer chips today will probably look like a steady old cheap workhorse of a chip in about five years. I suspect that we are still near the beginning, and certainly not yet at the middle, of finding ways for information and communications technology to alter our work and personal lives. But the physical problems and  higher costs of making silicon-based transistors at an ever-smaller scale won't be denied forever, either.

Monday, January 13, 2014

5 Reasons Why Your Pay Isn't Rising as Fast as it Should

At MoneyWatch:

... In theory, wages should grow at the rate of inflation plus the rate of growth of productivity. But in the last several years wage growth has been below this benchmark. Why? Here are five factors that are conspiring to restrain wage growth. ...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Robots and Economic Luddites'

Dean Baker:

Robots and Economic Luddites: They Aren't Taking Our Jobs Quickly Enough: Lydia DePillis warns us in the Post of 8 ways that robots will take our jobs. It is amazing how the media have managed to hype the fear of robots taking our jobs at the same time that they have built up fears over huge budget deficits bankrupting the country. You don't see the connection? Maybe you should be an economics reporter for a leading national news outlet.
Okay, let's get to basics. The robots taking our jobs story is a story of labor surplus, too many workers, too few jobs. Everything that needs to be done is being done by the robots. There is nothing for the rest of us to do but watch.
There can of course be issues of distribution. If the one percent are able to write laws that allow them to claim everything the robots produce then they can make most of us very poor. But this is still a story of society of plenty. We can have all the food, shelter, health care, clean energy, etc. that we need; the robots can do it for us.
Okay, now let's flip over to the budget crisis that has the folks at the Washington Post losing sleep. This is a story of scarcity. We are spending so much money on our parents' and grandparents' Social Security and Medicare that there is no money left to educate our kids.
Some confused souls may say that the problem may not be an economic one, but rather a fiscal problem. The government can't raise the tax revenue to pay for both the Social Security and Medicare for the elderly and the education of our kids. This is confused because if we are living in the world where the robots are doing all the work then the government really doesn't need to raise tax revenue, it can just print the money it needs to back its payments.
Okay, now everyone is completely appalled. The government is just going to print trillions of dollars? That will send inflation through the roof, right? Not in the world where robots are doing all the work it won't. If we print money it will create more demands for goods and services, which the robots will be happy to supply. As every intro econ graduate knows, inflation is a story of too much money chasing too few goods and services. But in the robots do everything story, the goods and services are quickly generated to meet the demand. Where's the inflation, robots demanding higher wages?
In short, you can craft a story where we have huge advances in robot technology so that the need for human labor is drastically reduced. You can also craft a story where an aging population leads to too few workers being left to support too many retirees. However, you can't believe both at the same time unless you write on economic issues for the Washington Post.
Just in case anyone cares about what the data says on these issues, the robots don't seem to be winning out too quickly. Productivity growth has slowed sharply over the last three years and it is well below the pace of 1947-73 golden age. (Robots are just another form of good old-fashioned productivity growth.)

labor productivity

On the other hand, the scarcity mongers don't have much of a case either. Even if productivity growth stays at just a 1.5 percent annual rate its impact on raising wages and living standards will swamp any conceivable tax increases associated with caring for a larger population of retirees.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

'Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality'

From Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt:

Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality, by Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, EPI–CEPR Working Paper: Executive summary Many economists contend that technology is the primary driver of the increase in wage inequality since the late 1970s, as technology-induced job skill requirements have outpaced the growing education levels of the workforce. The influential “skill-biased technological change” (SBTC) explanation claims that technology raises demand for educated workers, thus allowing them to command higher wages—which in turn increases wage inequality. A more recent SBTC explanation focuses on computerization’s role in increasing employment in both higher-wage and lower-wage occupations, resulting in “job polarization.” This paper contends that current SBTC models—such as the education-focused “canonical model” and the more recent “tasks framework” or “job polarization” approach mentioned above—do not adequately account for key wage patterns (namely, rising wage inequality) over the last three decades. Principal findings include:
1. Technological and skill deficiency explanations of wage inequality have failed to explain key wage patterns over the last three decades, including the 2000s.
The early version of the “skill-biased technological change” (SBTC) explanation of wage inequality posited a race between technology and education where education levels failed to keep up with technology-driven increases in skill requirements, resulting in relatively higher wages for more educated groups, which in turn fueled wage inequality (Katz and Murphy 1992; Autor, Katz, and Krueger 1998; and Goldin and Katz 2010). However, the scholars associated with this early, and still widely discussed, explanation highlight that it has failed to explain wage trends in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly the stability of the 50/10 wage gap (the wage gap between low- and middle-wage earners) and the deceleration of the growth of the college wage premium since the early 1990s (Autor, Katz, and Kearney 2006; Acemoglu and Autor 2012). This motivated a new technology-based explanation (formally called the “tasks framework”) focused on computerization’s impact on occupational employment trends and the resulting “job polarization”: the claim that occupational employment grew relatively strongly at the top and bottom of the wage scale but eroded in the middle (Autor, Levy, and Murnane 2003; Autor, Katz, and Kearney 2006; Acemoglu and Autor 2012; Autor 2010). We demonstrate that this newer version—the task framework, or job polarization analysis—fails to explain the key wage patterns in the 1990s it intended to explain, and provides no insights into wage patterns in the 2000s. We conclude that there is no currently available technology-based story that can adequately explain the wage trends of the last three decades.
2. History shows that middle-wage occupations have shrunk and higher-wage occupations have expanded since the 1950s. This has not driven any changed pattern of wage trends.
We demonstrate that key aspects of “job polarization” have been taking place since at least 1950. We label this “occupational upgrading” since it primarily consists of shrinkage in relative employment in middle-wage occupations and a corresponding expansion of employment in higher-wage occupations. Lower-wage occupations have remained a small (less than 15 percent) and relatively stable share of total employment since the 1950s, though they have grown in importance in the 2000s. Occupational upgrading has occurred in decades with both rising and falling wage inequality and in decades with both rising and falling median wages, indicating that occupational employment patterns, by themselves, cannot explain the salient wage trends.
3. Evidence for job polarization is weak.
We use the Current Population Survey to replicate existing findings on job polarization, which are all based on decennial census data. Job polarization is said to exist when there is a U-shaped plot in changes in occupational employment against the initial occupational wage level, indicating employment expansion among high- and low-wage occupations relative to middle-wage occupations. As shown in Figure E (explained later in the paper but introduced here), in important cases, these plots do not take the posited U-shape. More importantly, in all cases the lines traced out fit the data very poorly, obscuring large variations in employment growth across occupational wage levels.
4. There was no occupational job polarization in the 2000s.
In the 2000s, relative employment expanded in lower-wage occupations, but was flat at both the middle and the top of the occupational wage distribution. The lack of overall job polarization in the 2000s is a phenomenon visible in both the analyses of decennial census/American Community Survey data provided by proponents of the tasks framework/job polarization perspective (Autor 2010; Acemoglu and Autor 2012) and in our analysis of the Current Population Survey. Thus, the standard techniques applied to the data for the 2000s do not establish even a prima facie case for the existence of overall job polarization in the most recent decade. This leaves the job polarization story, at best, as an account of wage inequality in the 1990s. It certainly calls into question whether it should be a description of current labor market trends and the basis of current policy decisions.
5. Occupational employment trends do not drive wage patterns or wage inequality.
We demonstrate that the evidence does not support the key causal links between technology-driven changes in tasks and occupational employment patterns and wage inequality that are at the core of the tasks framework and job polarization story. Proponents of job polarization as a determinant of wage polarization have, for the most part, only provided circumstantial evidence: both trends occurred at the same time. The causal story of the tasks framework is that technology (i.e., computerization) drives changes in the demand for tasks (increasing demand at the top and bottom relative to the middle), producing corresponding changes in occupational employment (increasing relative employment in high- and low-wage occupations relative to middle-wage occupations). These changes in occupational employment patterns are said to drive changes in overall wage patterns, raising wages at the top and bottom relative to the middle. However, the intermediate step in this story must be that occupational employment trends change the occupational wage structure, raising relative wages for occupations with expanding employment shares and vice-versa. We demonstrate that there is little or no connection between decadal changes in occupational employment shares and occupational wage growth, and little or no connection between decadal changes in occupational wages and overall wages. Changes within occupations greatly dominate changes across occupations so that the much-focused-on occupational trends, by themselves, provide few insights.
6. Occupations have become less, not more, important determinants of wage patterns.
The tasks framework suggests that differences in returns to occupations are an increasingly important determinant of wage dispersion. Using the CPS, we do not find this to be the case.  We find that a large and increasing share of the rise in wage inequality in recent decades (as measured by the increase in the variance of wages) occurred within detailed occupations.  Furthermore, using DiNardo, Fortin, and Lemieux’s reweighting procedure, we do not find that occupations consistently explain a rising share of the change in upper tail and lower tail inequality for either men or women.
7. An expanded demand for low-wage service occupations is not a key driver of wage trends.
We are skeptical of the recent efforts of Autor and Dorn (2013) that ask the low-wage “service occupations” to carry much or all of the weight of the tasks framework. First, the small size and the slow, relatively steady growth of the service occupations suggest significant limitations of a technology-driven expansion of service occupations to be able to explain the large and contradictory changes in wage growth at the bottom of the distribution (i.e., between middle and low wages, the 50/10 wage differential), let alone movements at the middle or higher up the wage distribution. The service occupations remain a relatively small share of total employment; in 2007, they accounted for less than 13 percent of total employment, and just over half of employment in the bottom quintile of occupations ranked by wages. Moreover, these occupations have expanded only modestly in recent decades, increasing their employment share by 2.1 percentage points between 1979 and 2007, with most of the gain in the 2000s. Relative employment in all low-wage occupations, taken together, has been stable for the last three decades, representing a 21.1 percent share of total employment in 1979, 19.7 percent in 1999, and 20.0 percent in 2007.
Second, the expansion of service occupation employment has not driven their wage levels and therefore has not driven overall wage patterns. The timing of the most important changes in employment shares and wage levels in the service occupations is not compatible with conventional interpretations of the tasks framework. Essentially all of the wage growth in the service occupations over the last few decades occurred in the second half of the 1990s, when the employment share in these occupations was flat. The observed wage increases preceded almost all of the total growth in service occupations over the 1979–2007 period, which took place in the 2000s, when service occupation wages were falling (another trend that contradicts the overall claim of the explanatory power of service occupation employment trends).
8. Occupational employment trends provide only limited insights into the main dynamics of the labor market, particularly wage trends.
A more general point can and should be drawn from our findings: Occupational employment trends do not, by themselves, provide much of a read into key labor market trends because changes within occupations are dominant. Recent research and journalistic treatment of the labor market has highlighted the pattern of occupational employment growth to assess the extent of structural unemployment, the disproportionate increase in low-wage jobs, and the “coming of robots”—changes in workplace technology and the consequent impact on wage inequality. The recent academic literature on wage inequality has highlighted the role of changes in the occupational distribution of employment as the key factor. In particular, occupational employment trends have become increasingly used as indicators of job skill requirement changes, reflecting the outcome of changes in the nature of jobs and the way we produce goods and services. Our findings indicate, however, that occupational employment trends give only limited insight and leave little imprint on the evolution of the occupational wage structure, and certainly do not drive changes in the overall wage structure. We therefore urge extreme caution in drawing strong conclusions about overall labor market trends based on occupational employment trends by themselves.

I suppose I should note that I haven't read this closely enough yet to endorse every word (or not). Full paper here (scroll down).

Thursday, October 24, 2013

'Physiocracy and Robots'

Yet another travel day, can't remember the last weekend I was home (no complaints though), so one more from Brad DeLong and that's it for awhile:

Physiocracy and Robots, by Brad DeLong: The physiocrats saw France as having four kinds of jobs:

  • Farmers
  • Skilled artisans
  • Flunkies
  • Landowning aristocrats

Farmers, they thought, produced the net value in the economy--the net product. Their labor combined with water, soil, and sun grew the food they and others ate. Artisans, the physiocrats thought, were best seen not as creators but as transformers of wealth--transformers of wealth in the form of food into wealth in the form of manufactures. Aristocrats collected this net product--agricultural production in excess of farmers' subsistence needs--and spent it buying manufactured goods and, when they got sated with manufactured goods, employing flunkies.

In this framework, the key economic variables are:

  • the fraction f who are farmers.
  • the net product per farmer n.
  • the fraction who can be set to work making manufactured goods that aristocrats can consume before becoming sated m.

The key equilibrium quantity in this system is:

(nf-m)/(1-f-m) = W

This gives the standard of living of the typical flunky--say, a runner for His Grace the Cardinal. The numerator is the amount of resources on which flunkies can subsist. The denominator is the number of flunkies. If this quantity W is low, the country is poor: flunkies are ill-paid, begging and thievery are rampant, and the reserve army of potential unemployed puts downward pressure on artisan and farmer living standards as well. If this quantity is high, the country is prosperous.

The physiocrats saw a France undergoing a secular decline in the farmer share f, and they worried. A fall in f produced a sharper decline in W. Therefore they called for:

  • Scientific farming to boost n and so boost the net product nf.
  • A reallocation of the tax burden to make it less onerous to be a farmer--and so boost the farmer share f and so boost the net product nf.

With the unquestioned assumption that there were limits on how high the net product per farmer n could be pushed, the physiocrats would have forecast that France of today, with only 5% of the population farmers, would be a hellhole: huge numbers of ill-paid flunkies sucking up to the aristocratic landlords.

Well, the physiocrats were wrong about the decline of the agricultural share of the labor force. And let us hope that the techno-pessimists are similarly wrong about the rise of the robots.

