On Trade Unions & Inequality

This chart is pretty wow:

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Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron of the International Monetary Fund have some ideas about how the correlation may have been caused:

The main channels through which labor market institutions affect income inequality are the following:

Wage dispersion: Unionization and minimum wages are usually thought to reduce inequality by helping equalize the distribution of wages, and economic research confirms this.

Unemployment: Some economists argue that while stronger unions and a higher minimum wage reduce wage inequality, they may also increase unemployment by maintaining wages above “market-clearing” levels, leading to higher gross income inequality. But the empirical support for this hypothesis is not very strong, at least within the range of institutional arrangements observed in advanced economies (see Betcherman, 2012; Baker and others, 2004; Freeman, 2000; Howell and others, 2007; OECD, 2006). For instance, in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of 17 studies, only 3 found a robust association between union density (or bargaining coverage) and higher overall unemployment.

Redistribution: Strong unions can induce policymakers to engage in more redistribution by mobilizing workers to vote for parties that promise to redistribute income or by leading all political parties to do so. Historically, unions have played an important role in the introduction of fundamental social and labor rights. Conversely, the weakening of unions can lead to less redistribution and higher net income inequality (that is, inequality of income after taxes and transfers).

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what has caused the major upswing in inequality since the 1980s.

Back in 2011 and 2012 my analysis tended to emphasize financialization and specifically the massive growth in credit creation that took place since the 1980s. I think this was a rather naive view to take.

I don’t think I was wrong to look at financialization. Obviously, unchecked credit creation is a plausible pathway for the rich to make themselves and their friends richer. I just think it was naive to not see financialization — like deunionization, like globalization, and like trends in housing wealth — as part of a broader pie.

My hypothesis is that what changed is that politicians decided that greed was good and that “industrial policy” was a dirty phrase. The political structures that emerged in the wake of the Great Depression and World War 2 which together greatly limited inequality — welfare states, nationalized industries, unionized workforces, constrictive financial regulations like Glass Steagall — were severely rolled back. This created an opening for the rich to get much richer very fast, which they did.

If I’m right, it would take a major political shift in the other direction to start reducing inequality.

How To Euthanize Rentiers (Wonkish)

In my last post, I established that the “rentier’s share” of interest — resulting from as Keynes put it the “power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital” — can be calculated as the real-interest rate on lending to the monetary sovereign, typically known as the real risk free interest rate. That is because it is the rate that is left over after deducting for credit risk and inflation risk.

However, I have been convinced that my conclusion — that euthanizing rentiers should be an objective of monetary policy — is either wrong or impractical.

It would at very least require a dramatic shift in monetary policy orthodoxy. My initial thought was thus: the real risk-free interest rate (r) can be expressed as the nominal risk free interest rate minus the rate of inflation (r=n-i). To eliminate the rentier’s share, simply substitute 0 for r so that 0=n-i and n=i. In other words, have the central bank target a rate of inflation that offsets the expected future nominal risk free interest rate, resulting in a future real risk free interest rate as close to zero as possible.

There are some major problems with this. Presently, most major central banks target inflation. But they target a fixed rate of inflation of around 2 percent. The Fed explains its rationale:

Over time, a higher inflation rate would reduce the public’s ability to make accurate longer-term economic and financial decisions. On the other hand, a lower inflation rate would be associated with an elevated probability of falling into deflation, which means prices and perhaps wages, on average, are falling — a phenomenon associated with very weak economic conditions. Having at least a small level of inflation makes it less likely that the economy will experience harmful deflation if economic conditions weaken. The FOMC implements monetary policy to help maintain an inflation rate of 2 percent over the medium term.

Now, it is possible to argue that inflation targets should vary with macroeconomic conditions. For example, if you’re having a problem with deflation and getting stuck in a liquidity trap, a higher inflation target might be appropriate, as Jared Bernstein and Larry Ball argue. And on the other side of the coin, if you’re having a problem with excessive inflation — as occurred in the 1970s — it is arguable a lower inflation target than 2 percent may be appropriate.

But shifting to a variable rate targeting regime would be a very major policy shift, likely to be heavily resisted simply because the evidence shows that a fixed rate target results in more predictability, and therefore enhances “the public’s ability to make accurate longer-term economic and financial decisions”.

