The new economics: five things to worry less about

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Reading Adair Turner’s lecture on the implications of robotics on the economy has been an inspiration. Following my blog last week, I want to develop the thinking to try and get a better focus for liberal policymakers.

The first point to make is that although the current kerfuffle is around the advance of machine learning and artificial intelligence, this only builds on trends that became important in the 1970s. This was when the previous spurt of growth, based on a huge expansion of consumer goods and services, was coming to an end, in the developed world at least. This I have called the the Age of Light Industry. It featured a virtuous circle of increasing consumption and the creation of middle-ranking blue and white collar jobs. Economists lazily assumed that this was the natural flow of technological progress. It broke down partly because consumption started to reach saturation (few people need two fridges), and partly because technological development became more about making businesses efficient than developing new products for consumers.

And we should not assume that advancing technology automatically makes things better for the majority. Lord Turner drew on the example of the first industrial revolution (the Age of Textiles in my schema), when technological improvements drove up productivity in agriculture and the textiles industry, destroying a lot of artisanal jobs. These jobs were replaced by lower paid and less skilled jobs, such as low-skill factory hands, or domestic servants for the newly enriched farmers and factory owners. The result was widespread destitution. Lord Turner shows sympathy for the Luddites, who are these days usually vilified, who tried to fight this trend. This was in the later 18th to earlier 19th century, and it wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century that things started to get better for the working classes. This was in part because demand for factory jobs rose with the development of heavy industries (railways, mines, steel, ships, armaments, and so on). But it also arose because of political reforms, and an adjustment by political leaders about how economics had changed: for example the realisation that social security for the masses was affordable.

We need these things now: political reform, and a waking up to the new realities of economics. One way to make this point is to consider the things, central to mainstream economic policy making, that we don’t need to worry so much about. Here are 5.

1. Average productivity

I don’t need to say much more on this after my post on Lord Turner’s lecture. Improving productivity matters for individual businesses and public agencies. But we can’t expect statistics on the economy as a whole to tell us anything very useful, because new jobs are beiong created in low productivity services (think personal care) or in arms races that don’t add anything overall (cyber crime; designer goods; ever bigger yachts; hi-tech weaponry).  Unfortunately this means that growth rates in the money economy are liable to be slow, which poses questions for how to fund public services and social safety nets.

2. The national debt

Two features of the new economy should change the way we think about public debt. First is that businesses generally need less capital, as more value comes from intellectual property than capital equipment. You can see this by looking at the modern giant firms: Google, Apple, Facebook and so on – and compare them with the old ones – GE, IBM, General Motors, etc. That reduces the need for business capital. Also the new economy is concentrating surplus wealth amongst a minority, who will inevitably want to save and invest much of their earnings. So the savings go up and investment opportunities go down. As Maynard Keynes would have told you, this is a recipe for recession. But government debt can fill the gap. Instead of putting their money into businesses, or fuelling property bubbles, the rich can buy government bonds instead. And while the need for business investment falls, the same can’t be said for public investment – there is still plenty of call for that (schools, railways, and so on). Developed world governments are finding it comparatively easy to sustain a much higher level of debt than they previously did. Japan has led the way, as with so many aspects of the new economy. National debt there is now over 200% of GDP, when the conventional wisdom quite recently was that 90% was a practical limit. And the budget deficit is 4.7%, compared to a growth rate of 1.1%, so it’s still going the wrong way, with barely a murmur from anybody.

Of course this leads to an important question, to which there remains no clear answer. When is there too much national debt? And how big a budget deficit is sustainable? Roughly speaking, when a country has to borrow in a currency other than its own, it is likely to hit trouble. Japan still doesn’t; it helps that it does not need much foreign currency because it runs a current account surplus. Britain does not have that luxury, but the government still has no need to borrow in foreign currency.

This is important because governments can expand their own currency supply (unless they are in the Eurozone, another story), which gives them a useful lever in managing their debt. Clearly there are limits to how much it is wise to use this power – but those limits are not as severe as people thought..

And it makes little sense to drive down levels of government debt, which some conservative politicians like to do, or did before the era of Trump. There is much kerfuffle about it being irresponsible to let future generations pay for our current profligacy – but future generations will have access to highly productive technologies.

