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.


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

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

The need for the mixed economy

“The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly). As in any marriage, the exact terms of the relationship changed over time. In an evolving world, social institutions need to adapt if they are to continue to serve their basic functions. Money, for example, is still doing what it has always done: provide a common metric, store value, facilitate exchange. But it’s now paper or plastic rather than metal, and more likely to pass from computer to computer than hand to hand. Similarly, the mixed economy is defined not by the specific forms it has taken but by the specific functions it has served: to overcome the failures of the market and to translate economic growth into broad advances in human well-being – from better health and education to greater knowledge and opportunity.”

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2016), American Amnesia: How the War on Government led us to Forget What Made America Prosper, p.7

Wages and technological progress – a walk on the demand-side

What is the link, if any, between wages and technological progress in a capitalist economy? An article in this week’s The Economist magazine sheds some light on the issue. In particular, it considers the apparently lesser-studied effect that wages might have on productivity growth.

The reverse relationship, that productivity growth allows growth in wages, is studied more often. This has certain implications for economic policy. Boosting the supply-side determinants of innovation, such as education, and research and development, become important.

But what of the demand-side? The article mentioned above describes how some economic historians are engaged in a debate over the “high-wage hypothesis” put forward by Robert Allen, which he suggests helped drive industrialisation in Britain. Continue reading

Trumponomics and investment

“The weakness of private business investment in most developed countries through the neoliberal era is difficult to explain on the basis of a standard regression equation. Most of the usual determinants of investment – including profitability, interest rates, and tax and regulatory policies – were aligned in a direction that should have elicited more private investment effort. But the neoliberal recipe delivered less investment, not more. And the failure of accumulated wealth to trickle down creates major economic and political problems for the system and its elites.

For all of Donald Trump’s claims of being an “outsider”, changing the traditional rules of politics and policy, his economic program is absolutely consistent with the general direction of the trickle-down, neoliberal policies that have already governed the US for almost four decades. Trump will further shift the distribution of income upward to corporations and those who own them. His policies will suppress the incomes and the consumption of workers – including cutting their public services. His regulatory and fiscal priorities will favour investment in expensive, capital-intensive sectors (like energy and defense) that support relatively few jobs, while imposing enormous costs on broader society and the planet. His financial and monetary policies will continue to privilege financial wealth and speculation over real investment and production, undoing even the baby steps taken to rein in finance after the conflagration of 2008. The core logic of his approach is transparent: enhance the wealth and power of business and the wealthy, and they will invest more in America, and everyone will prosper. There is very little novel content in Trump’s incarnation of trickle-down policy, and very little reason to believe that it will succeed in revitalizing business investment activity that has chronically disappointed. Outside of bursts of new activity in a couple of targeted sectors (like energy and military industries), there is no reason to expect that the trajectory of US business investment will improve in any sustained fashion under Trump’s guidance. Certainly his program cannot recreate the virtuous combination of driving factors that powered the long postwar boom in US capital accumulation: near-full employment, a growing public sector, and strong productivity growth, all of which (for a while) reinforced the vitality of private investment.

Even if the Trump program did succeed in motivating a generalized resurgence in US private business investment, of course, Americans (and others around the world) would have to ask themselves, “At what cost?” A temporary burst in investment in fossil fuel extraction and consumption, achieved by abandoning environmental regulations that were already too weak, is of dubious value when the costs of fossil fuel use are becoming intolerable. Similar questions could be asked about the general strategy of reinforcing profit margins through the suppression of wages and other socially destructive levers, in a country which already experiences more poverty and inequality than any other industrial nation. Business investment is never an end in its own right; it is socially beneficial only to the extent that it underpins job creation, incomes, productivity, and ultimate improvements in living standards. Trying to elicit a bit more investment effort by suppressing living standards a little further, is self-defeating to the ultimate purpose of economic development.

Investment in the US, and other advanced industrial countries, is held back by more fundamental problems than corporate tax design or environmental regulations. The fundamental vitality of the profit motive in eliciting accumulation, so celebrated in the early chapters of capitalist history, seems to have dissipated. The owners of businesses are content to consume their wealth, or hoard it, or speculate with it, instead of recycling it via new investments. Ever-more desperate attempts to elicit a bit more investment effort never seem to alter this stagnationist trajectory – with the incredible result today that overall production is actually becoming less capital-intensive, despite “miraculous” technological innovations. Trump is giving the trickle-down theory one more kick at the can, having successfully capitalized on popular discontent with the failures of previous attempts. Progressives must work harder to illuminate the failure of this business-led economic logic, and come up with other visions for financing capital investment, innovation and job-creation that do not depend on fruitlessly bribing the investing class to actually do the job it is supposed to.”

Jim Stanford (2017), US private capital accumulation and Trump’s economic program, in Trumponomics: Causes and Consequences, World Economic Association: College Publications, p.135-7.

The complete original article can be accessed for free here.