What The UK’s Low Productivity Is Really Telling Us

This, I would argue, is one of the scariest charts in the world today. The green line is output per hour worked, and the dotted green line is the pre-crisis trend:

growth_fig1

It’s what the Bank of England calls the “UK productivity puzzle.” As the BBC’s Linda Yueh notes: “output per hour is around 16 percentage points lower than it should be if productivity had grown at its pre-crisis pace.”

I don’t think it should be called a “productivity puzzle”. That would imply that we don’t really understand the phenomenon. That the phenomenon is a puzzle. But it’s really a simple phenomenon. The phenomenon is that people are producing less output per hour than they were before the financial crisis. Work is getting done. But the quality of the work is not improving.

The Bank of England points to “reduced investment in both physical and intangible capital, such as innovation, and impaired resource allocation from low to high productive uses” as a cause. In other words, the work is crap because firms aren’t deploying the resources to do good work. And this is a trend that predates the election of the Coalition government in 2010. As the Bank of England notes, the UK has lagged in investment as a percentage of GDP behind its fellow G8 economies since even the 1990s.

But things got really bad under the Coalition. And that shouldn’t really be news. There was a recession resulting from the financial crisis. The recession — as recessions tend to do — resulted in a severe drop in business investment. In the wake of the recession, what did the newly elected government decide to do? It decided to enact sweeping austerity programs — to slash investment even more.

So the story is that the government decided to compound the after-effects of the financial crisis with an austerity program. That means depriving the economy of even more resources needed for productivity, growth and prosperity. And — in truly, truly shocking news — UK investment as a percentage of GDP is currently lagging at a pathetic 15 percent of GDP behind Belgium, Gambia, Jordan, Equatorial Guinea and Costa Rica, and barely ahead of Greece!

The austerian view, of course, is that the austerity was necessary because otherwise the bond vigilantes would have sold UK public debt, and we would have turned into Greece, or something.

The so-called “productivity puzzle” and the related low-investment puzzle categorically proves this claim wrong. If the austerity was imbuing the market with confidence necessary for growth, we would expect to see productivity and investment rising.

That has not been the case. What has occurred is a zombie recovery caused by zombified economic policies. Yes, there has been substantial job growth, and GDP is now above its pre-crisis peak — albeit in the slowest recovery since the South Sea bubble 300 years ago. But the weakness in productivity continues to illustrate the rottenness.

You can’t starve yourself to strength. You can’t beat yourself to growth.

Advertisements

George Osborne Still Doesn’t Get It

In downgrading British debt from AAA to AA1, Moody’s was explicit enough to mention weak growth as the main problem. Now, I couldn’t in itself care less about what Moody’s thinks, because credit ratings agencies are themselves bastions of utter incompetence who continued to rate subprime junk mortgage-backed securities as AAA long after it became clear that they were dangerous default-ridden products. But Osborne himself made clear that Britain’s credit rating was the metric on which we should judge his performance. Yet although Moody’s mentioned weak growth as the problem, Osborne continues to talk about how reducing Britain’s debt-load is his main priority, something that he has completely failed to do:

That ultimately is the choice for Britain — either we can abandon our efforts to deal with our debt problems and make a difficult situation very much worse or we can redouble our efforts to overcome our debts and make sure this country can earn its way in the world.

Osborne is tackling this from the wrong end of the problem. Strong, sustainable economic growth is the way to tackle the debt problem in the long run. But Osborne’s fiscal austerity is not the way to strong sustainable economic growth, which means he is failing by on his own terms and by his own definition. In terms of growth, since 2007 Britain has done worse than comparable countries.

realgdppercapita

People like to talk of Japan’s problems with depressed growth, but since 2007 Britain has done worse than Japan.

And this lack of growth is the real reason why Britain’s debt load becomes ever more unsustainable, no matter how much austerity Osborne tries to implement.

So what’s Osborne’s plan to generate growth? Reduce regulation and taxes on small businesses and new businesses? Make it easier for construction companies to build new homes? Invest in infrastructure (ultra-fast broadband, improved roads and rail) and energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, oil, natural gas)? Invest in science and basic research? Guarantee loans to unemployed people so they can become self-employed? Offer incentives to foreigners to invest in the UK?

Cutting spending (and yes — in real terms George Osborne is cutting spending) and raising taxes isn’t cutting it. It’s constricting growth. And at the next election if this depression continues, people will vote in droves for anyone but Cameron and Osborne.

Are Cameron’s Economic Policies Working?

Britain has returned to growth:

But compared even to the USA — which has huge problems of its own — Britain is still mired in the depths of a depression:

An Olympic bounce does not constitute a recovery. As I noted in March, Britain is under-performing the United States — in GDP and in unemployment. Although Cameron and Osborne keep claiming that they are deficit hawks who want to cut the government deficit, the debt keeps climbing.

Defenders of Cameron’s policies might claim that we are going through a necessary structural adjustment, and that lowered GDP and elevated unemployment is necessary for a time. I agree that a structural adjustment was necessary after the financial crisis of 2008, but I see little evidence of such a thing. The over-leveraged and corrupt financial sector is still dominated by the same large players as it was before. True, many unsustainable high street firms have gone out of business, but the most unsustainable firms that had  to be bailed out — the banks and financial firms who have caused the financial crisis — have avoided liquidation. The real story here is not a structural adjustment but the slow bleeding out of the welfare state via deep and reaching cuts.

