ZIRP Perps: Fed

 

Bill Gross Says a $10 Trillion Economic Supernova is Waiting to Explode

With massive losses for bondholders.

“Bond king” Bill Gross did not mince words Thursday when he called out a problem in the credit markets that could have catastrophic consequences.

In a tweet though his firm, Janus Capital JNS 2.59% , Gross asserted that the spread of negative interest rate policy though central banks around the world will cause the record-breaking $10.4 trillion of negative-interest-rate sovereign bonds on the market to “explode one day.” 

Gross has often noted that negative interest rates could lead to a credit bubble with massive damages to bondholders. Here’s at least part of the reason why:

Negative interest rates have been adopted by stunted economies in Japan and parts of the eurozone in a bid to promote spending where more conventional policies have failed. The policy effectively causes bondholders to pay the issuer if they hold it to maturity. But demand for the bonds is still growing. That’s because there are positives to buying bonds with negative interest rates—they generally promise lower risk. Banks in the euro currency bloc are also piling in as a result of higher capital requirements. And since yields have an inverse relationship to price, demand has helped push down yields.

“Unconventional monetary policies, regulatory risk mitigation by banks, and a flight to safety in global financial markets have all contributed to the ongoing rise in the amount of sovereign debt trading with a negative yield,” head of macro credit at Fitch, Robert Grossman, wrote in a note earlier this month.

While some investors are trudging through lower yields, others investors have been driven to riskier and/or higher yielding areas—such as U.S. treasuries and longer maturity bonds. But should yields rise, investors holding such bonds could also face massive losses.

Goldman Sachs released a note to clients earlier this month, estimating if U.S. interest rates rise by 1% (noting that the rate is currently 0.25%), bondholders could lose $1 trillion as the value of the underlying bond falls and yields rise, hitting securities with longer maturities the hardest. That exceeds the losses from mortgage-backed bonds during the financial crisis.

Gross, who runs the $1.4 billion Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, is not the only major investor to decry negative interest rates. DoubleLine’s Jeff Gundlach called the policy “the stupidest idea I have ever experienced,” Reuters reported, while BlackRock’s Larry Fink wrote in his most recent letter to investors: “Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the toll these low rates—and now negative rates—are taking on the ability of investors to save and plan for the future.”

bond bubble

Disconnects

…between central bank policies, economic growth and unemployment. Stockman distinctly and colorfully explains why we are experiencing 1-2% growth these days. I’m not sure any of the candidates for POTUS have a good answer for this…It’s a sad commentary on our intellectual and political leaders.

Losing Ground In Flyover America, Part 2

In fact, the combination of pumping-up inflation toward 2% and hammering-down interest rates to the so-called zero bound is economically lethal. The former destroys the purchasing power of main street wages while the latter strip mines capital from business and channels it into Wall Street financial engineering and the inflation of stock prices.

In the case of the 2% inflation target, even if it was good for the general economy, which it most assuredly is not, it’s a horrible curse on flyover America. That’s because its nominal pay levels are set on the margin by labor costs in the export factories of China and the EM and the service sector outsourcing shops in India and its imitators.

Accordingly, wage earners actually need zero or even negative CPI’s to maximize the value of pay envelopes constrained by global competition. Indeed, in a world where the global labor market is deflating wage levels, the last thing main street needs is a central bank fanatically seeking to pump up the cost of living.

So why do the geniuses domiciled in the Eccles Building not see something that obvious?

The short answer is they are trapped in a 50-year old intellectual time warp that presumes that the US economy is more or less a closed system. Call it the Keynesian bathtub theory of macroeconomics and you have succinctly described the primitive architecture of the thing.

According to this fossilized worldview, monetary policy must drive interest rates ever lower in order to elicit more borrowing and aggregate spending. And then authorities must rinse and repeat this monetary “stimulus” until the bathtub of “potential GDP” is filled up to the brim.

Moreover, as the economy moves close to the economic bathtub’s brim or full employment GDP, labor allegedly becomes scarcer, thereby causing employers to bid up wage rates. Indeed, at full employment and 2% inflation wages will purportedly rise much faster than consumer prices, permitting real wage rates to rise and living standards to increase.

Except it doesn’t remotely work that way because the US economy is blessed with a decent measure of free trade in goods and services and virtually no restrictions on the flow of capital and short-term financial assets. That is, the Fed can’t fill up the economic bathtub with aggregate demand because it functions in a radically open system where incremental demand is as likely to be satisfied by off-shore goods and services as by domestic production.

This leakage through the bathtub’s side portals into the global economy, in turn, means that the Fed’s 2% inflation and full employment quest can’t cause domestic wage rates to rev-up, either. Incremental demands for labor hours, on the margin, are as likely to be met from the rice paddies of China as the purportedly diminishing cue of idle domestic workers.

Indeed, there has never been a theory so wrong-headed. And yet the financial commentariat, which embraces the Fed’s misbegotten bathtub economics model hook, line and sinker, disdains Donald Trump because his economic ideas are allegedly so primitive!

The irony of the matter is especially ripe. Even as the Fed leans harder into its misbegotten inflation campaign it is drastically mis-measuring its target, meaning that flyover American is getting  an extra dose of punishment.

On the one hand, real inflation where main street households live has been clocking in at over 3% for most of this century. At the same time, the Fed’s faulty measuring stick has led it to keep interest pinned to the zero bound for 89 straight months, thereby fueling the gambling spree in the Wall Street casino. The baleful consequence is that more and more capital has been diverted to financial engineering rather than equipping main street workers with productive capital equipment.

As we indicated in Part 1, even the Fed’s preferred inflation measuring stick——the PCE deflator less food and energy—has risen at a 1.7% rate for the last 16 years and 1.5% during the 6 years. Yet while it obsesses about a trivial miss that can not be meaningful in the context of an open economy, it fails to note that actual main street inflation—led by the four horseman of food, energy, medical and housing—–has been running at 3.1% per annum since the turn of the century.

After 16 years the annual gap, of course, has ballooned into a chasm. As shown in the graph, the consumer price level faced by flyover America is now actually 35% higher than what the Fed’s yardstick shows to the case.

Flyover CPI vs PCE Since 1999

Stated differently, main street households are not whooping up the spending storm that our monetary central planners have ordained because they don’t have the loot. Their real purchasing power has been tapped out.

To be sure, real growth and prosperity stems from the supply-side ingredients of labor, enterprise, capital and production, not the hoary myth that consumer spending is the fount of wealth. Still, the Fed has been consistently and almost comically wrong in its GDP growth projections because the expected surge in wages and consumer spending hasn’t happened.

growth chart

Statistical Fixations

Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.

The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.

The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?

Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation

The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.

By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET

The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.

The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.

For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.

The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.

When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.

Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.

The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.

With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.

Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.

The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.

Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]

The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.

inflation-vs-employment

Failed Paradigms

From The American Interest

The problems of a small state college point to the weakness at the heart of liberal society—a weakness that undermines the strength of our republic at home and endangers world peace. And neither political party has the answers.