'Why the 1% Should Pay Tax at 80%'

Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty:

Why the 1% should pay tax at 80%, by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty,  theguardian.com: In the United States, the share of total pre-tax income accruing to the top 1% has more than doubled, from less than 10% in the 1970s to over 20% today (pdf). A similar pattern is true of other English-speaking countries..., however, globalization and new technologies are not to blame. Other OECD countries ... have seen far less concentration of income among the mega rich.
At the same time, top income tax rates on upper income earners have declined significantly since the 1970s... At a time when most OECD countries face large deficits and debt burdens, a crucial public policy question is whether governments should tax high earners more. The potential tax revenue at stake is now very large. ...
There is a strong correlation between the reductions in top tax rates and the increases in top 1% pre-tax income shares...
The ... data show that there is no correlation between cuts in top tax rates and average annual real GDP-per-capita growth since the 1970s. ... What that tells us is that a substantial fraction of the response of pre-tax top incomes to top tax rates may be due to increased rent-seeking at the top (that is, scenario three), rather than increased productive effort....
By our calculations about the response of top earners to top tax rate cuts being due in part to increased rent-seeking behavior and in part to increased productive work, we find that the top tax rate could potentially be set as high as 83% (as opposed to the 57% allowed by the pure supply-side model). ...
In the end, the future of top tax rates depends on what the public believes about whether top pay fairly reflects productivity or whether top pay, rather unfairly, arises from rent-seeking. With higher income concentration, top earners have more economic resources to influence both social beliefs (through thinktanks and media) and policies (through lobbying)...
The job of economists should be to make a top rate tax level of 80% at least "thinkable" again.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The New Normal? Slower R&D Spending

From the Atlanta Fed's macroblog:

The New Normal? Slower R&D Spending: In case you need more to worry about, try this: the pace of research and development (R&D) spending has slowed. The National Science Foundation defines R&D as “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge” and application of this knowledge toward new applications. ...
R&D spending is often cited as an important source of productivity growth within a firm, especially in terms of product innovation. But R&D is also an inherently risky endeavor, since the outcome is quite uncertain. So to the extent that economic and policy uncertainty has helped make businesses more cautious in recent years, a slow pace of R&D spending is not surprising. On top of that, the federal funding of R&D activity remains under significant budget pressure. See, for example, here.
So you can add R&D spending to the list of things that seem to be moving more slowly than normal. Or should we think of it as normal?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

'The Entrepreneurial State?'

Joshua Gans:

The entrepreneurial state?, by Joshua Gans: In Slate, Marianna Mazzucato argues that it is a myth that entrepreneurs drive innovation. I’ll chalk that up to the Slate sub-editorial title writers because what the article is really saying is the ‘independent’ entrepreneurs do not drive innovation. Instead, in many classic situations the hand of the government was there and it is difficult and probably semantic to say who really drove innovation. It was probably combining the two.

Fair enough but then Mazzucato moves away from looking at evidence to call for changes that would increase the rate of innovation. And that is when she arrives at this:

It is time for the state to get something back for its investments. How? First, this requires an admission that the state does more than just fix market failures—the usual way economists justify state spending. The state has shaped and created markets and, in doing so, taken on great risks. Second, we must ask where the reward is for such risk-taking and admit that it is no longer coming from the tax systems. Third, we must think creatively about how that reward can come back.

There are many ways for this to happen. ...

Recognizing the state as a lead risk-taker, and enabling it to reap a reward, will not only make the innovation system stronger, it will also spread the profits of growth more fairly. This will ensure that education, health, and transportation can benefit from state investments in innovation, instead of just the small number of people who see themselves as wealth creators, while relying increasingly on the courageous, entrepreneurial state.

Now as I understand it, her argument is that what the state needs is to appropriate more of the returns from innovation it funds on its books. However, this is at the same time, that she argued that state success in funding and seeding innovation was precisely because it didn’t have to worry about getting the returns from innovation on its books. In other words, the problem with state-funded innovation is apparently it is not sufficiently like private funded innovation in its return calculus.

Again, for all I know that could be correct but if I were to guess the thing that makes the system work well now is precisely the diversity of goals between the state and private sector coming together to produce innovation rather than that being the problem.

Monday, August 19, 2013

'Making Do With Less: Working Harder During Recessions'

New paper:

Making Do With Less: Working Harder During Recessions, by Edward P. Lazear, Kathryn L. Shaw, Christopher Stanton, NBER Working Paper No. 19328 Issued in August 2013: There are two obvious possibilities that can account for the rise in productivity during recent recessions. The first is that the decline in the workforce was not random, and that the average worker was of higher quality during the recession than in the preceding period. The second is that each worker produced more while holding worker quality constant. We call the second effect, “making do with less,” that is, getting more effort from fewer workers. Using data spanning June 2006 to May 2010 on individual worker productivity from a large firm, it is possible to measure the increase in productivity due to effort and sorting. For this firm, the second effect—that workers’ effort increases—dominates the first effect—that the composition of the workforce differs over the business cycle.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

'Does the Government Stifle Innovation? I Don’t See It (To the Contrary…)'

Jared Bernstein responds to the Robert Shiller article I linked to yesterday:

Does the Government Stifle Innovation? I Don’t See It (To the Contrary…): I usually find economist Robert Shiller’s commentaries resonant and insightful, but this one seemed more confusing than enlightening. The thrust of the piece is the concern that government activities to promote innovation can just as easily stifle it.

The piece introduces the notion of corporatism, from a new book by Ed Phelps. What means “corporatism”? It’s:

…a political philosophy in which economic activity is controlled by large interest groups or the government. Once corporatism takes hold in a society…people don’t adequately appreciate the contributions and the travails of individuals who create and innovate. An economy with a corporatist culture can copy and even outgrow others for a while…but, in the end, it will always be left behind. Only an entrepreneurial culture can lead.

... I don’t get it. While “entrepreneurial culture” will always be essential, many innovations that turned out to be economically important in the US have government fingerprints all over them. From machine tools, to railroads, transistors, radar, lasers, computing, the internet, GPS, fracking, biotech, nanotech—from the days of the Revolutionary War to today—the federal government has supported innovation often well before private capital would risk the investment (read about it here).

Shiller’s critical, for example, of the manufacturing innovation institutes that the White House has been both touting and setting up. He’s certainly right to ask what it is these new creations do and why we need them... But most manufacturers I’ve spoken to about them tells me they fill an important niche, essentially building a path through the Death Valley between the university lab and the factory floor. If so, that’s a classic coordination failure in which markets have been known to underinvest. ...

To be clear, my argument is not at all that government efforts in this area are all successful or are somehow always free of the corruption that is too common when politics enters the fray. My points are that a) many important innovations have involved government support somewhere along the way, and b) while one could and should worry about waste in this area, I’ve not seen evidence, nor does Shiller provide any, of stifling. ...

So I’d suggest we be more careful in where we point the corporatist finger.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Shiller: Why Innovation Is Still Capitalism’s Star

Quick one -- see previous post -- from Robert Shiller:

Why Innovation Is Still Capitalism’s Star, by Robert Shiller, Commentary, NY Times: Capitalism is culture. To sustain it, laws and institutions are important, but the more fundamental role is played by the basic human spirit of independence and initiative.
The decisive role of the “spirit of capitalism” is an old concept, going back at least to Max Weber, but it needs refreshing today with new evidence and new thinking. Edmund S. Phelps, a professor of economics at Columbia University and a Nobel laureate, has written an interesting new book on the subject. It’s called “Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change” (Princeton University Press), and it contains a complex new analysis of the importance of an entrepreneurial culture.
Professor Phelps discerns a troubling trend in many countries, however, even the United States. He is worried about corporatism, a political philosophy in which economic activity is controlled by large interest groups or the government. Once corporatism takes hold in a society, he says, people don’t adequately appreciate the contributions and the travails of individuals who create and innovate. An economy with a corporatist culture can copy and even outgrow others for a while, he says, but, in the end, it will always be left behind. Only an entrepreneurial culture can lead.
Is the United States really becoming corporatist? I don’t entirely agree with such a notion. ...

Friday, August 16, 2013

'Top Economics Graduate Programs are Not as Good as You Think'

"The median Harvard student has after six years only 0.04 AER equivalent publications":

Top Economics graduate programs are not as good as you think, Economic Logician: Along with business schools, Economics is where pedigree matters most in the placement of PhD students to academic positions. Students from top ranked (or considered such) programs have a job almost guaranteed in research universities, and students from lower ranked universities find it very hard to break into such universities no matter what their performance is. ...
John Conley and Ali Sina Onder find that while there is indeed a steep gradient across program rankings, there is an even steeper gradient within programs. They use student rankings within programs and cohorts and their publication output after six years, that is, when they are up for tenure. Looking at AER equivalents, they find that the top Toronto student is equivalent to the number three from Berkeley, for example. And to illustrate how steep the gradient is, the median Harvard student has after six years only 0.04 AER equivalent publications, despite coming from the #2 program. This means that more than half of Harvard students are not tenurable in any research-oriented institution.
I see two major conclusions from this: 1) Stop worrying so much about where PhD students are graduating from. It is OK to hire students from lower ranked programs as long as they excelled in those programs. 2) Even the top places should acknowledge that not all students should take research positions and need to prepare them for other ones, like industry, government or purely teaching jobs. These students are screwed twice: they are sent to tenure-track positions that they will never get tenure in, and they are woefully unprepared for the jobs they should take.

We have endowed chairs held by people from Berkeley and Princeton, and they are publication monsters, but we have also done extraordinarily well finding the "diamonds in the rough," i.e. hiring the top students from the second-tier of graduate schools. The best among them are every bit as good.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Computers and Unemployment: This Time is Different?

This essay/report by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane attempts to answer the question "How do we ensure American middle class prosperity in an era of ever-intensifying globalization and technological upheaval?":

Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work, by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane: On March 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received a short, alarming memorandum from the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution. The memo warned the president of threats to the nation beginning with the likelihood that computers would soon create mass unemployment:

A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial era as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor. Cybernation is already reorganizing the economic and social system to meet its own needs.

The memo was signed by luminaries including Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling, Scientific American publisher Gerard Piel, and economist Gunnar Myrdal (a future Nobel Prize winner). Nonetheless, its warning was only half right. There was no mass unemployment— since 1964 the economy has added 74 million jobs. But computers have changed the jobs that are available, the skills those jobs require, and the wages the jobs pay.

For the foreseeable future, the challenge of “cybernation” is not mass unemployment but the need to educate many more young people for the jobs computers cannot do. Meeting the challenge begins by recognizing what the Ad Hoc Committee missed—that computers have specific limitations compared to the human mind. Computers are fast, accurate, and fairly rigid. Human brains are slower, subject to mistakes, and very flexible. By recognizing computers’ limitations and abilities, we can make sense of the changing mix of jobs in the economy. We can also understand why human work will increasingly shift toward two kinds of tasks: solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information— acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others. ...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bernanke: Economic Prospects for the Long Run

Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is an optimist when it comes to our long-run economic prospects (i.e. he does not endorse the notion that productivity is slowing). I'm with him. (This is a graduation speech Bernanke gave at Bard College at Simon's Rock, Great Barrington, Massachusetts):

Economic Prospects for the Long Run: Let me start by congratulating the graduates and their parents. The word "graduate" comes from the Latin word for "step." Graduation from college is only one step on a journey, but it is an important one and well worth celebrating.
I think everyone here appreciates what a special privilege each of you has enjoyed in attending a unique institution like Simon's Rock. It is, to my knowledge, the only "early college" in the United States; many of you came here after the 10th or 11th grade in search of a different educational experience. And with only about 400 students on campus, I am sure each of you has felt yourself to be part of a close-knit community. Most important, though, you have completed a curriculum that emphasizes creativity and independent critical thinking, habits of mind that I am sure will stay with you.
What's so important about creativity and critical thinking? There are many answers. I am an economist, so I will answer by talking first about our economic future--or your economic future, I should say, because each of you will have many years, I hope, to contribute to and benefit from an increasingly sophisticated, complex, and globalized economy. My emphasis today will be on prospects for the long run. In particular, I will be looking beyond the very real challenges of economic recovery that we face today--challenges that I have every confidence we will overcome--to speak, for a change, about economic growth as measured in decades, not months or quarters.
Many factors affect the development of the economy, notably among them a nation's economic and political institutions, but over long periods probably the most important factor is the pace of scientific and technological progress. Between the days of the Roman Empire and when the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe, the standard of living of the average person throughout most of the world changed little from generation to generation. For centuries, many, if not most, people produced much of what they and their families consumed and never traveled far from where they were born. By the mid-1700s, however, growing scientific and technical knowledge was beginning to find commercial uses. Since then, according to standard accounts, the world has experienced at least three major waves of technological innovation and its application. The first wave drove the growth of the early industrial era, which lasted from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. This period saw the invention of steam engines, cotton-spinning machines, and railroads. These innovations, by introducing mechanization, specialization, and mass production, fundamentally changed how and where goods were produced and, in the process, greatly increased the productivity of workers and reduced the cost of basic consumer goods. The second extended wave of invention coincided with the modern industrial era, which lasted from the mid-1800s well into the years after World War II. This era featured multiple innovations that radically changed everyday life, such as indoor plumbing, the harnessing of electricity for use in homes and factories, the internal combustion engine, antibiotics, powered flight, telephones, radio, television, and many more. The third era, whose roots go back at least to the 1940s but which began to enter the popular consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s, is defined by the information technology (IT) revolution, as well as fields like biotechnology that improvements in computing helped make possible. Of course, the IT revolution is still going on and shaping our world today.
Now here's a question--in fact, a key question, I imagine, from your perspective. What does the future hold for the working lives of today's graduates? The economic implications of the first two waves of innovation, from the steam engine to the Boeing 747, were enormous. These waves vastly expanded the range of available products and the efficiency with which they could be produced. Indeed, according to the best available data, output per person in the United States increased by approximately 30 times between 1700 and 1970 or so, growth that has resulted in multiple transformations of our economy and society.1 History suggests that economic prospects during the coming decades depend on whether the most recent revolution, the IT revolution, has economic effects of similar scale and scope as the previous two. But will it?