A second sticking point is the argument that such a regime would be trying to target a real-variable (the real risk free interest rate), which central banks have at best a very limited ability to do.

A third sticking point is Goodhart’s Law: “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” By making the future spread between the nominal risk free interest rate and inflation a target, the spread would lose any meaning as a measure.

A fourth sticking point is the possibility that such a severe regime change might create a regime susceptible to severe accelerative macroeconomic problems like inflationary and deflationary spirals.

And in this age of soaring inequality, the euthanasia of the rentier is simply too important an issue to hinge on being able to formulate a new workable policy regime and convince the central banking establishment to adopt it. Even if variable-rate inflation targeting or some alternative was actually viable, I don’t have the time, or the energy, or the inclination, or the expertise to try to do what Scott Sumner has spent over half a decade trying to do — change the way central banks work.

Plus, there is a much better option: make the euthanasia of the rentier a matter for fiscal policy and specifically taxation and redistribution. So here’s a different proposal: a new capital gains tax at a variable rate equal to the real risk-free interest rate, with the proceeds going toward business grants for poor people to start new businesses.

The Subtle Tyranny of Interest Rates

Interest rates are the price of credit. They are the price of access to capital.

Now, it is obvious that pricing credit is not tyrannical in and of itself. Interest compensates a lender for default risk and the risk of inflation eroding the purchasing power of the money that they lend.

The tyranny I am getting at is subtle. It is the tyranny that Keynes pointed to when he proposed a euthanasia of the rentier. Keynes proposed that low interest rates would:

mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.

Keynes pointed to an important feature of interest rates: the fact that capital has a cost is not just the result of default risk and the risk of inflation. It is also a result of the scarcity of capital.

Now, that is inevitable in a world where financial capital consists of metal that you dig up out of the ground.

But in our brave new state-backed fiat monetary system, why should capital be so scarce that those who have it can profit from its scarcity?

Obviously, central banks should not print money to the extent that it becomes worthless. But capital availability is absolutely critical to the advancement of society: the investment of capital is how societies become productive. It is how technology improves, and it is the key to wealth accumulation.

What Keynes didn’t specify was what exactly in the interest rate paid was the part that represented the “scarcity value” of capital.

Obviously, it doesn’t include the part that compensates for inflation, which is why we need to look at inflation-adjusted interest rates. And it isn’t the part that compensates for default risk. This is easily calculable too: it is the excess paid over lending to the monetary sovereign.

In the U.S. and Britain, that would be the American and British governments. In the eurozone — for complicated political reasons — there is no monetary sovereign exactly, but we might measure it by looking at it in terms of the spread against German government borrowing, because Germany seems to be the nation calling the lion’s share of the shots.

Here’s the real interest rate on U.S. 10-year government borrowing (I chose the 10-year because it is a benchmark, although I would have preferred to use a harmonized rate from across the yield curve.):

fredgraph-20

So what are we really seeing? The general trend is that real interest rates on U.S. government borrowing are overwhelmingly positive, with a few periodical exceptions where real rates on borrowing went a bit negative. This bias toward positive real interest rates on lending to the monetary sovereign, I would argue, is the rentier’s profit resulting from the scarcity of financial capital.

Year over year, that is going to compound heavily. It is these rentiers, I would argue, who should be euthanized. Not because they should be resented for doing well out of the system.  No. They should be euthanized because of the opportunity cost of devoting resources to enriching rentiers, resources that could be deployed productively elsewhere.

And how to euthanize the rentiers? Because we have identified what the rentier’s share is, the answer is very simple: making a real interest rate of zero on lending to the monetary sovereign an objective of monetary policy.

Update: After much debate, I have decided that euthanizing rentiers is not a matter for monetary policy, but a matter for fiscal policy. I have written another post discussing this.

You should need a license to take out a mortgage

In The Atlantic, Moisés Naím points to a recent study that poses three simple questions on personal finance:

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer. [The Atlantic]

These questions were asked to people around the world, and the correct answers are A, C, and B. Did you get them all right? If you did — congratulations, you understand the basics of how interest ratesinflation, and portfolio diversification work. Most people surveyed around the world didn’t.

In Russia, 96 percent of those surveyed failed to answer the three questions correctly. In the U.S., 70 percent failed. The highest performing countries were Germany where 47 percent failed and Switzerland, where 50 percent did. But this isn’t rocket science. The questions reflected basic financial concepts that are essential for saving for the future, using credit cards, taking on a student loan, purchasing a home, investing, and building up a pension.