America’s Bank – A Review

Interesting book review with highlights of the history of the Federal Reserve. We should keep in mind that all financial crashes are rooted in excess credit creation. Unconstrained credit creation has now become the primary strategy of our central banks.

An All Too Visible Hand

When Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was yet to be invented

By James Grant

The Federal Reserve is America’s problem and the world’s obsession. When will Janet Yellen choose to lift the federal-funds rate from its longtime resting place of zero, thereby upending or not upending (it depends on whom you ask) individuals and markets in all four corners of the earth? Her subjects await a sign. While tapping their feet, they may ponder how things ever came to this pass. How, indeed, did such all-powerful body come into existence in the first place—and why?

Roger Lowenstein’s “America’s Bank,” which chronicles the passage of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, is victor’s history. Its worldview is that of today’s central bankers, the bailers-out of markets, suppressors of interest rates and practitioners of money conjuring. In Mr. Lowenstein’s telling, what preceded the coming of the Federal Reserve was a financial and monetary dark age. What followed was the truth and the light.

It sticks in the craw of good Democrats that, in 1832, their own Andrew Jackson vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, the predecessor of the Federal Reserve. Just as galling is the fact that Old Hickory’s veto message is today counted as one of America’s great state papers. In it, Jackson denies to Congress the power to delegate its constitutionally given duty to “coin money and regulate the value thereof.” To do so, Jackson affirmed, would render the Constitution a “dead letter.”

America’s Bank

By Roger Lowenstein

Mr. Lowenstein contends that, in the creation of the Federal Reserve 80 years later, Congress and the people commendably put that hard-money Jacksonian claptrap behind them. Mandarin rule is the way forward in monetary policy, he suggests—the Ph.D. standard, as one might call it, under which former tenured economics faculty exercise vast discretionary power over the value of money and the course of interest rates, financial markets and business activity. Give Mr. Lowenstein this much: As the world awaits the raising of the Fed’s minuscule interest rate, the questions he provokes have never been timelier. Not for the first time the thoughtful citizen must wonder: What’s money and who says so?

When Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the dollar was defined as a weight of gold. You could exchange the paper for the metal, and vice versa, at a fixed and statutory rate. The stockholders of nationally chartered banks were responsible for the solvency of the institutions in which they owned a fractional interest. The average level of prices could fall, as it had done in the final decades of the 19th century, or rise, as it had begun to do in the early 20th, without inciting countermeasures to arrest the change and return the price level to some supposed desirable average. The very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was uninvented. Who or what was in charge of American finance? Principally, Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

How well could such a primitive system have possibly functioned? In “The New York Money Market and the Finance of Trade, 1900-1913,” a scholarly study published in 1969, the British economist C.A.E. Goodhart concluded thus: “On the basis of its record, the financial system as constituted in the years 1900-1913 must be considered to have been successful to an extent rarely equalled in the United States.”

The belle epoque was not to be confused with paradise, of course. The Panic of 1907 was a national embarrassment. There were too many small banks for which no real diversification, of either assets or liabilities, was possible. The Treasury Department was wont to throw its considerable resources into the money market to effect an artificial reduction in interest rates—in this manner substituting a very visible hand for the other kind.

Mr. Lowenstein has written long and well on contemporary financial topics in such books as “When Genius Failed” (2000) and “While America Aged” (2008). Here he seems to forget that the past is a foreign country. “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth,” he contends, “the United States—alone among the industrial powers—suffered a continual spate of financial panics, bank runs, money shortages and, indeed, full-blown depressions.”

If this were even half correct, American history would have taken a hard left turn. For instance, William Jennings Bryan, arch-inflationist of the Populist Era, would not have lost the presidency on three occasions. Had he beaten William McKinley in 1896, he would very likely have signed a silver-standard act into law, sparking inflation by cheapening the currency. As it was, President McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which wrote the gold dollar into the statute books.

The doctrine that interest rates are the Federal Reserve’s to manage has come to be regarded, at least by the mandarins, as settled science. It was not so when the heroes of Mr. Lowenstein’s story were conspiring to create a new central bank. Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. took to the scholarly journals to denounce the government’s attempts to pin down money-market interest rates.

Indiana-born, Andrew came East to study, taught economics at Harvard and lent his talents to the National Monetary Commission in 1909 and 1910—the group that conducted the field work to prepare for the grand banking reform. Somewhere along the line, he conceived the idea that the money market should be free of federal manipulation. As prices had been rising—a gentle inflation had begun just before the turn of the 20th century—interest rates should have followed prices higher. That they did not was the complaint that Andrew laid at the doorstep of the government.

Andrew contended that the Treasury Department—under Lyman J. Gage, who served from 1897 to 1902, and his successor, Leslie M. Shaw, who resigned in 1907—“succeeded in keeping the money rate of interest below the rate which would have been ‘normal’ or ‘natural.’ . . . They had kept alive a continuously excessive demand for credit by making it available at less than the normal cost. They had sown the wind and their successor was to reap the whirlwind.”

It is an indictment that comes ready-written against the Federal Reserve’s policy today. Interest rates are prices. Far better that they be discovered in the marketplace than administered from on high. One has to wonder what Andrew would say if he were spirited back to earth to read a random edition of this newspaper in the seventh year of the Fed’s attempt to create prosperity through the technique of zero-percent interest rates. He might want a quiet word with Ms. Yellen.

Andrew is not the only vivid personality in this tale of unintended consequences. Mr. Lowenstein entertainingly limns a gallery of them: Paul Warburg, a German-banker immigrant eager to import European ideas into his adopted country; Carter Glass, an irritable Virginia newspaperman turned congressman (later senator) and currency reformer; Nelson Aldrich, a suspiciously affluent Rhode Island senator and central-bank exponent; Robert Owen, a former Indian agent from the Oklahoma Territory who pushed the Federal Reserve Act through the Senate; William Gibbs McAdoo Jr., the Treasury secretary who married the boss’s daughter; that boss himself, Woodrow Wilson; and Frank Vanderlip, president of what today is Citigroup.

Vanderlip, not alone among his fellow agitators for a central bank, was keen on the gold standard and “fervent,” as Mr. Lowenstein puts it, in his “denunciations of government control.” Here is a fine piece of irony. Government control is exactly what the authors of the Federal Reserve Act unintentionally achieved, though Andrew, at least, might have anticipated this public-policy reversal. He noticed that, under Leslie Shaw’s meddling stewardship in the early years of the 20th century, the Treasury had shifted government deposits to private institutions in times of crisis. “Outside relief in business, like outdoor charity,” as Mr. Lowenstein quotes him saying, “is apt to diminish the incentives to providence, and to slacken the forces of self-help.”

Centralized government control arrived in force with the Banking Act of 1935. It established the centralization of monetary power within the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, and it repealed the so-called double-liability law on bank stocks: No more would the holders of common stocks in failed banks be assessed to help defray the debts of the institutions in which they had invested. Anyway, there would be precious few failures to deal with, proponents of the new thinking contended. Knowing that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stood behind their money, depositors would give up running; they would rather walk to the bank.