Britain has become welfare-dependent. Britain’s welfare expenditure is now over 25% of its total GDP. Multi-billion pound cuts in that figure are going to (and have) hurt GDP.

I believe countries are better with small governments and a larger private sector. The private sector consists of many, many individuals acting out their subjective economic preferences. This dynamic is largely experimental; businesses come and go, survive, thrive and die based upon their ability to stay liquid and retain a market, and this competition for demand forces innovation. The government sector is centrally directed. Governments do not have to behave like a business, they do not have to innovate or compete, as they have the power to tax and compel. (The exception to this is when governments become overrun by the representatives of private industries and corporations, who then leverage the machinations of the state to benefit corporations. When this occurs and markets become rigged in the favour of certain well-connected competitors, it matters little whether we call such industries “private sector” or “public sector”).

So I am sympathetic to the idea that Britain ought to have a smaller welfare state, and fewer transfer payments than it presently does. But the current and historical data shows very clearly that now is not the time to make such an adjustment. The time to reduce the size of the welfare state is when the economy is booming. This is the time that there is work for welfare claimants to go to. Cutting into a depressed economy might create a strong incentive for the jobless to work, but if there is little or no job creation for the jobless to go to, then what use are cuts? To reduce government deficits? If that’s the case, then why are British government deficits rising even though spending is being reduced? (The answer, of course, is falling tax revenues).

An alternative policy that would reduce unemployment and raise GDP without increasing the size of government is to force bailed-out banks sitting on huge hoards of cash to offer loans to the jobless to start their own private businesses. The money would be transferred to those who could be out working and creating wealth, but who cannot get credit through conventional channels, unlike the too-big-to-fail megabanks who are flush with credit but refuse to increase lending to the wider public. Even if the majority of these businesses were to fail, this would ensure a large boost in spending and incomes in the short run, and the few new businesses that succeed would provide employment and tax revenues for years to come. Once there is a real recovery and solid growth in GDP and in unemployment, then the government can act to decrease its size and slash its debt. Indeed, with growing tax revenues it is probable we would find that the deficit would end up decreasing itself.

Spending Problem? Paul Ryan is the Spending Problem

Paul Ryan talks like a small government conservative:

Too much government inevitably leads to bad government. When government grows too much and extends beyond its limits, it usually does things poorly.

And the WSJ is pumping up Ryan as an antidote to the growth of government:

Ryan represents the GOP’s new generation of reformers. More than any other politician, the House Budget Chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline.

But Ryan himself has been responsible for a lot of that government growth. He loyally voted for all the big government programs George W. Bush ensconced into law — Medicare Part D, often described as the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the PATRIOT Act and the NDAA; the TARP bailout of Wall Street; the bailout of General Motors. So long as it was debt-fuelled spending authorised by a Republican (and during the Bush years, there was an awful lot of debt-fuelled spending authorised by Republicans) Ryan was out voting for it. 

Ryan’s voting record establishes firmly that Ryan is as much for bailouts and the expansion of government as Obama. He talks like a small government conservative on the deficit, too, but dig into the details and he promises to balance the budget on the back of closing loopholes in the tax code that he refuses to specify, while completely ignoring the severe problem of excessive total debt that is keeping the economy depressed today.

Does Ryan have an explanation for his voting record? Why did he put party loyalty above loyalty to the principles he now claims to espouse? Or did he forget his small government principles during the Bush years? Did he only discover Ayn Rand in 2008?

Ryan was forced to try and explain. Here’s the exchange between Ryan and ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour.

AMANPOUR: Congressman Ryan, you actually voted for the Wall Street bailout, and indeed the auto bailout as well.RYAN: Right. The auto bailout in order to prevent TARP from going to the auto companies, because we already put $25 billion aside in an energy bill, which I disapproved of, to go to auto companies.

What? Ryan later tried to clarify his remarks in an interview with the Daily Caller:

The president’s chief of staff made it extremely clear to me before the vote, which is either the auto companies get the money that was put in the Energy Department for them already — a bill that I voted against because I didn’t want to give them that money, which was only within the $25 billion, money that was already expended but not obligated — or the president was going to give them TARP, with no limit. That’s what they told me. That’s what the president’s chief of staff explained to me. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them to get TARP. We want to keep TARP on a leash. We don’t want to expand it. So give them that Energy Department money that at least puts them out of TARP, and is limited.’ Well, where are we now? What I feared would happen did happen. The bill failed, and now they’ve got $87 billion from TARP, money we’re not going to get back. And now TARP, as a precedent established by the Bush administration, whereby the Obama administration now has turned this thing into its latest slush fund. And so I voted for that to prevent precisely what has happened, which I feared would happen.

Ryan should take a leaf out of Mr T.’s book and quit his jibber-jabber. He voted for TARP, as well as the auto bailout, and he has no reasonable explanation beyond fierce loyalty.

Republicans had two choices — Ron Paul and Gary Johnson — who are both consistent fiscal conservatives with no record of supporting bailouts or expansions of government, and no record of supporting costly pre-emptive wars. The Republican Party rejected both candidates, and instead went with two defenders of bailouts, two expanders of government, two believers in pre-emptive war and a large, powerful security state. That decision says an awful lot about the Republican Party.

People who want to see government play a smaller role in the economy and society should look elsewhere; outside of rhetoric both of the two major tickets have a track record of increasing the size and scope of government, increasing debt levels and bailing out favoured corporations.