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“In this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass”

February 25, 2017 2 comments

from David Ruccio

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In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”*

The world is once again living an interregnum. It is poised between the failed economic model of recovery from the crash of 2007-08 and the birth of a new model, one that would actually work for the majority of Americans.**

Morbid symptoms abound, including slow economic growth, persistent poverty, and obscene levels of inequality. Perhaps even more significant, especially at this point in the so-called recovery, when according to mainstream economists and policymakers full employment has been achieved, workers’ wages are actually declining.   Read more…

How to turn a recession into a depression

February 23, 2017 10 comments

from David Ruccio

eurozone-greece-poverty

Greece is a perfect example of how to turn a bad economic situation into something even worse. As Reuters reports,  Read more…

Chasing the American Dream into a deadend

February 19, 2017 6 comments

from David Ruccio

debt

The latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit (pdf) from the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data showed a substantial increase in aggregate household debt balances in the fourth quarter of 2016 and for the year as a whole. As of 31 December 2016, total household debt stood at $12.58 trillion, an increase of $226 billion (or 1.8 percent) from the third quarter of 2016. Total household debt is now just 0.8 percent ($99 billion) below its third quarter 2008 peak of $12.68 trillion, and 12.8 percent above the second quarter 2013 trough.   Read more…

Make GDP great again

February 17, 2017 9 comments

from David Ruccio

Mainstream economics presents quite a spectacle these days. It has no real theory of the firm and, even now, more than nine years after the Great Recession began, its most cherished claim to relevance—the use of large-scale forecasting models of the economy that assume people always behave rationally—is still misleading policymakers.

As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, we now have a leading mainstream economist, Havard’s Martin Feldstein, claiming that the “official data on real growth substantially underestimates the rate of growth.”

Mr. Feldstein likes to illustrate his argument about G.D.P. by referring to the widespread use of statins, the cholesterol drugs that have reduced deaths from heart attacks. Between 2000 and 2007, he noted, the death rate from heart disease among those over 65 fell by one-third.

“This was a remarkable contribution to the public’s well-being over a relatively short number of years, and yet this part of the contribution of the new product is not reflected in real output or real growth of G.D.P.,” he said. He estimates — without hard evidence, he is careful to point out — that growth is understated by 2 percent or more a year.

This is not just a technical issue for Feldstein:  Read more…

Economists as plumbers?

February 15, 2017 3 comments

from David Ruccio

Apparently, the latest attempt to redefine the role of economists is to encourage them to be plumbers.

Maybe it’s just my age but, when I read plumbers, I immediately think of the covert Special Investigations Unit in the Nixon White House—the operation that began with attempting to stop the leak of classified information (such as the Pentagon Papers) and then branched into illegal activities while working for the Committee to Re-elect the President (including the Watergate break-in).

I don’t think that’s what MIT economist Esther Duflo (pdf) had in mind when, in her Ely Lecture to the American Economic Association meeting last month, she suggested that economists seriously engage with plumbing, “in the interest of both society and our discipline.”

As economists increasingly help governments design new policies and regulations, they take on an added responsibility to engage with the details of policy making and, in doing so, to adopt the mindset of a plumber. Plumbers try to predict as well as possible what may work in the real world, mindful that tinkering and adjusting will be necessary since our models gives us very little theoretical guidance on what (and how) details will matter.

I’ll admit, I have a lot of respect for plumbers (especially when they’re able to fix the mess I’ve made trying to repair an existing fixture or install a new one). And I do think anyone involved in designing new policies and regulations should learn more about how they are actually implemented.  Read more…

Once again on the theory of the firm

February 12, 2017 23 comments

from David Ruccio

It is extraordinary that the hegemonic economic theory in the world today—neoclassical economics—still lacks an adequate theory of the firm.

It beggars belief both because neoclassical economics is the predominant theory that is taught to hundreds of thousands of students every year and used to make sense of the world and formulate policy in countless think thanks and government agencies and because the firm (or enterprise or corporation) is one of the central institutions of capitalism. It’s where many (but of course not all) goods and services are produced, value and surplus-value are created, and profits generated for capitalists.

And yet the neoclassical notion of the firm, even when developed by Nobel Prize-winning economists (such as Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom), is not much more than an empty box—without any real history and, as it turns out, without any links to politics.

Daniel Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Director of Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, certainly thinks that’s a problem in terms of making sense of how firms came to be constituted historically and what their effects are on contemporary society.   Read more…

What about that pie?