The new doctrines repulsed H. Parker Willis, a key player during the organization of the Fed and later a professor of banking at Columbia University. “It is far better, both for the depositor and the banker,” said Willis of the FDIC, “that the actual net irreducible losses growing out of bank failure should fall where they belong. The universal experience with this kind of insurance—if it may be called—has pointed to the danger of increasing losses as the result of bad banking management induced by belief in deposit guarantee.”

Willis didn’t imagine the half of it. On top of deposit insurance evolved the notion that some banks—Citi, for instance—were too big to fail. They must be nurtured through subsidy and bank-friendly monetary policy: low money-market interest rates, for example. It happened that the Citigroup that evolved from Vanderlip’s National City Bank became a ward of the state in 2008. The massive federal bailout of Citi exacted many costs, including a level of regulatory micromanagement that Vanderlip could not have begun to conceive.

J.P. Morgan Chase, which did not fail in 2008, recently went public to describe the intensity of the federal oversight it labors under. More than 950 employees, it revealed, are dedicated to complying with 750 requirements laid down by 21 government entities to achieve and maintain capital adequacy. The Fed itself is high among those demanding overseers. The workers shuffle 20,000 pages of documentation and manipulate 225 econometric models.

The rage to micromanage spans the world. “It can’t be,” the head of Sweden’s Nordea Bank was quoted forlornly saying last year in the Financial Times, “that the only purpose of banking is to stop banks from going bankrupt.” Oh, yes it can.

One thinks back to the supposed financial dark ages when, in 1842, New Orleans bankers, setting down a kind of operational manifesto, succeeded in committing the essentials of safe and sound banking practice to one side of one page. They prospered by simple maxims—e.g., do what you will with your own capital but do not abuse the depositor’s funds—well after the Civil War. Some may protest that banking has become more complex since those days. The boggling, 23,000-page length of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (complete with supporting rules) would suggest that it has become 23,000 times more complex. I doubt that.

The legislation to which President Wilson affixed his signature in 1913—Mr. Lowenstein observantly notes that he signed with gold pens—included no intimation of the revolutionary techniques of monetary control that would come into being after 2008: zero-percent interest rates, “quantitative easing,” and central-bank-sponsored bull markets in stocks and real estate, among others.

The great value of “America’s Bank” is the comparison it invites between what lawmakers intend and what they achieve. The act’s preamble described a modest effort “to provide for the establishment of the Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper and to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States and for other purposes.” “And for other purposes”—our ancestors should have known.

What Is Inclusive Capitalism?

We can distill “inclusive capitalism” down to a single word that captures the concept in its fullest dimensions. That word is EQUITY.

There is a movement afoot called The Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism that counts Prince Charles, Pope Francis, Bill Clinton, and the world’s richest industrialist Carlos Slim among its supporters. Our first reaction to this news might be to ask, “What exactly is meant by the term Inclusive Capitalism?”

The Coalition provides this definition:

“Inclusive Capitalism provides that firms should account for themselves, not just on the bottom line, but on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics… Every firm has a license to operate from the society in which it trades. This is both a legally and socially defined license… Firms must contribute proportionately to the societies in which they operate. Without fairly contributing, firms free-ride on services that other people have paid for. Firms that practice unsustainable activities, disrespect their stakeholders and the communities in which they operate will find their licenses threatened, first by the engaged consumer, then by government. Firms practicing Inclusive Capitalism will see their license strengthened.”

While laudable in its aspirations, operationalizing this value-laden definition poses a few questions and challenges.

First, this definition focuses on firm responsibility according to ESG sustainability metrics and firm performance. In fact, citing studies of corporate performance measures, the IC literature asserts that such practices deliver superior firm performance in terms of profit and market valuations. If true, then market competition should insure the widespread adoption of best practices with the gradual attrition of less profitable, less sustainable firm behavior. In other words, markets should provide sufficient correctives. If they do not, we probably need to question such assumptions that the market is functioning as expected, that it is complete, or that best practices across firms and industries are readily transparent.

Second, one can inadvertently blur the operational differences between public corporations and non-corporate, small business where ESG metrics are more difficult to discern or measure. Since much of capitalism’s innovation, job creation, and business expansion occurs at the small business level, we need to expand the idea of inclusion beyond corporate management practices and stakeholder governance.

Third, the search for an acceptable definition can also put different class segments of society at odds. The British Guardian has already described the Coalition’s efforts as a “Trojan Horse” cynically deployed to placate the public so that crony capitalism can thrive unscathed. Our definition then must not only articulate a vision and a direction, but also gain acceptance and buy-in from all segments of society. In other words, our definition must be “inclusive” in order to mediate conflicts among groups that appear to harbor diverging interests.

Finally, when we probe practitioners we find that different people have different ideas of what Inclusive Capitalism means, so we still lack a consistent and concise definition. Perhaps we can start by eliminating what it is not. It’s more than just corporate social responsibility (CSR) or ESG sustainability. It’s not defined by charity, philanthropy, or noblesse oblige. It’s more than “people-centered” and not really Robin Hood-style tax and redistribution, or even social welfare.

This is not to declaim or disparage these policies and activities, which in many cases yield positive social and economic results. The problem is that these policies are not really designed to be inclusive; rather they target compensation for past exclusion. In contrast, we should understand that inclusive capitalism seeks to reduce the need for such compensation. Thus, the motivating criterion is bottom-up empowerment, not top-down redirection. For example, inclusive capitalism is less about artificially raising wages, and more about creating the demand for and utilization of labor where a minimum or living wage becomes a moot issue.

With this objective, I believe we can distill “inclusive capitalism” down to a single word that captures the concept in its fullest dimensions. That word is EQUITY. Why equity? Because the multiple meanings and usage of the word “equity” expand the idea into every realm of a free society: political equity in terms of democratic participation, legal equity in terms of rights and accountability, moral equity in terms of justice, and economic equity in terms of capital ownership structures, control, risk, and reward. A free society that lacks any one of these dimensions of equity is in need of repair.

Economic Equity

Naturally, the focus of the term “inclusive capitalism” applies primarily to economic equity, begging the next question of how we define and understand economic equity. This can be problematic because a moral precept of equity as “fairness” is not definitive. In other words, What is economically fair? is a question that cannot really be answered objectively. In economic relations, equity implies a linkage between action and consequence; in finance we might refer to the direct link between risk and reward. In fact, the financial framework may offer the clearest insight into the logic of economic equity in capitalism.

Economic growth is a result of successful risk-taking and productive work. The rewards of success are, or should be, distributed accordingly. The simplest formulation asserts that capital takes the risks and labor does the work. The distributional outcomes of success or failure are then perceived as a protracted conflict between capital and labor over issues of equity. I would argue this conflict is misconstrued.