Continue reading "Bernanke: Economic Prospects for the Long Run" »

Sunday, February 17, 2013

We Must Make the New Machines

Harvard's Ricardo Hausmann is interviewed in the MIT Technology Review:

You Must Make the New Machines, by Antonio Regalado: ...Why has the number of American manufacturing jobs been decreasing so quickly?
The fundamental reason is that productivity in manufacturing has been rising rapidly and demand for manufactured products has been growing more slowly. To supply the stuff that people want requires fewer jobs.
And then, manufacturing is becoming feasible in more parts of the world. There is more competition, including from countries with much lower wages. As they emulate American production, they take market share.
What’s the best manufacturing strategy for the U.S. in that situation?
It’s certainly not playing defense and trying to save jobs. The U.S. has very, very high wages compared to other countries. Yet it also has a comparative advantage, which is deep knowledge, high R&D intensity, and the best science and technology base in the world.
The step that makes the most sense for the U.S. is to become the producer of the machinery that will power the next global manufacturing revolution. That is where the most complex and sophisticated products are, and that is the work that can pay higher wages.
What kind of revolution are you talking about?
My guess is that developments around information technology, 3-D printing, and networks will allow for a redesign of manufacturing. The world will be massively investing in it. The U.S. is well positioned to be the source of those machines. It can only be rivaled by Germany and Japan. ...
The U.S. ... should look to ... pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and machinery. It’s very hard to get into those. Very few countries are in that game. ...
If you look broadly at the U.S...., the country is super-competitive at agriculture and the industries that support it, like farm machinery, agrochemicals, and genetically modified seeds. It is strong in aerospace with Boeing, GE, Northrop Grumman, and Pratt & Whitney. It is a leader in pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and it is the clear leader in information technology and the Internet. New industries often arise from the combination of capabilities...
How well is the U.S. doing in staying competitive?
For a while now, the U.S. has been much less focused on being competitive than most other places are. Americans have the feeling they are born to win, and if they don’t, someone else is cheating. The U.S. has many self-inflicted wounds. It has an infrastructure that’s increasingly lousy and a corporate tax rate higher than most countries’. But the most important [problem] is immigration policy. It’s been a real disaster by preventing the attraction and retention of the high-skilled people who come here to study and then don’t stay.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Arguments For and Against the Use of Machines

A repeat from the past: Arguments for and against the use of machines:

Leeds Woollen Workers Petition, 1786, Modern History Sourcebook: This petition by workers in Leeds (a major center of wool manufacture in Yorkshire) appeared in a local newspaper in 1786. They are complaining about the effects of machines on the previously well-paid skilled workers.

To the Merchants, Clothiers and all such as wish well to the Staple Manufactory of this Nation.

The Humble ADDRESS and PETITION of Thousands, who labour in the Cloth Manufactory.

SHEWETH, That the Scribbling-Machines have thrown thousands of your petitioners out of employ, whereby they are brought into great distress, and are not able to procure a maintenance for their families, and deprived them of the opportunity of bringing up their children to labour: We have therefore to request, that prejudice and self-interest may be laid aside, and that you may pay that attention to the following facts, which the nature of the case requires.

The number of Scribbling-Machines extending about seventeen miles south-west of LEEDS, exceed all belief, being no less than one hundred and seventy! and as each machine will do as much work in twelve hours, as ten men can in that time do by hand, (speaking within bounds) and they working night-and day, one machine will do as much work in one day as would otherwise employ twenty men.

As we do not mean to assert any thing but what we can prove to be true, we allow four men to be employed at each machine twelve hours, working night and day, will take eight men in twenty-four hours; so that, upon a moderate computation twelve men are thrown out of employ for every single machine used in scribbling; and as it may be supposed the number of machines in all the other quarters together, to nearly equal those in the South-West, full four thousand men are left to shift for a living how they can, and must of course fall to the Parish, if not timely relieved. Allowing one boy to be bound apprentice from each family out of work, eight thousand hands are deprived of the opportunity of getting a livelihood.

We therefore hope, that the feelings of humanity will lead those who have it in their power to prevent the use of those machines, to give every discouragement they can to what has a tendency so prejudicial to their fellow-creatures.

This is not all; the injury to the Cloth is great, in so much that in Frizing, instead of leaving a nap upon the cloth, the wool is drawn out and the Cloth is left thread-bare.

Many more evils we could enumerate, but we would hope, that the sensible part of mankind, who are not biassed by interest, must see the dreadful tendancy of their continuance; a depopulation must be the consequence; trade being then lost, the landed interest will have no other satisfaction but that of being last devoured.

We wish to propose a few queries to those who would plead for the further continuance of these machines:

Men of common sense must know, that so many machines in use, take the work from the hands employed in Scribbling, and who did that business before machines were invented.

How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families; and what are they to put their children apprentice to, that the rising generation may have something to keep them at work, in order that they may not be like vagabonds strolling about in idleness? Some say, Begin and learn some other business. Suppose we do; who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake the arduous task; and when we have learned it, how do we know we shall be any better for all our pains; for by the time we have served our second apprenticeship, another machine may arise, which may take away that business also; so that our families, being half pined whilst we are learning how to provide them with bread, will be wholly so during the period of our third apprenticeship.

But what are our children to do; are they to be brought up in idleness? Indeed as things are, it is no wonder to hear of so many executions; for our parts, though we may be thought illiterate men, our conceptions are, that bringing children up to industry, and keeping them employed, is the way to keep them from falling into those crimes, which an idle habit naturally leads to.

These things impartially considered will we hope, be strong advocates in our favour; and we conceive that men of sense, religion and humanity, will be satisfied of the reasonableness, as well as necessity of this address, and that their own feelings will urge them to espouse the cause of us and our families -

Signed, in behalf of THOUSANDS, by

Joseph Hepworth Thomas Lobley

Robert Wood Thos. Blackburn

From J. F. C. Harrison, Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 71-72.


Letter from Leeds Cloth Merchants, 1791, Modern History Sourcebook: This statement by the Cloth Merchants of Leeds (a major center of wool manufacture in Yorkshire) defended the use of machines. It appeared in 1791.

At a time when the people, engaged in every other manufacture in the Kingdom, are exerting themselves to bring their work to market at reduced prices, which can alone be effected by the aid of machinery, it certainly is not necessary that the cloth merchants of Leeds, who depend chiefly on a foreign demand, where they have for competitors the manufacturers of other nations, whose taxes are few, and whose manual labour is only half the price it bears here, should have occasion to defend a conduct, which has for its aim the advantage of the Kingdom in general, and of the cloth trade in particular; yet anxious to prevent misrepresentations, which have usually attended the introduction of the most useful machines, they wish to remind the inhabitants of this town, of the advantages derived to every flourishing manufacture from the application of machinery; they instance that of cotton in particular, which in its internal and foreign demand is nearly alike to our own, and has in a few years by the means of machinery advanced to its present importance, and is still increasing.

If then by the use of machines, the manufacture of cotton, an article which we import, and are supplied with from other countries, and which can every where be procured on equal terms, has met with such amazing success, may not greater advantages be reasonably expected from cultivating to the utmost the manufacture of wool, the produce of our own island, an article in demand in all countries, almost the universal clothing of mankind?

In the manufacture of woollens, the scribbling mill, the spinning frame, and the fly shuttle, have reduced manual labour nearly one third, and each of them at its-first Introduction carried an alarm to the work people, yet each has contributed to advance the wages and to increase the trade, so that if an attempt was now made to deprive us of the use of them, there is no doubt, but every person engaged in the business, would exert himself to defend them.

From these premises, we the undersigned merchants, think it a duty we owe to ourselves, to the town of Leeds, and to the nation at large, to declare that we will protect and support the free use of the proposed improvements in cloth-dressing, by every legal means in our power; and if after all, contrary to our expectations, the introduction of machinery should for a time occasion a scarcity of work in the cloth dressing trade, we have unanimously agreed to give a preference to such workmen as are now settled inhabitants of this parish, and who give no opposition to the present scheme.

Appleby & Sawyer

Bernard Bischoff & Sons

[and 59 other names]

From J. F. C. Harrison, Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 72-74.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Half-Full Glasses

David Altig:

Half-Full Glasses, by David Altig, Macroblog: Just in case you were inclined to drop the "dismal" from the "dismal science," Northwestern University professor Robert Gordon has been doing his best to talk you out of it. His most recent dose of glumness was offered up in a recent Wall Street Journal article that repeats an argument he has been making for a while now:

The growth of the past century wasn't built on manna from heaven. It resulted in large part from a remarkable set of inventions between 1875 and 1900...

This narrow time frame saw the introduction of running water and indoor plumbing, the greatest event in the history of female liberation, as women were freed from carrying literally tons of water each year. The telephone, phonograph, motion picture and radio also sprang into existence. The period after World War II saw another great spurt of invention, with the development of television, air conditioning, the jet plane and the interstate highway system…

Innovation continues apace today, and many of those developing and funding new technologies recoil with disbelief at my suggestion that we have left behind the era of truly important changes in our standard of living…

Gordon goes on to explain why he thinks potential growth-enhancing developments such as advances in healthcare, leaps in energy-production technologies, and 3-D printing are just not up to late-19th-century snuff in their capacity to better the lot of the average citizen. To paraphrase, your great-granddaddy's inventions beat the stuffing out of yours.

There has been a lot of commentary about Professor Gordon's body of work—just a few examples from the blogosphere include Paul KrugmanJohn CochraneFree Exchange (atThe Economist), Gary Becker, and Thomas Edsall (who includes commentary from a collection of first-rate economists). Most of these posts note the current-day maladies that Gordon offers up to furrow the brow of the growth optimists. Among these are the following:

And inequality in America will continue to grow, driven by poor educational outcomes at the bottom and the rewards of globalization at the top, as American CEOs reap the benefits of multinational sales to emerging markets. From 1993 to 2008, income growth among the bottom 99% of earners was 0.5 points slower than the economy's overall growth rate.

Serious considerations, to be sure, but there is actually a chance that some of the "headwinds" that Gordon emphasizes are signs that something really big is afoot. In fact, Gordon's headwinds remind me of this passage, from a paper by economists Jeremy Greenwood and Mehmet Yorukoglu published about 15 years ago:

A simple story is told here that connects the rate of technological progress to the level of income inequality and productivity growth. The idea is this. Imagine that a leap in the state of technology occurs and that this jump is incarnated in new machines, such as information technologies. Suppose that the adoption of new technologies involves a significant cost in terms of learning and that skilled labor has an advantage at learning. Then the advance in technology will be associated with an increase in the demand for skill needed to implement it. Hence the skill premium will rise and income inequality will widen. In the early phases the new technologies may not be operated efficiently due to a dearth of experience. Productivity growth may appear to stall as the economy undertakes the (unmeasured) investment in knowledge needed to get the new technologies running closer to their full potential. The coincidence of rapid technological change, widening inequality, and a slowdown in productivity growth is not without precedence in economic history.

Greenwood and Yorukoglu go on to assess, in detail, how durable-goods prices, inequality, and productivity actually behaved in the first and second industrial revolutions. They conclude that game-changing technologies have, in history, been initially associated with falling capital prices, rising inequality, and falling productivity. Here is a representative chart, depicting the period (which was rich with technological advance) leading up to Gordon's (undeniably) golden age:

Mbchart130201Source: "1974," Jeremy Greenwood and Mehmet Yorukoglu, 
Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, 46, 1997

Greenwood and Yorukoglu conclude their study with this pointed question:

Plunging prices for new technologies, a surge in wage inequality, and a slump in the advance of labor productivity - could all this be the hallmark of the dawn of an industrial revolution? Just as the steam engine shook 18th-century England, and electricity rattled 19th-century America, are information technologies now rocking the 20th-century economy?

I don't know (and nobody knows) if the dark-before-the-dawn possibility described by Greenwood and Yorukoglu is the apt analogy for where the U.S. (and global) economy sits today. But I will bet you there was some commentator writing in 1870 who sounded an awful lot like Professor Gordon.

Suppose this is true. Does it necessarily imply that addressing some of these problems, e.g. reducing wage inequality, would undermine the "dawn" in this "dark-before-the-dawn" story? Does brightening the dark prevent the dawn?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

'Wages, Fairness, and Productivity'

Chris Dillow:

Wages, fairness & productivity: Do higher wages motivate workers to work harder? A recent experiment conducted on Swiss newspaper distributors suggests the answer's yes, but only partially so:

Workers who perceive being underpaid at the base wage increase their performance if the hourly wage increases, while those who feel adequately paid or overpaid at the base wage do not change their performance.