3. The dependency ratio (aka the demographic time bomb)

There is much worry that a higher proportion of older workers and retirees will drag down a future economy. Some suggest steps to increase the birth rate to counter this; it is also offered as a reason to allow high levels of immigration. But, as Lord Turner points out, if the new technology is destroying good jobs and creating poor ones, there is something to be said for fewer workers and a higher dependency ratio. Besides, it is not hard for people to retire later if that’s what the economy needs.

4. Global trade

Even before Donald Trump decided to inflict his ideas about international trade on the world, the volume of world trade was in decline. People fret about this because expanding global trade was an important source of economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s. But things have changed. As China’s economy matures, it has less need to produce cheap exports. This is not particularly good news for developed economies, who are having to replace those cheap imports with something a bit more costly, but that is a temporary problem.

Longer term, increased automation will reduce the relative value and volume of traded goods. Traded goods are among the first things to be subject to automation. And as production gets more efficient, their value as a proportion of the total economy declines (this is the Baumol effect, a favourite of mine). So trade will be less important.

Technology develop will also reduce the need to trade in the first place. It will become easier to produce things closer to home, since cheap labour will be much less of a factor, and intellectual property is more mobile than a skilled workforce. I also have a hunch that much new technology will reduce economies of scale, making one-offs cheaper (think about 3-D printing), which undermines a nother reason for trade.

Mr Trump’s trade wars are still an act of self-harm. But, a bit like his reckless approach to the US national debt, he has the forces of history on his side – a big difference between now and the 1920s.

5.Inflation

Since the 1970s economists have been obsessed with inflation. The idea was that if demand across an economy outstripped sustainable supply, inflation would result – so it was a critical indicator that things were in balance. This developed into the idea of an ideal Goldilocks rate, not too high and no too low, as a central ingredient of sound economic management. It became the key, sometimes only, target for central banks’ monetary policy.

In fact the forces that determine prices and inflation are more complex than this, and new developments are taking it further from this idea. There are other ways for excess demand to play out, such as property bubbles and other forms of financial instability. One explanation for the financial crash of 2007/2008 was that excess demand, especially in both the US and the UK, had been allowed to develop, taking the world financial system to breaking point. With theirs eyes fixed on a stable inflation rate, most economists failed to see the crisis developing.

This is important, because if I am right about point 1 on national debt, there will be a temptation for governments to stoke up aggregate demand. They might think that this is perfectly sustainable if inflation remains low – but something else is likely to go wrong instead. Meanwhile an obsession with central bank inflation targets is wasted energy. Interestingly enough, the best example of this is again Japan. There the issue is that inflation is below target. But no matter what policymakers do, the effect on the rate of inflation is minimal.

Conclusion

So productivity, national debt (and budget deficits), the dependency ratio, global trade volumes and inflation don’t matter as they used to. That’s quite a change. What what should we be worrying about instead? I will return to that.

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3 thoughts on “The new economics: five things to worry less about”

  1. productivity, national debt (and budget deficits), the dependency ratio, global trade volumes and inflation don’t matter as they used to.

    I would say they matter just as much, or just as little, as they ever did and nothing fundamental has really changed.

    I still find it a little odd that, on the one hand, you worry that productivity growth is low but, on the other, you worry that the robots are going to take all our jobs. But robotic technology, like any other form of technical advance, is the very thing that modern factories need to improve their productivity.

    So is technology the cause of our problems or is it the underlying economic orthodoxy?

    I don’t think I’ve mentioned Prof Mark Blyth before but you’ll see why I really like him! There’s lots more on youtube too.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwK0jeJ8wxg

    1. Yes I see why you like Mark Blyth – though my computer doesn’t seem to be doing sound at the moment.

      I’m not that worried that productivity growth is low: I’m saying learn to live with it. But most economists don’t understand how you can advance living standards without productivity growth.

      I thnk economic orthodoxy has to adapt to the technological conditions. Most economists are looking for an orthodoxy that suits all technological environments. The current orthodoxy is leading to the enrichment of a small elite and peanuts for everybody else. But it was fine in the 1950s (perhaps – many would say that the orthodoxy was different then).

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