The linkage between risk and reward is inter-temporal. In other words, financial risks are assigned and taken before the enterprise is engaged: capital is borrowed and invested, suppliers are paid, and labor is contracted. The payment contracts reflect a complex web of legal relations and covenants that stipulate the assignment of liabilities and the seniority of claims over the product after it has been produced and, hopefully, sold. The liability risks of all participants are encoded in these contracts. After standard accounting practices measure the results, the returns to success or the losses of failure are distributed accordingly.

In starkest terms: In capitalism, she who takes the risk, gets the reward (or the loss). We can see the importance of residual claimancy over the profits of the enterprise. Under most corporate legal covenants, these profits accrue to “equity holders,” also referred to as shareholders or owners of firm assets. We should note the usage of that word “equity.”

Inclusive capitalism warrants “inclusion” in the profit-making enterprise of capitalism, which by legal necessity requires contractual claims on residual profits as well as the assumption of liabilities for loss. To control the financial risks associated with these liabilities, the corporate charter was deliberately designed to limit liability to the liquidation value of the firm’s assets.

Some correctly make the argument that wider stakeholders in capitalism (those without ownership claims) have rights that should be reflected in the governance of capitalist enterprise. An example might be a community downriver that suffers water contamination from a producer upstream. Economic externalities, such as environmental degradation, are important considerations for inclusion. Politically imposed regulation can be one means of asserting stakeholders’ interests, but the preferred strategy would be to assign stakeholder claims through the accepted legal structures of ownership and control. In other words, stakeholders should be represented as the voice of shareholders participating as owners in capitalist enterprise. In this way, stakeholders assert their interests and can also claim the material benefits of success, i.e., profits.

Thus, inclusive capitalism explicitly requires inclusion in the economic system as “capitalists,” as well as workers. This all can be as simple as being a passive shareholder. This begs the penultimate question of why, in a capitalist economy, we are not all striving to be capitalists? Alternatively, we might ask: Why is economic inclusion so elusive?

I believe this is where the discussion of inclusive capitalism gets interesting. The answers hinge on the risk-taking nature of capitalist enterprise juxtaposed against the risk-averse, loss-averse behavior dictated by our natural survival instinct. There is a selective bias among successful capitalists to perceive a natural order of things whereby some people are natural risk-taking innovators, while others are not. For them, this “natural order” explains the distribution of success in a capitalist society. The elitist bias can reveal itself in attitudes of paternalism and noblesse oblige.

This perspective is largely the product of a theoretical approach to the market economy where participants are grouped by function: producers vs. consumers; employers vs. workers; investors and borrowers vs. savers and lenders; innovators and wealth-creators vs. welfare dependents. When it comes to distributional outcomes, this is a limited analytical paradigm. Let us just consider the risk-takers. Innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Google’s Page and Brin are perhaps one in a million. But each of these immensely successful individuals has been eager to share the risks and returns of their enterprise through the sale of equity in financial markets. The important lesson is not the fact that Gates may have a net worth of more than $30 billion, but that Microsoft (and Apple and Amazon) has enriched thousands of other stakeholders along the way. This is the key to inclusion and we should pay mind to how it is narrowing.

Though risk preferences and animal spirits do vary across the population, economic risk is ubiquitous and borne in some manner by all. As the capitalist risks loss of principal, the worker risks loss of income. The real question is whether the risk-bearers are receiving just compensation commensurate with those risks and whether the risk-takers are also accountable for losses. This is equity in the moral and economic sense of the word. A free society demands that the innocent not pay for the mistakes of the guilty and this applies in capitalist enterprise as well. (Our recent financial bail-outs appear to have violated this moral imperative.)

For inclusion to work, participants in capitalist enterprise must also be empowered to control and manage their risks. Inclusion and participation then becomes a question of enforceable property rights and gets us back to the legal conventions of assigning ownership rights and risks to tangible assets of the firm. In many situations, different stakeholders eschew the risks because they cannot control or manage them, so they pay to have someone else assume them (i.e., sign a labor contract for a lower risk-return profile). Overcoming these impediments to equity participation inherent to the governance issue is the main challenge of inclusion.

Unfortunately, we have many tax and regulatory policies, as well as financial practices and conventions, that contradict the goal of inclusion through equity. Access to credit, debt leverage, collateral requirements, capital and income taxes, conflicts of interest in governance, etc. work to the disadvantage of those who are thereby excluded from the financialization of the economy. A long laundry list of reforms can be offered in this respect, but that is beyond the purview of this effort, which is to first define what we mean by inclusive capitalism.

A more serious challenge is posed by an industrial global economy being transformed by the digital information age, globalization, and AI robotics. Production in the digital age is revealing itself as labor-saving, capital and skill intensive, with winner-take-all product and service markets. Some of the effects we observe are the rise of celebrity branding; the marginalization of wage labor as a distributional mechanism and mode of inclusion; and the explosive growth of wealth concentration enjoyed by those who feed off digital processes—companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. These trends present a dire challenge to the concept of equity and inclusion. It is a challenge that will require far deeper thinking and rethinking of the 21st century economy and how we conceive of a free society. Despite what politicians may promise, I would advise there is no going back.

Politics, Economics, and the State of Our World

QE paradox

This is an interesting graphic that not only illustrates the futility of current monetary stimulus (the QE-ZIRP Paradox), but also the larger contradiction we’ve created in the relationship between politics and economics. I’ll explicate how this contradiction also explains Europe’s predicament with Greece and the other periphery countries in Eurozone, and also applies to emerging countries, especially China.

We can envision economics as a boundary of constraints or possibilities on the choices we can make in life. We might call these budgetary constraints, but it also pertains to constraints on growth and expansion. Relate this to personal finance:  economics constrains the choices we have on what kind of house we buy or rent, what cars we drive, what vacations we can take, what schools we attend, etc., etc. Within those constraints we often have many choices and possibilities for trade-offs. We can decide to buy a small house to afford a big car, or a tuition-free school in favor of more exotic vacations. We make these decisions everyday throughout our lifetimes.

The personal choices we make within the constraints of economics are analogous to the social choices we make through democratic politics. So, economics is like the box within which politics can allocate resources by democratic consensus. We can decide on more social welfare, or more national defense, or more leisure time. The irrationality is believing that we can somehow make choices that lie far outside the constraints of economics. Fantasies like we can all fly to the moon, all have a heart transplant, or perhaps live high on the hog without working to produce the necessary prosperity.

Economic constraints and political choices interact, an important dynamic since both are malleable over time. We can make choices that expand the constraints of economics, which would mean an expansion of possibilities through growth. Or we can make choices that shrink the boundaries of the economically possible, reducing our choices in the future. The interesting point to make at this stage of our exposition is that, like the boundaries we set for our children, economic constraints are a disciplinary factor that helps to keep our political choices honest.  In other words, economics disciplines our political choices by penalizing bad choices and rewarding good choices.

This has profound implications for how society works.

