Equality and growth – no conflict?

“To lay a factual foundation to the argument for raising the American income floor, we need to sweep away the remnants of an older view that policies cannot promote both equality and growth. The older view assumed an “efficiency-equity trade-off.” If such were true, then nothing could be done to foster economic growth without the collateral damage of greater inequality, or greater equality without the collateral damage of less growth.

History does not confirm such a trade-off. To remember why, first consider a simple point about the political process…A dominant historical outcome has been that vested interests have blocked initiatives that would promote growth and/or equality. A conspicuous example is the suppression of mass public schooling – an investment that clearly promotes both equality and growth. Our second consideration comes from the numbers: history does not record any correlation – negative or positive – between income equalization and economic growth, either in our new American history over the past 360 years or world history over the past 150 years. The correlation does not emerge, regardless of whether “growth” means the GDP per capita growth rate or its absolute level, and regardless of whether “equalization” means the share of social spending in GDP, some measure of policy-induced redistribution, the level of pre-fisc income inequality before taxes and transfers, or even the rate of change in any of these.

Economists have explored the effects on income per capita growth of three kinds of egalitarian variables: tax-based social spending and its composition; fiscal redistribution, measured by the gap between pre- and post-fisc inequality; and the greater equality of pre-fisc incomes before taxes and transfers. An empirical literature using contemporary world evidence finds that the growth effect of equalizing incomes is not significant. History agrees. American experience does not reveal any clear effect on GDP of greater tax-based social spending or more progressive redistribution from rich to poor. Indeed, recent analyses suggest that greater pre-fisc equality has a positive effect on growth. This result supports the argument that egalitarian investments in human capital simultaneously achieve more equality and more growth. While these statistical results can be and have been debated, they do not support any claim that equalizing incomes must lower growth. American income history offers no support either.

If there were any fulcrum at which historical insight might be applied to move inequality, it would be political…no nation has used up all its political opportunities for leveling income without harming economic growth. Improving education, taxing large inheritances, and taming financial instability with regulatory vigilance – the opportunities are there, like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2016), Unequal Gains – American Growth and Inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, p.261-2.

There are influential theoretical arguments in economics supporting policies which promote growth by, on the one hand, increasing and, on the other, reducing inequality. The above conclusion to Lindert and Williamson’s comprehensive historical study of American growth and inequality is either ambivalent to or in support of a positive relationship between reduced inequality, certainly at its current level in many countries, and faster growth.

Their argument is that the forces generating inequality are largely exogenous (they come from outside the economic system), and so can be altered through policy without harming growth.

Clearly there are limits to this. Perfect equality of incomes and wealth would destroy the incentives required for economic activity. Ever-increasing inequality could also lead to the sort of social division and political instability which would be destructive of the status quo. Neither extreme is sustainable.

From a macroeconomic perspective, greater inequality can promote or reduce growth, depending on the economic context. If productive investment is constrained by a lack of savings, redistributing income and wealth to those economic agents who tend to save a larger share of their income, such as the wealthier members of society or firms, would provide the resources for that investment by increasing the economy’s savings rate. In this situation, greater inequality can boost growth.

This is an argument often associated with Marxist thinking and the central notion of the rate of profit or surplus in providing the resources and motivation for new investment. Growth is “profit-led”.

By contrast, if productive investment is constrained by a lack of consumption spending, then redistribution to those who consume a larger share of their income, normally the poorer members of society, will boost consumption and stimulate investment. In this case, reducing inequality can boost growth, while policies which increase it will lower growth.

This latter argument finds support in Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking, so that spending for consumption helps drive investment spending. Growth is held back by “under-consumption” and is “wage-led”. If this is the case, then a strong argument can be made for win-win progressive policies which boost household incomes and wages and reduce inequality while raising growth.

Inequality shapes and is shaped by both economic and political forces. There is perhaps “plenty to play for” in terms of policies which promote greater social justice under capitalism, without undermining its foundations. In today’s climate, they are surely essential to sustaining those foundations.

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The ‘gaping hole’ in the Marxist argument

I do have time for Marx and Marxist thought, its interdisciplinarity, its breadth and depth of vision and its desire to uncover the workings of capitalism. However it remains flawed, and the historical record of state socialism, where attempts have been made to put it into practice, have resulted in a great deal of oppression and suffering.

That is not to say that all is well with capitalism, and we certainly should not avoid addressing arguments for both its radical reform, and the prospect of its evolution into something else.

Here is institutionalist economist Geoffrey Hodgson, who blogs here, from his recent, excellent, book Wrong Turnings – How the Left Got Lost (p.100):

“The dominant Marxist historical picture of rising and falling social classes meant that socialists did not have to think about how their proposed future would work. This was part of its appeal. It pointed to the growth of the proletariat and proclaimed it as the agent of socialist revolution. The tricky problem of explaining in messy detail how socialism could work in complex, large-scale societies could be postponed and addressed later when the working class has ’emancipated itself’. It was part of its historic destiny, and who could argue with destiny?

This left a gaping hole in the Marxist argument. Theoretical debates over the feasibility of socialism have shown convincingly that such as system – where most private property and trade are abolished – would face huge problems and it would slide towards totalitarianism. Twentieth-century experiences have amply confirmed these arguments.

