Explaining Wage Stagnation

Why?

Well, my intuition says one thing — the change in trajectory correlates very precisely with the end of the Bretton Woods system. My intuition says that that event was a seismic shift for wages, for gold, for oil, for trade. The data seems to support that — the end of the Bretton Woods system correlates beautifully to a rise in income inequality, a downward shift in total factor productivity, a huge upward swing in credit creation, the beginning of financialisation, the beginning of a new stage in globalisation, and a myriad of other things.

Some, including Peter Thiel and James Hamilton, have suggested that there is data to suggest that an oil shock may have been the catalyst that put us into a new trajectory.

Oil prices:

And that this spike may be related to a fall in oil prices discoveries:

I certainly think that the drop-off in oil discoveries was a huge psychological factor in the huge oil price spike we saw in 1980. But the reality is that although production did fall, it has recovered:

The point becomes clearer when we take the dollar out of the equation and just look at oil priced in wages:

Oil prices in terms of US wages ended up lower than they had been before the oil shock.

What happened in the late 70s and early 80s was a blip caused by the (very real) drop-off in American reserves, and the (in my view, psychological — considering that global proven oil reserves continue to rise to the present day) drop-off in global production.

But while oil production recovered and prices fell, wages continued to stagnate. This suggests very strongly to me that the long-term issue was not an oil shock, but the fundamental change in the nature of the global trade system and the nature of money that took place in 1971 when Richard Nixon ended Bretton Woods.

UPDATE: Commenters are pointing out that I should probably have concentrated a bit more on the trade and globalisation dimension, which I did mention in passing. However, I see this as an outgrowth of the end Bretton Woods, because it began just after Bretton Woods was ended and there is no way that America could afford to run the kind of trade balance it runs today with the world had America stayed in the Bretton Woods system.

I have covered this issue in quite some depth in the past.

https://azizonomics.com/2012/03/18/global-trade-fragility/
https://azizonomics.com/2012/07/09/the-real-fiscal-cliff/

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Stiglitz vs Krugman

A very interesting front is opening up regarding the current state of America.

Some economists believe that the main problem in America is a lack of demand, defined as the desire to buy, the willingness to buy, and the ability to pay for it

From Paul Krugman:

There is nothing — nothing — in what we see suggesting that this current depression is more than a problem of inadequate demand. This could be turned around in months with the right policies. Our problem isn’t, ultimately, economic; it’s political, brought on by an elite that would rather cling to its prejudices than turn the nation around.

The implication here is that people just don’t have the money in their pockets to spend at the levels they were five years ago, and the solution is (through whatever means) giving them that money.

As well as the obvious (and accurate) Austrian retort that demand in 2006 was being pushed skyward as part of a ridiculous and entirely artificial debt-financed bubble, other economists believe that a lack of demand is just a symptom of other underlying symptoms. I myself believe that the three main problems are a lack of confidence stemming from high systemic residual debt, deindustrialisation in the name of globalisation (& its corollary, financialisation and that sprawling web of debt and counter-party risk), and fragility and side-effects (e.g. lost internal productivity due to role as world policeman) coming from America’s petroleum addiction.

Now Joe Stiglitz has weighed in in a lengthy and essential Vanity Fair piece:

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Many have argued that the Depression was caused primarily by excessive tightening of the money supply on the part of the Federal Reserve Board. Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Depression, has stated publicly that this was the lesson he took away, and the reason he opened the monetary spigots. He opened them very wide. Beginning in 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed doubled and then rose to three times its earlier level. Today it is $2.8 trillion. While the Fed, by doing this, may have succeeded in saving the banks, it didn’t succeed in saving the economy.

Reality has not only discredited the Fed but also raised questions about one of the conventional interpretations of the origins of the Depression. The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supply—in other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s. The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.

The cities weren’t spared—far from it. As rural incomes fell, farmers had less and less money to buy goods produced in factories. Manufacturers had to lay off workers, which further diminished demand for agricultural produce, driving down prices even more. Before long, this vicious circle affected the entire national economy.

The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity — the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

The consequences for consumer spending, and for the fundamental health of the economy — not to mention the appalling human cost—are obvious, though we were able to ignore them for a while. For a time, the bubbles in the housing and lending markets concealed the problem by creating artificial demand, which in turn created jobs in the financial sector and in construction and elsewhere. The bubble even made workers forget that their incomes were declining. They savored the possibility of wealth beyond their dreams, as the value of their houses soared and the value of their pensions, invested in the stock market, seemed to be doing likewise. But the jobs were temporary, fueled on vapor.

So far, so excellent. Stiglitz first shovels shit over the view of Fisherian debt-deflation as the main cause of the slump in demand — debt-deflation is a symptom, and a very nasty one, but not really a cause. Second, Stiglitz also correctly notes that today’s ailments are the result of social, infrastructural and productive upheaval in the real economy. He correctly identifies the leading trend here — manufacturing (and, it should be added, primary industry) has been ripped out of America by the forces of globalisation, and the powerful pull of cheaper wages. This is a strong explanation of why Krugman’s view — that the only thing missing is demand, and that government can fix that in an instant — is nonsense.