One can imagine that one of the major economic constraints on our personal set of choices is the amount of money we have. In other words, the fungible value of our assets and savings. Rich people have fewer economic constraints than poor people. But this supply of money is not fixed and can be augmented by borrowing through the issuance of credit and assumption of debt obligations. So, one can buy a more expensive house by borrowing the necessary funds from a mortgage lender and then paying it back over time. We soon figured out that when the supply of money is too strict, economic constraints are unnecessarily tight, so money supply should adapt to the needs of the political economy.

Thus, we can expand the economic constraints facing society by expanding the supply of money through credit. One might think, “Wow, that was easy. Now we have lots more choices!” And the next thought should be, “Well, what’s the limit on how much money we can create?”

First, we should remember that money is not wealth, it merely represents wealth. When money was backed by gold reserves, the supply of gold limited the amount of money in the system. If  Country A adopted bad policies relative to its trading partner Country B, gold reserves would flow out, threatening the underlying value of Country A’s currency. This would force Country A to correct its policies or risk impoverishment. The exchange rates between currency A and B did not reflect these changes because both were fixed to gold; but the underlying values had obviously changed demanding a revaluation of both currencies relative to gold. While workable, this was a herky-jerky way of adapting to changing economic conditions and resulted in many financial,  economic, and political crises along the way. It took WWI and WWII to finally break away from a gold standard as an economic constraint.

In 1948, the western powers that had been victorious in WWII established an international currency regime (called Bretton Woods) backed by the US$ fixed to gold and a host of institutions to help manage international relations, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations. Unfortunately, this regime depended on US policy to defend the monetary regime, even when it contradicted US domestic economic interests. With Vietnam war spending and Great Society social spending (guns and butter), too many dollars were created, causing a run on US gold redemptions by countries like France. In 1971, the Bretton Woods system finally broke down as Nixon closed the gold window to redemptions and all currencies began to float in value relative to other currencies. There was now no fixed relationship of the currency to anything of tangible value – its value was established by government fiat. The initial effect was a stagnating economy plus inflation, a decade-long slog in the 1970s that gave birth to the term stagflation.

At the time, it was thought that exchange rate movements would signal necessary policy changes to keep each countries’ political priorities aligned with economic constraints. It turns out this assumption did not hold up to political realities because volatile exchange rates do not necessarily affect domestic economic interests to the point where politicians feel the need to respond. How many of us know or care how the US$ is performing relative to the other currencies of the world? The result was that politically favorable (more for everybody!), but economically detrimental, policies could be pursued, while exchange rate volatility could be largely ignored. Thus, the economic discipline to guide political choices was lost, permitting bad policies to persist. We have seen this in the explosion of credit and debt around the world and the volatility in exchange rates and asset markets.

Now we can see the problem illustrated in the graphic above. Instead of forcing necessary fiscal reform, we end up throwing more monetary stimulus at the problem. The results have been rising inequality, asset booms and busts, and massive resource misallocations that will cost society economically for a long time. On the global stage, China is the poster child of excess. It will all end when we finally hit the wall and throwing more money at the problem no longer works.

Europe, the EU, and Greece.

We can consider another case in Europe where volatile exchange rates after 1971 inhibited trade with unnecessary currency risks and conversion costs. The idea was that a currency union under the euro would greatly expand intra-European trade by eliminating these costs. But a currency union requires consistent monetary and fiscal policy and a re-balancing mechanism. In the US this is achieved through a Federal government that taxes and redistributes resources. In the European view, economic discipline would by imposed by a set of consistent policy rules established under the European Union and Parliament. Once, again, the result was that individual country governments found ways to skirt the rules or outright deceive the EU on its government budgets. Sometimes this was necessary given the varying needs of uneven development among countries. We see the result in Greece, when it was soon discovered that Greece had borrowed and spent public funds far in excess of the 3% boundary established by the EU.

So, a currency union also has failed to discipline politics, and the result has been a catastrophe for the Greek people and a severe blow to the concept and credibility of the European Union and the euro.

————

The bottom line is that democratic politics needs a firm disciplinary constraint, or else a financially manipulated economy will give society just enough rope to hang itself with. Unfortunately, this has happened quite frequently in history.

The Economics of a Stagnating World

economics-cartoon

This article by Edmund Phelps in the upcoming issue of the NYROB is excellent for bringing the important underlying issues to the fore. The “good life,” as Aristotle describes it, is based on humanist values that often get lost in discussions about materialistic economics or even abstractions of moral justice. Thus, our policy challenges are not only about delivering the sustenance for life, but making life worth living.

Phelps correctly focuses on the humanist values of creativity and innovation for pursuing meaning in our lives. (I would suggest that equally important to meaning is the process of sharing that creativity through community, and Phelps would certainly agree.)

But how can we achieve a world of shared creative discovery?

Creativity is a function of imagination and taking risks into the unknown when it comes to acting on our imaginations. This is where the materialist concerns enter in. Human beings are rationally loss averse because survival is paramount to the individual, the community, and the species. As Phelps argues, our pursuit of material prosperity has reduced our economic lives to the pursuit of greater efficiency, rather than greater meaning. At the same time, as we pursue greater efficiency by the rationalization of production-principly by reducing labor costs-we’ve exposed large segments of our society to greater individual risks, while not managing them very well.

Phelps correctly attributes this to the demands of classical economic theory – and we operate on what we know. Thus, we need to pursue new paradigms to manage economic change that also foster inclusion into economic and political society. I’ve discussed several aspects of what a new paradigm might look like in previous blogs such as:

Why Ownership Matters

Power Laws I, II, III

Rethinking Inequality and Redistribution in a Free Society

Beyond Piketty’s Capital

What is wrong with the economies of the West—and with economics?

by Edmund Phelps, The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015

It depends on whether we are talking about the good or the just.

Many of us in Western Europe and America feel that our economies are far from just, though our views on justice differ somewhat. One band of economists, led for decades by the British economist Anthony Atkinson, sees the West as being in another Gilded Age of inequality in income and wealth.1 Adopting Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian view, they would redistribute income from those in high brackets to those farther down—until we reach the highest “sum of utilities.” It is a question, though, whether this doctrine captures intuitive views of what is just.

Philosophers over these same decades have been more interested in the work by the American philosopher John Rawls. His book A Theory of Justice argues for a fundamental shift away from Bentham: economic justice is about the distribution of “utilities,” for him a word usually denoting the satisfactions of consumption and leisure, not the sum of those utilities.2 It is about the terms on which each participant contributes to the fruit of the society’s economy. For Rawls, justice requires the state to use taxes and subsidies to pull up people with the lowest wages to the highest level possible. That way, the least advantaged get the largest possible portion of the gain from people’s cooperation in the economy.

A struggle persists between these views. The Benthamite view has morphed into the corporatist idea that a nation’s government ought to provide benefits, whether in the form of money or tax advantages, or free services, to interest groups—whether corporations, or unions, or consumers—that voice a need until more benefits would be deemed to cost too much. Meeting these claims of many different interests has left little in the public purse for low-wage workers.