With its wholesale abolition of non-state property and markets, Marxism blocked the road towards an alternative collectivist system involving worker cooperatives trading on markets. Marxism not only failed; it also ruled out more viable alternatives to capitalism.”

Mariana Mazzucato’s economics: value and the role of the state

Mariana-Mazzucato2Mariana Mazzucato is known for her view that the state plays a vital role in promoting innovation, which is an essential part of the process of economic growth and development. In her book The Entrepreneurial State she debunked the myth that a flourishing economy requires the state to ‘get out of the way’ of the private sector.

In her latest, The Value of Everything, published earlier this year, she attempts to reignite the debate over the sources of value which, she argues, has been neglected in mainstream circles since the rise of neoclassical economics at the end of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, until the neoclassical school became influential, the source of value in economics was a central concern and a matter of some controversy. The Mercantalists saw gold and precious metals as source of value, and their accumulation was held to be the object of economic policy. For the Physiocrats, only land and natural resources produced value, while for the Classical political economists like Adam Smith, industry was the source. Karl Marx held that labour and its production of a surplus product were the origin of value. Continue reading

Ha-Joon Chang: taxation is not theft

In a modern capitalist economy, taxation is not theft but a necessary source of funding for all sorts of public goods and services that make the economy and society function well. It also shapes behavioural incentives in ways that can further promote social welfare. This is worth reiterating. Many of us may not like paying taxes. Some public spending may be wasted, and it often benefits particular groups at the expense of others, although this is inherent to politics. But it remains an essential element of the good society.

Invention, innovation and evolution

JamesLovelockJames Lovelock is a radical scientist and the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that Earth and its living, and non-living, inhabitants need to be viewed as a complex, holistic, self-regulating system. In his most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future, he discusses such issues as his latest views on the evolution of humanity as part of Gaia, climate change, urbanisation, environmentalism and scientific progress.

Significantly, he is critical of the green movement and renewable energy, accepting the idea of climate change while arguing that many scientists’ models of it are flawed and potentially misleading.

He remains optimistic about the future of human life on Earth, while cautioning that we are unlikely to be able to stabilise the climate and prevent it changing. Continue reading

James Crotty on individuals and institutions in society

Crotty-InterviewJames Crotty is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose work ‘attempts to integrate the complementary analytical strengths of the Marxian and Keynesian traditions.’ This sort of approach to economics, or political economy, as many such heterodox thinkers prefer to call it, is right up my street. A collection of his papers was published last year.

Here is a very brief excerpt from one where he considers the relationship between individuals and social structures in economics and social theory more broadly. While mainstream economics tends to reduce the objects of study to the behaviour of the individual, some alternative theories place equal importance on emergent social structures such as the economy as a whole, the state, the political system etc.

In this line of thinking, such structures are dependent on but not reducible to the individuals. They ’emerge’ from the interactions of individuals. In the jargon, they are non-reductionist. Such an approach is much more fruitful when it comes to macroeconomic analysis.

“Sensible social theory must try to acknowledge and integrate the insights of both individualist and structuralist methodology. To be sure, social structures can be changed by groups of individuals. And Keynesians insist that individuals do have significant freedom of choice; they do not always make choices consistent with the orderly reproduction of society. But institutions also socialize individuals, and hierarchical societies do differentially socialize distinct classes of individuals and assign them to qualitatively different economic and social roles. In addition, institutional structures constrain agent choice and set bounds on expected economic outcomes. Moreover, institutions are economic agents themselves. Institutional decision-making requires a theory of choice of its own, one that incorporates the effects of particular organizational structures, strategies, and conventions. Marx’s famous dictum that “men make history, but they do not make it precisely as they choose” is methodologically on the right track…

…[B]oth microtheory and macrotheory must be institutionally specific and historically contingent.”

James Crotty (2017), Capitalism, Macroeconomics and Reality, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, p.60-61.

Richard Koo – The Other Half of Macroeconomics and the Fate of Globalization

Richard Koo The Other HalfRichard Koo’s big idea is the theory of balance sheet recessions (BSR), and he has written a number of books that explain and apply it to our current economic problems. His latest was published earlier this year: The Other Half of Macroeconomics and the Fate of Globalization.

I do enjoy his work, as it is somewhat iconoclastic, and despite some repetition, both within and between the individual works, he is well worth reading. I have summarized his previous ideas here, so in this review I will concentrate mainly on what is new in this book.

The not so new

For readers unfamiliar with his previous work, Koo outlines his theory of BSRs; his critique of Quantitative Easing and the risks involved as it is unwound by central banks; and the source of the Eurozone crisis and solutions to it which avoid the creation of a fiscal union, which still lacks political legitimacy and support across the EU.

All of this is already covered in his books The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics and The Escape from Balance Sheet Recession and the QE Trap.

The new

Koo’s latest book elaborates and extends his theory of BSRs (what he calls ‘the other half of macroeconomics’) to longer term questions of economic development. He also addresses the current backlash against aspects of globalisation embodied in support for Donald Trump, Brexit and the like. Continue reading