This suggests that people are motivated not so much by the cold cash nexus as by feelings of reciprocal fairness...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

'Robots and All That'

Fred Moseley responds to my comments on his comments (I suggested that if he wants a theory of exploitation that is consistent, he should consider dropping Marx's Labor Theory of Value, which does not actually explain value, and instead explain exploitation in more modern terms, i.e. with reference to why workers have not received their marginal products in recent decades):

Thanks to Mark for posting my critical comment on Krugman’s explanation of stagnant real wages and declining wage share of income, and for his introductory comment, which raises fundamental issues.
A question for Mark: how do you know what the “MP benchmark” is that workers should have received. The MP benchmark is presumably the “marginal product of labor”, but how do you know what this is? I know of no time series estimates of the aggregate MPL (independent of income shares) for recent decades. If you know of such estimates, please send me the reference(s).
What you have in mind may be estimates like Mishel’s estimates of the “productivity of labor” and the “real wage of production workers”, which shows a widening gap in recent years (see Figure A in “The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth”; ). But these estimates of the “productivity of labor” are not of the MPL of marginal productivity theory, but are instead the total product divided by total labor. These estimates are more consistent with Marxian theory than with marginal productivity theory. And I agree that explaining this divergence is an important key to understanding the increasing inequality in recent decades. I think the explanation has to do with a number of factors that have put downward pressure on wages: higher unemployment, outsourcing and threat of more, declining real minimum wage, attacks on unions, etc. This is very different from Krugman’s “capital-biased technological change”.
A word on the labor theory of value: the LTV is not mainly a micro theory of prices, but is instead primarily a macro theory of profit. And I think that it is the best theory of profit by far in the history of economics (there is not much competition). It explains a wide range of important phenomena in capitalist economies: conflicts over wages, and conflicts over the length of the working day and the intensity of labor in the workplace, endogenous technological change, trends and fluctuations in the rate of profit over time, endogenous causes of economic crises, etc. (For further discussion of the explanatory power of Marx’s theory see my “Marx Economic Theory: True or False? A Marxian Response to Blaug’s Appraisal”, in Moseley (ed.) Heterodox Economic Theories: True or False?; available here:
Marginal productivity, in very unfavorable contrast, can explain none of these important phenomena.
Thanks again.
Fred

Just one comment. If the LTV cannot explain input or output prices, and it doesn't, how can it explain profit?

(Okay, two -- In defense of Krugman, his book Conscience of a Liberal was anything but a “capital-biased technological change” explanation of rising inequality, and he stated the “capital-biased technological change” explanation as something to look into rather than a conclusion he has drawn. For example, he says:

More on robots and all that ... there’s another possible resolution: monopoly power. Barry Lynn and Philip Longman have argued that we’re seeing a rapid rise in market concentration and market power. The thing about market power is that it could simultaneously raise the average rents to capital and reduce the return on investment as perceived by corporations, which would now take into account the negative effects of capacity growth on their markups. So a rising-monopoly-power story would be one way to resolve the seeming paradox of rapidly rising profits and low real interest rates. As they say, this calls for more research; but the starting point is to realize that there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear, but it’s potentially really important.

So I don't think it's completyely fair to say that Krugman's explanation for rising inequality is "capital-biased technological change.")

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

'Skill-Biased Technological Change and Rising Wage Inequality'

Lots of discussion recently about whether technological change is the primary source of wage inequality in recent decades (as opposed to policy and institutions). According to this, there are many "problems and puzzles for the skill biased technical change story": 

Skill-Biased Technological Change and Rising Wage Inequality: Some Problems and Puzzles, by Owen Sidar: Dylan Matthews has a nice post on the inequality & skill biased technical change debate between David Autor, who is one of my favorite labor economists, and some folks at EPI.

I wanted to highlight this paper by David Card and John DiNardo that goes through some problems and puzzles for the skill biased technical change story. Here’s how they conclude:

Our main conclusion is that, contrary to the impression conveyed by most of the recent literature, the SBTC hypothesis falls short as a unicausal explanation for the evolution of the U.S. wage structure in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, we find puzzles and problems for the theory in nearly every dimension of the wage structure. This is not to say that we believe technology was fixed over the past 30 years or that recent technological changes have had no effect on the structure of wages. There were many technological innovations in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and it seems likely that these changes had some effect on relative wages. Rather, we argue that the SBTC hypothesis by itself is not particularly helpful in organizing or understanding the shifts in the structure of wages that have occurred in the U.S. labor market. Based on our reading of the evidence, we believe it is time to reevaluate the case that SBTC offers a satisfactory explanation for the rise in U.S. wage inequality in the last quarter of the twentieth century. 

I think that skill-biased technical change is part of the explanation for rising inequality, but it's far from the entire story.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Paul Krugman: Is Growth Over?

How important is the digital revolution?

Is Growth Over?, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The great bulk of the economic commentary you read in the papers is focused on the short run: the effects of the “fiscal cliff” on U.S. recovery, the stresses on the euro, Japan’s latest attempt to break out of deflation. This focus is understandable... But... What do we know about the prospects for long-run prosperity? The answer is: less than we think.
The long-term projections produced by official agencies, like the Congressional Budget Office, generally make two big assumptions. One is that economic growth over the next few decades will resemble growth over the past few decades. ... On the other side, however, these projections generally assume that income inequality, which soared over the past three decades, will increase only modestly looking forward. ...
Yet this conventional wisdom is very likely to be wrong on one or both dimensions.
Recently, Robert Gordon ... created a stir by arguing that economic growth is likely to slow sharply — indeed, that the age of growth that began in the 18th century may well be drawing to an end. ...
It’s an interesting thesis... And while I don’t think he’s right, the way in which he’s probably wrong has implications equally destructive of conventional wisdom. For the case against Mr. Gordon’s techno-pessimism rests largely on the assertion that the big payoff to information technology, which is just getting started, will come from the rise of smart machines.
If you follow these things, you know that the field of artificial intelligence has for decades been a frustrating underachiever... Lately, however, the barriers seem to have fallen... So machines may soon be ready to perform many tasks that currently require large amounts of human labor. This will mean rapid productivity growth and, therefore, high overall economic growth.
But — and this is the crucial question — who will benefit from that growth? Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to make the case that most Americans will be left behind, because smart machines will end up devaluing the contribution of workers, including highly skilled workers whose skills suddenly become redundant. The point is that there’s good reason to believe that the conventional wisdom embodied in long-run budget projections — projections that shape almost every aspect of current policy discussion — is all wrong.
What, then, are the implications of this alternative vision for policy? Well, I’ll have to address that topic in a future column.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Labor Saving Innovation

When I was a little kid, I used to go and stay with my grandparents for a week or two each summer. I thought it was fun, and I liked going there, but I realized later it was mainly to give my parents a break. So I guess we were all better off. Except maybe my grandparents by the end of the second week.

For awhile, my grandfather was the watermaster for an area north of Yuba City, CA (around Tudor if you know the area, the water came from the Feather river near Star Bend if I remember correctly, and it was used to irrigate crops and orchards). When I visited, I'd sometimes go to work with him and one part of the job was him riding around in his pickup and checking the height of water in concrete pipes spread throughout the area he managed (they were taller than he was, and a couple of feet in diameter -- some were rectangular and much larger). He would then adjust the water if it was too low or too high (probably automated today, don't know, he did it, in part, by adjusting the intake from the river). This required him to take a ladder from his pickup, lean it up against the pipe, look inside and and visually check the water height, and then pack up again.

Float-guageLike any worker, he preferred the job to be easier rather than harder, so he designed and installed a float system in each pipe that would allow him to check the water height as he drove by. No more getting out of the truck. It was simply really, just a float in the pipe attached to a lever on a pivot with an indicator attached to the other end, but it was a huge timesaver (there's a really bad depiction of it next to this paragraph). There were also markers on the outside corresponding to water heights (in feet) on the inside.

After he did this, he was able to spend more time at other things (one of which I think was a nap each day after lunch), and also take on new things that weren't possible before.

Not sure what started me thinking about this, but it makes me wonder how much innovation on the production floor comes from workers trying to make things easier for themselves. I think it was a government job -- not completely sure -- doesn't matter though, the incentive to reduce irksome labor is there profit motive or not. But even for firms where the profit motive is present -- firms where we think of managers imposing profit-maximizing changes -- how much profit enhancing innovation is actually due to workers just trying to make their day a little easier?

Krugman’s Explanation of Stagnant Real Wages

On the run today -- guests arriving soon and I am nor yet ready -- so some quick ones. This one came by email from Fred Moseley, and I haven't had a chance to give it much (i.e. any) thought. Comments?:

Krugman’s explanation of stagnant real wages: In a recent post on his NYT blog (“Technology and Wages”) Paul Krugman argued that the reason for stagnant real wages in the US economy in recent years is that technological change has been “capital-biased”, in the sense of Hick’s “capital using” technological change. Unfortunately, Krugman did not explain clearly what he means by “capital biased technological change” (as several readers complained).
According to Hicks, capital-using technological change (i.e. Krugman’s capital-biased) increases the marginal product of capital faster than the marginal product of labor (i.e. ↑MPK > ↑MPL). Krugman concludes that “we’re seeing new technologies that look, on a cursory overview, as if they’re capital biased.”
My question to Krugman (if I may) is: how do you know that technological change has been “capital biased”? A “cursory overview” of what data? What is the empirical evidence for this conclusion? How are the MPL and MPK estimated, independently of wages and profit? I know of no way to do this, especially for an aggregate production function.
Furthermore, the MPL (or MPK) is a logically incoherent concept, because the MPL (a partial derivative of the production function) requires that labor be increased by one unit and all the other inputs be held constant. But that is not possible in all goods-producing industries – it is not possible to increase labor and output without at the same time increasing raw material inputs (and other intermediate inputs); e.g. it is not possible to produce another shirt without more cloth, and not possible to produce another car without more tires, brakes, etc. If a firm hired labor up to the point where the real wages = MPL, it would lose money, because it would not have taken into account the extra cost of additional raw materials and other intermediate inputs. This non-existence of marginal products is not widely recognized, but it should be.
Another reader made a similar criticism: “The argument depends on the theory that workers are paid their marginal product. Some people hold to this old idea, however it is not supported by the empirical evidence.” Amen.
For further discussion of criticisms of marginal productivity theory (a two part paper), see here and here.
It is time we stop talking about marginal products and look for other better, logically consistent and empirically supported theories of the distribution of income.
I agree with Krugman in a subsequent post where he stated: “If you want to understand what’s happening to income distribution in the 21st century, you need to stop talking so much about skills, and start talking much more about profits and who owns the capital.”.
But marginal productivity theory is not a coherent way to talk about profits.
Fred Moseley
Mount Holyoke College

Saturday, December 15, 2012

'Inequality: Power vs. Human Capital'

Chris Dillow:

Inequality: power vs human capital, by Chris Dillow: David Ruccio points to labor's falling share of income in the US and says:

We need to talk much more about profits and who owns capital. And, in addition, who appropriates and distributes the surplus and to whom that surplus is subsequently distributed.

This is like saying a man should put his trousers on before leaving the house. It's good advice, but it shouldn't need saying.

A nice new paper by Amparo Castello-Climent and Rafael Domenech at the University of Valencia supports his point. They point out that there's no correlation between inequality of human capital and inequality of incomes. This is true across time.. And it's true across countries... This is a challenge for the neoclassical view that income inequality is due to inequality of marginal productivities. ...

Instead, the more obvious possible reason for the lack of link between human capital and income equality is simply that inequality reflects not differences in productivity but differences in power which themselves arise from institutional differences. Inequality is higher in south America than in Japan or South Korea simply because south America has extractive institutions which enable a small minority to exploit the masses, whereas Japan and South Korea do not.

Institutional differences in power also help explain another fact: why does the return to university education differ so much (pdf) across European nations of similar income? It is higher in the UK than in Germany or Nordic countries, for example. It's hard to explain this by technical change or globalization, as these factors should have affected countries reasonably similarly. A more plausible possibility, surely, is that institutional factors - the power of capital over labor - allow (some) graduates greater access to the economic surplus in the UK than it allows them in the Nordic countries.

Although I'm speaking here in macroeconomic terms, the point holds at a micro level too. Why did Rebekah Brooks get a £10.9m payoff from Murdoch? It's not because she has obvious greater marginal productivity or technical human capital than the rest of us. It's because (for reasons we needn't consider) she had privileged access to the surplus.

Inequality, then, is better explained by power than by human capital or marginal productivity.

This is not a novel thought, or the first time I've made this point, but more and more it seems that we shouldn't think of these as competing explanations for inequality, but rather as complementary explanations that are mutually reinforcing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Cautionary Details on U.S. Manufacturing Productivity'

Awhile back I asked Tim Taylor if it would be okay to reprint a post occasionally in full or in part, and he quickly and graciously said I could. As he notes, this is an important addendum to the standard story on manufacturing, productivity, and employment. The bottom line is that "the condition of U.S. manufacturing looks more ominous than the standard story" would have us believe:

Cautionary Details on U.S. Manufacturing Productivity: Susan Houseman, by Tim Taylor: There's a basic and often-told story about output and employment in the U.S. manufacturing sector: I'm sure I've told it a time or two myself. The story begins by pointing out that the total quantity of U.S. manufacturing output has actually held up fairly well over recent decades, although it hasn't grown as quickly as the services sector. However, productivity growth in manufacturing has been rising quickly enough that productivity growth. However, manufacturing productivity has been rising quickly enough that, even though manufacturing output has remained fairly strong, the number of jobs has been falling. The standard historical analogy is that just as rising agricultural productivity meant that fewer U.S. farmers were needed, now rising manufacturing productivity means that fewer manufacturing workers are needed.