As I wrote earlier this month:

The point here is that economic health — and real industrial output, measured in joules, or in “needs met” — and money circulation are in reality almost totally decoupled. Getting out of a depression requires debt erasure, and new organic activity, and there is absolutely no guarantee that monetary easing will do the trick on either count. Most often, depressions and liquidity traps are a reflection of underlying structural and sociological problems, and broken economic and trade systems. Easing kicks the can down the road a little, and gives some time and breathing room for those problems to be fixed, but very often that just doesn’t happen. Ultimately, societies only take the steps necessary (e.g. a debt jubilee) when their very existence seems threatened.

Stiglitz continues:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that government can do some good. If people in a democracy choose to solve problems via public spending, well, that’s part of the bargain in a democratic state. Even Adam Smith noted that government should fund “certain great institutions” beyond the reach of private enterprise.

But here we reach the great problem with Stiglitz’s view:

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want — into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

The United States spent the last decade (arguably longer) and trillions of dollars embroiled in wars aimed at keeping oil cheap, and maintaining the flow of global goods precisely because America is dependent upon those things. America does not play global policeman out of nicety or vanity — she does it out of economic necessity. That is precisely because America let globalisation take away all of her industry, making her dependent not only on the continued value of her paper dollar, but on the flow of global trade in energy and goods.

Investing more money in services will leave America dependent on these contingencies. And dependency is fragility — and the more fragile America becomes, the more aggressive she becomes in maintaining and controlling the flow of global goods.

Any stimulus package ought to instead be focussed on making America energy independent, and encouraging innovative new forms of manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printing) that can undercut Chinese labour.

So while Stiglitz must be commended for seeing through the haze, it is rather puzzling that his alternative is services, rather than self-sufficiency.

While America is dependent on foreign goods and energy, she is prone to not only waste huge amounts of productive capital on war and weapons, but she also risks serious economic damage from events such as oil shocks, geopolitical shocks, regional wars, and — well — anything that might slow down or endanger global trade. Her need to police the world makes her even hungrier for oil, which means she spends more money on the world, which makes her hungrier for oil.

The Problem With Oil

Self-explanatory, really:

All the while those trillions of dollars of military spending act as an implicit subsidy on oil, and while the global oil trade is subsidised it is very difficult for any cleaner or more sustainable or more decentralised alternatives to win on cost.

Effectively, American foreign policy is rigging the energy market, and that hurts America more than anyone else. A less interventionist foreign policy might raise oil costs just enough to allow a new alternative energy infrastructure (thorium, solar, synthetic oil) to develop — and save the American taxpayer and military the costs and horrors of endless energy wars.

China Beats War Drum Over Taiwan?

As I have stated before, China has no reason to be belligerent to America, or to accelerate the death of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Firstly, this is because the current world order is strengthening China, and weakening America. Second, this is because China has accumulated a huge swathe of American debt, and wants to use it to acquire American (and global) productive assets and wealth.

America on the other hand, as the declining power, has every reason to be belligerent to China.

From the Economist:

An new book, discussed in this week’s Economics focus, by Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics argues that China’s economic might will overshadow America’s sooner than people think. Mr Subramanian combines each country’s share of world GDP, trade and foreign investment into an index of economic “dominance”. By 2030 China’s share of global economic power will match America’s in the 1970s and Britain’s a century before. Three forces will dictate China’s rise, Mr Subramanian argues: demography, convergence and “gravity”. Since China has over four times America’s population, it only has to produce a quarter of America’s output per head to exceed America’s total output. Indeed, Mr Subramanian thinks China is already the world’s biggest economy, when due account is taken of the low prices charged for many local Chinese goods and services outside its cities. China will be equally dominant in trade, accounting for twice America’s share of imports and exports. That projection relies on the “gravity” model of trade, which assumes that commerce between countries depends on their economic weight and the distance between them.

So should it come as no surprise that America continues to arm and train China’s enemies.

From Reuters:

China’s top official newspaper warned on Friday that “madmen” on Capitol Hill who want the United States to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan were playing with fire and could pay a “disastrous price,” as the Obama administration nears a decision on a sale.

The People’s Daily, the main paper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said the United States should excise the “cancer” of the law which authorizes Washington’s sale of weapons to the self-ruled island of Taiwan that China considers its own territory.

Taiwan’s biggest ally and arms supplier, the United States is committed under a 1979 law to supply it with the weapons it needs to maintain a “sufficient self-defense capability.”

Is America making a mistake? Should they instead be looking to integrate with the rest of the world, so that the necessity of a shared future means that war, threats and belligerence are in nobody’s interest?

I think so.