Worse than this, Americans also showed overconfidence in their abilities. Asked to rank their financial knowledge on a scale of 1 (very low) to 7 (very high), 70 percent of Americans surveyed ranked themselves at level 4 or higher. Yet only 30 percent answered the questions correctly.

These surveys provide some pretty scary food for thought, because uninformed, overconfident people are more prone to make bad decisions that endanger their own financial health and the wider economy. As this paper from the World Bank shows, individuals who are financially literate have better financial situations.

Read More At TheWeek.com

In defense of economic thinking

My colleague Damon Linker recently wrote a piece entitled “How economic thinking is ruining America,” arguing that political considerations such as community, loyalty, citizenship, and the common good have been “sacrificed on the altar of economic profit-seeking.”

As an economic thinker myself, I was bound to find some disagreement with Linker’s view. But there is also a fair amount of common ground. As Linker argues, the years since the 2008 recession have been rough: “Inequality is up, while growth, job creation, and middle class wages are running far below historic norms. That’s enough to drive even the cheeriest American to despair.”

One economic measure, of course, that is not down is corporate profits, which are at all-time highs relative to the size of the economy. The same thing is true for the incomes of the top 1 percent. So Linker is absolutely correct to argue that corporate profit-seeking has been allowed to override political and cultural loyalties and restraints. The middle class has been trampled into the dirt.

But is that really a product of economic thinking? Or is it a product of a broken political system that funnels insider access, tax cuts, and bailouts to the well-connected, while largely ignoring the concerns of the middle class?

Read More At TheWeek.com

Are teen pregnancies good for the economy?

At Pew Research Center, Eileen Patten points out that “[t]he teen birth rate in the U.S. is at a record low, dropping below 30 births per 1,000 teen females for the first time since the government began collecting consistent data on births to teens ages 15-19″:

[Pew]

What’s changed? “The short answer is that it is a combination of less sex and more contraception. Teenagers have a greater number of methods of contraceptives to choose from,” Bill Albert, the chief program officer of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told TIME. He added, “The menu of contraceptive methods has never been longer.”

Reducing teenage pregnancy has long been a matter of policy for the federal government, and the latest trends represent a policy victory for successive administrations who have tried to achieve that goal. While liberals and conservatives manage to find ways to disagree on issue after issue, teen pregnancy is one point on which they largely agree. Though they diverge on the means — many conservatives advocate abstinence while liberals tend to favor contraception — both sides happily shake hands on the common goal of reducing teen pregnancy.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Is the economy really twice as large as we thought?

Since the mid-20th century, economists, governments, businesses, and just about everyone else has used gross domestic product (GDP) to measure the size of the economy. But is it thebest metric for the job? Some economists are saying no.

GDP is a measure of the level of spending on finished goods in the economy. It is a measure of final production. If a pencil sells for 50 cents, it increases GDP by 50 cents. But a good deal more spending tends to occur in the process of making a pencil. At the very least, the manufacturer has to acquire resources to make the pencil — someone must harvest the wood, someone must harvest the rubber, someone must mine the graphite. Under GDP, that spending is not directly included. It is only counted implicitly when the finished pencil is produced and purchased by a consumer or business.

Some economists, such as Chapman University’s Mark Skousen, argue that the intermediate stages of production lower down the production chain should also be included in measurements of output. While they recognize that including them again explicitly can mean double counting or triple counting, they argue that there are “several reasons why double counting should not be ignored and is actually a necessary feature to understanding the overall economy.” After all, lots of businesses deal solely in intermediate goods. Intermediate producers buy partial products, add a “bell and a whistle,” and pass them on. At Forbes, Skousen argues that “no company can operate or expand on the basis of value added or profits only. They must raise the capital necessary to cover the gross expenses of the company — wages and salaries, rents, interest, capital tools and equipment, supplies, and goods-in-process.” To Skousen that means that a measurement of output should take all this spending into account.

Perhaps taking heed of some of these arguments, the Bureau of Economic Analysis starting on April 25 will release each quarter a measure called gross output that includes total sales from the production of raw materials through intermediate producers to final wholesale and retail trade. 

Read More At TheWeek.com