That story isn't exactly wrong, at least not over the long-run, but Susan Houseman has been digging down into the details and finding arguments which suggests that it is a seriously incomplete version of what's happening in the U.S. manufacturing sector. Houseman presented some of these arguments in a paper written with Christopher Kurz, Paul Lengermann, and Benjamin Mandel, called  "Offshoring Bias in U.S. Manufacturing," which appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of my own Journal of Economic Perspectives. (Like all articles in JEP back to the first issue in 1987, it is freely available courtesy of the American Economic Association.) In turn, their JEP paper was a revision of a more detailed Federal Reserve working paper in 2010, available here. However, Houseman offers a nice overview of her arguments in an interview recently published in fedgazette, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. ...
After reading Houseman, when you hear the standard story about how high productivity in manufacturing is leading to reduced employment, the following thoughts should rattle through your head:

1)  Most of the productivity growth in manufacturing is computers. Houseman: "First, a very important fact, but one I find most people don’t know—including some people who write a lot about the manufacturing sector—is that manufacturing growth in real [price-adjusted] value added and productivity wasn’t that strong without the computer and electronics industry. The computer industry is small—it only accounts for about 12 percent of manufacturing’s value added....  But we find that without the computer industry, growth in manufacturing real value added falls by two-thirds and productivity growth falls by almost half. It doesn’t look like a strong sector without computers."

2) Most of the productivity growth in manufacturing computers is because computers are becoming so much faster and better over time, and government statistics count that a productivity growth, not because an average worker is producing a dramatically greater quantity of computers. Houseman: "The standard argument is that the rapid productivity growth in computers is coming from product innovation. This year’s computers and semiconductors are faster and do more than last year’s models. And that product innovation essentially gets captured in the price indexes the government uses to deflate computer and semiconductor shipments. The price indexes for most products increase over time—that’s inflation. But, for example, the price indexes used to deflate computer shipments have actually fallen by a whopping 21 percent per year since the late 1990s. Those rapid price declines largely reflect adjustments for the growing power of computers. And that extraordinary decline in computer price indexes translates into extraordinary growth in real value added and productivity in the computer industry as measured in government statistics. So, in some statistical sense, today’s computer may be the equivalent of, say, 13 computers in 1998. ... The reason jobs in computers have been lost is not because productivity growth has crowded them out; not at all. It’s because much of the production has gone overseas...."

3)  A sizeable share of what looks like growth in manufacturing productivity is actually from importing less expensive inputs to production. Houseman: "[T]here’s been a lot of growth in manufacturers’ use of foreign intermediate inputs since the 1990s, and most of those inputs come from developing and low-wage countries where costs are lower. We point out that those lower costs aren’t being captured by statistical agencies, and so, as a result, the growth of those imported inputs is being undercounted. ...  Suppose an auto manufacturer used to buy tires from a domestic tire manufacturer. Then it outsources the purchase of its tires to, say, Mexico, and the Mexicans sell the tires for half the price. That price drop—when the auto manufacturer switches to the low-cost Mexican supplier—isn’t caught in our statistics. And if you don’t capture that price drop, it’s going to look like, in some statistical sense, the manufacturer can make the same car but only needs two tires. ... Our statistical agencies try to measure price changes, but they miss them when the price drops because companies have shifted to a low-cost supplier. So because we don’t catch the price drop associated with offshoring, it looks like we can produce the same thing with fewer inputs—productivity growth. It also looks like we are creating more value here in the United States than we really are."

4) If productivity in manufacturing rises because of automation, then those gains in productivity may benefit the owners of the machines--that is, benefit capital rather than labor. Houseman: "And then another standard story has to do with automation. Basically, capital is substituting for labor. Automation can lead to job losses. And the returns from automation, or higher capital use, won’t necessarily be shared with workers."

5) If low-wage labor-intensive manufacturing tasks are now more likely happen overseas, an higher-wage tasks remain in the U.S., then it may appear as if the productivity of an average U.S. manufacturing worker is higher--but it's just a shift in the composition of U.S. manufacturing workers. Houseman: "Then, finally, there’s probably been some shifting in the sorts of production that occur here. In particular, less of the labor-intensive production is done in the United States, and that would result in job losses and higher labor productivity. Again, the gains from that productivity growth aren’t necessarily going to be shared with remaining workers. So part of the answer to the puzzle is that even if productivity gains are real, there’s really nothing that guarantees those gains will be broadly shared by workers."

Add all these factors up, and the condition of U.S. manufacturing looks more ominous than the standard story of high productivity and resulting job losses. For more on the future of global and U.S. manufacturing, see this November 30 post on "Global Manufacturing: A McKinsey View."

Monday, December 10, 2012

'The Distributional Issue ... is Extremely Important'

Dean Baker responds to inconsistent worries about robots displacing labor and the ability of a smaller number of workers per retiree to support Social Security:

... we seem to be seeing rapid improvements in productivity growth ... that are drastically reducing the demand for labor. Yet all the gains from these improvements seem to be going to owners of capital as the labor share of output has been falling sharply.

The distributional issue ... is extremely important, both for workers who are not seeing gains in living standards, and also for the economy as a whole, since a continual upward redistribution of income will lead to stagnation as a result of inadequate demand. However, it is worth noting that the concern that rapid productivity growth will lead to less demand for labor is 180 degrees at odds with the often repeated concern that productivity growth will be inadequate to sustain rising living standards in the future.

... If you are concerned that a falling ratio of workers to retirees is going to make us poor then you are not concerned that excessive productivity growth will leave tens of millions without jobs.
It is possible for too much productivity growth to be a problem, if the gains are not broadly shared. It is also possible for too little productivity growth to be a problem as a growing population of retirees impose increasing demands on the economy. But, it is not possible for both to simultaneously be problems. ...

I'm not worried about low productivity growth and stagnation. Since we are in the midst of it, it's hard to see the full impact of the digital revolution, but I believe it's a bigger force for productivity growth than we realize. There are big changes in our future as robots/machines become better and better at displacing people. However, that growth will be more unequal than ever, and it's the distribution of the gains from growth that I worry about.

In the future, we'll have the ability to produce enough stuff, and that ability won't stop growing. The problem will be distribution, and our inherently selfish nature makes it an extremely difficult problem to solve.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Rogoff: Innovation Crisis or Financial Crisis?

Kenneth Rogoff says our troubles may last awhile but thye aren't permanent:

Innovation Crisis or Financial Crisis?, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate: As one year of sluggish growth spills into the next, there is growing debate about what to expect over the coming decades. Was the global financial crisis a harsh but transitory setback to advanced-country growth, or did it expose a deeper long-term malaise?
Recently, a few writers, including internet entrepreneur Peter Thiel and political activist and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, have espoused a fairly radical interpretation of the slowdown. In a forthcoming book, they argue that the collapse of advanced-country growth is not merely a result of the financial crisis; at its root, they argue, these countries’ weakness reflects secular stagnation in technology and innovation. As such, they are unlikely to see any sustained pickup in productivity growth without radical changes in innovation policy.
Economist Robert Gordon takes this idea even further. ...
These are very interesting ideas, but the evidence still seems overwhelming that the drag on the global economy mainly reflects the aftermath of a deep systemic financial crisis, not a long-term secular innovation crisis. ...
Attributing the ongoing slowdown to the financial crisis does not imply the absence of long-term secular effects, some of which are rooted in the crisis itself. ... Taken together, these factors make it easy to imagine trend GDP growth being one percentage point below normal for another decade, possibly even longer. ..
So, is the main cause of the recent slowdown an innovation crisis or a financial crisis? Perhaps some of both, but surely the economic trauma of the last few years reflects, first and foremost, a financial meltdown...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Does Taxing the Wealthy Hurt Growth?

This is by Ethan Kaplan of the University of Maryland (via email):

Does Taxing the Wealthy Hurt Growth?, by Ethan Kaplan: What is the impact of taxation on growth? In theory, a country without taxation will have difficulty providing basic public goods such as roads and research that are fundamental for economic growth. However, many politicians and some economists argue that once basic public goods are provided for, increases in taxation have a negative impact on growth. According to this argument, this is especially true for taxes on the very wealthy, who are likely to save their income and channel that savings into entrepreneurship or other investment. Much of the argument over tax policy in the United States is focused on whether the rich should be taxed at a higher or lower rate than they are today. The argument in favor of higher rates is that income inequality is at extremely high levels and the government should focus more on redistribution and also that the rising national debt is also potentially harmful to growth. The argument against higher rates is that raising taxes on wealthy would disincentivize the people most likely to create economic growth and thus jobs. In a climate where jobs are scarce, the argument goes, this is a particularly bad economic idea.
This debate, however, is largely based on ideology rather than evidence. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to figure out the impact of taxation on growth. Changes to the tax codes usually pass Congress when other things are happening to the economy. For example, the 1982 tax cuts, which dropped the top marginal tax rate from 69% to 50%, were passed towards the end of a large recession. Moreover, the impact of taxes on growth can change over time as the economy changes.
Nevertheless, looking at the raw correlation between top marginal tax rates and growth can be helpful for getting a rough sense of the likely impacts of higher taxation on growth. One recent paper by Pikkety, Saez, and Stantcheva looks at the correlation between top marginal tax rates and growth and finds the growth is higher when top marginal tax rates are higher. I restrict myself to the historical experience of the United States and go back to 1930. In particular, I took real chained per capita GDP growth from 1930 to the present from the Bureau of Economic Analysis' (BEA) website. The correlation over this period between the top marginal tax rate and output growth is strong and positive as can be seen below:

Kaplan

A rise in the top marginal tax rate from 0 to 100 percent is correlated with a rise in per capita growth of 5.85 percentage points per year. One reason that this simple correlation might overstate the impact of the marginal tax rate on growth is that the top growth years were in the early 40s when the government was spending heavily and when the country was finally recovering from the Great Depression. If we look only at the post war period (after 1946), a rise from 0 to 100 percent in the top marginal tax rate is associated with an increase of only 2.69 percentage points of growth. Moreover, the statistical significance of the relationship becomes marginal, as the p-value rises from 0.017 to 0.122. On the other hand, if we look at the time period encompassing 1960 to the present, a rise in the top rate from 0 to 100 percent is correlated with a rise in per capita growth of 3.03 percentage points of growth per year, and the relationship becomes more statistically significant (with a p-value of 0.064 percent). Finally, if we look only at the years since 1980, a rise from 0 to 100 percent in the top marginal tax rate is associated with an increase in growth of 3.87 percentage points. In this case, the relationship is statistically insignificant (with a p-value of 0.392 percent), in part because the sample size is small.
While we cannot say that there is a robust significant positive relationship between tax rates and growth, it is still interesting that regardless of when we start the sample, higher top marginal tax rates are associated with higher not lower growth. Moreover, a narrative reading of postwar US economic history leads to the same conclusion. The period of highest growth in the United States was in the post-war era when top marginal tax rates were 94% (under President Truman) and 91% (through 1963). As top marginal rates dropped, so did growth. Moreover, except for 1984, a recovery year, the highest per capita growth rates since 1980 were all in the late 1990s, after the top marginal tax rate had been increased from 28% under President Reagan to 31% under the first President Bush and then 39.6% under President Clinton. One possible reaction to this finding is that what matters more than the top marginal tax rate on income is the capital gains tax rate but growth has also been higher when the capital gains tax rate has been higher.
So, what does this tell us? Of course, it would be silly to make the argument that increasing top marginal rates from 0 to 100 percent increased per capita growth by almost 6 percentage points per year. No doubt there are other factors that could confound the relationship between tax rates and growth. However, the changes in top marginal tax rates over the period are quite large so it seems likely that if raising top marginal rates did have a large negative impact on growth, we should be able to see it in the correlations. Thus, it also seems silly to argue that higher taxes on the rich have a large negative impact on growth, given that historically growth is, if anything, positively correlated with the top marginal rate.
What does this mean for public policy? Given the large rise in inequality in the United States over the past 40 years, if the historical evidence tells us that it is unlikely that taxing the wealthy has a large negative impact on growth (and it might even have a positive impact), shouldn't we increase rates on the wealthy from their current top rates of 35%?
p.s. the data used to analyze the time series is available on my website: econweb.econ.umd.edu/~kaplan

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The 'Old News' on Inequality and Growth

A professor of sociology at Berkeley, Claude Fischer, says all the recent talk about inequality causing a reducing in growth is "old news":

A cost of inequality: growth, by Claude Fischer: A recent story in The New York Times, back in its business section, had important news about inequality: “Income Inequality May Take Toll on Growth.” A couple of economists at the IMF reported research (here) showing that, across many countries, periods of greater income inequality tend to be followed by slow-downs in economic growth.  ...
This is, actually, old news. About twenty years ago the research literature already showed that inequality probably damped the economy (see pp. 126ff here). But this remains important to repeat – not just because reporting the baleful effects of inequality now has the imprimatur of the IMF, but also because so many people still resist the news; they insist instead on believing the opposite, that inequality stimulates the economy, to the benefit of everyone. And, of course, this insistence has political implications right now. ...
To the extent that facts matter in such a politicized debate, it is becoming increasingly clear that equality rather than inequality is a better policy for economic growth. ...

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Rogoff: King Ludd is Still Dead

Kenneth Rogoff:

King Ludd is Still Dead, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. Neoclassical economists predicted that this would not happen, because people would find other jobs, albeit possibly after a long period of painful adjustment. By and large, that prediction has proven to be correct.
Two hundred years of breathtaking innovation since the dawn of the industrial age have produced rising living standards for ordinary people in much of the world, with no sharply rising trend for unemployment. Yes, there have been many problems, notably bouts of staggering inequality and increasingly horrific wars. On balance, however, throughout much of the world, people live longer, work much fewer hours, and lead generally healthier lives.
But there is no denying that technological change nowadays has accelerated, potentially leading to deeper and more profound dislocations. In a much-cited 1983 article, the great economist Wassily Leontief worried that the pace of modern technological change is so rapid that many workers, unable to adjust, will simply become obsolete, like horses after the rise of the automobile. Are millions of workers headed for the glue factory? ...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

'Will American Innovation Slow If We Go 'Cuddly'?'