February 10, 2017 4 comments

from David Ruccio

pie

The U.S. economic pie couldn’t be carved up much more unequally. The top 10 percent manages to capture about 47 percent of total pre-tax income, while the bottom 90 gets the rest. The top 1 percent alone walks away with 20 percent of national income.   Read more…

Scarce workers?

February 7, 2017 1 comment

from David Ruccio

fredgraph

Readers know the old adage: in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

And, we should add, employers complaining they can’t find enough good workers.

The fact is, if workers were really scarce, their wages would be rising dramatically. That’s how things works in a capitalist labor market: employers who want to hire workers offer higher wages.

But, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 4 cents to $21.84—and weekly earnings by $1.34. That’s an annual rate of just 2.1 percent, the same as the rate of inflation.  Read more…

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

February 3, 2017 2 comments

from David Ruccio

Regular readers know I take statistics quite seriously. So, as it turns out, did Stephen Jay Gould who, in the most poignant story about statistics of which I am aware, explained how important it is to go beyond the abstractions of central tendencies and understand the distribution of variation within the numbers.

And right now, when the numbers are under attack—when, for example, the new Trump administration is threatening to purge the inconvenient numbers about climate change—it is even more important to understand the role statistics play in economic and social life.*

William Davies [ht: ja] offers one story about statistics, starting with the recent populist attacks on public statistics and the questioning of the experts that produce and interpret them. His view is that, for all their faults, the numbers collected and disseminated by technical experts within national statistical offices need to be defended—as the representation of “common ideas of society and collective progress”—against the rise of private “data.”

A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of liberalism, indeed of Enlightenment. The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of politics. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.

Read more…

Union membership rates in the US 1983-2016 – 3 graphs

February 1, 2017 3 comments

from David Ruccio

unions1

source (pdf)

The share of American workers in unions fell to 10.7 percent in 2016 (down from 11.1 percent in 2015), the lowest level on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf).

What we’re seeing is a return to the downward trend for organized labor after membership figures had stabilized in recent years—and this is before the new Republican administration even took office.  Read more…

Beyond Trump and free trade

January 29, 2017 7 comments

from David Ruccio

Now that President Trump has begun carrying out his campaign pledges to undo America’s trade ties, formally withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announcing he will start to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, it’s time to analyze what this means.

As it turns out, I’d already started to do this before the election, with a series of posts (e.g., here, here, here, and here) on Trump and the mounting criticism of the trade agreements the United States had signed (such as NAFTA) or was in the process of negotiating (the TPP).

It’s clear Trump’s decisions—which he claims are a “Great thing for the American worker”—challenge the view of economic and political elites, as well as those of mainstream economists (such as Brad DeLong), in the United States and around the world that everyone benefits from free trade.*

fredgraph

But, we now know, there has also been a growing counter-narrative, that not everyone has gained from growing international trade and trade agreements, which have generated  unequal benefits and costs. What’s interesting about this alternative story, at least when it comes to NAFTA, is that critics on each side argue the other side is the one that has benefited: U.S. critics that Mexico has gained, and just the opposite in Mexico, that the United States has captured the lion’s share of the benefits from NAFTA.

Here’s the problem: workers on both sides of the border have lost out, and their losses are mostly not due to NAFTA. Read more…

Economism—or vulgar economics

January 26, 2017 7 comments

from David Ruccio

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In discussing the textbook treatment of the minimum wage, James Kwak provides a perfect example of how contemporary mainstream economics “can be more misleading than it is helpful.”

Kwak refers to the problem as “economism.”* For me, borrowing from a different tradition, it is a case of “vulgar economics.”   Read more…

College and the American Dream (3 charts)

January 24, 2017 Leave a comment

from David Ruccio

access

The American Dream has all but collapsed under the weight of growing inequality. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the American working-class to sustain a decent standard of living, and their children are increasingly unlikely to be better off than they are.

But those who hang on to the American Dream—or at least the selling of that dream to others—believe that sending young people to the nation’s colleges and universities is the solution.  Read more…

Mind the growing gap

January 19, 2017 11 comments

from David Ruccio

8-billionaires-in-the-worldOxfam’s headline-grabbing numbers are bad enough: “Eight men are as rich as half the world.” But the international organization has presented an even more serious and severe indictment of current economic arrangements—which can’t be glossed over by merely encouraging those at the top to pay more taxes.

In the background paper, “An Economy for the 99 Percent” (a follow-up to last year’s “An Economy for the 1%“), Oxfam researchers both document the existence of grotesque levels of economic inequality in the world today and analyze the main causes of that inequality.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize the numbers indicating the obscene levels of contemporary inequality:  Read more…

Makers vs. takers?