The Rawlsian view has found little support among legislators, it is true. In the US, the Earned Income Tax Credit was passed in 1975. But it mainly supplements the income of low-wage mothers of young children. It does nothing for low-end workers as a whole and, to some extent, it actually reduces paychecks for low-paid work of childless women and single men. In Europe, a few countries spend much more than the US on job subsidies but statistical analyses have not found large effects on wages or unemployment.

With little or no effective policy initiative giving a lift to the less advantaged, the jarring market forces of the past four decades—mainly the slowdowns in productivity that have spread over the West and, of course, globalization, which has moved much low-wage manufacturing to Asia—have proceeded, unopposed, to drag down both employment and wage rates at the low end. The setback has cost the less advantaged not only a loss of income but also a loss of what economists call inclusion—access to jobs offering work and pay that provide self-respect. And inclusion was already lacking to begin with. In America, black urban teenagers have long been lacking in inclusion. In France there is a comparable lack of inclusion among North Africans. In much of Europe there has been little attempt to include the Roma.

This failing in the West’s economies is also a failing of economics. The classical idea of political economy has been to let wage rates sink to whatever level the market takes them, and then provide everyone with the “safety net” of a “negative income tax,” unemployment insurance, and free food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. This policy, even when humanely carried out, and it often is not, misses the point that, even if we confine our attention to the West since the Renaissance, many people have long felt the desire to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and having leisure. They desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop.

Our prevailing political economy is blind to the very concept of inclusion; it does not map out any remedy for the deficiency. A monograph of mine and a conference volume I edited are among the few book-length studies of ways to remedy failure to include people generally in an economy in which they will have satisfying work.3

Commentators are talking now about injustice of another sort. Workers in decent jobs view the economy as unjust if they or their children have virtually no chance of climbing to a higher rung in the socioeconomic ladder. And moving up appears harder now. Even in the Gilded Age, many of the moguls came up from the bottom. (The rungs were far apart, yet the ladder was climbed.) The feeling of injustice comes from a sense of unfair advantages: that those above are using their connections to stay there—or to ensure that their children can follow them. The bar to upward mobility is always the same: barriers to competition put up by the wealthy, the connected, corporations, professional associations, unions, and guilds.

But the truth is that no degree of Rawlsian action to pull up low-end wages and employment—or remove unfair advantages—could have spared the less advantaged from a major loss of inclusion since Rawls’s time. The forces of productivity slowdown and globalization have been too strong. Moreover, though the injustices in the West’s economies are egregious, they ought not to be seen as a major cause of the productivity slowdowns and globalization. (For one thing, a slowdown of productivity started in the US in the mid-1960s and the sharp loss of manufacturing jobs to poorer countries occurred much later—from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.) Deeper causes must be at work.

While people need a just economy for their self-respect and national pride—Rawls regarded justice as the first virtue of a society—justice is not everything that people need from their economy. They need an economy that is good as well as just. And for some decades, the Western economies have fallen short of any conception of a “good economy”—an economy offering a “good life,” or a life of “richness,” as some humanists call it.

The good life as it is popularly conceived typically involves acquiring mastery in one’s work, thus gaining for oneself better terms—or means to rewards, whether material, like wealth, or nonmaterial—an experience we may call “prospering.” As humanists and philosophers have conceived it, the good life involves using one’s imagination, exercising one’s creativity, taking fascinating journeys into the unknown, and acting on the world—an experience I call “flourishing.” These gains are gains in experience, not in material reward, though material gains may be a means to the nonmaterial ends. As the writer Kabir Sehgal put it, “Money is like blood. You need it to live but it isn’t the point of life.”4

How might such a good life prevail in a society? Historically, as my book Mass Flourishing argues,5 prospering and flourishing became prevalent in the nineteenth century when, in Europe and America, economies emerged with the dynamism to generate their own innovation. Responding to the challenges and opportunities of an ever-evolving economy, the more entrepreneurial participants were immersed in the experience of solving the new problems and overcoming the new hurdles posed in the process of innovation: these people were “prospering.” Sparked by the new spirit of dynamism, the more innovative participants were constantly trying to think of new ways to produce things or new things to produce: these people were “flourishing.”

What were the origins of this dynamism? It sprang from the development of a favorable culture. In nineteenth-century Britain and America, and later Germany and France, a culture of exploration, experimentation, and ultimately innovation grew out of the individualism of the Renaissance, the vitalism of the Baroque era, and the expressionism of the Romantic period. In view of the explosion in poetry, music, and art in the “creative” sector of the economy, it should not surprise us that imagination exploded in the rest of the economy too. In these years George Stephenson conceived the steam railway, John Deere the cast-steel plow that “broke the plains”; Isaac Singer developed and marketed a commercial sewing machine, Thomas Edison the phonograph, the Lumière brothers the cinema, and Florence Nightingale effected a reorganization of hospitals. Innovation was rampant—and very apparently in America, as observers testified. Abraham Lincoln, touring America in 1858, exclaimed that the country had “a great passion—a perfect rage—for the ‘new.’”6

What made innovating so powerful in these economies was that it was not limited to elites. It permeated society from the less advantaged parts of the population on up. People of ordinary background might be involved in innovations, large and small. Stephenson was illiterate, Deere a blacksmith, Singer a machinist, Edison of humble origins. People of ordinary ability could also have innovative ideas. As I wrote in Mass Flourishing, “Even people with few and modest talents…were given the experience of using their minds: to seize an opportunity, to solve a problem, and think of a new way or a new thing.”

The experience of working in these dynamic economies was evidently good for most people—far better than the previous economies were, at any rate. Diaries of the period contradict the old familiar tune that the rural life of mercantile times, with its routine and isolation, was preferred to modern life in businesses and cities.7

It may be that some other economies lacked (and still lack) the wages for large numbers of ordinary people to afford to pursue careers in which they could prosper or flourish; or they lacked enough jobs for large numbers of people to have those opportunities. High-enough wages, low-enough unemployment, and wide-enough access to engaging work are necessary for a “good-enough” economy—though far from sufficient. The material possibilities of the economy must be adequate for the nonmaterial possibilities to be widespread—the satisfactions of prospering and of flourishing through adventurous, creative, and even imaginative work.

Some economists maintain that nations do not need dynamism to be happy. The French and Italians seem to find it perfectly acceptable that their economies have been almost devoid of indigenous innovation for nearly two decades. They are content with an economy unable to do more than simply let global market forces—including advances in science at home and abroad—pull up the going level of wage rates and prop up the market rates of return on wealth. (In fact, little upward movement of real wages has been occurring of late in the advanced economies.) But from my perspective, such an economy is pitiful next to an economy with significant prospering and flourishing—let alone the economies of heady innovation in the West’s past. Oddly, this pitiful sort of economy is very much like the theoretical models of classical economics.