I hope you read the post by Lane Kenworthy in today's list of links, but let me highlight one section in particular (there's quite a bit more in the full post):

Will everyone be worse off if the United States turns social democratic? by Lane Kenworthy: Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Thierry Verdier have a new paper that asks “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” Their answer is no. The answer follows from a model they develop...
Acemoglu, Robinson, and Verdier say the model might help us understand patterns of economic growth and well-being in the United States and the Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The United States chose cutthroat capitalism, while the Nordics chose cuddly capitalism. The U.S. grew faster for a short time, but since then all five countries have grown at the roughly same pace. America’s high inequality encourages innovation. The Nordics can be cuddly and still grow rapidly because of technological spillover. If the U.S. were to decide to go cuddly, innovation would slow. Both sets of nations would grow less rapidly. ...
Will American innovation slow if we go “cuddly”?
The really interesting question posed by Acemoglu, Robinson, and Verdier is whether innovation would slow in the United States if we strengthened our safety net and/or reduced the relative financial payoff to entrepreneurial success. I’m skeptical, for three reasons.
The first flows from America’s past experience. According to Acemoglu et al’s logic, incentives for innovation in the U.S. were weakest in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960 the top 1%’s share of pretax income had been falling steadily for several decades and had nearly reached its low point. Government spending, meanwhile, had been rising steadily and was close to its peak level. Yet there was plenty of innovation in the 1960s and 1970s, including notable advances in computers, medical technology, and others.
Second, the Nordic countries, with their low income inequality and generous safety nets, currently are among the world’s most innovative countries. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index has consistently ranked them close to the United States in innovation. The most recent report, for 2012-13, rates Sweden as the world’s most innovative nation, followed by Finland. The U.S. ranks sixth. The 2012 WIPO-Insead Global Innovation Index ranks Sweden second and the United States tenth. Whether or not this lasts, it suggests reason to doubt that modest inequality and generous cushions are significant obstacles to innovation.
Third, if Acemoglu and colleagues are correct about the value of financial incentives in spurring innovation, we should see this reflected not only in the United States but also in other nations with relatively high income inequality and low-to-moderate government spending, such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. But we don’t. ...
There’s one additional possibility worth considering. If financial incentives truly are critical for spurring innovation, it could be the opportunity for large gains that matters, rather than the absence of cushions. Suppose we were to increase government revenues in the United States via higher taxes on everyone — steeper income taxes on the top 1% or 5% plus a new national consumption tax. And imagine we used those revenues to expand public insurance and services — fully universal health insurance, universal early education, a beefed-up Earned Income Tax Credit, a new wage insurance program, more individualized assistance with training and job placement. These changes wouldn’t alter income inequality much, but they would enhance economic security and opportunity. Would innovation decline? I doubt it. ...

An enhanced safety net -- a backup if things go wrong -- can give people the security they need to take a chance on pursuing an innovative idea that might die otherwise, or opening a small business. So it may be that an expanded social safety net encourages innovation.

As for the effect of reducing the financial payoff by raising taxes on high incomes to support an expansion in the safety net, I don't think it's any secret that I think the distribution of income in recent decades has pushed too much income toward the top and too little toward the middle and bottom (relative to changes in productivity). That is, the distribution of income is distorted. To the extent that taxing high incomes removes these distortions, it's helpful rather than harmful.

And there must be diminishing returns to incentives in any case. If we take away $50 million in taxes leaving someone the prospect of earning "only" $100 million in net profit (i.e. taxes are 33%), would the person really decide to give up the project? Would someone really decide it isn't worth it to only earn $100 million and work less or give it up altogether? Or is it the case that by the time you get to that much income, a marginal increase of decrease in profit has almost no effect on incentives? I'd guess that's the case (and for those in the game simply to see who can accumulate the most, so long as the rules are the same for all, incentives won't change either). There could be an effect at the margin, i.e. profitable projects become unprofitable due to the increase in the tax rate, and that could impact innovation and growth. But growth doesn't seem to decline when taxes at the top are higher, so this case is hard to make.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

David Ricardo 'On Machinery'

David Ricardo, in the third edition of his Principles (this is from chapter 31, "On Machinery," 1821), reconsiders how the invention of new machinery affects labor:

Ever since I first turned my attention to questions of political economy, I have been of opinion, that such an application of machinery to any branch of production, as should have the effect of saving labour, was a general good, accompanied only with that portion of inconvenience which in most cases attends the removal of capital and labour from one employment to another. It appeared to me, that provided the landlords had the same money rents, they would be benefited by the reduction in the prices of some of the commodities on which those rents were expended, and which reduction of price could not fail to be the consequence of the employment of machinery. The capitalist, I thought, was eventually benefited precisely in the same manner. He, indeed, who made the discovery of the machine, or who first usefully applied it, would enjoy an additional advantage, by making great profits for a time; but, in proportion as the machine came into general use, the price of the commodity produced, would, from the effects of competition, sink to its cost of production, when the capitalist would get the same money profits as before, and he would only participate in the general advantage, as a consumer, by being enabled, with the same money revenue, to command an additional quantity of comforts and enjoyments. The class of labourers also, I thought, was equally benefited by the use of machinery, as they would have the means of buying more commodities with the same money wages, and I thought that no reduction of wages would take place, because the capitalist would have the power of demanding and employing the same quantity of labour as before, although he might be under the necessity of employing it in the production of a new, or at any rate of a different commodity. ...
These were my opinions, and they continue unaltered, as far as regards the landlord and the capitalist; but I am convinced, that the substitution of machinery for human labour, is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers.
My mistake arose from the supposition, that whenever the net income of a society increased, its gross income would also increase; I now, however, see reason to be satisfied that the one fund, from which landlords and capitalists derive their revenue, may increase, while the other, that upon which the labouring class mainly depend, may diminish, and therefore it follows, if I am right, that the same cause which may increase the net revenue of the country, may at the same time render the population redundant, and deteriorate the condition of the labourer. ...
That the opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests, is not founded on prejudice and error, but is conformable to the correct principles of political economy.

However, he goes on to say that this shouldn't be viewed as a call to discourage machinery:

The statements which I have made will not, I hope, lead to the inference that machinery should not be encouraged.  ... The employment of machinery could never be safely discouraged in a State, for if a capital is not allowed to get the greatest net revenue that the use of machinery will afford here, it will be carried abroad, and this must be a much more serious discouragement to the demand for labour, than the most extensive employment of machinery; for, while a capital is employed in this country, it must create a demand for some labour; machinery cannot be worked without the assistance of men, it cannot be made but with the contribution of their labour. By investing part of a capital in improved machinery, there will be a diminution in the progressive demand for labour; by exporting it to another country, the demand will be wholly annihilated.

So, in Ricardo's view, it is a choice between the potential for detrimental effects on labor from the use of new machinery versus even worse effects if the machinery is not used at all. His argument can certainly be questioned, at least in some places, but this is not the positive "lift all boats" theory of growth that is often attributed to Ricardo.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Gordon: Is US Economic Growth Over?

Robert Gordon is "deliberately provocative" (I'm an optimist):

Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six, by Robert J. Gordon, Vox EU: Global growth is slowing – especially in advanced-technology economies. This column argues that regardless of cyclical trends, long term economic growth may grind to a halt. Two and a half centuries of rising per-capita incomes could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.

It is time to raise basic questions about the process of economic growth, especially the assumption – nearly universal since Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s (Solow 1953) – that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever.

  • There was virtually no growth before 1750;
  • There is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely.

This column introduces my CEPR Policy Insight, which argues in detail that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history (Gordon 2012).

The data I use only concern the US and view the future from 2007 while pretending that the financial crisis did not happen. The focus is on per-capita real GDP growth in the frontier country since 1300, the UK until 1906 and the US afterwards. Growth in the frontier economy gradually accelerated after 1750, reached a peak in the middle of the 20th century, and it has been slowing since. The paper is about 'how much further could the frontier growth rate decline?'

Continue reading "Gordon: Is US Economic Growth Over?" »

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Equal Opportunity and Economic Growth

Republicans tell us that tax cuts promote economic growth. But the evidence doesn't support this. As Paul Krugman says:

Remember how the economy tanked after Clinton raised taxes? Remember how great things were after Bush cut them? Oh, wait.

But the evidence is much more favorable to something the Democrats favor, increasing opportunity:

Equal Opportunity and Economic Growth,  by Tim Taylor: A half-century ago, white men dominated the high-skilled occupations in the U.S. economy, while women and minority groups were often barely seen. Unless one holds the antediluvian belief that, say, 95% of all the people who are well-suited to become doctors or lawyers are white men, this situation was an obvious misallocation of social talents. Thus, one might predict that as other groups had more equal opportunities to participate, it would provide a boost to economic growth. Pete Klenow reports the results of some calculations about these connections in "The Allocation of Talent and U.S. Economic Growth," a Policy Brief for the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. ...
Klenow can ... estimate how much of U.S. growth over the last 50 years or so can be traced to greater equality of opportunity, which encouraged many in women and minority groups who had the underlying ability to view it as worthwhile to make a greater investment in human capital.
"How much of overall growth in income per worker between 1960 and 2008 in the U.S. can be explained by women and African Americans investing more in human capital and working more in high-skill occupations? Our answer is 15% to 20% ... White men arguably lost around 5% of their earnings, as a result, because they moved into lower skilled occupations than they otherwise would have. But their losses were swamped by the income gains reaped by women and blacks."
At least to me, it is remarkable to consider that 1/6 or 1/5 of total U.S. growth in income per worker may be due to greater economic opportunity. In short, reducing discriminatory barriers isn't just about justice and fairness to individuals; it's also about a stronger U.S. economy that makes better use of the underlying talents of all its members.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"The Age of Equality"

The history of the "widely accepted compromise between aggregate prosperity and distributional equality":

The Age of Equality, by Richard Pomfret, Vox EU: Economic reporting in the media frequently appears superficial since important economic processes may take decades for their consequences to work through, whereas media typically need fresh daily or weekly news. Economic history provides an antidote to this rush-to-judgement (e.g. Frindlay and O’Rourke 2008, Eichengreen and Irwin 2009).
It is in this spirit that my new book, The Age of Equality, argues that we are still experiencing the long-term consequences of the industrial revolution of the 1700s, and that the current state of that process involves a widely accepted compromise between aggregate prosperity and distributional equality.
Unlike political revolutions that can be dated to 1789 or 1917, the industrial revolution does not have a precise date. However, by the early 1800s it had clearly taken hold in parts of northwest Europe. The new industrial production involved factories with division of labour (exemplified by Adam Smith’s pin factory on the UK’s £20 banknotes) which employed increasingly capital-intensive techniques and applied the results of scientific, or at least casual empirical, observation. It was associated with risk-taking entrepreneurs and mobile workers, who responded to price incentives and were rewarded if they made the right decisions. The process was opposed by those enjoying privileges in the pre-industrial economy, e.g. inherited monarchs with absolute power, landowners with serfs or guild members.
Countries adopting the new system enjoyed unprecedented long-term economic growth. They sought and won global markets for their products so that they could expand the division of labour and capital-intensity of their factories, and they established global empires. Success was no secret. The new system spread across Europe, regions settled by Europeans, and a few other places (notably Japan).
Change was resisted by the ancien régime or by imperial rulers. The 1800s were an Age of Liberty because successful economies were those in which people enjoyed sufficient freedom to respond to economic incentives. The pressure to allow such freedom culminated in the 1910s, with the collapse of the great dynastic empires centred in Saint Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Constantinople and Peking.
Opposition to unbridled capitalism
Yet, even as living standards increased, opposition to unbridled capitalism strengthened. In all of the high-income countries there is evidence of income inequality peaking around the first decade of the twentieth century.
  • In the US, progressives pushed to reduce the power of the rich by antitrust legislation and to protect the poor by social policies.
  • In Europe, socialists’ challenge to capitalism was more fundamental.
The great experiment of the twentieth century was a competition between economic systems over which could best balance prosperity and equality.
The principal challenger was the Soviet centrally planned economy. The success of planning in mass-producing a standardised good was highlighted by the Red Army’s successes in 1938-9 against Japan and in the 1941-5 war against Germany. Central planning was also successful in mobilising resources for a specific goal (e.g. sputnik, the first man in space, or winning Olympic medals) and to satisfy basic needs (e.g. housing, education and healthcare).
Central planning was less successful at continuously improving workplace productivity once the initial enthusiasm for Communism or wartime patriotism had ebbed, or in meeting diversified consumer wants once basic needs had been satisfied. Most of all the central planning was hopeless in allocating capital so that diminishing returns were offset by technical change. The clearest statistical indicator of economic failure is the increasing incremental capital-output ratio (i.e how much capital is needed to generate a one unit flow of output) in the Soviet Union from a normal 3-4 in the 1950s to 15 in the early 1980s. By then the economic failure of central planning was obvious to all.
Capitalism’s mixed fortunes
The market-based economies experienced mixed fortunes in the first half of the twentieth century. Memories were dominated by the depression of the 1930s, which fuelled demands for reduced inequality. However, Europe enjoyed economic growth over the years 1919-39, and for North America the 1920s were a period of prosperity and innovation.
Henry Ford extended the productivity of the factory system by combining interchangeable parts with the assembly line, bringing down the price of a car to the extent that by 1929 over 23 million cars were in use in the US, for a population of 123 million. Ford, however, lost its premier position in the 1930s to General Motors, which adopted assembly line production and offered a choice of models and colours.
The interwar period also saw the spread of vacuum cleaners, which required novel marketing to convince housewives of their value; of refrigerators, whose value was augmented by Clarence Birdseye patenting an effective frozen food technology, and of washing machines, whose use was increased by the innovation of laundromats. These durable consumer goods were all items that central planning was poor at producing in a range of attractive models accessible to a mass market.
The 1989 watershed
By 1989 the victory of market-based economic system was clear, but the winner was not pure capitalism. Governments intervened not just in the classic roles of supplying law and order and public goods, but also to provide greater equality of opportunity and outcome. In a market economy people are rewarded according to the value of their marginal product, but this is low for the old, the sick, or the handicapped People may lose their source of income for reasons beyond their control, and require time to search for the best new source of income. The children of rich parents get a better start in life through better nutrition, healthcare and education. In all of these areas, governments intervene. The relative focus on equality of outcome and equality of opportunity vary, but the desirability of intervention is no longer a matter of serious disagreement.
On a global scale, the gross inequalities of the early 1900s have been eroded. In the mid-1900s empires were dissolved and modernising governments came to power. Influenced by Soviet success, most regimes adopted economic systems with a heavy state hand, which succeeded initially in mobilising resources, but whose limitations were clear by the 1970s. In the final quarter of the twentieth century, country after country adopted more market-based systems and integrated into the global economy. These emerging economies included some of the world’s most populous countries, i.e. China, Mexico, India, Brazil, Indonesia and many more.
Emerging economies: Mixed models
The emerging economies are clearly market-based, but none embraces pure capitalism. Even Hong Kong, the most capitalist economy even while a colony, provided efficient social services and universal public education and healthcare. By the early 2000s, the market economy, and associated pressures for liberty and equality, held undisputed status as the desirable economic system.
This is not the end of history. Debates, rightly, rage in democratic market economies about the appropriate balance between market-driven prosperity and state-mediated equality. In the US the current focus is on healthcare, and in Europe and Australasia on funding for tertiary education. In all countries, aging populations and archaic pension rights pose serious challenges.
At a global level, tensions between established and emerging powers, unlike in 1914-45, cannot be settled by total war. The presence of weapons of mass destruction, cross-border environmental issues and global warming, the responsibility to protect citizens from barbaric governments and the dangers of rogue states all point to the need for international cooperation. The WTO with its almost universally agreed, and abided by, rules for trade despite the lack of serious enforcement mechanisms is an example of imperfect, but functioning, mutually beneficial cooperation. Governance of other multilateral institutions established in the 1940s (the UN, IMF and World Bank) clearly requires reform, while some global and regional problems may require novel institutions. Initiatives like the Svalbard Global Seed Bank, which is supported by regimes as varied as Zimbabwe, North Korea and Syria, provide insurance against inadequate crop biodiversity. The twenty-first century will be the Age of Fraternity because cooperation will be required in the global economy, even though the process may be slow and uneven.
What are the implications for the nearer future? Politicians who rail against socialism or the market always adopt a more moderate stance after they come into office – not because they are cowed by outside forces, but because this is what their electorates want. At any point in time, some voters will be animated by encroachments of the state or by market-generated excesses, but these cannot plausibly be seen as appeals for unfettered capitalism or central planning. The reality is of choices within a narrow band whose limits have been determined by a quarter millennium of economic history.
References
Pomfret, Richard (2011). The Age of Equality: The Twentieth Century in Economic Perspective, Harvard University Press.
Findlay, Ronald and Kevin H O’Rourke (2008), “Lessons from the history of trade and war”, VoxEU.org, 10 March.
Eichengreen, Barry and Douglas Irwin (2009), “The protectionist temptation: Lessons from the Great Depression for today”, VoxEU.org, 17 March.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dynamic Capitalism vs. the Welfare State