January 14, 2017 5 comments

from David Ruccio

Like many liberal economic nationalists, who are concerned about both inequality and economic growth, Michael Lind attempts to make a distinction between “takers” and “makers.”

As against conservative economic nationalists, who blame immigrants and the welfare-dependent poor, Lind focuses his attention on the “rent-extracting, unproductive rich” for undermining the dynamism and fairness of contemporary capitalism.

The term “rent” in this context refers to more than payments to your landlords. . . “Profits” from the sale of goods or services in a free market are different from “rents” extracted from the public by monopolists in various kinds. Unlike profits, rents tend to be based on recurrent fees rather than sales to ever-changing consumers. While productive capitalists — “industrialists,” to use the old-fashioned term — need to be active and entrepreneurial in order to keep ahead of the competition, “rentiers” (the term for people whose income comes from rents, rather than profits) can enjoy a perpetual stream of income even if they are completely passive.

This is a familiar trope within economic discourse. As I’ve explained before (e.g., here and here), it relies on a distinction between productive and unproductive economic activities, which is then overlain with other dichotomies: active vs. passive, doing vs. owning, and so on. The idea is that one group—the passive, owning, recipients of rent—increasingly serve as a drag on the other group—the active, doing, recipients of profits.   Read more…

Indignity of not-work?

January 12, 2017 7 comments

from David Ruccio

notwork1

Mainstream economists and economic commentators continue to invoke the so-called “dignity of work” to criticize the idea of a universal basic income.  Read more…

Charts of the year – 28

January 6, 2017 1 comment

from David Ruccio

As regular readers of this blog know, I try to make available and critically interpret charts of data—both to challenge others’ arguments and to provide a foundation for my own.

Last year, I spent much more time using publicly available data to make my own charts, which readers are free to use for their own purposes.

Here are some of those charts (just click on each chart to go to the post in which it originally appeared).

fredgraph Read more…

The machine is broken

January 3, 2017 6 comments

from David Ruccio

fredgraph

The capitalist machine is broken—and no one seems to know how to fix it.

The machine I’m referring to is the one whereby the “capitalist” (i.e., the boards of directors of large corporations) converts the “surplus” (i.e., corporate profits) into additional “capital” (i.e., nonresidential fixed investment)—thereby preserving the pact with the devil: the capitalists are the ones who get and decide on the distribution of the surplus, and then they’re supposed to use the surplus for investment, thereby creating economic growth and well-paying jobs.

The presumption of mainstream economists and business journalists (as well as political and economic elites) is that the capitalist machine is the only possible one, and that it will work.   Read more…

Back to the future?

December 31, 2016 23 comments

from David Ruccio

When it comes to artificial intelligence and automation, the current White House seems to want to have it both ways.

On one hand, it warns about the potentially unequalizing, “winner-take-most” effects of the economic use of artificial intelligence:

Research consistently finds that the jobs that are threatened by automation are highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers. This means that automation will continue to put downward pressure on demand for this group, putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on inequality. In the longer-run, there may be different or larger effects. One possibility is superstar-biased technological change, where the benefits of technology accrue to an even smaller portion of society than just highly-skilled workers. The winner-take-most nature of information technology markets means that only a few may come to dominate markets. If labor productivity increases do not translate into wage increases, then the large economic gains brought about by AI could accrue to a select few. Instead of broadly shared prosperity for workers and consumers, this might push towards reduced competition and increased wealth inequality.

But then it invokes, and repeats numerous times across the report, the usual mainstream economists’ nostrums about the “strong relationship between productivity and wages”—such that “with more AI the most plausible outcome will be a combination of higher wages and more opportunities for leisure for a wide range of workers.”

Except, of course, historically that has not been the case—certainly not in the United States.   Read more…

Ain’t gonna happen

December 28, 2016 7 comments

from David Ruccio

fredgraph

During the recent presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to revitalize American manufacturing—and bring back “good” manufacturing jobs. So did Hillary Clinton.

What neither candidate was willing to acknowledge is that, while manufacturing output was already on the rebound after the Great Recession, the jobs weren’t going to come back.

As is clear from the chart above, manufacturing output has grown (by about 21 percent) since the end of the recession and is now nearing pre-recession levels (although still down from its pre-crash level by about 5 percent). But employment in the manufacturing sector is only up a small amount (8 percent) since its post-crash low and is still lower, by about 1.5 million jobs (or 11 percent), than in December 2007.   Read more…