In the classical models I have been describing, no one is trying to think up something new (except perhaps new profitable investments) and no one is attempting to create it. There is no conception of human agency, only responses to wages, interest rates, and wealth. The economy is mechanical, robotic. The crops may be growing, but there is no personal growth. In the classical canon, Bentham, with his “sum of utilities,” portrays individuals like machines working to contribute their share to the general welfare. Joseph Schumpeter portrays “innovation” as produced by hard-driving entrepreneurs who make “obvious” applications of discoveries occurring outside the nation’s economy—as if the economy’s central participants possessed no imagination whatever.

Such classical models are basic to today’s standard economics. This economics, despite its sophistication in some respects, makes no room for economies in which people are imagining new products and using their creativity to build them. What is most fundamentally “wrong with economics” is that it takes such an economy to be the norm—to be “as good as it gets.” The cost is that elements of the Western economies are becoming products of this basically classical economics, which has little place for creativity and imagination.

Since around 1970, or earlier in some cases, most of the continental Western European economies have come to resemble more completely the mechanical model of standard economics. Most companies are highly efficient. Households, apart from the very low-paid or unemployed, have gone on saving, each year pushing up their wealth to higher levels, spectacular levels in Italy and France—far higher than in America, leaving aside the super-rich. And with the rise of household wealth contracting the supply of labor, workweeks and labor force participation have been shrinking.

One could argue that the continental economies are marching—D.H. Lawrence’s “everlasting slog” comes to mind—along a path of ever-increasing wealth like that derived mathematically by Frank Ramsey long ago. That study inspired John Maynard Keynes’s influential essay in which he praised the decline of work as liberating the human spirit.8 Keynes seemed to think that ordinary people are incapable of prospering or flourishing. Even now, many Europeans seem not to have grasped that, while comparatively rich in wealth and spare time, they are poor in the conditions for the good life: an economy conducive to flourishing and prospering. The causes of this decline are clear.

In most of Western Europe, economic dynamism is now at lows not seen, I would judge, since the advent of dynamism in the nineteenth century. Imagining and creating new products has almost disappeared from the continent—a continent that had been a major wellspring of new industries and new ways of living. Growth there has stopped, and econometric estimates of the rate of homegrown innovation are generally small. The near disappearance of imaginative and creative activity has reduced indigenous innovation, contracted investment activity, and depressed the demand for labor.

The bleak levels of both unemployment and job satisfaction in Europe are testimony to its dreary economies. Polls can produce simplistic responses to questions about complex feelings; but it should not be puzzling that a recent survey of household attitudes found that, in “happiness,” the median scores in Spain (54), France (51), Italy (48), and Greece (37) are all below those in the upper half of the nations labeled “emerging”—Mexico (79), Venezuela (74), Brazil (73), Argentina (66), Vietnam (64), Colombia (64), China (59), Indonesia (58), Chile (58), and Malaysia (56).9 As I wrote in a commentary on western continental Europe, “the economy is failing society.”10

The US economy is not much better. Two economists, Stanley Fischer and Assar Lindbeck, wrote of a “Great Productivity Slowdown,” which they saw as beginning in the late 1960s.11 The slowdown in the growth of capital and labor combined—what is called “total factor productivity”—is stark and, with the exception of the years of the Internet boom, between 1996 and 2004, it has not let up; it has only gotten slower since the 1960s. In my analysis, the slowdown is the source of the deep decline in wage growth, labor force participation, and, on some evidence, in job satisfaction. Markedly fewer lead the good life. (As in continental Europe, the slowing of productivity growth caused wage growth to slow, and many households kept adding to their wealth through savings, all of which has been dragging participation down. Yet America’s productivity slowdown started earlier, so the cumulative damage to participation has been greater than Europe’s to date.)

What is the mechanism of the slowdown in productivity? Many commentators and laymen suppose that the dramatic rise of innovation in Silicon Valley has displaced labor and slowed the rise of wages at the low end and the middle. We have all observed the disappearance of bookstores, record stores, and many other kinds of stores, as well as newsprint. But if innovation in the aggregate were up, it would be hard to explain why growth of aggregate total factor productivity is so unmistakably down. As Alvin Hansen said many decades ago, it is the “cessation of growth,” or, as he implied, the slowdown of aggregate innovation, “which is disastrous.”12

The plausible explanation of the syndrome in America—the productivity slowdown and the decline of job satisfaction, among other things—is a critical loss of indigenous innovation in the established industries like traditional manufacturing and services that was not nearly offset by the innovation that flowered in a few new industries—digital, media, and financial. In the vast heartland of America, the loss of dynamism is almost palpable—and not just in the oft-cited education and health care industries. Companies like Google and Facebook may offer jobs allowing or requiring imagination and creativity, but the whole of Silicon Valley accounts for only 3 percent of national income and a smaller percentage of national employment. Once European economies ran out of American innovations they could copy, the syndrome of low productivity growth hit them too—France and Italy in the late 1990s, Germany and Britain by 2005 or so. That most European economies appear to be in worse condition than the American in labor force participation and job satisfaction can be laid to America’s noticeable edge in innovation. That has kept America a step ahead.

What then caused this narrowing of innovation? No single explanation is persuasive. Yet two classes of explanations have the ring of truth. One points to suppression of innovation by vested interests. Their power has risen enormously in Western Europe and finally America over the postwar decades. Invoking corporatist notions of economic control and social contract originating in the corporazioni of ancient Rome, some professions, such as those in education and medicine, have instituted regulation and licensing to curb experimentation and change, thus dampening innovation.

Invoking the corporatist notion of solidarity, companies hurt by innovators—as GM was hurt by BMW and Toyota—have been able to obtain federal government bailouts to help them regain their positions. As a result, fleeting innovators—BMW and Toyota in my example—often lose money in their attempts. So would-be innovators will think twice before trying again to innovate in America’s automobile market.

Invoking the corporatist tenet of social protection, established corporations—their owners and stakeholders—and entire industries, using their lobbyists, have obtained regulations and patents that make it harder for new firms to gain entry into the market and to compete with incumbents. A result is that the outsiders have been stifled—though some entered new industries before those too could put up barriers. And some insiders, now protected from new entrants, feel it is safe to drop whatever defensive innovation they used to do. We can see dramatic examples of how these barriers protect insiders in the pharmaceutical and the medical device industries, where the FDA approvals process has blocked new entry and slowed innovation to a crawl. Insiders feel free to raise their markups, thus increasing profits and wealth inequality.

We can test this theory. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the US nonfarm business sector show labor’s share of income falling from 66 percent at its twin peaks in the mid-1970s to 61 percent in the 1990s and around 58 percent more recently. OECD data on business sectors show a rise in capital’s share from 32.5 percent in 1971–1981 to 34.5 percent in 1995–1997 in the US and from 33.3 percent to 38.5 percent in the European Union.13

The second explanation points to a new repression of potential innovators by families and schools. As the corporatist values of control, solidarity, and protection are invoked to prohibit innovation, traditional values of conservatism and materialism are often invoked to inhibit a young person from undertaking an innovation. Schools are doing less to expose the young to the great books of adventure and personal development. Parents teach their children from infancy to be careful and stay close to the family. There is discussion now of the overprotected child: the need for a return to “free range” children who are allowed to explore, to try things and take chances.14 Parents urge their children upon graduating to take a secure job with high pay, not a job at a startup. Many universities are now teaching courses in “responsible investing” but nothing on venturesome investing.