We are, as they say, live. Did the welfare state work during the recession?:

Dynamic Capitalism vs. the Welfare State

Does increased social protection for middle class households lower "dynamism"?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Wishful Thinking About Tax Rates"

Christina Romer gives some evidence (or, to be more precise, notes the lack of evidence) on the dynamic effects of tax cuts discussed in the post below this one:

That Wishful Thinking About Tax Rates, by Christina Romer, Commentary, NY Times: At least since Calvin Coolidge, politicians have trumpeted the supply-side benefits of cutting marginal income tax rates. Lower rates will unleash economic growth and the cuts will largely pay for themselves — or so it’s often said. Yet careful studies find little evidence of such effects. ...
This idea was the essence of President Ronald Reagan’s theory of supply-side economics, and his justification for large, permanent tax cuts in the early 1980s. Mitt Romney, now seeking the Republican nomination for president, cited a similar argument when he proposed cutting all income tax rates 20 percent. ...
History shows that marginal federal income tax rates have varied widely. ... If you can find a consistent relationship between these fluctuations and sustained economic performance, you’re more creative than I am. ...
Of course, many factors affect the economy, so a lack of correlation doesn’t prove that marginal-rate changes have little impact. That’s why economists have devoted thousands of pages in journals to testing the effects more scientifically.
One standard approach is to look for natural experiments in the tax code. ... But a critical review of several natural-experiment studies concluded that ... if the marginal tax rate for high earners decreased from its current level of 35 percent to 28 percent (which Mr. Romney proposes), reported income would rise by just 2 1/2 percent.
In a new study, David Romer and I found that changes in marginal rates in the 1920s and ’30s had even smaller effects. ...
Where does this leave us? I can’t say marginal rates don’t matter at all. ... But the strong conclusion from available evidence is that their effects are small. ...
[I]ncome inequality has surged in recent decades. Raising marginal rates on the wealthy is a straightforward, effective way to counter this trend, while helping to solve our looming deficit problem. Given the strong evidence that the incentive effects of marginal rates are small, opponents of such a move will need a new argument. Invoking the myth of terrible supply-side consequences just won’t cut it.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Stiglitz: Income Inequality Bad for Economy

Via the Joe Stiglitz fake twitter feed:

Famed economist: Income inequality bad for economy, by Andrew Tangel, NorthJersey.com: Joseph Stiglitz ... offered a sobering outlook on Europe's debt crisis...
After his speech Wednesday — part of the Eastern Economic Association speaker series — The Record sat down with Stiglitz to talk about wealth inequality, taxes and how to spur growth in the United States.
Q. Occupy Wall Street has forced income inequality into national discourse. Putting aside the question of whether disparities in income and wealth are fair, what is the impact of income and wealth inequality in this country, and if that gap continues to grow, what could be the economic consequences?
Inequality is bad for growth, stability and efficiency. … Inequality peaked both before the Great Depression and before the Great Recession, and it's not an accident. So basically, when we have a lot of inequality, demand goes down. … All this inequality was offset by creating a bubble. The bubble allowed people to consume more. Now we have the inequality but we don't have a bubble, and that means that we will have persistent, weak demand, and therefore unless we create another bubble it's going to be very difficult for us to get back to full employment.
A lot of the inequality that we have in the United States is created by distortions – excessive financial sector, monopolies like Microsoft … giving the oil companies, mining companies resources at a discount. … These things distort the economy, while they create wealth at the top. So it's not wealth creation – it's wealth redistribution, which makes the size of the pie smaller. ...
Q. We're in a presidential election and there are a lot of economic arguments being made regarding tax and regulatory policies and the labor market. What do you see some of the biggest economic myths — and misunderstandings — permeating today's political discourse in the United States?
The first is that reducing the budget deficit would stimulate the economy by restoring confidence... No evidence that has ever worked. You might call it the austerity myth – that's the most serious one.
The second one is that raising taxes on upper-income individuals will lead them to save less, invest less, will have adverse supply-side effects. Again, no evidence of that.
The third is that lowering [the] corporate income tax rate across the board will stimulate investment in the United States. No evidence of that. … If you want to encourage investment, what you do is lower taxes on firms that invest and you raise taxes on firms that don't invest. You can restructure the taxes to provide incentives to invest.

The answer to the first question makes a point I've been trying to emphasize. If the distribution of income is distorted by monopoly power, political power, and other market failures (e.g. taking advantage of informational asymmetries to sell questionable assets to unsuspecting customers who are reassured by triple A ratings, and so on), then taxing away some of the money and redistributing it to where it would have gone without the distortions is justifiable. And it shouldn't create the sort of distortions to job creation, etc., that the wealthy complain about in response to proposals to raise their taxes. In fact, it's doubtful that taxing the wealthy would have harmful effects of growth even if the distortions to the income distribution were eliminated. But when distortions exist, when taxes are simply returning the distribution of income to the proportions that conservatives argue are optimal, there's no need to even ask the question about whether it will harm growth. It won't. In fact, as Stiglitz notes (and as I have not noted nearly enough when talking about this), the distorted flow of income distorts incentives away from their optimal configuration and thus, if anything, lowers economic growth. I don't think the growth (efficiency) effects are large, for me this is more about equity than efficiency, but conservatives believe these distortions are very important and thus, if growth rather than upward redistribution was really their concern, they'd support efforts to eliminate these distortions. The fact that they don't is telling.

And note another important point. Redistributing the tax burden can do more to promote growth than lowering taxes across the board. The reason is that lowering taxes for everyone gives benefits -- needlessly -- to firms who have no plans to invest, tax cut or not. From an incentive point of view, that's wasteful. Money was spent that did nothing to generate investment. Had the money been used elsewhere, e.g. to promote investment among firms that might actually respond, then we would get more growth per dollar of tax cuts ("bang for the buck" ought to be just as important for tax cuts as it is with government spending). Thus, as Stiglitz says, we can take tax cuts away from firms who are not responding to them and redirect them elsewhere. That gives us the desired increase in investment and growth without increasing the deficit, and hence reduces the pressure to make cuts in social programs or to raise taxes elsewhere to compensate for all the money wasted on tax cuts given to firms who will not increase investment in response. Giving tax cuts to firms who will not react to them simply redistributes income without producing the desired outcome on economic growth. Once again, if anything this type of redistribution lowers efficiency and growth, the opposite of what is intended.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Alexander Field, Greg Clark, and Optimism about the Current Unpleasantness"

Why aren't we doing more to rebuild our infrastructure at a time when our needs are high and borrowing costs, labor costs, and other costs of infrastructure are at bargain prices? Not to mention the employment benefits that would come with enhanced infrastructure investment. And why aren't we doing more to shore up our financial infrastructure through new regulations and oversight of the banking sector so that the problems we are having presently are less likely to reappear? There have been some changes in financial regulation, but not enough, and the financial sector is doing its best to block any further progress in this area:

Alexander Field, Greg Clark, and Optimism about the Current Unpleasantness, by Eric Rauchway: On the jacket of Alexander Field’s new book A Great Leap Forward, my colleague Greg Clark says this:

As we sit mired in the Great Recession, Alexander Field’s exciting reappraisal of the Great Depression offers surprising solace. By showing the Great Depression was coupled with the most rapid technological advance in U.S. history, he fundamentally recasts the history of the 1930s. But he also offers hope that our own depression likely will have no long-run costs to the U.S. economy.

By measuring total factor productivity (TFP), or the improvement in productivity not accounted for by traditional inputs, Field finds tremendous gains during the Depression. They owe in part to private investment in manufacturing efficiencies, chemical processes, and other technical improvements. Historiographically, there’s a major payoff in showing that the vast majority of such innovation came during the Depression, not during the war.

But (as the bulk of Field’s book is devoted to showing) the productivity improvement owes mostly to construction transportation infrastructure – to the construction of roads, bridges, and all that made the modern trucking industry possible. Field even goes so far as to say the end of the golden age of productivity in the American economy in 1973 “coincides with [he does not quite say owes to] a tapering off of gains from a one-time reconfiguration of the surface freight system in the United States”.

And this massive public investment in infrastructure, which made possible the postwar suburbanization and boom, went along with financial regulation. Field attributes both the current crisis and that of the 1920s to “a failure to control, or really to be interested in controlling, the growth of leverage.” If we want to come out of the Current Unpleasantness with less than a Great Depression to show for it, we’ll have to see regulation that responds accordingly, he says. “If an even more serious crisis occurs within the next decade, it will be because the regulatory response ended up being less effective than that which was summoned during the New Deal.”

Which makes Field sound a lot less optimistic than Greg. The Great Depression turned out relatively well in the long run because we had not only significant private investment in R&D and other improvements, but also the New Deal – road-building and regulation. Do we have that, or anything like it, now?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Joshua Gans: Entrepreneurship and Inequality

Do you agree with this?:

Entrepreneurship and inequality, by Joshua Gans: So I was reading Felix Salmon’s account of a debate here in Toronto between Paul Krugman and Larry Summers. ... I was struck by this passage.

Summers also tried to defend inequality, at least in part, by saying that “suppose the United States had 30 more people like Steve Jobs” — that, he said, would be a good thing even as it increased inequality. “So we do need to recognize that a component of this inequality is the other side of successful entrepreneurship; that is surely something we want to encourage.”

Now there is nothing new in this view. It is an argument for inequality that reminds me of Ted Baxter (from the Mary Tyler Moore Show) who intended to have six children in the hope that one of them grows up to solve the population problem. The inequality version is that we accept inequality in the hopes of getting the fruits of entrepreneurship.

So no one disagrees with encouraging entrepreneurship. ... But when we link it to inequality in this way we are asking ... whether the poor (or middle class) are happy outsourcing knowledge creation and are each willing to pay a bit to see that happen.

Seen in this light, the problem of inequality is a design problem. This is something that Jean Tirole and Glen Weyl have recently investigated. They ask a related question: when is it a good idea to confer entrepreneurs with market power (as a reward)? The answer turns out to be, when the government does not know much about the nature of demand for innovative products. In this world, by exposing entrepreneurial rewards to what they can get through monopoly pricing, we screen for innovations that maximize the gap between innovative benefits and innovative costs. The implication here is that if we outsourced innovation to creative geniuses, we would do it in a way that allows them to charge high prices.

