Is the British Economy Finally Recovering?

The British government would like us to believe that the British economy is finally recovering after a quarter of 0.6% real GDP growth, which if sustained over a full year would equate to 2.4% annualised real GDP growth.

David Cameron claimed:

To accept this argument, one would have to make oneself entirely ignorant of the facts of the current economic situation. Here’s the British economy’s post-2008 real GDP growth, compared to the United States which has also experienced a relatively lukewarm, disappointing recovery:

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We are still far below the 2008 peak. Even the United States has done better. Only Europe — which has adopted even greater fiscal austerity than Britain since the slump — has done worse.

On unemployment, we’re doing even worse. Since the slump, unemployment hasn’t even begun to come down:

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The truth is that the British economy is in a depression, very similar to the one experienced in the 1930s — what Keynes called a “depressed equilibrium”. The government now — as then — is not taking the malaise seriously, and would prefer to spew meaningless slogans about “building an economy for hardworking people” instead of focusing on job creation, which is the only viable short-term route out of the slump.

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Of Wages and Robots

There is a popular meme going around, popularised by the likes of Tyler CowenPaul Krugman and Noah Smith that suggests that recent falls in worker compensation as a percentage of GDP is mostly due to the so-called “rise of the robots”:

For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor’s share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America’s growing inequality.

In past times, technological change always augmented the abilities of human beings. A worker with a machine saw was much more productive than a worker with a hand saw. The fears of “Luddites,” who tried to prevent the spread of technology out of fear of losing their jobs, proved unfounded. But that was then, and this is now. Recent technological advances in the area of computers and automation have begun to do some higher cognitive tasks – think of robots building cars, stocking groceries, doing your taxes.

Once human cognition is replaced, what else have we got? For the ultimate extreme example, imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.

Now, humans will never be completely replaced, like horses were. Horses have no property rights or reproductive rights, nor the intelligence to enter into contracts. There will always be something for humans to do for money. But it is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive.

So, does the rise of the robots really explain the stagnation of wages?

This is the picture for American workers, representing wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP:

WASCURGDP

It is certainly true that wages have fallen as a percentage of economic activity (and that corporate profits as a percentage of economic activity have risen — a favourite topic of mine).

But there are two variables to wages as a percentage of GDP. Nominal wages have actually risen, and continued to rise on a moderately steep trajectory:

WASCUR_Max_630_378

And average wages continue to climb nominally, too. What has actually happened to the wages-to-GDP ratio, is not that America’s wage bill has really fallen, but that wages have just not risen as fast as other sectors of GDP (rents, interest payments, capital gains, dividends, etc). It is not as if wages are collapsing as robots and automation (as well as other factors like job migration to the Far East) ravage the American workforce.

It is more accurate to say that there has been an outgrowth in economic activity that is not yielding wages beginning around the turn of the millennium, and coinciding with the new post-Gramm-Leach-Bliley landscape of mass financialisation and the derivatives and shadow banking megabubbles, as well the multi-trillion dollar military-industrial complex spending spree that coincided with the advent of the War on Terror. Perhaps, if we want to look at why the overwhelming majority of the new economic activity is not trickling down into wages, we should look less at robots, and more at the financial and regulatory landscape where Wall Street megabanks pay million-dollar fines for billion-dollar crimes? Perhaps we should look at a monetary policy that dumps new money solely into the financial sector and which has been shown empirically to enrich the richest few far faster than everyone else?

But let’s focus specifically on jobs. The problem with the view that this is mostly a technology shock is summed up beautifully in this tweet I received from Saifedean Ammous:

The Luddite notion that technology might render humans obsolete is as old as the wheel. And again and again, humans have found new ways to employ themselves in spite of the new technology making old professions obsolete. Agriculture was once the overwhelming mainstay of US employment. It is no more:

farmjobs

This did not lead to a permanent depression and permanent and massive unemployment. True, it led to a difficult transition period, the Great Depression in the 1930s (similar in many ways, as Joe Stiglitz has pointed out, to the present day). But eventually (after a long and difficult depression) humans retrained and re-employed themselves in new avenues.

It is certainly possible that we are in a similar transition period today — manufacturing has largely been shipped overseas, and service jobs are being eliminated by improvements in efficiency and greater automation. Indeed, it may prove to be an even more difficult transition than that of the 1930s. Employment remains far below its pre-crisis peak:

EMRATIO_Max_630_378

But that doesn’t mean that human beings (and their labour) are being rendered obsolete — they just need to find new employment niches in the economic landscape. As an early example, millions of people have begun to make a living online — creating content, writing code, building platforms, endorsing and advertising products, etc. As the information universe continues to grow and develop, such employment and business opportunities will probably continue to flower — just as new work opportunities (thankfully) replaced mass agriculture. Humans still have a vast array of useful attributes that cannot be automated — creativity, lateral thinking & innovation, interpersonal communication, opinions, emotions, and so on. Noah Smith’s example of a robot that “can do everything you can do” won’t exist in the foreseeable future (let alone at a cost of $5) — and any society that could master the level of technology necessary to produce such a thing would probably not need to work (at least in the sense we use the word today) at all. Until then, luckily, finding new niches is something that humans have proven very, very good at.

The Gold Standard?

Paul Krugman doesn’t believe that the gold standard was a remedy to the ills of the Great Depression:

A while back I read Lionel Robbins’s 1934 book The Great Depression; as I pointed out, it was a Very Serious Person’s book for its era. Its solution was a return to the gold standard — which would have made things worse — and free trade, which was basically irrelevant to the problem of insufficient demand.

In fact, the gold standard is almost universally shunned (with a few notable exceptions) among academic economists. In a recent survey of academic economists, 93% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement:

If the US replaced its discretionary monetary policy regime with a gold standard, defining a “dollar” as a specific number of ounces of gold, the price-stability and employment outcomes would be better for the average American.

When we look at the Great Depression, we need to look at things on two levels: the causes, and the symptoms. Keynesian economists — particularly Krugman, Eichengreen, etc — are focused primarily on the symptoms, particularly depressed demand, and debt-deflation. Certainly, the gold standard is not a cure for the symptoms of an economic depression.

Trying to administer austerity after a crash like 1929 or 2008 is simply a road to more pain, and a deeper depression.

The principal attraction to the gold standard is to limit credit expansion to the productive capacity of the economy. But we know very clearly that — in spite of a gold standard — there was enough credit expansion during the 1920s for a huge bubble in stocks to form.

Ultimately — even with a gold standard — if a central bank or a government, (or in the most modern case, the shadow banking system) decide that the money supply will be drastically expanded, then limits on credit creation like the gold standard (or in the modern case, reserve requirements) will be no barrier.

The amusing thing, though is that gold — perhaps because of its history as money, perhaps because of its scarcity, and almost certainty because of its lack of counter-party risk — is as strong as ever. In a global financial system where the perception of debasement of currency is widespread, gold thrives. In an era where shareholder value is thrown under the bus in the name of CEO-remuneration, where corporations are perennially mismanaged, and where profit is too-often derived from bailouts and subsidies, gold thrives. It is a popular investment both for individual investors and for non-Western central banks.

The Federal Reserve’s monetary intransigence probably did prolong the Great Depression. Certainly there were other factors — including Hoover raising taxes.  But none of that really matters now. Certainly, it is impossible that the United States — under its current monetary regime— would ever return to the gold standard. Gold’s role has changed. It is no longer state money. It is a stateless instrument thriving in a negative real-rate environment.

And unlike state monies whose values are subject to the decisions of states, gold will always be gold.