How might Western nations gain—or regain—widespread prospering and flourishing? Taking concrete actions will not help much without fresh thinking: people must first grasp that standard economics is not a guide to flourishing—it is a tool only for efficiency. Widespread flourishing in a nation requires an economy energized by its own homegrown innovation from the grassroots on up. For such innovation a nation must possess the dynamism to imagine and create the new—economic freedoms are not sufficient. And dynamism needs to be nourished with strong human values.

Of the concrete steps that would help to widen flourishing, a reform of education stands out. The problem here is not a perceived mismatch between skills taught and skills in demand. (Experts have urged greater education in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—but when Europe created specialized universities in these subjects, no innovation was observed.) The problem is that young people are not taught to see the economy as a place where participants may imagine new things, where entrepreneurs may want to build them and investors may venture to back some of them. It is essential to educate young people to this image of the economy.

It will also be essential that high schools and colleges expose students to the human values expressed in the masterpieces of Western literature, so that young people will want to seek economies offering imaginative and creative careers. Education systems must put students in touch with the humanities in order to fuel the human desire to conceive the new and perchance to achieve innovations. This reorientation of general education will have to be supported by a similar reorientation of economic education.

We will all have to turn from the classical fixation on wealth accumulation and efficiency to a modern economics that places imagination and creativity at the center of economic life.

  1. An early work of Atkinson’s is Economics of Inequality (Oxford University Press, 1975); for a review of his most recent book, Inequality: What Can Be Done? (Harvard University Press, 2015), see Thomas Piketty, The New York Review, June 25, 2015. I was struck by a presentation by Atkinson, “The Social Marginal Valuation of Income,” at the conference celebrating the seventieth birthday of Sir James Mirrlees, Clare College, Cambridge, July 28, 2006. 
  2. A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971). The book sees a society’s economy as central to the people, arguing that they are drawn together by their desire for mutual gains from collaborating in its economy. 
  3. Rewarding Work: How to Restore Participation and Self-Support to Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 1997) and Designing Inclusion: How to Raise Low-End Pay and Employment in Private Enterprise (Cambridge University Press, 2003). 
  4. Kabir Sehgal, Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us (Grand Central, 2015). 
  5. Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change (Princeton University Press, 2013). 
  6. Abraham Lincoln, “Discoveries and Inventions,” Young Men’s Association, Bloomington, Illinois, April 6, 1858. 
  7. See Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (Yale University Press, 2013). Her current work, as yet unpublished, has reached farther into the nineteenth century, where some of the findings are equally or more striking. 
  8. See F.P. Ramsey, “A Mathematical Theory of Saving,” The Economic Journal (1928), and J. M. Keynes, “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” The Nation and the Athenaeum (1930, in two parts). 
  9. “People in Emerging Markets Catch Up to Advanced Economies in Life Satisfaction,” Pew Research Center, October 2014. (Performing better were the UK at 58, Germany at 60, and the US at 65.) 
  10. “Europe Is a Continent That Has Run Out of Ideas,” Financial Times, March 3, 2015. 
  11. See Assar Lindbeck, “The Recent Slowdown of Productivity Growth,” The Economic Journal, Vol. 93, No. 369 (March 1983), and Stanley Fischer, “Symposium on the Slowdown in Productivity Growth,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Fall 1988). Lindbeck begins, “The growth slowdown that began in the late 1960s or early 1970s is the most significant macroeconomic development of the last two decades.” 
  12. Alvin H. Hansen, “Economic Progress and Declining Population Growth,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March 1939). 
  13. OECD, Economic Outlook, December 1998. 
  14. See Hanna Rosin, “The Overprotected Kid,” The Atlantic, April 2014, and Lenore Skenazy, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), (Jossey-Bass, 2009). 

This is My (Pent)House

broken-ladderIllustrative quote from Larry Katz, Harvard economics professor, which apparently has been making the rounds for awhile…

Think of the American economy as a large apartment block. A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.

Beyond Piketty’s Capital

Income-USA-1910-2010

What Ben Franklin and Billie Holiday Could Tell Us About Capitalism’s Inequalities

It has now been two years since French economist Thomas Piketty published his tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and one year since it was published in English, raising a fanfare of praise and criticism. It has deserved both, most notably for “putting the distributional question back at the heart of economic analysis.”[1] I would imagine Professor Piketty is also pleased by the attention his work has garnered: What economist doesn’t secretly desire to be labeled a “rock-star” without having to sing or pick up a guitar to demonstrate otherwise?

Piketty’s study (a collaborative effort, to be sure) is an important and timely contribution to economic research. His datasets across time and space on wealth, income, and inheritances provide a wealth of empirical evidence for future testing and analysis. The presentation is long, as it is all-encompassing, tackling an ambitious, if not impossible, task. But for empirics alone, the work is commendable.

Many critics have focused on methodology and the occasional data error, but I will dispense with that by accepting the general contour of history Piketty presents as accurate of real trends in economic inequality over time. And that it matters. Inequality is not only a social and political problem, it is an economic challenge because extreme disparities break down the basis of free exchange, leading to excess investment lacking productive opportunities.[2] (Piketty ignores the natural equilibrium correctives of business/trade cycles, presumably because he perceives them as interim reversals on an inevitable long term trend.) I have followed Edward Wolff’s research long enough to know there is an intimate causal relationship between capitalist markets and material outcomes. I believe the meatier controversy is found in Piketty’s interpretations of the data and his inductive theorizing because that tells us what we can and should do, if anything, about it. Sufficient time has passed for us to digest the criticisms and perhaps offer new insights.

Read the full essay, formatted and downloadable as a pdf…

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[1] Distributional issues are really at the heart of our most intractable policy challenges. Not only are wealth and income inequalities distributional puzzles, so are hunger, poverty, pollution, the effects of climate change, etc. Unfortunately, the profession tends to ignore distributional puzzles because the necessary assumptions of high-order mathematical models that drive theory rule out dynamic network interactions that characterize markets. Due to these limitations, economics is left with the default explanations of initial conditions, hence the focus on natural inequality, access to education, inheritance, etc. General equilibrium theory (GE) also assumes distributional effects away: over time prices and quantities will adjust to correct any maldistributions caused by misallocated resources. For someone mired in poverty or hunger, it’s not a very inspiring assumption.

[2] As opposed to distributional problems, modern economics is very comfortable studying and prescribing economic growth. Its mathematical models provide powerful tools to study and explain the determinants of growth. This is why growth is often touted as the solution to every economic problem. (When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) But sustainable growth relies on the feedback cycle within a dynamic market network model, so stable growth is highly dependent on sustainable distributional networks.

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