But does that carry over when there is real inequality? Let’s face it, the actual products Steve Jobs produced were not priced for the poor. The best we can say is that when they were imitated the poor received some benefits (which may also be arguable). So is it really the case that poorer people would be willing to be taxed more (by government or through monopoly pricing) in order to bring out more people like Steve Jobs? Instead, the Steve Jobs argument is surely one for a lateral wealth transfer from those with wealth — innovators or not — to be more concentrated amongst those who innovate. It is inequality in talent and skill and its mismatch to wealth that drives the argument not inequality in wealth.

It takes a village to make an iPad.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People"

The "key to winning the race" is to make machines complements, not substitutes:

More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People, by Steve Lohr, NY Times: A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood...
The automation of more and more work once done by humans is the central theme of “Race Against the Machine,” an e-book to be published on Monday. “Many workers, in short, are losing the race against the machine,” the authors write.
Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and Andrew P. McAfee, associate director and principal research scientist at the center, are two of the nation’s leading experts on technology and productivity. The tone of alarm in their book is a departure for the pair, whose previous research has focused mainly on the benefits of advancing technology. ...
Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. ...
The skills of machines, the authors write, will only improve. ... Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.
“In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing and even scientific discovery,” they write, “the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.”

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"A Genuine Revolution in Human Thinking"

Marshall and Keynes brought about "a genuine revolution in human thinking":

...Alfred Marshall, the man most responsible for Keynes’s career choice, was also the one most responsible for the new way of thinking. To paraphrase a great American economist, Paul Samuelson: before Marshall, economics was about what you couldn’t change. The new economics was about what you could.
Consider the dismal science when Marshall took it up. There was no cheering up Karl Marx... The British founders of political economy were scarcely less glum. John Stuart Mill ... doubted whether democratic reforms or technological progress could have much effect on how the average Briton lived. ...
The new,... social science that Marshall pioneered and Keynes and others innovated was a genuine revolution in human thinking...

It seems to me that the current crisis is, to a large extent, reversing the economics of hope. When workers look forward today, what do they see? Technical progress that will make them better off -- change that will elevate their standard of living -- or do they see a future where they'll be lucky to keep the job, benefits, and wage rates they currently enjoy (if they have a job at all)? Much of the rhetoric from the right -- from opposition to government trying to help to the age old worry that the rate of technological progress is slowing -- has been about "what you couldn't change," and pessimism about the future is as high as I can ever remember.

I refuse to give up. It's distribution, not production that has failed us over the last 30 or 40 years. We produce far more than we ever have, and we will continue to increase our ability to squeeze more and more out of the resources we have. We have the ability to produce enough stuff. But the distribution of the things we produce has been tilted toward the top. Instead of wages rising with productivity as our textbooks say they should, wages have stagnated and the rewards have gone elsewhere. Thus, while the pessimism of the past was about production not being able to keep up with population -- many classical economists looked forward to a long-run outcome of a dismal, stationary state with most people struggling at subsistence wages -- the pessimism of the present is driven largely by a failure of distribution. The haves get more and more, and the have nots get less and less even though overall output is rising. And to make it worse, those in power have successfuly promoted the idea that intervening to ensure that workers get to keep the share of output they've earned will harm our long-run growth prospects.

Pessimism about breaking through the wealth and power structures that stand in the way of change is understandable, as is the desire of the winners in our increasingly two-tiered society to keep the focus on growth rather than distribution. However, this outcome is not pre-ordained, it is not etched in stone, it's something we can fix without sacrificing our long-run growth prospects. But only if we refuse to buy into the narrative that the "it can't be changed so suck it up and deal with it" crowd is peddling.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bhagwati: The Outsourcing Bogeyman

Jagdish Bhagwati says outsourcing myths are standing in the way of free trade initiatives ("If free trade is to regain the support of statesmen who now hesitate over liberalizing trade with developing countries, the myths that turn outsourcing into an epithet must be countered"). He says we shouldn't worry about outsourcing jobs because we can always use protectionism to save them:

there are manmade restrictions to outsourcing particular types of expertise: professional organizations often intervene to kill outsourcing simply by requiring credentials that only they can provide. Thus, foreign radiologists need US certification before they are allowed to read the x-rays sent from the US. Until recently, only two foreign firms qualified.

So no need to worry. If assembly line work is threatened by outsourcing, simple, just require US certification for the workers who produce these goods.

Don't get me wrong, I think free trade is almost always the best answer. But in supporting it, we shouldn't hide from the short-run distributional consequences that fall on some segments of the population. Acknowledging that the costs exist, and then addressing them is a much better route to preserving free trade inititatives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Karl Smith: Capital vs. Labor

Karl Smith makes a good point:

Capital vs. Labor, by Karl Smith: Catherine Rampell is exploring a thesis about the hiring practices. A sample

On Friday, I wrote about how equipment and software prices are getting rapidly cheaper while the cost of labor has been getting more expensive, making capital a more attractive investment to companies than people. Tax incentives that encourage earlier capital investment may be helping, too.

Importantly this only makes sense if capital and labor are substitutes in production. Typically we think of them as complements.

Lets take some obvious examples. Suppose to create welded metal I need both a welder and welding torch. The welding torch goes down in price. That means that its actually cheaper to create each piece of welded metal. This will allow me as a factory owner to either lower my price, sell more welded metal while maintaining my profit margin.

However, to do this I will need more welders. So a fall in the price of welding torches, increases the demand for welders.

On the other hand suppose that I am an airline considering whether to have more booking agents or whether to invest in more sophisticated booking software. Specialized software can run well into the multi-millions but if it gets just cheap enough it might actually be a better deal than new agents.

So the falling price of capital alone isn’t enough. It depends on how the capital interacts with the workers. Moreover, it would take some fancy math to show this, but until capital can do everything labor can do – that is until the singularity – some types of jobs must be complements to capital.

Those jobs will always be in more demand as capital get cheaper. The question is how much skill you need to do those jobs. This is the whole issue of skill-biased technological change.

Let me add that within this framing of the question, one fear is that technology is producing more and more substitutes for labor than ever before, digital technology in particular, and there is uncertainty about what that means for the future.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Declining Crop Yields

Why is food production slowing down? This is from Michael Roberts:

Yields-400Is this because of changes at the intensive or extensive margins? That is, is the slowdown due to declining productivity on existing land, e.g. from bad luck with the weather for several years in a row, or a more permanent change like global warming? Or is it because world growth is bringing marginal, less productive land into production? Whatever the cause, Michael Roberts thinks it's likely a permanent rather than a temporary problem:

There are many reasons for high commodity prices. But recent data from FAO shows a pretty rapid slowdown in productivity growth. The price spike in 2008 occurred in a particularly bad year in which yields declined on a worldwide basis for three of the four largest food commodities. In 2009 all four of the majors saw yield declines, something that hasn't happened since 1974. 2010 couldn't have been much better and was probably worse, given how bad things were in the U.S, the world's largest producer and exporter (worldwide data for 2010 isn't available yet).

The yield slowdown comes at a particularly unfortunate time, with accelerating demand from emerging economies like China and subsidy-driven expansion of ethanol. Keep in mind: we need productivity growth to accelerate considerably to keep up with projected demand growth. FAO says we need 70 percent higher yields by 2050. (Although I'd like to do my own projections, and will one of these days...)

Maybe it's just bad luck with the weather. But I think it just may be a longer run phenomenon.

Yeah, resource scarcity will be in the news for awhile yet.

Thoughts on this?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Paul Krugman: Degrees and Dollars

I've noted in the past that education is essential, but it won't work for everyone. What's the answer for everyone else?:

Degrees and Dollars, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It is a truth universally acknowledged that education is the key to economic success. Everyone knows that the jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of skill. ...
But what everyone knows is wrong..., the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.
The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out”: both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider...
Why is this happening? The belief that education is becoming ever more important rests on the plausible-sounding notion that advances in technology increase job opportunities for those who work with information — loosely speaking, that computers help those who work with their minds, while hurting those who work with their hands.
Some years ago, however, the economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued that this was the wrong way to think about it. Computers, they pointed out, excel at routine tasks, “cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules.” Therefore, any routine task — a category that includes many white-collar, nonmanual jobs — is in the firing line. ... Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate. ...
And then there’s globalization. Once, only manufacturing workers needed to worry about competition from overseas, but the combination of computers and telecommunications has made it possible to provide many services at long range. ... Alan Blinder and Alan Krueger suggest ... that high-wage jobs performed by highly educated workers are, if anything, more “offshorable” than jobs done by low-paid, less-educated workers. If they’re right, growing international trade in services will further hollow out the U.S. job market.
So what does all this say about policy?
Yes, we need to fix American education. In particular, the inequalities Americans face at the starting line — bright children from poor families are less likely to finish college than much less able children of the affluent — aren’t just an outrage; they represent a huge waste of the nation’s human potential.
But ... the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.
So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.
What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"The Upside of the Tech Bubble"

Tim Duy:

The Upside of the Tech Bubble, by Tim Duy: Felix Salmon’s op-ed piece detailing the declining importance of American stock markets is well worth the read. I think it is especially interesting in light of the general push toward defined contribution benefit plans. My suspicion is that most participants in such plans feel they “need” to be heavily invested in US equities, and equities funds most likely dominate other options. If Salmon’s assessment of stock markets is correct, I think this means that the public is being pushed into a retirement dead end. I would appreciate some follow-up on how the average investor should manage their 401k plans in this environment.

In a follow-up blog posting, however, I think Salmon goes a bit far when describing the tech stock bubble of the 1990s:

The NYSE is place for algorithms and speculators to make bets on financial assets. It last funneled real amounts of money into the broader economy during the dot-com boom, leaving behind a lot of Aeron chairs and little else.

I have gone back and forth on this topic, ultimately concluding that the tech bubble was not all that bad. To be sure, there were some spectacular failures – Pets.com comes to mind. But when you scrape away the detritus, you find the building blocks of all the technology that is increasingly integrated in our everyday life. The bubble-driven intensity of activity in information technology almost certainly accelerated its development and adaptation. Many news ideas were explored; some failed, some succeeded. The successes, however, outweighed the failures, leaving productivity much higher as a result (that this productivity has not translated into higher real wages, however, remains a disappointment).

Also note that much of the spending during that period was dedicated to capital that depreciated very quickly. Consequently, the impact on future consumption/production was limited. The excess computer produced in 1999 was nearly worthless just a few years later. Time for a replacement, bubble or not. Housing, obviously, is very different – the capital is long lived, locking resources into place for decades.

In short, the tech bubble was a wild ride, but I am wary about declaring it an absolute failure of the capital allocation process.

Monday, February 07, 2011

US Centrism in the Innovation Slowdown Debate?

This is one of those quick thoughts that usually gets me in trouble.

The debate about the innovation slowdown seems to be taking a very US centric view of the question. The people making the innovation slowdown argument are, in general, the very same people who laud what recent technology has done for the poor in many developing countries around the world. The invention of the modern kitchen didn't do much for them, but digital, transportation, and other technology has changed that. Some of them can now afford a kitchen, well of sorts anyway.

I am not fully convinced that we are as stagnant as people are saying, but in any case, just because innovation hasn't raised the standard of living in the US as fast as in the past doesn't mean that it hasn't had an impact around the world. If you were to compare the number of people lifted out of poverty by the invention of refrigerators versus those lifted out be recent technology that allows them to build those refrigerators for others, what would the answer be? Which innovation provided more value to the world? The growth may not have been here, some of it may have, in fact, moved away from here, but there was growth nonetheless, and growth that made a real difference to the lives of the poor around the world.

Anyway, just trying to provoke discussion.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

"US Manufacturing: Normally Lagging, now Leading"

Kash notes that "the manufacturing sector of the US economy has been performing surprisingly well" and wonders why (he also has graphs supporting his observations):

US Manufacturing: Normally Lagging, now Leading, by Kash, StreetLight: Something interesting is happening with this recovery. Actually, it’s something that was also an interesting feature of the Great Recession of 2007-09: the manufacturing sector of the US economy has been performing surprisingly well. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that manufacturing has been one of the important drivers behind the economic recovery (such as we’ve had) over the past two years. Normally manufacturing output and job growth lag overall economic recoveries in the US. This time manufacturing is leading it. ...
The employment picture ... tells the story even more clearly. In the previous two recessions, manufacturing lost more jobs, and recovered jobs more slowly (if at all), than the private sector as a whole. But during the Great Recession manufacturing job losses were actually proportionally less than job losses in the rest of the economy, and over the past year the manufacturing has actually been adding jobs. ...
The table below shows one more look at this phenomenon.

Let me add that in my work I interact with lots of manufacturing companies, and my personal observations match the data; manufacturing in the US is booming right now, despite the weakness in the economy overall.

Why does this recovery (and for that matter, the recession that preceded it) look so much different in the manufacturing sector of the US economy? It’s an interesting question, and one that I plan to examine in a few different ways this week.

Even with this change relative to previous recessions, employment has been struggling overall so I'm not sure how much this should buoy our expectations for the labor market. (If I'm reading the table correctly the total from manufacturing has only been 155,000 which is better than the average 55,000 jobs that were lost in the last two recessions, but still not all that much when there are many millions out of work. On the other hand, it's a bit over 12% of the total, though that may say more about the small size of the total than anything else). Maybe subsequent promised posts from Kash will help to clarify how much of an employment effect we can expect from the rebound in manufacturing.